The Cost of Travel in China (2021): A Detailed Budget Breakdown


The Forbidden City under a blue sky in Beijing China

China is one of the most fascinating countries I’ve ever been to.

As one of the largest countries in the world, it boasts some incredibly diverse landscapes, food, people, history, and development. With a history dating back 3000 years, it’s a country with heritage and culture at every turn.

When I last visited, in January of 2019, I was there around the time of Chinese New Year and travelled for almost a month through some cities. If you get the chance to travel to China during their new year, I would 100% recommend it. There’s decorations everywhere, fireworks and everyone is in a happy mood. Of course, this means that you might need to book some things ahead of time before they sell out, but it’s worth it. One of my favourite memories is celebrating the Chinese New Year in Shanghai over hotpot with new local friends. 

Regardless of when you end up visiting, however, know that China takes some planning. This is predominantly due to the visa requirements and application process, which can be onerous, even when visiting as a tourist. It will differ for every country so research the visa application center where you live to find out which requirements and documents you need. I’m from Canada and needed to provide several forms and documents, proof of return tickets, and more. I went to the visa office two months ahead of my time in China because it outlined that they would need to hold my passport for about a week to process and stamp the visa in. 

Even though the visa application is a bit more stringent, I promise you it’s worth it, especially if you go through the process and retain a long-term multiple entry visa. My tourist visa cost around $110 but it’s a multiple entry 60-day limit valid for 8 years. Not a bad deal at all, considering I can return any time in the future to see more of this amazing country. 

Another important thing you should do ahead of your trip to China is download the WeChat app. This is the primary messaging app in China and you’ll use it regularly when in the country. You should also download a VPN ahead of time, but I’ll get to that later in the post. 

For now, get ready to learn more about China and what you can expect from a trip there. Above all, it’s a place where all your senses become ignited and you step a bit outside of your comfort zone. I met some of the loveliest people in China and crossed some things off my bucket list. If you go in with an open mind and ready for some adventure and unpredictability, then you’ll have the time of your life!

beautiful great wall of china
Ah, the Great Wall of China! Nothing can prepare you for seeing it with your own eyes!

What’s Included in this Post 

This budget breakdown covers how much I spent on accommodation, transportation, activities, and food while I travelled around the country.

I’ve not included my flights into and out of China as this is going to vary significantly based on where you’ll be arriving from.

The amounts in this guide are listed in U.S. dollars, simply because the vast majority of my readers are from the U.S. I also included some prices in Chinese Yuan (CNY), as this is the local currency that you will use the most. 

Okay — let’s get started!

temple of heaven in beijing
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing: well worth a visit!

The Cost of Accommodation in China 

Finding places to stay on a mid-range budget in China is fairly easy. One of the most important things that you’ll want to consider for accommodations is the location and staff, especially if you’re a foreigner because it really helps to be closer to things or have staff who speak english and offer good recommendations and advice. 

Guesthouses, hostels and homestays usually start at around $20 (129 Yuan) per night, while mid-range hotels will start at around $80 (516 Yuan) per night, but this usually includes breakfast. 

Here’s a list of my favourite accommodation options in China:

Beijing — Jingshan Garden Hotel ($92 a night): You can’t get much better than a hotel located in a traditional Chinese Hutong (a land or alley formed by traditional courtyard compounds) right behind The Forbidden City. Even though you’re located within a short distance to many places of interest, there’s still a very local feeling and flavour. In addition to having an A+ location, the staff are also very welcoming. Upon arrival they share a guide to China, offer suggestions and call for information at tourist sites to help you make the most of your stay. And the rooms themselves are comfortable and clean. There is also a restaurant attached that sells both delicious traditional Chinese dishes and western fare. 

Shanghai —  Campanile Shanghai Bund Hotel ($84 a night): When in Shanghai, you want to be close to the Bund and Nanjing Pedestrian Street where you feel the energy of the city the most. I loved being within walking distance to Nanjing Street during my time in Shanghai because it’s truly the best place to be in the evening. There’s lots of food, shops, metro stations and once you walk to the end, you can see the infamous Shanghai skyline at night. That’s why staying here is completely worth it! Plus, the rooms are large, clean, modern and cozy. Not to mention, they offer a fantastic breakfast buffet of both western and Chinese food. 

Yangshuo  The Bamboo Leaf Yangshuo ($80 a night): Yangshuo has some incredible, stunning landscapes coupled with a smaller town feeling. And this is the perfect base for all your explorations. The facilities and rooms are beautiful and clean, and that includes the onsite outdoor swimming pool with a stunning backdrop of the Yangshuo mountains. The hotel restaurant serves delicious food in generous portions. But most of all, this hotel really sells itself with the value of service and hospitality. They are all incredibly knowledgeable about the area and will go as far as sending you location links through WeChat (messaging app) for the places that you want to visit. Considering not everything in Yangshuo is properly marked, this is very  helpful. And the hotel also offers a free shuttle to and from town, free bicycles, and free e-bikes for hire.

Hangzhou Rock&Wood Cozy House ($64 a night): Hangzhou was one of my favourite cities in China. There was just something endearing about walking down the Ancient Qinghefang Road or taking a paddle boat on scenic West Lake. Staying at this cute guesthouse is the best of both worlds. Thanks to its location a quiet residential area only a few minutes walk from the lake. At the same time, you’re still within accessible reach of downtown. The host is there to help you with anything you need from sightseeing tips to a delicious breakfast that comes included. Needless to say, you’ll leave your stay here feeling mentally refreshed.

Chengdu Buddha Zen Hotel ($44 a night): Home of the famous pandas, Chengdu is the place to go to see these beautiful creatures up close. Beyond this, there’s tons of temples to explore and authentic Sichuan cuisine to taste. During your trip to Chengdu, I highly recommend staying at Buddha Zen Hotel, which is located next to Wenshu monastery; an area where there are plenty of adorable cafes and restaurants around to help bring out your inner foodie. Plus, it’s in a quiet area, so you won’t have to worry about not getting any sleep. You’re also in good hands with the owner who will help make your stay comfortable, whether you need transport, local recommendations, or advice for how to get around.

Nanjing Tingoo Inn ($70 a night): For many centuries, Nanjing was the capital of China. This makes a visit to this historical city worth it during your travels, especially considering it’s only within a few hours of Shanghai. Tingoo Inn is a cute hotel that checks all the boxes, from welcoming staff to the luxurious amenities to the location. It resembles a Chinese tea house with its boutique decor and relaxing ambiance, and they have a beautiful, laid-back garden on the property where you can unwind with a cup of tea. The rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable. And the hotel is also equipped with all the necessities and more, including a delicious breakfast in the morning, free laundry service and free water bottles whenever you need one. Plus, you’re within walking distance from top attractions like the Nanjing Wall and the Confucius Temple.

Xi’an Eastwood Inn Xi’an ($20 a night): If seeing the Terracotta Army Warriors (soldier figures that accompanied the tomb of China’s first emperor) intrigues you, then you’ll definitely want to pay a visit to the city of Xi’an. And you can stay at this lovely, affordable homestay while you’re there! You’re within walking distance of both a metro station and the Wenchang Ancient City Wall. Every room is clean and features comfy beds with a private bathroom attached. There is also a 24-hour front desk where the staff are more than willing to offer their recommendations. This is a comfortable, conveniently located, affordable homestay that’s perfect for a couple of days in Xi’an!

Xian at Night
The neighbourhood I stayed in while i was in Xi’an — it was so pretty at night!

The Cost of Transportation in China

Transportation in China was some of the best I’ve ever experienced in all of my travels so far. It was easy to navigate and efficient when it came to time. Unlike some other countries where I’ve had a number of stopovers and long haul drives, getting around China felt like a breeze in comparison. 

Here are the most common forms of transportation in China: 

Underground Metro — If there is an underground metro system available, this is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to travel around a city in China. I used the metro system in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. You can expect to pay around $0.46 –  $1.39 (3 – 9 Yuan) for a metro ride depending on the distance. 

Most cities offer 1-day, 3-day and 5 or 7-day passes which are a great option for value, especially considering you’ll likely be using the metro a lot for getting around a city. For example, the fare for a 1-day pass in Shanghai was $2.79 (18 Yuan) and the fare for a 3-day pass was $6.96 (45 Yuan). Definitely pretty reasonable!

Taxis/Didi — I used taxis a couple of times and if I was with a local friend of mine, we would take Didi, which is like the Chinese Uber equivalent. I wouldn’t rely on Didi unless you know Mandarin or are with people who live there because it doesn’t always work with foreign credit cards. That being said, taxis are everywhere and really easy to hail in major cities, but not many taxi drivers speak English, so have a translator app handy or name a major landmark that you’re heading towards that they would recognize. 

Each Chinese city has a different base rate for taxis.  Bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing start at $2 (13 Yuan) for the first 3 km. The other cities might start around $1.30 (8-10) Yuan for the first 3 km. To give you an idea of a full taxi ride fare, from Beijing airport to the city center (about a 40 minute drive) it costs around $18 – $23 (130 – 150 Yuan).

Note that Taxis don’t accept foreign credit cards usually, so always have cash in the form of small bills on hand to pay your driver. 

Train — China has one of the biggest high-speed rail networks in the world, which links nearly every town and city. I took the train to access most of the cities I went to, and it was always very reliable, quick, comfortable and straightforward. Not to mention, I thought the prices were quite reasonable. 

As a tourist, you need to verify your ID when you pick up a ticket. So once I booked my tickets through Trip.com, this only meant that my ticket was issued, but it didn’t mean I had the ticket in hand. To get your ticket, you need to go to the train station ticket office before your train, show your booking number and passport. I would recommend booking your train tickets at least 3-4 days in advance. 

Here were some of the routes I took and their respective prices:

  • Nanjing to Hangzhou: $20 (129 Yuan)
  • Hangzhou to Shanghai: $13 (83 Yuan)
  • Beijing to Nanjing: $69 (445 Yuan)
  • Shanghai to Guilin: $100 (645 Yuan)

Flight — Even though China is a large country, and it might feel like taking flights to get around makes sense, in most circumstances taking the train is better because of its high speed, punctuality, and lack of need for extensive check-ins and wait times. Not to mention, the prices are more or less the same, and sometimes the train is even cheaper. But in some cases, taking a flight may be an easier option for you. Here are some of the routes and their respective average prices from Skyscanner

  • Beijing to Shanghai — $123 or 794 Yuan
  • Shanghai to Guilin — $98 or 633 Yuan
  • Guilin to Chengdu — $165 or 1,066 Yuan
  • Chengdu to Xi’an — $81 or 523 Yuan 
I loved wandering through the atmospheric alleyways in Shanghai

The Cost of Food in China

China has some pretty remarkable food. I feel like I could have had hotpot and bubble tea every day. There’s something really special about going to eat hotpot with a group of friends. I just love the communal aspect of it. It’s less of a food dish and more of an experience (although the food part is good too!). 

If you’re unfamiliar with hotpot, it’s typically a simmering pot of seasoned broth, paired with thinly sliced meats, veggies, mushrooms, noodles and more. You essentially cook and season your food by putting it into the pot, dipping it in a selection of sauces and then digging in. If you go with a decent size group, then you’ll probably pay around $18 – $20 (116 – 129 Yuan) for a hotpot meal.

One of my other favourite food experiences was eating Peking Duck in Beijing, a dish that has roots since the Imperial era. Usually a Peking Duck meal will include thin slices of duck, wraps and add-ons. If you go to eat this at a restaurant, you’ll likely pay around $32 (207 Yuan) for a meal, which is why you want to do it once to try it, but it’s not something I would eat everyday. 

In general, standard Chinese and western dishes will cost around $10 – $16 (64 – 97 Yuan) when you eat out at a restaurant. And breakfast and lunches will be cheaper, especially when it’s at a street vendor. I ate at a lot of food markets and a steamed bun, fried rice, or a dish of chow mein noodles would only offset me around $3 or less

If you want to save a little money and have access to kitchens, then you could definitely buy groceries for under $30 a week.

The Forbidden City of Beijing

The Cost of Activities and Entrance Fees in China   

China is certainly the land of sightseeing. I’ve wanted to see The Great Wall of China for as long as I can remember, and it blew me out of the park. It was a beautiful sunny day in January and I could see the wall stretch on and on and thought to myself how lucky I was to see one of the wonders of the world. 

My best piece of advice would be to take a week day tour that leaves early in the morning from Beijing because The Great Wall itself is about a 2-hour drive away from Beijing. It’s possible to take public transit, but I definitely saved time and had a smooth experience with a tour. We left around 6 am and got there before 9 am, and there was a moment when we were the only 7 people or so on that section of the wall—it was pure magic and also very rare. So trust me, the earlier you can get there the better, because people start to come in around 10 am. 

I don’t remember the name of the company I went through, but I remember it cost around $40 for the tour which included entry and round-trip transportation from Beijing. Make sure to ask the people at your accommodation about tour companies because they will have a better idea of the best ones to book through.

Here’s a breakdown of some popular attractions in China and their respective costs: 

  • (Beijing) The Great Wall of China: $6 – $7 and $18 for cable car and slide down
  • (Beijing) The Forbidden City: $9.99 (April 1 – October 31) or $7.99 (November 1 to March 31)
  • (Beijing) Summer Palace: $4
  • Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding: $8.50
  • Zhangjiajie National Park: $38.34 (March 1 – November 30) or $21.49 (December 1 – February 28)
  • (Shanghai) Yu Garden: $6.18
  • (Hangzhou) West Lake: FREE
  • (Xi’an) Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum: $23.19 (March 1 – November 30) or $18.55
If you head to Chengdu, you can see baby pandas!

Miscellaneous Costs

Chinese SIM card: It’s easier to travel through China if you can connect to a network at any time, so I would recommend purchasing a SIM card whenever you land at the airport. Most tourists buy one through China Unicom. I believe you can buy a 12-day data SIM (4GB) for about $22. 

Virtual Private Network (VPN): To get a full range of internet access in China and circumvent the country’s internet censorship, you’ll need a VPN. Believe me, it’s worth it. You can’t access Google or most social media accounts without one. I was travelling through China for one month, so I got the 1-month plan with ExpressVPN which costs $12.95

Travel insurance: If you’ve read any other posts on Never Ending Footsteps, you’ll know that I’m a great believer in travelling with travel insurance. I’ve seen far too many GoFundMe campaigns from destitute backpackers that are unexpectedly stranded in a foreign country after a scooter accident/being attacked/breaking a leg with no way of getting home or paying for their healthcare. In short, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.

Travel insurance will cover you if your flight is cancelled and you need to book a new one, if your luggage gets lost and you need to replace your belongings, if you suddenly get struck down by kidney stones and have to be hospitalised, have your camera stolen and need to buy a replacement, or discover a family member has died while you’re overseas and now you need to get home immediately. If you fall seriously ill, your insurance will cover the costs to fly you home to receive medical treatment.

I’ve used World Nomads as my travel insurance provider since 2012 and have nothing but wonderful things to say about them.

In China, I paid $2.30 a day for my travel insurance.

Shanghai has one of my favourite city skylines, and it gets even better at night

How Much Does it Cost to Travel in China? 

It’s time to tally up all of my expenses to see my total travel costs! 

  • Accommodation: $80 per day
  • Transportation: $3 per day
  • Food: $30 per day
  • Activities/Entrance Fees: $20 per day

Average amount spent in China: $133 a day!

Author bio: Born and raised in Toronto, Lydia has found “home” throughout her travels around the world. She’s a passionate storyteller and writer and you can usually find her dreaming about new adventures or having a deep conversation with a friend.

5 Comments

  1. The World of Deej
    December 1, 2011
    Reply

    I visited the Temple of Heaven on a day when nearly no one was there. Of course, it was the dead of winter also. Have a pic where I’m standing on the mound clapping and listening to the sound….

  2. Mike
    December 1, 2011
    Reply

    Great post, great pictures

  3. Sheryll
    December 2, 2011
    Reply

    Gorgeous photos Lauren! The colors are so vivid!

  4. Sarah
    December 5, 2011
    Reply

    I feel like I am kind of an expert when it comes to showing up in places during their “busiest time EVER” so I totally empathize with you, Lauren!

    When I went to the Temple of Heaven it was also colder than cold December and there were still these precious senior citizens out there, ballroom dancing the day away!

    The echo chamber didn’t work for me either. Maybe it’s all a sham?

  5. Paula
    December 28, 2017
    Reply

    I just spent a 20 hour layover in Beijing and loved the Temple of Heaven. WhenI went there were a ton of old people around the park. Some were working out (aerobics, badminton, kicking a feathery ball), others playing cards, some were dancing in exotic costumes and my absolute favourite, about 50 of them chanting these jawdroppingly beautiful songs. It was freezing at 8 am and they were all so active!

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