Senior travel to China, independent travel on a budget, tips on budget friendly travel in China
21.09.2015 - 18.10.2015 26 °C
If you think you cannot afford to travel, think again.
In the fall of 2015 my 59 year old sister and I (66) traveled independently in China for 27 days. My budget was fifty dollars per day for hotels and meals with an additional six hundred dollars to cover travel within China. We paid seven hundred dollars for round trip airfare from Calgary.
It was a challenge with the Canadian dollar being so low but I did it and could have done it for less.
We travelled 4,503 km within China 3,145 km was by train. We saw a lot of countryside on that 2000 mile train journey.
The view from the train window was always interesting: cities, construction, fields, mountains, plains and rivers. When I think of the Chinese countryside I do not think "polluted and overcrowded".
Around Chengdu the Sichuan Basin was almost unbearably green.
True: Tap water is not drinkable anywhere in China. You have to boil it for ten minutes and who does that?
We traveled from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by air. We either had soft sleepers or soft seats on the train. There are cheaper seats called hard seats and hard sleepers.
Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by plane - 1358 km - 535 yuan
Zhangjiajie to Yichang in soft seat, train - 425 km - 138 yuan
Yichang to Chengdu - soft sleeper, train - 868 km - 310 yuan
Chendu to Xi'an - soft sleeper, train - 742 km - 312 yuan
Xi'an to Pengyao - soft seat, high speed train - 525 km - about 400 yuan
Pingyao to Beijing - soft seat, high speed train - 585 km - about 482 yuan
Convert to Canadian dollars, $471 Canadian Dollars
We booked all our trips through englishctrip online, before we left home.
People often say they cannot afford to travel.
It depends on your standards. If you can tolerate staying in plain hotel rooms and hostels, if you take the time to book your rooms in advance, some good cost savings can be accomplished. Our room in Shanghai was 59 dollars Canadian. However we spent seven nights in Zhangjiajie for under 35 dollars per night. Here is a breakdown on hotel costs, plus keep in mind one night was spent on the train. All of our accommodation had a private bath and a rating of 7.9 or higher.
I first looked at hotelscombined.com and most of my bookings were with booking.com. All of my bookings had free cacellation so
cost more than non-refundable hotel bookings:
Shanghai - Fish Inn Bund - Recommend - fifty nine dollars per night
Wulingyuan - Zhangjiajie April Hostel - 35 dollars per night. Five nights = $175
Zhangjiajie Yijiaqin Hotel - 31 dollars per night included transfer service to and from the train station and the owner also drove us to the cable car entrance. Two nights = $62
Yichang - we were upgraded by Booking.com so stayed at Tuohualing Hotel for 53 dollars per night. 2 nights = $106
Chengdu - Hello Chengdu - five nights - $186.11
Tibet Hotel - highly recommend - one night - included a big breakfast - $88
Xi'an - Ancient City Hostel - two nights - recommend due to location, comfortable restaurant, bar area and it has a lift - 42.50 per night $85
Pingyao - Hongyuyuan Family Guesthouse - 25 dollars per night for two nights included breakfast. $50
Beijing - last minute booking to Howard Johnson Paragon - four star hotel - could likely have found a better deal had I searched earlier - five nights at 88 dollars per night = $440
The stay at Howard Johnson in Beijing impacted my hotel budget, however, I still came out ok.
Our biggest additional expenses were entrance fees and cable cars.
Food I liked: noodles, really good. Lotus root, spicy fried potatoes, Chinese potato salad, Chinese pickles, spicy green beans, fried peanuts.
Food that surprised me: corn on the cob, potatoes.
The lamb and bread stew was thirty eight yuan for two or five dollars each. It was filling and tasty.
- taxis are cheap
- train fare is reasonable
- airfare is reasonable
- city buses cost about fifty cents.
- Museums are free. We saw museums in Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi'an and Beijing.
We could have saved money by walking more and utilizing the subway system.
Two phrases resonated:
1. eyes in the back of your head
2. He who hesitates is lost
Both apply to pedestrians and drivers. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, although in Beijing there seems to be more vehicles stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. Always be aware of drivers turning left or right into the crosswalk and do not anticipate they will wait for pedestrians to finish crossing, even if the walk sign is on. Millions of Chinese are crossing streets as we speak, without incident, they have eyes in the back of their heads.
When getting on a bus, boarding a train, making a purchase, catching a cab, if you hesitate, another person will take your place. He who hesitates is lost. In any line up, elbows out, make yourself an obstacle or you will be first in line no more. Also, not having eyes in the back of my head, having my elbows out gave me a warning signal when others attempted to pass so I could take defensive action. None of this, "after you, you were here first, go ahead".
Spitting - yes men do this, not all men, not as frequently as you might think, but if you hear a hoarse throat clearing do not look in that direction. There are signs in the national park, no smoking, no spitting. Still some people do it. I expect this too will change. Apparently so many Chinese citizens are now traveling abroad there have been comments by the host country media about their spitting. The government wants a favourable view in the international community so is making a stab at discouraging the habit of expelling phlegm - although traditional Chinese medicine supports the practise.
Smog - not evident in Shanghai, Zhangjiajie or Yiching. Most evident, on our journey, in Beijing.
Chinglish - no trampling on grass, no frolicking in elevator.
Sign in western style toilet stall in Shanghai mall: no standing on toilet.
Itinerary with highlights
1. Shanghai - the Oriental Pearl, Shanghai Museum, hop on and off bus, river cruise.
2. Zhangjiajie - the karst mountains in the Wulingyuan Forest Park and the monkeys.
3. Yichang - try lotus root and spicy fried potatoes. Yangtze River, Yilling Square
4. Chengdu - People's Park, the pandas, the opera and the Tibet Hotel. Try the HotPot and shredded potato salad.
5. Xi'an - Muslim Quarter, Bell Tower, terra cotta warriors. Try the lamb and bread stew.
6. Pingyao - Cute tourist town, ancient streets, temples, bargain for souvenirs. Have a foot massage.
7. Beijing - the National Museum, the Great Wall, Hutong tour and Jingshan Park.
Tour with Shopping
We went on one three day sightseeing tour in Beijing. The total cost, including the initial fee, an unadvertised "extra cost", and a nod to a ripoff purchase was one hundred and forty dollars plus the cable car to the Great Wall - this was the 'shopping tour' that folks on TripAdvisor warn you about. We enjoyed meeting the other participants, it was easier than getting around on our own, there was an English speaking guide, maybe not as much information as some tours I have been on, but the guide was pleasant and efficient in moving us through the various sites. You do not have to buy at the shopping stops, the sales people are high pressure, just find a place to sit, stick to your guns, say no. The washrooms at the shopping stops are clean and they have western style toilets so take advantage of the facilities. We thought the meals were good and convivial.
Tea - why not? The Chinese take their tea seriously and will spend money for a top quality leaf. Said to have medicinal properties, I purchased puer, green, jasmine and chrysanthemum as well as bamboo encased bricks of Tibetan Tea. The leaf and brick teas can be reused up to five times and the puer and Tibetan Teas improve with age.
My kids may inherit tea as I prefer coffee.
Scarves - for myself and for gifts - fake Chanel, fake cashmere, fake silk.
Terra Cotta Warriors - bargain hard
Tea cups with lids and strainers - the same thing will vary dramatically in price. Nice to have with leaf tea.
Paper cutouts from Pingyao - intricate, pretty, light weight
Gourd flute for the musical tourist or a two string violin
There is no shortage of souvenirs. Pingyao and the stalls around the terra cotta warriors as well as the Muslim section of Xi'an were the most fun, if you like to bargain. It is a game and they charge westerners more - if you can get somebody local to go with you, then you might do better.
This was my system - they make the first offer - I divide by four - they come back too high - I go up slightly if I really want the item. They come back but not as low as you have offered. Now you either make another offer or walk away. They may chase after you and then again, they may not. Only purchase off random street sellers if you have the exact right change as a common scam is to take your money and give you back counterfeit as change. I purchased terra cotta warriors, a selfie stick and a kite this way, and made out fine, but the tour guides warn you not to do it. I don't think I got many bargains, I often saw the same item for less elsewhere!!
- pickpockets love crowds and often hang around train stations, airports, subways, crowded areas.
- Counterfeit money exchange scam.
- Overcharging at restaurants - take a picture of the menu.
- Posing as student scams - take you to a cafe, bar or art gallery and stick you with an enormous bill at the end.
These are all written up in Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide etc.
The English language paper in Chengdu had a report about scams taking place during the National Holiday, Golden Week. Chinese tourists had been scammed by high prices on shrimp (six times the regular price) and the street seller received a big fine and was shut down after the scam was reported. The penalties are harsh, still lots of people do it. Bars actually hire pretty girls who pick up guys, order a lot of liquor and then take off leaving their male target to pay the bill. As far as I know, we were not scammed but we did take some preventative measures.
I wore a money belt and a neck pouch but eventually purchased a small canvas cross body bag, worn at the front, to carry the day's funds. We also had a day pack to carry water, a light jacket and some snacks.
The locals we met were the best - we did meet a few just by chance but I had contact with several CouchSurfing Hosts before we left home. As a member of CouchSurfing I posted our itinerary. Then potential hosts contacted me. I made it clear in my request that we were not looking for a place to stay. We wanted to meet locals to learn more about their community. Therefore in Shanghai, Yichang, Chengdu, Xi'an and Beijing we met young adults who took time from their busy schedules to offer assistance to two older ladies. Through CouchSurfing we met seven people. Our trip was improved by their involvement. We were left with the pleasant impression that Chinese people are considerate, friendly and helpful.
Guided Tours with Air to China have been really inexpensive. We took the independent route as we were going for a longer period of time and wanted the challenge of doing it on our own.
By going on our own, we ate with locals, rode the bus with locals, sat in parks with locals, yes, it was a different experience than a guided tour. We got lost, were frustrated when trying to take a taxi, had to plan ahead to get our destination written in characters, usually by the hotel or hostel staff. We saw a bit of everyday life in China, rode the subway, shopped at the neighbourhood fruit stand, and picked up groceries at the local store. We ate several times in our room as we were too tired to venture out and we were picky eaters mainly due to allergies.
Could you do it for less? Yes, you sure could:
- Stay in a dorm in a hostel
- Walk and take buses and subways
- Choose hard seats or second class on the train
- Take the bus instead of the train
The locals we met were amazed that we had the nerve and fortitude to travel independently in China at our age. A young woman wrote on CouchSurfing that we were "miracles."
All in all, it was an incredible journey. Limping, taking pain killers daily, we made it. It would be easier for people without arthritis. There were times when I couldn't find anybody who spoke any English, but most of the time somebody could. And with all those translating gadgets the young people can find a way to communicate.
Is there somewhere you want to go? Are you prepared to rough it a little? China is full of history, beautiful scenery, UNESCO World Heritage sights.
People watching was always interesting for me. And I never tired of the scenery passing our train window - not boring!! And there is so much left to see
People were friendly and willing to help. We had several conversations where we spoke English and the other party spoke Chinese. With gestures, and smiles, we kind of communicated.
Moving along the huge line to the cable car at Zhangjiajie an older woman spoke to me in Chinese as I passed. I paused, we took each others hands, smiled, looked into each others' eyes, and ...... I moved on. I believe she was saying welcome. And I think she knew that I was saying thank you.
Which brings me to reciprocity. We were frequently asking for help with good results. We didn't help anybody. If someone asked us for assistance in Chinese, we don't know about it. Our trip would have been very different if people had not helped us. We relied on the kindness of strangers.
And that made all the difference.