Travel Budget China: Will Your Visit Leave You in the Red?

Travel budget China

Skewer snacks at a market in Beijing

Travel Budget China

The only flight in China covered by the 100,000 American Airlines miles we cashed in on this ‘Round the World trip was from Shanghai to Hong Kong. (See Statistics page for details.)  We purchased our Seoul to Beijing flight while we were in Seoul, and this is counted below as part of the cost of getting to China. Renminbi is legal tender in mainland China. Overall, we found mainland China a bit more expensive than we’d expected, though there are still deals to be had.  Geographically, from Beijing in the northeast, prices seemed to drop as you get further south and west to less-developed areas of the country.

Notes that Affect the Numbers


China is one of the few countries that requires US citizens to obtain a Visa before arrival.  The Visa generally must be applied for while still at home. We applied for and received the Tourist (L) Visa, Multi-Entry, Valid for 12 months. The cost was $130 per person. Unless you live near the embassy in your region (we would have had to travel to Houston), sending documents back and forth to the visa service and processing will add $40 or more to that sum.


Entry fees to tourist attractions were one of the things we found expensive in China. After the many free museums in South Korea, we were shocked to pay about $10 for the Forbidden City and about $18 for the Longmen Caves!  Many of the top-level scenic areas (mountains, recreations areas, parks) charge over 100 yuan (about $16) just to get in, with additional fees if there are cable cars shuttles, etc. There’s a good article on the subject, with comparisons and a fun Big Mac Index infographic on the Ministry of Tofu blog.


We cashed in points at Marriott hotels in Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Holiday Inn in Chengdu for a total of 5 nights.  Hostels are plentiful, so shop around. Our Hosteling International membership came in handy for discounted rates, but it was usually only applied if you book directly, and not through one of the hostel booking sites.


Watch out if you’re visiting China in summer! We were there in July and August, just in time for all the university students and families to snatch up the budget-priced seats on the trains. We were stranded on several occasions without any option of where to go. In one case, we ended up having to buy an airline ticket rather than lose more days when we were more than ready to move on.  This obviously increased spending in the overall “Transportation” category. There are various classes of both trains and the seats or berths on them. We never saw a soft sleeper, the highest class berth, and never traveled on the super fast trains.  When we were able to get a seat, it was hard sleeper at best (usually 6 to a compartment, stacked three-high).  The hard sleepers were generally fine, but can get pretty dirty and smelly if it’s a very long journey. On the other hand, there’s no transportation harder core in China than a hard seat on a lower grade, overnight train. That being said, the more flexible you are about what you’ll put up with comfort-wise, the cheaper you’ll be able to get around.  If you’ve got to be somewhere on a certain date, or want to book a certain class, ticketing agencies can be used, but at substantially more cost. Tickets usually go on sale 10 days before the date of travel. Generally, you have to be IN the city you’re traveling from in  order to buy a ticket at the station. Your point of origin must be Beijing. For example, if you’re in Beijing, you can’t buy a ticket FROM Shanghai to somewhere else.


There’s so much wonderful food in China, and much of it is available at pretty reasonable prices. Sit-down restaurants catering to tourists, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, are pricey, as would be expected. Shanghai was our favorite city for good-eats. On the street, buns, noodles, and dumplings are a delight. Buns are great for breakfast, filled with vegetables, meat or tofu, and when you can gorge yourself for a dollar or two, a tempting choice. Fruit is fairly cheap, too. We bought lots of mandarin/clementines and watermelon, and got totally addicted to dragonfruit. This is one area where you can really save some Yuan.

More posts from China.

Photo Gallery of our favorites Part One. And Part Two

Photos from Western Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau

About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.