We were expecting China to be a cheap place to visit. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s because every cheaply made product in the USA seems to come from China. And, in reality, things in China are cheap. Hotel stays don’t cost much. Food is just a few dollars per meal. In fact, we still believe that it is possible to travel China cheaply as long as you avoid some of the big mistakes we have made.
As Americans, we have it pretty easy when it comes to visas. It seems that in most countries all we have to do is show up. Such is not the case in China. In order to get our China visas, we went through a visa processing company. These companies simplify the process. All you have to do is fill out an online form and submit a list of documents (passport, hotel and flight reservations, etc.). They will review your application and make sure everything is good to go before submitting it. Of course, they do charge a fee for this service. So, yes, if you really want to save money you could do the whole process yourself. Personally, I don’t regret going through a visa processing service. However, I do wish we had applied while stateside instead of in Hawaii. We had a limited amount of time, and there are no visa processing companies with local offices in Hawaii. So we had to expedite everything via mail. We ended up spending quite a bit on expedite fees and shipping costs.
Our flights to China were some of the first flights that we booked because we had to have proof of them in order to get our visas. Now, there are about a million articles online about how you can find flights for next to nothing. We have not discovered some secret to flying cheaply, and I don’t know that we could have actually saved a lot of money on flights. I do know that if we had the chance to do it all again, we would have spent a little more time researching before buying our tickets. When we purchased our tickets to and from China, we simply went through a price comparison website and selected the cheapest flight that popped up. If we were to buy tickets today we would have researched which discount airlines fly into and out of China, tried tweaking the route a bit, and played with the scheduling. Maybe we would have saved money. Maybe we wouldn’t have. I do know that it would not have cost next to nothing.
When we arrived in China a SIM card sounded like a great idea. “We’ll call home,” we thought, “We’ll translate things and get directions!” As it turns out, we can’t call home because our plan doesn’t include international calling, and, because we have an Android phone, we can’t use our translate and map apps without a VPN. As a result, we have spent most of our time in China with our data connection turned off. We can still use Google Translate because we downloaded the Chinese language package before we came to China. I’d recommend doing that and downloading maps of China that you can use offline. No SIM card necessary.
Not being aware of local festivals is the single biggest mistake we have made in China. As we mentioned previously, we ended up in China on Chinese New Year by accident. Though we knew we would be there over the holiday, we did not take the time to look up information about how and when Chinese New Year is celebrated in China. We assumed it was a one day event, and were prepared to spend some extra money for transportation on or around that date. As it turns out, that is not how Chinese New Year works. It is more like Christmas break: a week or two when everyone goes home to visit family. As it turns out, we planned one of our travel days right at the end of this vacation time. We had been planning to buy train tickets for that day, but they were sold out so we had to book a flight last minute. As a side note, I would recommend buying your train tickets at the station. It’s not a difficult as it seems, and you do save some money by buying at the station. Just check the local holidays ahead of time.
All in all, we could have saved at least a couple hundred dollars if we had done things differently in China. It is frustrating to think about, especially since we are on a pretty tight budget for this trip. We just hope that someone else can learn from our mistakes.