Though it's not as strong as it once was against the yuan, the American dollar still has more might in China than it does in many other parts of the world. With that exchange rate and the boom in American-style budget hotels and restaurants, it's now possible to vacation in China (now the fourth most visited country in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization) in a dignified and highly affordable manner.
Here are some tips for making your dollar go further:
1. Travel at the right time
This is especially important if you want a fully guided tour. These can cost as little as $999 in the chillier months of November, December and January. That cost covers round-trip air from the West Coast of the US (a bit more for other gateways), ten nights of accommodations in three or four cities, all in-country transportation, almost all meals, all sightseeing (fully guided) and admissions charges. Note: Fuel surcharges and other taxes will add a bit to the total.
You'll find these bargain-basement, but high-quality tours from such companies as China Focus (www.chinafocustravel.com) and China Spree (www.chinaspree.com). Generally the difference between a low cost tour and a more expensive one is in the number of people you're traveling with; pay less and you'll have about 40 people on the bus with you (pay more and it will be closer to 15). As for the quality of accommodations, they're generally quite high even on the cheapest tours. Guides are pulled from the same government-licensed organization, so you'll see no difference in quality there.
2. If you're traveling independently, look for the "knock-off" chains
Just in the last decade, a number of new hotels have opened across China (but particularly in the big cities). Modeled on American motels, right down to their names (7 Days Inn, Home Inns, Motel 168, etc.), they offer reasonable rates of about $25-$35 a night, and they're all new construction, so you can expect clean facilities and western-style amenities. The only problem I've encountered at these places is terrifically hard beds (for some reason, many Chinese hotels use box springs as the mattress!). If you really want to save big, clean hostels are available for as little as $6-$8 per night for a dorm bed. To find a fully vetted list of hotels in cities across China, go to www.frommers.com, where you'll find the complete text of the Frommer's guidebook to China, absolutely free.
3. Don't assume you'll eat better at the more expensive restaurants
Price is not a real indicator of quality in China. Sometimes the meals you'll get at simple dumpling places and noodle shops will be tastier than the grub in the four star places. And English language menus are becoming more common in restaurants of all levels in the major Chinese cities. To find the places with acceptable standards of hygiene, consult a good guidebook; or try one of the inexpensive Chinese chain restaurants, such as Yonghe Dawang (with a KFC-style sign) or Malan (a chain of noodle shops).
4. Don't budget for tipping
Until recently it was against the law and it is still not expected.
5. Don't book airfare within China through American sources
You'll pay much more that way, and miss the opportunity to travel on the smaller, less expensive upstart airlines of China (which generally do not turn up on American-based search engines). Instead, try Chinese sites like www.ctrip.com (the English language version is at www.english.ctrip.com) or book your airfare through local travel agencies once you're in China.
6. Don't assume you need a guided tour
At many tourist sites it's possible to pick up low-cost audio tours on the spot (at the Forbidden City, they're narrated by the actor Roger Moore, and quite well done). You can also sometimes pick up guides on the spot for half of what you'd pay to take a bus to a sight and be led around once there.
Westerners are consistently overcharged in at souvenir stands and in open markets. It's expected that you will bargain, so don't be shy. Take the price quoted and knock off at least 80% (sometimes more) and start the haggling.