Traveling in China on a Student's Budget

You're bound to hear about the glory days--before the summer Olympics, before you got to China--when everything was cheaper. This is true, if annoying. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai can be downright pricey. On the other hand, places like Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet are still budget friendly.

Not surprisingly, traveling on the cheap takes longer and pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you are extremely thrifty, you might get by on $25 a day. But $50 a day means you'll have room in your budget for souvenirs and a nice night out now and again. Remember, in a few years you'll be making the new round of students jealous recalling today's prices.

Traveling in China for Student's - Chinese Money

photo by Jim S.


Exchange money at the airport when you arrive, and remember to spend or exchange leftover RMB before leaving China. Carry cash--you'll need it for most transactions. Your ATM card should work at most big bank ATMs, such as the Bank of China. If you're in China for awhile, consider opening an account at a bank with a nationwide network. Traveler's checks protect you from loss and theft--they are also easiest to cash at banks in major cities.

Tourist Traps

Alas, there are always those who make a buck off unsuspecting tourists. Expect to pay more when you're handed a menu in English. Be wary when someone approaches you and wants to "practice their English"--you might get stuck with a big bar tab or worse. Keep your hands on your money and your bags. Better safe than sorry.


Lonely Planet's China guide is a great place to source affordable accommodations throughout China. Hostels and dormitories are cheapest and double as places to meet drinking buddies. Those in big cities and at popular destinations can fill up quickly, so book ahead when possible. Try and Mid-range hotels can be found on domestic Chinese sites like and (See note on using these sites under Transportation/Flying.)

Traveling in China for Student's - Chinese Fortune

photo by Meredith P.


This is the easiest way to save. Opt for street vendors and small restaurants whenever possible. You are not expected to tip at these places; higher-end restaurants will sometimes include a service charge. "As a starving college student... eating cheap paid off," says Michael Wang, a UCLA student who studied in Beijing with CSA. "There are so many hole-in-the-wall places that are reasonably priced. Jiaozi, or Chinese steamed dumplings, and Zhajiang Mein were among my favorites."


Take time to work out the conversion in your head--not everything is a good deal. Avoid tourist spots and be prepared to haggle. Start by offering 20% of the list price. This includes items you might not expect are negotiable, such as phone cards with prices printed on them. Get into the spirit of things--shrug your shoulders and act indifferent, walk away and make them drag you back.

In-City Transport

City buses can take you nearly everywhere, but they are crowded and, unlike trains, can't escape traffic. In-city trains are generally affordable and clean. Taxis are expensive but may be worth it occasionally--if your destination isn't near a bus or train stop, say, or if you're just overwhelmed. There is no need to tip. If you opt for a motorized three-wheeler or pedicab, negotiate fares before you get moving. They're not the safest rides, of course, but they have the benefit of local color. Whatever you choose, bring a map so you can point to where you want to go.

Open Road

Buses are affordable for long-distance trips, though it can be tricky figuring out which station to use and how to get exactly where you want to go. Sometimes cheaper, older buses go the same place for less. If you're up to it, you can always head out of town in the right direction and wave down buses that come by. Hitching a ride in a car is always risky, and most drivers will expect money. Don't stick out your thumb--wave like you're hailing a taxi.

Traveling in China for Student's - Chinese Bullet Train

photo by Daniel Cuthbert

On The Train

Train fare is based on the distance and where you sit. "Hard seat" sounds unpleasant for a reason--it can be crowded, dirty, smelly and loud. But these tickets are cheap and plentiful. If they are sold out, standing tickets may be available. "Soft seats," less crowded and more comfortable, are available on some shorter trips. "Hard sleeper" tickets, much in demand, get you a bunk plus bedding. The bunk compartments don't have doors. "Soft sleeper" costs twice as much, but you get a door, curtains, teacups, the works. If you have to buy a ticket without a reserved seat, a conductor can upgrade you on the train if something better is available. Tickets are generally one way. If you're going from A to C via B, you'll need to buy the ticket to C when you arrive in B. Especially if you want to travel hard sleeper, buy tickets a few days in advance--but not more than five.

Flying High

Train tickets may cost you half what a plane ticket would, but in a country this large, flying can save you big in terms of time. Plus, there are nearly always discounts available. Domestic sites such as and are the best places to book flights. If you're paying with a foreign credit card, you'll have to jump through a few hoops first--return a cardholder agreement, send in copies of your credit card (both sides) and passport--but your information will be on file for the next purchase. Overall, flying in China is a surprisingly pleasant experience as the planes are often new and the service attentive.

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China Study Abroad (CSA)

China Study Abroad takes the uncertainty and difficulty out of coming to China. We take care of all the necessities before you arrive and continue to provide wide-ranging services after arrival, leaving you to study the language, explore the culture, and have fun interacting with local people and other foreigners living abroad.

Offering Programs In: China