The Traveler’s Cheap China
Traveling to China, much like traveling to any other country, can be an amazing experience that won’t soon be forgotten. Like going to any vacation destination though, it can also become quite a money-trap for the inexperienced tourist. A little bit of preparation can go a long way in keeping your wallet from going on a sudden and dramatic diet.
Brush up on your Chinese
When going anywhere where you don’t speak the language, it definitely helps to learn a little bit of the native tongue. There are plenty of books, cd’s, and podcasts that can help with that. You don’t need to become fluent, but spending some time learning the essentials such as directions, the street, neighborhood, or hotel where you’ll be staying, numbers, and names of food will help you save some money in the long run.
Getting around in China is actually pretty cheap, but you have to be careful about it. After a long flight or a train ride you may not feel like walking much but if you take the first cab you see, don’t be surprised with a really expensive ride.
Cab drivers in front of airports and train stations are known for taking advantage of travelers. If you can’t reserve a car it’s recommended, if you’re traveling relatively light that is, to walk a couple of blocks away from the airport or train station and then flag down a cab.
Intercity travel is often done through the vast train network or through buses. Train travel is regulated by the government and is relatively cheap. If you’re going a long distance spend a few dollars more and buy a ticket with a bed. The bed cars tend to be less crowded and having a place to take a nap means you’ll be rested when you arrive at your destination.
If you are not fluent in Chinese and don’t have a friend along who can speak it, then it is recommended not to take the intercity buses. A lot of tourists have shared stories of being left stranded between cities because of a miscommunication in the language barrier.
When looking for a place to lay your head for the night, most of the hotels in China are easily accessible online. Start looking for hostels as they tend to be cheaper. Most hostels in China offer two options for staying. The first is very inexpensive and it involves a stay in a shared room and usually with a communal bathroom. The second, for a few dollars more, is a private room with a private bathroom.
Most hotels will charge you more for a walk-in. Reserving a room ahead of time makes it more likely you’ll get a room at a lower rate, and often be able to keep that rate if you need to extend your stay. Even a phone call an hour before you get to a hotel can save some cash at check-in.
The joy of eating
I lived in China for two years. Occasionally I would head to a nearby mall and eat at the McDonald’s that was there, where I would always see tourists. I always asked them why they were eating there and the answer was usually something along the lines of “we know what it is.”
I understand that, but the problem is that the known big restaurant chains like McDonalds, KFC’s, Starbucks, etc., these are actually pretty expensive compared to the thousands of smaller local eateries that are almost everywhere in any given city. Imagine paying $20 dollars for a cheeseburger at McDonald’s, that’s essentially the equivalent price to dining “western” and dining local.
This is also where learning a little bit of the language helps, especially learning the names of foods you like. The name of any dish in China is almost always the literal ingredients in the dish. “Chow-Fan” for example literally translates to “Fried-Rice”, saying “Gung-Pow Jee-Dee-Yen” is what we know as “Kung-Pow-Chicken.”
As long as you know the name of the dish, you can order what you like, as most of the smaller restaurants won’t even have a menu, but they will know what to make as long as you know the name of what you want to eat. Vegetarians can save even more money as dishes with meat in them tend to be just a little bit more expensive.
The Chinese love haggling. In fact, there are very few things that they won’t negotiate over, food, cab-fairs, and some electronics, like computer parts, are about all that they tend to be inflexible on, although I did drop a few dollars off of the price of an HDTV at a major electronics chain one time.
If you find yourself in one of the many marketplaces you’ll find that you have plenty of power as a buyer. If you see a price tag on something, offer to buy it at a lower price, that price tag is just a guideline. If they won’t bend, then walk away. This is a pretty common practice, walking away encourages them to come a little bit closer to your price.
They’re never going to sell something at a loss, and if they won’t bend on the price, then just leave. You’ll more than likely find another shop selling the same thing and they may have even overheard your negotiating and be willing to offer you the price you want so that they can make a sale.
But, above all…
Have fun! Like any other popular travel destination you shouldn’t be afraid to walk off the beaten path and get away from the tourist traps. You’ll save quite a bit of money and you might even find a little bit of adventure!
Photo credit: Mike Behnken