By western standards, China is a cheap and inexpensive place to visit.
As I’ve outlined previously, the cost of living like a local in China is very low. At the small restaurants around the corner from my apartment, dinner costs a dollar and a large beer costs 50 cents.
I knew that the cost of travel in China would be slightly higher than this, as everything on any “tourist route” is bound to be, but I was curious to know just how much I would actually spend.
To this end, I decided to keep track of my expenditures for 12 days as I backpacked through the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. I began tracking expenses from the moment I left my front door, to the moment I returned.
How Accurate are These Numbers?
Yunnan is diverse, and I visited cities, inexpensive small towns, and overpriced tourist areas to boot. With the exception of the large, notoriously expensive cities like Shanghai and Beijing, I strongly believe this to be an accurate representation of the cost of travel in mainland China.
All numbers have been calculated and then rounded accordingly. The numbers in bold are United States Dollars, or USD.
My Spending Habits in China
My spending habits varied over the course of the trip. My general mindset was “don’t spend too much and don’t buy unnecessary things.” I knew I wouldn’t need to be overly conservative with my spending as it’s cheap enough that I could afford to spend a little extra.
I wasn’t particularly stingy, but I also wasn’t reckless by any means. Using an online money management system like Mint.com definitely helps if you need a good way to keep track of all your expenditures.
Chinese Currency and Conversions
The official currency of the People’s Republic of China is the Yuan or Renminbi, CNY for short, or RMB, ¥, CN¥, 元 or CN元 (thanks for keeping things simple, China!). At the time of this article, 1 CNY = 16 cents USD. Inversely, 1USD = 6.2 CNY. If you’re a Brit, a general rule for calculating the British Pound (GBP) is to divide the number of CNY by ten, or move the decimal point one place to the left. So, 10 CNY is about 1 pound.
For updated and more accurate currency conversions, xe.com provides the best representations.
Over 12 days, I tracked every CNY that I spent. Altogether, excluding two nights out at the pub, I spent 3,254 CNY, or about $525. For almost two weeks of travel, and spending without major restraint, I’m very happy to report this number.
And who said travel had to be expensive?
Had I been more restrictive in my spending, I easily could have spent far less than this. My average daily spend, then, was about 271 CNY, or approximately $44. My average weekly spend would thus be almost 1900 CNY, or about $305, and my average monthly spend, in a 31-day month, would be 8406 CNY, or about $1,357.
This number could be much lower, though, and China could easily be traveled on just $25 USD per day (155 CNY) if one were maintaining a strict budget.
The Cost of Food and Drink in China
I splurged on nice food and big meals, which could have been avoided, but I believe that a vital part of travel is tasting the local culture and sometimes indulging in social activities like group dinners. Not once, in my entire time traveling, did I cook for myself or eat instant noodles! Every meal, then, was spent in a cafe or restaurant. In that regard, my cost of food could have been significantly lower, but it wasn’t something I was particularly concerned about. For this reason, then, food was my highest expenditure.
In 12 days, I spent 971 CNY, or $157, on food and drinks. This includes a couple of beers with a couple of meals, but nothing excessive. Nights out at the bars or pubs, which only happened twice, were not included in this number. A beer at a bar or club could cost anywhere from 20CNY to 60CNY, depending on the type of beer and the type of venue. I never went to be remotely close to hungry and, in fact, I’d say I overate on more occasions than not.
I spent as little as 30 CNY on food in one day and as much as 135 CNY. By my calculations, I spent an average of 81 CNY per day on food, or $13. This works out to about 566 CNY weekly ($91) or 2508 CNY in a 31-day month ($405).
The Price of Accommodation in China
The price of accommodation in Asia is significantly lower than places like Australia or New Zealand, where I had just come from. The most I spent on accommodation for a single night was 60 CNY, which I was forced to pay because I was traveling during the Chinese New Year (mid-February).
When China goes on holiday, the price of transportation and accommodation goes through the roof and can increase by as much as triple (or more, sometimes).
The lowest price I paid for a night’s sleep was 25 CNY (4 bucks!). These prices were for shared rooms in hostels which slept between two and eight people. Though likely outside of the $25/day price range, I also recommend Agoda for hotels and guesthouses in Asia.
Altogether, I spent 425 CNY, or about $68. On average, though, I spent about 35 CNY per night, or $5.50. Weekly, this works out to about 248 CNY ($40) or 1098 CNY ($177) per 31-day month.
Transportation Costs in China
The transportation systems in China can be daunting, but there is nothing quite like the experience of the Chinese train system. Train and bus are the best ways to get from place to place. They are cheap and they run consistently (though they’re not necessarily reliable). The drawback, though, is the time commitment. China is a big place and getting from one town to the next is likely going to take a lot longer than anticipated.
One way to save on costs is by taking an overnight bus or train, so you won’t have to pay for accommodation. You’ll save money, but you probably aren’t going to save on sleep!
Taxis, scooters, tuk-tuks, buses, and trains included, I spent 688 CNY on transportation, or about $110. Some days I didn’t travel at all and didn’t spend a dime. On average, though, I spent about 57 CNY per day, or just over $9. This is about 400 CNY weekly ($65) and 1777 CNY ($287) per 31-day month.
The Price of Activities in China
Activities are cheap in China. You’re not going to be bungee jumping, skydiving, or doing other crazy stuff that costs a lot of money. All of my activities, which included bike rentals and entry fees for hiking trails and temples, cost me 219 CNY, or $35.
This averages out to about 18 CNY per day, or $3. Weekly, then, my average was 127 CNY ($20) or 565 CNY ($92) per 31-day month.
I spent 446 CNY ($72) on other essentials that I hadn’t come prepared for, like a new winter jacket, sun cream, and medicine. On average, this worked out to about 37 CNY per day, or $6. If, of course, I had come prepared with warm enough clothing, this number would have been drastically different. This speaks to the importance of pre-planning, or at least enough planning to know that you should pack a few extra items because you’re probably going to mess something up!
On top of the essentials, there were the non-essentials. These came in the form of gifts for friends and myself. My total for these souvenirs was 275 CNY ($45), or 23 CNY (less than $4) per day.
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Just the basic essentials, which include food/drink, accommodation, and transportation, cost me a total of 2048 CNY, or $331. Over 12 days, this works out to 173 CNY per day ($28), 1215 CNY per week ($197), and 5383 CNY ($872) in a 31-day month.
Even though I went beyond this number, I’d say that traveling China on $25 per day is a very reasonable target. My spending was slightly excessive at times and, had I cut down on some of the major expenses, like my food costs, my spending easily could have fallen under that budget.
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive like many people believe. Sure, China can be a tough place to travel within, but that’s what makes the experience even better. The best trips aren’t necessarily the expensive ones, and China, in this sense, definitely becomes one of the more viable options.
The only cost I struggled with in China was the National Parks! When we visited it was the equivalent of US$25 per person per day, and they were generally packed! Mind you Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou were amazing and well worth it!
thnx buddy for that infos…but i still have a question which is how can i go to the great wall from beijing ? do i need a transportation like a train or is just a bus..??
Thank you for sharing this helpful experience. I’d like to know if your budget includes entrance fees to attractions? as i found the tickets are quiet pricey. Some attractions provides cable car, which not cheap either.
Great write up, and good job keeping the your costs at $25! China is a budget-friendly destination but I agree that it does depend where you stay in China.
I been to China 16 times as a backpacker (heading back for the 17th time next month)
I have soon been to every single province in China, and I can easily say that the budget will very heavily from province to province, Yunnan like my mention is easily doable at 25usd a day, same is Sichuan and a few other, but then on the other hand will provinces like Xinjiang,Gansu,Fujian plus most others set you back more than 50usd a day since they are far from tourist developed as Yunnan.
Thanks so much for this post! How different people interpret ‘budget travel’ varies so much it’s difficult for me to get an accurate idea of what China will cost (I’m planning a three month trip from Yunnan up to Xinjiang). I recently travelled Central and Eastern Europe for 4 weeks on a budget of $1000, staying in decent hostels and never once cooking for myself. So unless Western China is somehow more expensive than Prague or Budapest, the numbers people are giving me seem a bit inflated.
What kind of job can someone be doing in china
The same kind of job you can do anywhere else in the world.
Hi, I am a uni student and im planning to travel to shanghai and beijing for 2 weeks on late November. Could u pls suggest how much i will need to take for an average holiday? (exclude accommodation)
city around shanghai is worth to visiting,shanghai is more a big city than chinese culture
Looking forward to hear from you!
Okay, I believe you! One more question though 😀 So if I do the two months I`m going there July-August. It is the high season and you said the prices especially on accommodation and transportation can in some cases even triple so on your experience do you think 2000 USD would be enough for those two months…?
I think it’s doable, but you’ll have to be strict with your budget. If you can bring a little more, it’s always nice to have a cushion. Just make sure you have some backup funds so that your bank balance isn’t $0 when you return!
Okay! Thank you so much for your answers Jeremy and keep up the good work, your website is awesome!
Thanks, Julia! 🙂
I spend 1000 cny a month in china,but I’m living not travel,it not easy within 200 CNY a day when you are traveling.I have 400CNY three day traveling ,too tired.
I`m plannig on travelling to China in the summer. I was just wondering which would you recommend; spending 1 month there and not being so restrict with the money (yet on a budget anyway) or spending 2 months and really being careful with the money?
Two months! One month just isn’t enough, especially considering how big China is!
Thanks a bunch, Jeremy. Super helpful info. I’m used to places like India where everything’s free…just kidding. Very, very inexpensive, though. So it’s great to hear that China is affordable. I intend to go up into the Tibetan areas of Xichuan province sometime in, perhaps, March 2015. I’ll be coming overland from, I’m not sure, maybe Laos or Cambodia. Spending a few months in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
Oh, you’ll have such a great time! It’s an incredible part of the world, and it’s very affordable to travel!
Thanks! This was really detailed! Came across your site through legalnomad’s Asia Travel Budget resources. I am planning on going to China (around Shanghai) this coming February and your post reminded me that Chinese New Year took place around that time. It should be exciting! Thank you so much for the comprehensive post! It’s helping me plan my rtw trip!
Have a great time! Shanghai will be an exciting place to be for Chinese New Year! Just watch out for firework shrapnel. It can get dangerous around that time of year! 🙂
Amazing cost analysis! Thank you! This is certainly fabulously helpful to anyone interested in travelling to this amazing part of the world! I really appreciate the detailed breakdown and thoughtful inclusion of holiday-specific cost increase explanations. Side note: Those dumplings look so good!
They were DELICIOUS. I’ll never forget those dumplings!
we call it baozi
Those were yak meat dumplings from the Tibet Autonomous Region in Yunnan. They call them “momo” there. SO GOOD!
China is high on my list. In fact, I’m thinking of going there next year. Glad I came across this post.
I hope you make it! It’s quite an experience!
im bookmarking this just in case I visit China in the future ^_^
Wherever the Hunanese 木桶饭 (mutongfan) restaurants appear, I know that I could eat well and for cheap. The common denominator is rice placed in a wooden cask, and the “toppings” are limitless. It’s a bit harder to find these places away from southern China, and I haven’t even been to that province yet, but in Dongguan and Shenzhen, you’d be good to go.
As for lodging, I’d typically stay at 宾馆 (bin-guan) because they were cheap and sometimes came with a desktop computer. Noise levels were…not good no matter where I stayed, so I might as well pay less for the same cackling and cigarette smoke encountered elsewhere.
I’m curious to know what these restaurants are like, and how I’d be able to differentiate! Very curious to know about these toppings!
I stayed at hostels and guest houses, most of which had computers with internet access and low noise levels. Frankly, I had no issue with any of my accommodation, and at 35 CNY per night, that’s literally unbeatable!
I agree, this is a great post. However, I don’t ever want to sleep in a room with other people that I don’t know. I don’t do the hostel thing, it’s just not for me. I always rent apartments. I agree with you about the food, and I love the fact you ate so well so cheaply. Thanks for sharing!
That’s fair enough, Roni. We all have our own styles of travel and different necessities on the road. Sometimes though, when the budget is tight, a hostel room has just got to be done!
Awesome post Jeremy! I’m impressed how well-organised you were. We know how frustrating it can be when you try to write all expenses done. Wow, your accommodation was super cheap! Dorms are best option to sleep in China on a budget. We usually spend less on food as there are two of us so we often share the meal together. Well done!
Thank you, Agness! The fact that I was so diligent with my record keeping impressed me even more! I was really happy with the accommodation prices–25 CNY for a night is pretty much unbeatable. And the hostels were really nice, as well! I can’t see how they turn much of a profit, but I’m not complaining!
Good, useful analysis Jeremy. Shows it’s a great place for a budget traveller. You can’t argue with $25 per day.
Thanks, Andonis! China is definitely easy to do on a budget, without even trying that hard!