While food, accommodation and transportation costs in China have been creeping upward and admission fees to popular attractions are reaching astronomical levels, it is still very possible to travel the country quite cheaply. That said, it is also possible to spend ridiculous amounts of money and get very little in return. I’ve written plenty on traveling cheaply, so I figure it’s time I helped people go broke.
1. Take an Unofficial Taxi from the Airport
Let’s take China’s capital Beijing as an example and start at the airport. Ignore buses and trains and head straight for the taxi area. Don’t bother with the taxi stand though. While they will overcharge you, it won’t be enough to really make a difference. To increase your chances of being stripped to your underwear and left in an alley somewhere, go with one of the many touts.
Most likely, they will take you to an unlicensed taxi, but just to make sure, check the license plates. If you see the letter “B”, it’s an official taxi and your chances of donating large amounts of money to Beijing’s less law-abiding citizens just dropped drastically. You’ll want to switch to a taxi with any other letter on the plates. Those are unlicensed, unofficial and highly likely to, at the very least, drop you into a lower tax bracket.
If you’re especially lucky, you’ll not only lose every possession you carry, but you’ll be forced to withdraw as much as possible from your bank account as well. If this happens to you, congratulations! You no longer need to bother reading the rest of my advice, not that you can without a laptop or the 2 Yuan (not to mention the passport) needed to use a Chinese internet cafe.
2. Let “Friendly Students” Take you Anywhere they Want
Even if you got stuck with an honest driver and you made it downtown with all your possessions and only a slightly lighter wallet, never fear—Beijing’s got you covered. Head for the tourist areas like Tiananmen Square or Wangfujing and look around for college aged kids talking to foreigners. If they walk up to a new foreigner immediately after finishing a conversation with another, those are your new friends.
Let them approach you and talk to you for a bit and when they suggest going to a tea house or some other place to talk some more, you just made up for your previous failure with the taxi. To speed things up, ask your new friends to take you to an ATM on the way.
Come time to pay, you’ll be informed the 30 Yuan charge for peanuts is actually 30 Yuan PER peanut. You’ll also come to find you’ve apparently been drinking liquid gold in lieu of tea; it tasted like tea, but the number of zeros on your bill would be more at home in a Ferrari dealership. If you didn’t withdraw money beforehand, you can now enjoy a trip to the ATM under the watchful eyes of several oversized, violent-looking Chinese men. Pay them and go find a nice bridge to lie under, since you can no longer afford the bus ride to your hotel, much less a taxi or the hotel room itself.
If you have money left over, simply head out and find some more “students” to have tea with. You’ll find them all over the touristy areas of Beijing. If you somehow screwed this up and found some actual students who took you to an actual tea house where you received an actual bill for a few dollars then you’re really trying my patience. Let’s try one more thing.
3. Get a Shoe Shine or Twenty
Go shopping. Wangfujing Street is a good place to start as you’ll generally find the highest prices here. If you see any shoe shiners on the way, by all means stop and get a shine. If you’re wearing sandals, who cares? They certainly don’t. And when they start informing you of various surcharges for brown shoes, thick shoelaces, sunny days, Tuesdays, people over 1.70 meters, humans and shoe polish, pay them all. Then walk through some mud and repeat.
4. Go Shopping on Wangfujing Street
Once you find some stores—preferably places selling useless looking touristy crap local handicrafts—immediately accept the first price on whatever the seller just pushed in your face and buy ten. Better yet, double the price and buy twenty, although you can expect your unheard of bargaining tactics to create a little confusion at first. Then you can expect the shop owner to unload his stock on you, to burn down his empty store and to run around like a maniac screaming stuff in Chinese that, roughly translated, means “I’m never working again! My ship has come in and it carried this sucker!” Then they’ll probably kiss you.
Should you still have some money, help another store owner retire and continue until you’ve reached the desired level of poverty. Once you’re there, congratulations! You have now joined the ranks of Beijing’s poor. As such, it is highly likely you will soon be forced out of the city center and eventually out of Beijing’s outlying areas, past the suburbs and end up somewhere in the countryside, where you can join China’s penniless millions in a coal mine or a brick factory.
I realize some of you may prefer a China vacation that doesn’t end in virtual slavery, but like I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve written plenty on saving money while traveling. Nevertheless, I suppose I could offer some assistance: simply take all the advice I’ve worked so long and hard to compile for you here and do the exact opposite.
Head here for practical travel information on Beijing or here for information on the rest of China.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says
Even without following any of your handy dandy tips here, I was really shocked at how expensive was when we visited back in September. The attraction fees in particular were ranging on “heart attack city” levels ($15-$20USD to see anything of historic interest?!?), and we struggled to find cheap eats in a lot of places too. About the only thing that we did find reasonable was lodging, but we stuck primarily to hostels, though were able to generally get private ensuite rooms for less than $15USD per night for two people. At least China didn’t let us down there… 1 out of 4 isn’t terrible, right? Oh wait…
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Daniel McBane says
I know. Some of the admission fees are becoming insane. That said, I do appreciate that they charge everyone the same fee, as opposed to countries like Thailand or India, where only foreigners are overcharged. In fact, the Chinese government doesn’t seem to even consider foreigners when setting prices–any attraction that isn’t popular with Chinese tourists is usually priced very reasonably, no matter how popular it is with foreigners. I suppose that makes sense–those in charge know that the people see travel as a status symbol and will thus happily pay the ridiculous fees.
As for the food, it’s actually very easy to eat cheaply, but most of the cheap food is disgusting and usually served floating in a puddle of two-week-old cooking oil. While there are definitely some really good, inexpensive restaurants in China, they’re rare and not always easy to find.
And you’re right, lodging is only reasonable if you stick to hostels (or places that aren’t technically allowed to accept foreign guests). Once you end up off the tourist trail in cities that don’t have hostels, the hotels that are licensed to accept foreigners are generally very overpriced for what they offer.
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The Guy says
Thanks for the tips Daniel. I was unaware of the “B” on the number plate, that seems like a good idea.
As for the shoe shiners I’ve lost count of the number of foreigners having arguments with shoe shiners in the street. Foreigners are just seen as deep pockets and any chance to rip you off and they will do.
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Daniel McBane says
The ‘B’ is pretty necessary given the large numbers of unlicensed taxis in the city.
I was actually never accosted by any shoe shiners in Beijing, but I was only there a week. I lived in Shanghai and was waving them off constantly in the tourist areas there, even when I wasn’t wearing the types of shoes that are generally shined. At least they weren’t as bad as the ones in Delhi who’ll have their partners smear crap on your shoes so that they can then heroically show up with their shoe-shine kits to save the day.
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Chubby Chatterbox says
Love the sarcasm! Your methods for increasing poverty work well in many countries besides China.
Daniel McBane says
That’s true. Unfortunately I posted this a bit too late to help you lose your shirt in India, but these methods are timeless. I’m sure they’ll still work when you go on your next trip.
Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Tooth Vendor in Marrakech’s Djemaa El-Fna
Uh, did you, or did you not neglect to post a wee “Disclaimer” on the tail end of this post?
Shame on you. For this bevy of tips is surely nothing but a “sponsored” post by the FRLTT (“Filthy-Rich-Locals-Thanks-to Tourists”) club – a masterful collaboration between the Chinese gubberment and throngs of elite students/shiners-of-shoes/sellers-of-crap – all of whom have Rolls-Royces parked behind their commune hovels.
Did I mention… I simply adore your droll twist on things? 😉
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Daniel McBane says
You’re right, I did forget the disclaimer–not just to comply with FTC regulations, but also to avoid liability in the event someone actually does go broke in Beijing. Luckily, if it were to happen, that person would no longer be able to afford the lawyer’s fees necessary to file a lawsuit. Besides, chances are, they would still have more money than I do.
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Haha great tips of what not to do in Beijing, did you ever make one of these mistakes yourself?
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Daniel McBane says
No, thankfully I left Beijing with my bank account intact.
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Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans says
Ensuring that the letter “B” on license plates is good to know! No. 2 is also really good! I learned in the Dominican Republic to avoid asking locals for any directions, advice, etc. After a local guy showed us to an ATM, he threatened to kill us when we didn’t pay him his commission. Lesson learned! :-/
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Daniel McBane says
That’s one good thing about China, I guess–you don’t generally have to worry about death threats. I’m glad you survived and thanks for commenting.
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