China Budget Travel: 5 Essential Money-Saving Tips

February 25 | 25 Comments

For most people who travel to Xinjiang or pretty much anywhere around China, there are two concerns that directly affect how they plan their entire journey: time and money. Thankfully, China budget travel is possible and these are a few creative ways to do it.

Budget Travel tips for Xinjiang, China

While the pictures and stories I’m going to share here come from my experience specifically in China’s far western Xinjiang region, the tips I’m sharing here can generally apply to all China travel.

Flight tickets will always be a major expense (although there are ways to save money on China flights) and high entrance fees to major tourist attractions can’t really be avoided.

But there are certain ways in which budget travelers can enjoy China without having to spend a whole lot of money.

Here are a few “tricks of the trade” that I’m happy to share with you based on my decade of traveling around China.

Travel Tip #1: Travel China at Night

There is nothing I hate worse than wasting daylight hours sitting in a bus or train – yet I have done it more often than I care to admit!

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been torn between the higher cost of airfare vs. the time lost in transit.

The reason this is so important in places like Xinjiang is because this region is so much larger than you realize! Larger than Texas and California combined. A trip between two cities that look close on the map could take you 8 hours easily.

How will this save you money traveling by night? Simple. You save the cost of a hotel.

Travel Tip #2: Travel by China Train

Airplanes and private taxis are a luxury and not an option for real budget travelers. The only other options are buses and trains.

Buses aren’t a bad choice – especially outside the major Chinese cities – but if you can, I recommend the train (both the regular and new high-speed trains).

Why the train?

A train traveling along the Xinjiang desert

First of all, it’s much more reliable. I can’t tell you how many buses I’ve traveled on that have been stuck in traffic, broken down or been indefinitely stopped by police at a checkpoint.

This doesn’t happen on a train.

Second, if you’re taking my advice on point #1, it’s much more comfortable sleeping on a train than on a bus – even if it’s a sleeper bus. This is particularly true for those of us who are tall.

For help on train travel in Xinjiang, see Traveling by Train from Urumqi Station

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Travel Tip #3: Team Up with Other Travelers

One of the easiest and most fun ways to save money while traveling in Xinjiang – and pretty much any part of China – is to find a group of people who are interested to do/see the same things you are and then go together.

You’ll see the largest savings by sharing services and splitting the cost.

Take, for instance, a trip along the Karakoram highway. The best mode of transportation is – in my opinion – a rented taxi which costs about 500-800 RMB regardless the number of passengers.

Fill the car with three other people and you just cut your costs by 75%!

A group of travelers save money on Xinjiang budget travel

Perhaps your group doesn’t need to be THIS big!

Travel Tip #4: Local Flavor

It seems like a no-brainer to remind people that “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t do this.

They’ll buy some kebabs or Uyghur bread, but when it comes meal time you’ll find them at a restaurant with a picture menu (usually more expensive) or worse…at KFC (gasp!).

I find that the #1 reason people don’t eat locally is that they don’t know what to order. I completely understand. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of great Xinjiang foods – try every one on the list.

FINALLY (and most importantly), I strongly suggest you try what I like to call “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants. They’re usually on a side street and don’t have a big sign.

The reason I say this is because most people interpret “local” to be “street food”, and while I do love food bought from a street vendor, I also know that 75% of the time I will walk away…actually, race away…to the nearest bathroom 5 minutes later.

Get some kebabs and bread from a street vendor, but get a reasonably-priced meal in a restaurant.

Travel Tip #5: Atypical Accommodation

If you’re traveling outside the major cities of China, it’s a given that you like adventures. You think 5-star hotels are for sissies and air conditioning is for the physically weak.

That’s perfect.

The best thing you can do while traveling in Xinjiang is to take advantage of cheaper lodging that some might consider “roughing it”. What am I talking about?

  • Yurts: Whether you’re at Salimu Lake, Karakul Lake or a host of other beautiful Xinjiang lakes near the Kazakhstan or Tajikistan border, you have to try a yurt. They usually only cost about 50RMB per person and typically come with a meal or two. Read more about staying in a yurt here.
  • Uyghur Homestay: Why stay in a hotel when you can enjoy a night in the hospitable home of a local Uyghur? These are often cheaper than a hotel and set up through a good travel agency. *Read more about How to do a Uyghur homestay* (note: these are harder to do nowadays due to political sensitivities).
  • Tent Camping: You can purchase camping equipment in Urumqi or you can just bring your own. Either way you’re in for a treat when you hike away from everything else and enjoy the natural beauty that Xinjiang has to offer.

Final Thoughts: China Budget Travel

Whether it’s when you travel (at night/day), how you travel (bus vs train) or where you stay at night (hotel/hostel/other)…

…it’s quite possible to save a lot of money doing China budget travel in places like Xinjiang.

Even little bits of money add up over time and give you the freedom to use your money in other ways, such as buying a good souvenir or treating yourself to a great meal.

Are there any other travel tips you would add to this list?

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. If you’re taking the bus to a lesser city (most of Xinjiang’s city’s besides Urumqi, Kashgar, Hotan, Korla) just stay at the bus station-run hostel in town, which is usually above or behind or next to the bus station. I’ve found them to be clean and very cheap, and usually able to accommodate foreigners.


    Josh on March 14th, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks, Michael! Never even thought about that.


  2. I don’t know about the tent camping ( I guess I am just personally not that hard core), but the rest are some pretty good suggestions. I am forever sing the praises and curses of the sleeper bus, a good way to travel to your destination as you try to sleep.


    Josh on March 14th, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Really?! Tent camping is SO much fun. You get away from all the tourist and really experience some great Xinjiang scenery. You definitely seem to be an adventurous woman, so I’m surprised this isn’t up your alley :)

    As for the buses…I’m with you on the “praises and curses”, but more so on the curses. First of all, I’m too tall so I have to scrunch up. Second, they don’t have toilets so you’re at the mercy of each rest stop. Finally, I had to many experiences of people smoking on buses. Yuck.


  3. I enjoyed reading your article and thanks for the tips – sounds interesting, riding a train rather than a plane and doing it at night, that really cost less because you don’t need to spend for a hotel…


  4. great info, it is especially great to travel in Xinjiang since the distance bwt the cities are long. Now also most of the cities are connect with trains which makes it affordable to many locals to travel as well as backpacker budget travellers. Great post.


  5. Hey Josh,

    long time I didn’t visited your blog… my VPN lately is a disaster

    I’m also a big fan of using train all around China!

    I already did the Beijing-Lhasa and now I’m looking forward for a Kashgar-Shanghai (with lots of stops through Xinjiang and Gansu)

    I thought about doing it this summer but after checking average temperature maybe it’s better if I wait October haha

    Is Xinjiang too busy during October holidays or still feasible?



    Josh on May 7th, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Thanks for stopping by the site, Furio! October is definitely a great time to travel around the province, but I would do one of two things: either 1) travel in late September before the October holiday or 2) travel immediately after the October holiday.


  6. I second and third the recommendation to eat local food. In my opinion, the Xinjiang region has far and away the best food in China. I couldn’t stop eating while I was there; I had at least 10 smaller meals a day. And most of it wasn’t bread. I especially loved all the fresh fruit, the flat noodles (no idea what they’re called) and of course the grilled lamb kebabs.


  7. Do you typically rent the whole yurt when you stay there? or do you share it with others?


    Josh Summers on April 18th, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Hey Emma! You can do it either way. Most of the time my wife and I just pay for ourselves and we’ve rarely had to share it. If privacy is a priority, though, you’ll want to hire the whole yurt.


  8. Hi Josh. Great article and website in general :) I am thinking of travelling from gansu to xinjiang this summer. Is it going to be too hot for travelling? Also, is it a good idea to travel through these regions during ramadan? thanks


    Josh Summers on December 2nd, 2016 at 8:52 am

    It will be hot, but likely not “too hot”! Also, traveling during Ramadan can present challenges, but it’s certainly not impossible.

    You can learn more by checking out the FarWestChina Xinjiang Travel Guide, a 400+ page guide that answers all of these questions in more. :)


  9. Hi Josh, love this website. I’ve been wanting to travel to Xinjiang for the longest, but I never seemed to get information about how to plan a more independent experience, so thank you for this! About the yurt stays: is this something you have to reserve in advance or do you just stumble upon a yurt and it is customary to arrange a stay? Just wouldn’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.


    Josh Summers on February 13th, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Hi Janae! Thanks for the kind words. In my experience, I’ve never had to arrange a yurt ahead of time. It might give you peace of mind, but most of the time the Chinese tourists don’t like staying the night in a yurt and there aren’t enough foreign tourists to fill all the yurts ;)


  10. Hi Josh, enjoyed your article. Are you still in Xinjiang? Any updated advice considering the current state of affairs? Thanks so much!^^


    Josh Summers on May 31st, 2017 at 4:38 am

    Hey Lisa, thanks! Yes, I am still here. The security situation is definitely tight, but not impossible. I wouldn’t let it deter you from coming!