1. Plan Well in Advance and Be Flexible… and Patient
You can use your research time to save money. There are all sorts of ways to have an inexpensive China trip. Here is your starting point! “Time is money”, but beware the law of diminishing returns!
Putting a cost-saving itinerary together requires compromise. You may not be able to do all you imagined on your budget, but China is full of excellent-value alternatives. For example, you may not be able to afford a trip to Tibet, but there are Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Yunnan offering similar cultural and scenic attractions, accessible with less cost and hassle.
Be patient! Don’t book the first flight that you come across, or set your mind on the first itinerary that you like. Shop around, and get the advice of those who have got bargains before.
2. Don’t Go at Expensive Peak Times
Consider going off-peak to see China’s attractions. This typically means traveling in the winter. Many attractions and hotels are cheaper, and you can save a lot on flights.
Our November to March weather pages for China and the main tourist cities include what to prepare for weather-wise, plus suggestions on the best things to do in those (usually) low-season months.
Definitely avoid Chinese public holidays, when prices can be two or three times higher!
Traveling off-peak has the added advantage that you will avoid the tourist crowds for a more tranquil and stress-free experience. China’s winters, though (very) cold, are usually the driest times of the year. If you don’t like heat or rain, then saving this way will be a pleasure!
Enjoy the same China holiday for less money! China has two distinct tour seasons — the high season and low season (November to March). In the low season you can save $100 to $250, depending on tour length and hotels. Most airlines offer low-season discounts, so flight savings of up to 60% are possible.
3. Use Cheaper Forms of Transport
If you don’t mind spending a bit more time between destinations, China’s trains are a fraction of the price of domestic flights. The expanding bullet train network covers middle-distance journeys in a similar time to a flight (plus airport transport, formalities, etc.), but at half the cost or less. Long distance buses are even cheaper, though less comfortable, especially overnight.
In the cities, use public transport rather than taxis. Our attraction pages give details of what buses (and Metro trains in some cities) to catch. Walking or hiring a bike is an economical and healthy way to explore China.
4. Go to Cheaper (or Free) Sights, Eateries, and Hotels
“The best things in life are free.” Some of the best ways to experience China you don’t have to pay anything for! — like watching tai-chi in a park, strolling along the Bund, or enjoying Hong Kong’s beaches and country parks.
And some low-price attractions are great value for money, giving you something original that the most-visited sights do not, though facilities may be lacking. For example, Xianglu Temple near Xi’an will give you a wonderful view of the Yellow River, Buddhist culture, and Ming architecture for 10 yuan.
With accommodation you tend to get what you pay for, though smaller cities further west are better value for money generally. Make an honest assessment of what comfort level you can tolerate, and check the reviews.
Visiting China’s snack streets and “eating like a regular local” offer a mind-broadening and very-low-budget way to find sustenance. “Western” food is generally priced even higher than in the West, so if you can survive for a tour without a sandwich, real Italian pasta, or coffee you’ll save dollars every day. China has no end of tasty alternatives.
5. Explore Less Expensive Destinations
China has a huge depth of tourist attractions and destinations. You can have a rich cultural experience and impressive China visit without going to the likes of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
Be adventurous! Steer clear of the high-price-band cities, and, though the standard of accommodation and infrastructure may be lower, you can enjoy great-value days of discovery in China’s lesser-known parts.
6. Don’t Get Ripped Off When Buying Souvenirs, etc.
Always bargain (at length) if you see something you like. Street markets are usually the places to go for bargain-basement local specialties, rather than the “tourist supermarkets” or hawkers at the attractions.
(You may even consider buying your clothes etc. for the trip when you arrive in China, and take your saving home with you! There are some big savings to be had on imitation brand goods, though examine them carefully for poor quality.)