Money & costs
The days are long gone when China was fantastically cheap. However, China can either be far cheaper or far more expensive than the West, depending not only on where you go, but how you spend your money: simply knowing where and how to travel according to your budget allows you to live well within your means.
The most expensive destinations are Běijīng, Shànghǎi, Hong Kong, Macau Guǎngzhōu, the eastern coastal provinces and Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Běijīng and Shànghǎi especially can be intolerably dear. Hong Kong has become an extremely pricey destination, but if you stay in dormitories and eat budget meals, you can survive – just – on around HK$300 per day. For anything approaching comfort double that figure. Macau is generally cheaper than Hong Kong, though prices do rise on weekends and, in the case of hotels, the rise can be sharp.
Look around, get savvy and acquire a sense of where locals shop. Quickly try to get a sense of proportion; be sensible and cautious about where you shop, and what you buy. Learn to haggle and avoid scams. Even Běijīng and Shànghǎi can be cheap if you’re shrewd and careful.
Staying in dormitories, travelling by bus or bicycle rather than taxi, eating from street stalls or small restaurants, refraining from buying anything and resisting the urge to splurge means it is possible to live on less than Y140 per day. Accommodation will take the largest chunk, but in cities where dormitory accommodation is either unavailable or booked out, you may have to settle for accommodation with rates from Y140 for a double or a single.
Western China, southwestern China and the interior remain relatively inexpensive. Popular backpacker getaways, such as Yúnnán, Sìchuān, Guǎngxī, Guìzhōu, Húnán, Gānsù, Xīnjiāng, Qīnghǎi and Tibet, abound in budget accommodation and cheap eats. Youth hostels are becoming increasingly widespread and family guesthouses and homestays (农家; nóngjiā) are always good value.
Food costs remain reasonable throughout China. In the cheaper western provinces you can eat for under Y25 per day; in the more expensive regions, figure on at least Y40 to Y70 per day. Transport costs can be kept low by travelling ‘hard seat’ on the train or by bus, but bus ticket prices have begun to rapidly increase in line with oil price hikes. Travel by hard sleeper is very good value and doubles as a good-value hotel. Flying in China is, of course, more expensive, but discounting is the norm and those with less time will find it indispensable for covering vast distances.
Midrange hotel doubles start at around Y240 and you can eat in midrange restaurants from around Y35. Midrange comfort - decent accommodation and food, local transport and admission to important sights – can be bought in China for around Y500 a day, making it neither a very cheap nor an exorbitant way to see the land.
Top-end travel in China? Five-star double-room rack rates can reach Y2000 a night in the big cities and you can expect to pay upwards of Y800 for a meal at one of Běijīng or Shànghǎi’s best restaurants.
In China (including Hong Kong and Macau) almost no-one asks for tips. Tipping used to be refused in restaurants, but nowadays many midrange and top-end eateries include their own (often massive) service charge; cheap restaurants do not expect a tip. Taxi drivers throughout China do not ask for or expect tips.
Under Mao, China’s economy was a prisoner to ideology and incompetence. Deng Xiaoping’s tenure (essentially 1977–97) was a period of reform, continued in perhaps less dramatic fashion by Jiang Zemin (1989–2002) and currently Hu Jintao. Deng chose a pragmatic approach to achieving the so-called ‘Four Modernisations’: namely, modernisation of China’s industry, agriculture, defence, and science and technology.
Today China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Previously a state-controlled economy, the Chinese government introduced market-oriented economic reforms in the early 1980s. Now only a third of its economy is directly controlled by the state. China is strong in manufacturing and agriculture, but its service sector is slowly catching up, accounting for 32.5% of the economy. China’s cheap labour costs have turned the country into ‘the world’s factory’, manufacturing most of the world’s clothing, electronics and household items. In 2005 China’s global trade surplus was at US$102 billion. China is also one of the largest importers in the world, buying cars, high-tech products, raw minerals, machineries and equipment, chemicals and petroleum. However, China’s shrinking agricultural sector still employs over 40% of its workforce and keeps China as the largest agricultural country in the world.
China’s GDP per capita is US$6800, making China the second largest economy after the US. China’s recent gain in trades has upset many trade protectionists, particularly in the US and Europe, who have been pressing China to revalue the yuán to soften China’s competitive pricing edge on its exports. In 2005 they achieved a moderate success when China unpegged the yuán to the dollar, driving it up around 2% against the greenback.
A slightly more expensive yuán doesn’t mean bad news for visitors. China’s continuing economic reforms are bringing in more competition in virtually every sector, resulting in lowered prices and better services. The increase of living standards in China also means better infrastructure, improved transportation systems, better healthcare and environmental protection, all of which are good news if you’re travelling in China.
ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) advertising international bank settlement systems such as GlobalAccess, Cirrus, Maestro Plus and others are common in Hong Kong and Macau. On the mainland, ATMs that take international cards include branches of the Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, where you can use Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, Maestro, Plus and American Express (AmEx) to withdraw cash. The network largely applies to sizable towns and cities. Large airports such as Beijing Capital Airport, five-star hotels and some department stores have ATMs. Most other ATMs in China can only be used for withdrawing Renminbi in domestic accounts. The exchange rate on ATM withdrawals is similar to credit cards but there is a maximum daily withdrawal amount. If you plan on staying in China for a long period, it is advisable to open an account at a bank like the Bank of China with a nationwide network of ATMs.
For your nearest ATM, consult the ATM locator on www.international.visa.com/ps or on www.mastercard.com/cardholderservices/atm; both have comprehensive listings. For those without an ATM card or credit card, a PIN-activated Visa TravelMoney card (US 1-877-394 2247) will give you access to predeposited cash through the ATM network.
Credit is not big in China. The Chinese don’t like to be in debt, however short-term that debt may be. Increasing numbers of young people are using credit cards, but numbers remain low compared to the West. Foreign plastic is therefore of limited use, but cards that can be used include Visa, MasterCard, AmEx and JCB. Don’t expect to be able to use them everywhere, and always carry enough cash. You should be able to use credit cards at upmarket hotels and restaurants, supermarkets and department stores. Where they are accepted, credit cards often deliver a slightly better exchange rate than in banks. Money can also be withdrawn at certain ATMs in large cities on credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard and Amex. Credit cards can still not be used to buy train tickets, but Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) offices readily accept international Visa cards for buying air tickets. Certain cards offer insurance and other benefits.
Credit card cash advances have become fairly routine at head branches of the Bank of China, even in places as remote as Lhasa. Bear in mind, however, that a 4% commission is generally deducted. The Bank of China does not charge commission on AmEx cash withdrawals.
Renminbi is not readily convertible in many countries outside China, so you will probably have to wait till you reach China to exchange money. Those travelling to Hong Kong and most Southeast Asian countries can get Renminbi there. Foreign currency and travellers cheques can be changed at border crossings, international airports, branches of the Bank of China, tourist hotels and some large department stores; hours of operation for foreign-exchange counters are 8am to 7pm (later at hotels). Top-end hotels will generally change money for hotel guests only. The official rate is given almost everywhere and the exchange charge is standardised, so there is little need to shop around for the best deal. See the exchange rate table on the inside front cover and consult a newspaper for the current rate of exchange.
Australian, Canadian, US, UK, Hong Kong and Japanese currencies and the euro can be changed in China. In some backwaters, it may be hard to change lesser-known currencies – US dollars are still the easiest to change.
Keep at least a few of your exchange receipts. You will need them if you want to exchange any remaining RMB you have at the end of your trip.
These are worth taking with you if you are principally travelling in large cities and tourist areas. Not only will they protect your money against theft or loss, but the exchange rate for travellers cheques is higher than for cash (around 2% higher). You can make a large saving, especially if you have paid no commission for your travellers cheques in the first place. They cannot be used everywhere, however. You should have no problem cashing them at tourist hotels in China, but they are of little use in budget hotels and restaurants. As with credit cards, ensure that you always carry enough ready cash on you. If cashing them at banks, aim for the larger banks such as the Bank of China or the CITIC Industrial Bank. Bear in mind that most hotels will only cash the cheques of guests. It’s a good idea to change your money at the airport when you arrive as the rate there is roughly the same as everywhere else. Keep your exchange receipts so you can change your money back to its original currency when you leave. Cheques from most of the world’s leading banks and issuing agencies are now acceptable in China – stick to the major companies such as Thomas Cook, AmEx and Visa. In big cities they are accepted in almost any currency, but in smaller destinations it’s best to stick to big currencies such as US dollars or UK pounds. Some banks won’t change travellers cheques at the weekend.