Eating on a Budget in China – A Student Traveller’s Formula

Thailand Food Isaan Food Papaya Salad Dining Table

As many are turning towards China as the next world power with its thriving economy, more and more international companies are requiring that their employees have proficiency in speaking Mandarin. There has been an increase in the number of students traveling to China to learn the language and they can find many places for learning the language on a budget.

A student can go cheap on a trip to China or go deluxe, simply by going either with the big city experience or preferring instead to sample the life of a local. China is still considered as one of the world’s budget destinations. If students are up for taking risks and hobnobbing with the locals, avoiding the tourist hubs should be the strategy.

A student can live in China on just USD50 a day, which includes transportation, accommodation, food and maybe even a free scenic excursion.

maldives local food stall

Expect to pay higher prices in the larger cities like Hong Kong and Beijing. Budget hotels can start from USD10 a night. For those thrifty and intrepid students look to pay less that USD3 per night at one of the many campgrounds around the country.

Another option of spending a night on a sleeper train can help lower overall costs. A hard sleeper class, which is less private than a soft sleeper, consists of an open compartment and costs less.

Other local transportation in cities can run less than a dollar.

Check accommodation prices on Agoda, and Hostel World.

China has captured the imagination of the world travellers since Marco Polo went to China from 1271 until 1292. Marco Polo has been credited for taking Chinese inventions to Europe, a wide-reaching debate that raged among his contemporaries.  There is the claim that Italian pasta originated from the Chinese noodle, an assertion that is vehemently denied by Italians.

Noodles have long been a quick inexpensive staple in this country’s history; in 2005, a coil of dried 4,000 year old noodles was found under an earthenware bowl at an archaeological site. In western China, south-western China and the interior, food is much cheaper than in the big cities, roughly half as less at USD10.  The coastal and big cities are somewhat more expensive.

However, the trick is not to look for Western fare but authentic Chinese fare like noodles or pork buns and Kung pao chicken. Interestingly, eating from street vendors and restaurants is actually significantly more economical than buying the groceries and cooking the meals as students might be tempted to do. And don’t expect an English language menu.

pork buns dumpling chinese
Chinese pork buns
SOURCE: Flickr

On an Asian trip, it is imperative to sample the authentic China noodle dishes.  This comfort food is displayed in many healthy permutations and there are also a number of vegan dishes to tantalize the palate. Just as much attention is paid to the appearance of the meal as well as the taste.

There are many types of Chinese noodles; there are egg noodles or chow mian; there is lo mian which is derived from the Cantonese term for stirred or tossed and there are also other Asian rice noodles like kway teow and the stubby pointed worm-shaped lai fan, generally sold fresh.


SOURCE: Wikimedia

Most dishes are served on plates that you can share with others, making it even more cost-effective, and local eateries are everywhere, cooking up classics like beef noodles and pork dumplings, from local restaurants to hole-in-the-wall noodle houses.

Noodle soup is a great budget meal for a lunch or dinner.  Mixed with shredded beef or pork, it can be spiced up with chili and sesame oil, making it a budget meal of gastronomical proportions for the thrifty wanderer.

Vietnamese Pho Beef Noodle Soup
SOURCE: Wikimedia

However in the money saving quest, be wary, particularly, of the fast food, take-way versions of Chinese food.  These are often overloaded with MSG, salt and other artificial ingredients.  Even though the cost can run to about USD1.50, with no expectation of a tip as in Western societies, these are not generally recommended.  And another caveat – don’t ever drink the tap water.

Remember, the formula to save in China and still eat well on a budget is to go local.  Take the authentic stir-fried noodles in soy sauce with sautéed veggies. With food that can run USD2-5 per meal, whatever taste you desire is up to you.

This particular dish can be done with egg noodles or rice noodles, which have different consistencies according to your preference.  Try out any of the four flavours of Chinese cooking: Beijing, Cantonese, the spicy Szechuan and sweet syrups of Shanghai. There is something for everyone: healthy, fatty, spicy, salty or sweet. And most of all, they are inexpensive!

Indeed, a meal of soup dumplings, dinner with rice, meat, soup dumplings and Chinese toffee apples for desert can cost USD3 or less in total.  Any student travelling in China can get actually gain weight on a budget, unlike most other places in the world.

Which is your favourite cuisine?

Get your FREE travel expense sheet and track your expenses!

Region(s) you’re most interested about?


script type=‘text/javascript’ src=’//’>

2 Replies to “Eating on a Budget in China – A Student Traveller’s Formula”

  1. alberttrotter says: Reply

    i really liked the noodle soup among all. during my visit i will definitely try this

    1. Noodle soup? There are many different broths to go along with it. So keep an open mind! 🙂

Talk to me!