A Day of Travel Costs in Sichuan China
China can be an intimidating country for independent travelers, both because the language and culture feel so much less accessible to outsiders and because the prices are often much higher than areas like South East Asia. The country is a fascinating place to travel, though, and to skip it because prices are a bit high would be a shame. From nearly three months of travel in China’s Sichuan province earlier this year, here are my takes on what it costs.
(Here’s what it costs to travel in nearby Yunnan Province.)
The super-budget backpacker might expect to spend around 100 CNY per day, or around $15 USD. This would mean visiting a handful of popular tourist areas where staying in extremely cheap hostel dorms wasn’t an option, skipping the biggest national parks and tourist sites (including the amazingly beautiful but fairly expensive Jiuzhaigou National Park), and eating street food or the cheapest noodles for every meal.
A mid-range independent traveler, staying in dorms through the bigger cities and private guesthouse rooms in the province’s smaller towns, could easily get by on 270 CNY per day – roughly $40 USD. This might mean hunting around for cheap food one meal a day and sitting through a number of tortuously-long bus rides through the mountains of North and West Sichuan, but visiting all the natural areas and historic sites you can stomach.
On the higher end, looking to save money but either traveling very quickly (especially if flying) or staying in nicer hotels, 400 CNY per day (around $60 USD) isn’t out of the question. Of course, that number can be much higher, but there’s no reason it has to be even if you’re short on time and heavy on cash.
A Day’s Travel Costs in Sichuan China:
Street-Food Breakfast: 3 CNY (.75 USD)
Two City Bus or Metro Tickets: 6 CNY (1.5 USD)
Entrance to one national park or several historic sites: 120 CNY (17.75 USD)
Noodles/Dumpling Lunch: 14 CNY (2 USD)
Short Inter-City Bus Ride: 35 CNY (5 USD)
Dinner at a Budget Restaurant: 35 CNY (5 USD)
Midrange Hostel Dorm Bed: 54 CNY (8 USD)
Total: 270 CNY ($40)
The visa for China isn’t always cheap, and it isn’t included in the costs above. Citizens of some countries can get one for as little as $30 for a single-entry (the Japanese can even get in without a visa for 15 days!). However, for Americans it’ll run a cool $140 USD – though luckily Americans are also eligible for a ten-year multi-entry visa that allows for stays of up to 60 days at a time. As with all things bureaucratic, check with the embassy or consulate near you to confirm details before you start making plans.
ATMs and Cash
ATMs are ubiquitous in China’s cities, in fact more so than money changers, and most of Sichuan is no exception. Like with the rest of the country, if you want to change foreign currencies you’ll need to visit one of the larger banks (who are certified to do so) and you’ll need to take along your passport.
If you’re headed to rural areas, particularly in Southern Sichuan, plan to take along enough CNY to see you through the next few days. If you’re heading into Western Sichuan though, it’s a different story. Only Kangding and Danba have ATMs that reliably accept Western bank cards, so stock up big before visiting this part of the province and don’t count on being able to change foreign currencies at all.
Meals, Accommodation, and Transport
Meals. Food is cheap in China, and in Sichuan it’s particularly delicious. I hope you like spicy, because you’re in for a lot of it during a trip through Sichuan. Street eats (quick and easy noodles, fried bread for breakfast, steamed buns, etc) run just a few yuan for a filling but not terribly nutritious meal. The next step up are small restaurants and short-order cafes, which will generally feature a limited menu of a certain type of dish (noodles, dumplings, etc). In Sichuan, these are particularly good places to try local favorites like dandan noodles (担担面) or water-cooked dishes (水煮) for ten to twenty yuan. Finally, full-service restaurants, with a wider menu (often with photos) and higher price tags. These are worth seeking out sometimes, if only to try more involved dishes like hotpot (火锅), but individual travelers on a budget will find that these drive up costs significantly.
Transport. Getting around within cities is super cheap, no more than a couple of yuan per trip. Intercity transportation can be another matter, though, particularly in mountainous regions where trips will involve long distances over bad roads. The key to saving money is really just to travel slowly, spending at least a few days in each place and sucking it up to take the long painful bus rides in between. Luckily in the non-mountains parts of the province (Central, South, and East Sichuan), train routes connect most destinations in greater comfort and for less money. The other option is to fly, especially in the West, but for exponentially more money. Do you have more time to travel or funds to spend?
Accommodation. In the more popular corners of lowland Sichuan, hostels are easy to find and represent a relatively good value. There are a handful of really cozy options in the region, from Chengdu’s Cloud Atlas and Flipflop Lounge to Daocheng’s Drolma Guesthouse and Jiuzhaigou’s Amdo Inn, which combine cheap accommodations and plenty of chances to meet fellow travelers. Outside of the busiest tourist areas, though, accommodation is more often limited to guesthouses – which can drive up costs for single travelers but still represent a good deal for couples or travel buddies. Best bet is, again, to plan on staying a few nights in a town and bargaining for a discount once you arrive – but be absolutely sure to check out a room first, as many of the smaller guesthouses in rural areas haven’t seen an update (or sometimes a dustpan) since the Great Leap Forward.
Sightseeing in China can get expensive – fast. Many of the large temple complexes and historic sites have an entry fee (up to 50 yuan), so being a big-city tourist can add up to a lot of spending in a short time. Most of the major national parks and natural sites have entry fees as well, even more substantial: Jiuzhaigou is 310 yuan per day in the high season, for instance. It would be a shame to visit the province and not see its highlights, but among these big-ticket items try to mix in some of the other cheaper areas of Sichuan as well. The grasslands of Tagong are free and open, for example, as are the canyons and forests near Langmusi. Or, if you can manage, visit the big sites in the off-season when prices are cut by as much as half.
Making the most of your time in Sichuan, China
Travel in Sichuan is a fantastic experience, offering the chance to explore a diverse variety of landscapes and cultures all within the border of a single province. From the Tibetan West to the rural South, capital city Chengdu to natural beauty Jiuzhaigou, it was hard to fit it all in even with three months just for this region. Travel slow, eat well, and study up on Mandarin to make your travel experience as deep (and as hassle-free!) as possible.
Excitedly planning your travel to Sichuan? Don’t forget to have a look through our archives for tips and tricks from the rest of China as well!