Too bad I turned 21 in a country where the drinking age (17) was only established in like 2006 and no one obeys it.
But, that's okay. I've had my birthday abroad before and I'm sure I'll do it again. And that made me realize - in these eight weeks abroad (I KNOW, RIGHT?) I've probably learned about 21 things I can share to help others come to China.
And so, I present:
21 Ways to Travel China (and maybe other places too) Cheaply (and Still Have Fun)
(Maybe next I should write a post on how to use too many parentheses. ALL THE TIME.)
1. Stay in hostels.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Hostels are of course way cheaper (think $15 USD a night) and there's normally a fun crowd at them, people definitely worth meeting. In China, $15-25 USD will also get you a damn nice place, too.
2. Plan ahead.
I know I'm an advocate of wherever your whimsy dictates travel, but places to stay are cheaper if booked in advance, travel tickets are cheaper if bought in advance, and if you research your location, you'll find the cheap places to eat. Which brings me to...
3. Yes, definitely eat at the street vendors.
I know it looks iffy and you're never quite sure what you're eating (unless you speak fluent Mandarin), but they don't actually eat dog in China, and they cook the food at such high temperatures that you should be fine. The food is also cheap too, and often just as delicious as something you'd get in a restaurant. (I had lunch today - four skewers of chicken and an ice cream - for less than $1.60 USD) Also, this is definitely where you experience the real culture.
4. Pack lightly, even if you're not backpacking.
A lot of hostels will hold your bags for you after you check out, but for a fee. The fee is often per bag per day or hour, so the less you have, the less you pay.
5. Look for the free drink nights.
Example: I was at a bar last night. I paid a 20 yuan cover (which was actually a 40 yuan cover, split between two people because it was buy one, get one free) and drinks were free all night. So, for basically $3.12 USD I had drinks all night, got to dance on stage, and watch crazy people dressed as clowns lead some bizarre group Communism dance. (No, of course I didn't have my camera.) (The bar is The Paramount Club, look it up if you're ever in Shanghai.) My point is, places offer this frequently in China, you just have to look for them.
6. Don't take tours.
No, seriously. Don't. Buy yourself a visual Chinese-English dictionary so you can get around, find a map in English and Chinese, and just go. Buy train tickets to the Great Wall on your own for example (I paid $20 USD that whole day, including transport, entrance, and food). You'll have more fun, have a more authentic experience, you'll meet people, and you won't be ripped off (my parents paid $100 for a less exciting experience).
7. Bargain for everything.
Technically, you're not supposed to in nice stores, but a good phrase to use is to ask if they have any specials that day. Shows your interested, but you're not interested in being ripped off. About 50% of the time, they'll cut about 10 USD off. And in places where you're supposed to bargain, always expect to play about 10% of the original asking price. Yes, 10%. Maybe 15%.
8. Be ready to walk away.
You can't fall in love with anything at these markets. Sometimes, you will get someone intent on ripping you off. That said, often when you walk away they'll lower the price. I've had people go down to below what I was originally asking, just by walking away.
9. Make "to-see" lists.
You're never going to see everything if you don't prioritize. Mark everything you want to see on a map so you don't have to pay for a lot of transportation going across town over and over.
10. Get up early.
The more you see every day, the fewer days you'll need to stay, and the less you'll pay for hotels. It's all about the math. Also, you'll get to see more at all the sites without a million other people driving you crazy.
11. Stay up late.
I do recommend taking advantage of the Chinese custom of midday siestas (they don't call it that). Take a nap after your lunch and then hit the sites some more. Wherever you are, there's a lot to see and the nightlife is great.
12. Go to sites on their free days.
Most sites have at least one day of the week that's free. Find it out, and go that day. It probably won't be any more crowded because people rarely take the time to figure this out, but it adds up.
The most college term ever, I know. But definitely have a few drinks at home. A good local beer at the local corner store will run you probably less than 10 kuai (less than $2USD), which, except for on free nights, is definitely going to be cheaper than any club.
14. Don't fly, take the train.
Especially when you're traveling long distances, this is a double whammy for saving money. Take a sleeper train. It'll be cheaper than flying, by a lot, and you won't be paying for a hotel that night. Also, a good opportunity to meet people.
15. Be practical.
I know your little clutch purse it suuuuper cute, but take the across-the-body bag that is harder to steal. If you run the risk of losing your purse, that's also all your cards, your money, possibly your passport and your identity. In China it's hard to get police reports, and therefore it'll also be hard to get that all replaced. :)
16. Know your bank's ATM rules.
My bank, for instance, charges me $5 USD every time I withdraw money internationally. Not only is that just kind of insulting, but it's a waste! Every time you go to an ATM, just get the largest amount of the local currency you can and worry about hiding it in your bags, throughout your room, and etc, later. This way you can withdraw less often and deal with less fees.
I've never tried CouchSurfing myself, but I've heard great reviews from friends who have. It's definitely worth a try. I would recommend doing it with a friend though, just in case.
18. Don't take taxis.
Even splitting the cabs, they're way more expensive than taking the local buses or subway. In Beijing, the bus is 40 Chinese fen (cents; that's roughly six cents US) and the subway is 2 yuan wherever you go (or 31 cents USD). Shanghai's subway is 2-4 yuan depending on where you end up, and the buses are 1 yuan. It'll take a few minutes to orient yourself at first, but, really, which are you going to take?
19. Learn the best place to convert money.
Fees suck. The cheapest place to convert is definitely not your hotel. It might be the bank, or it might be at the airport. Research rates before you leave your home country. In fact, converting money may even be cheaper in your home country. You just have to know.
20. Eat family style.
This is a Chinese custom, and a wonderful one at that. Ordering just a few dishes for the table and eating whatever you want not only affords you way more variety and let's you be adventurous with your food: Want to try eel but don't want to order it for yourself in case you don't like it? Order for the table - everyone will try it and you'll split the damage if it's bad. And when the cheque comes, you'll look at the empty plates and say, "I participated in this feast for 30 yuan?"
21. Give up your internet addiction.
This one has (obviously) been the hardest for me. But, most hotels will charge you for internet. Internet cafes are cheap, but unnecessary. Regular cafes (think Starbucks) are expensive as hell. And frankly, the internet in China isn't that great. Restrain yourself. If you need, find the cheapest, most sketchy internet cafe near you and stay there as little as possible (you'll need 3 yuan/hour and your passport).
Does anyone else have any good cheap travel tips? :)