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China Costs: $86 a Day

We weren’t sure exactly how much to budget for our ten weeks in China, but we wouldn’t have guessed it would cost as much as it did. Economic growth and the improvement of infrastructural elements like trains and roads have made it a more appealing tourist destination in recent years. China has a ton to offer any type of traveler, but rising prices mean traveling there isn’t the same bargain it once was.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

The good news is that the booming tourism industry in China is creating competition amongst hotels and restaurants and driving up the value. Almost every one of our hotels had a somewhat comfortable bed and hot water – two things that can make or break a stay. Lodging would probably be cheaper if you could speak to locals and find the best deals, but we that found Mandarin Chinese is an impossible language and relied heavily on Agoda.com for booking hotels. Touristy towns like Xi’an and Yangshuo will have good deals, as will the tiny guesthouses in rural areas.

Baishutai room
This was our cheapest room in China. Let's just call it...rustic.

Beijing and Shanghai hotels are predictably pricey compared to the rest of the country ($40 to $50 a night), so budget accordingly if your itinerary is city-heavy. Remember to check out couch surfing as well – there are many expats in China, as well as locals who want to practice their language skills. In Kunming we stayed with Olaf, a new friend from Germany who offered up his sofa and some great information on the city.

CS Kunming
He also took us to a fun expat bar. Thanks, Olaf!

One nice thing about a country of 1.35 billion people is that services tend to be really inexpensive. You can get a haircut (including an indulgent scalp massage and up to three shampoos) for as little as $5. Massages cost around $6, however, be prepared for something more painful than relaxing. In Chengdu you can have your ears cleaned in the park for $2. Eric said it wasn’t the most pleasant experience ever, but it’s definitely a cultural one – and a bargain at that!

Dental work
Need new dentures? This bus stop shop uses a Dremel to achieve a custom fit.

When it came to food we tried to be adventurous eaters and go to local restaurants where the prices are lower. It’s hard to go wrong with Sichuan food, Peking duck, and soup dumplings. But once we were out of the big cities there was very little English spoken, and if we just pointed to random items on the menu we almost always got intestines or chicken anus. How does this happen! So the truth is we often played it safe and defaulted to Western-style restaurants in the hostels, whose prices are of course inflated. We also ate more fast food than I’m comfortable admitting. Once again, I’m sure knowing even a tiny bit of the language would go a long way.

Chinese food
Our very first meal in China, ordered from a picture menu.

China is huge and transportation costs add up quickly if you want to see a lot of it. Which makes sense, since going from Beijing to Guilin to Chengdu is something like traveling from New York to Austin to San Francisco – only more affordable, actually. The high-speed train system covers the eastern half of the country and offers several seat classes. If you go with hard sleepers you can save a lot of yuan. I get pretty grumpy without sleep so we always bought the soft sleeper seats. Make sure to compare flight costs to trains; depending on the distance, flying might be cheaper.

In the southwestern and more rural parts of the country we relied heavily on buses. In general a bus between two cities that takes 3 – 8 hours would cost us around $5 – $10 each. Our hotels also helped us set up some shared rides in vans with locals, which can be the cheapest (and sometimes only) option.

Shared van
There won't be heat, but they're often hot-boxed with cigarette smoke.

The daily average cost for our visit was $85.78 (or $42.89 per person per day).

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not reflect costs to enter the country, which include $383 in visa fees and $94 in flights (we used miles and only paid taxes).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 71 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $1,859.54 $26.19 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $8 in Baishutai to $51 in Beijing.
Food $1,902.22 $26.79 Breakfast buns can be found for as little as 10 cents; most of our meals averaged around $10.
Transportation (within country) $1,402.02 $19.75 Buses tend to be the cheapest form of transportation, but given the great distances we did take some trains and flights.
Entertainment $376.07 $5.30 Includes the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Chengdu panda tour, Great Buddha, a cooking class, and the Rice Terraces at Guilin.
Alcohol $366.96 $5.17 640ml bottles of beer usually cost less than $1.
Incidentals $183.91 $2.59 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $6,090.72 $85.78 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥90 ($15)
Entry ticket for the Forbidden City – ¥600 ($10)
Local bus fare in Chinese cities – ¥1-2 ($.15-.30)
A kilo of oranges – ¥4 ($.60)

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