In general, China is considered an inexpensive country to visit (aside from the cost of getting there). According to travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, it's possible to enjoy China on about $32 a day as a budget traveler, staying in dorm beds, buying food from markets and street vendors, and visiting free museums. For about $160 a day, you can stay in a nice hotel room, eat lunch and dinner out, and enjoy paid excursions. Whether you are a budget traveler or like to splurge on vacation, here are five tips that can help you save money when traveling in China.
1. Take Advantage of Low-Season Discounts
Like most tourist destinations, prices in China are higher during peak travel periods and holidays. You can save money on food, lodging, transportation and attractions by visiting during the low season, which runs from mid-November through March. November is the best time to see the autumn colors. And while certain parts of China can be bitterly cold during the winter months, there are tropical regions that have mild winters, such as Hainan Island and Yunnan.
2. Spend Less Time in Big Cities
Food, lodging and activities all cost more in the big cities. As soon as you leave them, you can expect to pay less for most things, and you'll also enjoy fewer crowds and get to experience the non-tourist side of China. You don't have to skip the cities altogether; just see what you want to see and then move on.
3. Take a Train, Not a Plane
Many travelers swear by train travel for two reasons: Train tickets cost a lot less than airfare to the same destination, and you can save the cost of a hotel room if it's an overnight train trip (spring for a sleeper ticket so you can lie down). Ticket prices are set so you don't need to spend time trying to find a better price. You can buy tickets at the train station, through your hotel or from a Chinese travel agency.
4. Be Strategic With Cash and Cards
You'll need cash while traveling, but avoid exchanging a lot of money at the airport where exchange rates are notoriously bad (as they are everywhere else). Exchange just enough to get to your hotel, and then look for a reasonable rate at your hotel or a bank, or find an ATM machine (where you'll find the best exchange rates). Pickpocketing is common across China, so be careful with your cash and avoid keeping it all in one place.
Many credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee, which can add up quickly when traveling. If you expect to make a lot of purchases with your card, you might be able to save a little money by using one that doesn't charge this fee.
And whether you pay for cash or card, be aware that it's not uncommon to be charged more than the locals for the same good or service. If you order off an English menu, for example, you could pay more than someone ordering from the Chinese menu, even if the food is the same. It's also not unheard of for an agreed-upon price to mysteriously rise. If you're worried about that, you can ask for the price in writing so there won't be any surprises.
5. Choose Activities Wisely
A lot of activities and attractions in China are quite expensive. A ticket to Hengdian World Studios (sometimes called "Chinese Hollywood"), for example, will set you back around $67.
You can save money by paying top dollar just for the attractions you are really excited about, and then visiting free museums, hiking trails or inexpensive attractions such as temples.
The Bottom Line
Because it costs so much just to get to China, many tourists are interested in finding ways to save money while traveling throughout the country. These five money-saving tips should help your vacation budget last longer. Also consider comparing the cost of independent travel with a group tour for all or part of your vacation. What you lose in privacy, you may gain in savings, especially for the more tourist-heavy destinations in your itinerary.
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