Traveling in China has been one of my greatest joys of living here, if only because there are so many ways to do it. After whittling down the cost for a 3-week trip in the Central Plains to about 2000 RMB, I got to thinking: What are some useful hacks to saving some kuai for the less-seasoned China traveler?

After going to all but 4 provinces, I've definitely picked up some tricks. (Though am sure to pick up more in future trips!) First in this four-part series, I'm going to tackle the biggest expense on the road: Transportation.

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Image courtesy of gisgeography.com

Why the cost is unavoidable:
Obvious. You can't really travel somewhere if you can't get from one place to the next!

What can be done about it:
Transportation tends to eat up the biggest chunk of my budget. The great thing about China, though, is that there's a huge variety of ways to hit the road! I'm going to list them generally from most expensive to cheapest.

Most expensive: flights. Sometimes, they're unavoidable, especially if you're in a time crunch. But, if you're not in a big rush, don't do them. There's a big price gap between plane and train tickets, and the train network in China is extensive.

Next expensive: buses. These can also be unavoidable (such as when you're out where trains don't go, or if you waited until the last minute during a public holiday to get tickets...not like that's ever happened to me...). Despite what you might think, buses are not always cheaper than train tickets. They usually take longer, too.

More budget-friendly: trains!

Image courtesy of travelchinaguide.com

Image courtesy of travelchinaguide.com

Let's first break it down into two main classes: high-speed and slow trains. The high speed trains actually have two types: 高铁 (gao tie) and 动车 (dong che). Is there a difference? By speed, maybe by about 30 minutes arrival time, if that. By price, yes! The dong che is cheaper! They don't run as often though and sell out very quickly, but if you don't mind a slight time difference, they're a great value.

Now for the slow trains. There are four ways to ride slow trains (listed from most expensive to cheapest, and therefore most comfortable to least): 软卧 (ruan wo, "soft sleeper"), 卧铺 (wo pu, "hard sleeper"), 硬座 (ying zuo, "hard seat"), and 无座 (wu zuo, "no seat"). The slight difference between the sleepers is that soft sleepers have fewer beds in a compartment, but honestly in terms of comfort, I haven't noticed a big difference. Hard sleepers have six beds per compartment, and if you bring ear plugs, aren't so bad. The next two options are rough-going, though radically cheaper. All I can say about hard seats is: prepare not to sleep very much, if at all. I once met a traveler who swore by hard seats, saying "this is real China," but you should know that you'll need buns of steel to make it through. (Tip: bring something to use as a pillow!). No seat is the cheapest, but should only be a last resort. You will not sleep.. Unless you leap-frog between open seats or lay out a mat to sleep on the floor, YOU WILL NOT SLEEP. Best deal: hard sleepers.

Cheapest (AKA Adventure Mode): Biking or hitchhiking. I don't have much experience biking (except for a 2-day trip out in Xinjiang), but have done lots of hitchhiking in China (both solo and with a partner). As a female traveler, I will say that you have to use good judgment, but many of my best travel experiences were when out hitchhiking. Make a sign saying where you're going, get a good map, and watch out for random taxis as you hitch a ride. A note about China: the thumb is not always recognized as a hitchhiking symbol, so just flag down cars like you would a taxi. Also, be prepared to be chatty, because your drivers will likely want to get to know you!

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Hannah, hitchhiking somewhere in Inner Mongolia...

These are some options for whittling back a travel budget in China when it comes to transportation. But what about lodging? Stay tuned for the next installment!

Categories: Travel

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