Shanghai has much to offer, but unfortunately, it doesn’t come without a price. Just like every other bustling world city, Shanghai is expensive. Very, very expensive. You’ll pay twice as much, or even more if you’re not careful. Do you wonder how to visit Shanghai on a budget? We’ve been in the city for five days, with a family of four.
As we are on a long term trip, we need to be conscious of our expenses. Especially when travelling with children, visiting Shanghai on a budget can be challenging. The cheapest options for accommodations are often double rooms or a bed in a dorm. Family rooms or apartments tend to cost more and are harder to find, meals for four deliver big bills and all those shopping malls are very appealing for those little eyes.
So how to visit Shanghai solo, as a couple or as a family without breaking the bank? These tips and tricks will help you to have an affordable trip without losing the joy of exploring this beautiful city.
1. Find affordable accommodation
Accommodations are typically a big expense when travelling. So succeeding in bringing down the cost on a room or apartment will make a huge difference in your total budget. Don’t fall for the breakfast trap. A lot of hotels rent out a more expensive room including breakfast. There are however a lot of very cheap options to get breakfast or you could just bake an egg yourself.
We ourselves don’t mind it to be basic but want it to be clean and just a little bit comfortable. The very low-end accommodations can be a bit nasty, so we normally don’t choose the cheapest option. Especially with kids you just don’t want fungus everywhere and some rats running by. We always look at the reviews and only book accommodations with quite a lot of good ratings.
As a solo traveller or couple
Shanghai has a very efficient subway network. So even when you are located a bit outside the centre, which is often the trade-off when you are booking a cheaper room, there is no need to worry. You’ll be able to reach the touristic highlights in no time. As a solo traveller of a couple, there are some very good hostels where you can book a bed in a dorm or a simple private room. The ones we heard good things about are:
– Panda International Hostel: one of the cheapest options when you want to book a dorm. You’ll find a bed for as little as €7,5/$9. The place is actually an apartment, divided into different dorms. Clean but very basic, a bit outside the touristic centre of Shanghai but close to the subway.
– The Phoenix Hostel Shanghai: a more cosy and central located hostel. A dorm bed is only €11/$13, the place has a very nice rooftop terrace and the rooms are clean. Together with helpful staff, this is definitely a place to consider. Double rooms are a bit more expensive.
– Le Tour Traveler’s Rest Youth Hotel: another nice hostel in the centre of the city, although a bit further out than The Phoenix Hostel. It has nice shared rooms, a terrace, a ping-pong and some other good facilities such as a shared kitchen. Always a good thing when living on a budget, because you can cook your own meal. A dorm bed is only €11/$13, a double room €35/$40.
– Blue Mountain Youth Hostel: a good option for a private double room. The one with shared bathroom goes for €25/$30 and with private bathroom for €35/$40. It has a good location with a subway station just outside, has some cosy shared areas and very friendly staff.
As a family
Being a family, we had to look for a place that can accommodate at least 4 people. Airbnb was for us the easiest and cheapest way to go (click the link to get €30/$35 on your next booking when you are new to Airbnb or just use a new email address). Although we have to say it is often with a sleeping couch, instead of two double beds.
Some guesthouses, however, offer good family rooms as well. But they sometimes tend to be more expensive for just a room, while on Airbnb you get a complete apartment. You just need to decide whether you prefer a comfortable apartment or a room in a cosy and friendly hostel.
We stayed in Aileens apartment, which was nice but didn’t end up in the list after all. The place wasn’t entirely clear in the bathroom and kitchen. Nothing major, but still it should be cleaner. We paid €43/$50 which was okay, but we could have found better places for less. It was however a nice apartment and our kids really enjoyed the upstairs area for playing.
Our top budget choices in Shanghai for a family:
– Shanghai Slow Time Boutique Inn: located in Pudong, it is a bit far from the city centre. But if you love some tranquillity and peace in the middle of this big city, this is your place to go. And again, the subway is never far away. You’ll pay around €40/$46 for a nice family room.
– Family home in the Old French Concession: another good choice in this nice neighbourhood. This apartment has 2 double beds. It’s listed for 6 people, but more convenient for a family of 4.
– Lei’s apartment: situated in Xintiandi, again the French Concession. Actually the neighbourhood we stayed in. A very safe and nice environment, the only downside is the more expensive restaurants nearby. It is a rather high-end district. The apartment, however, is very welcoming and comfortable.
Did you stay in a nice budget hostel or Apartment solo, as a couple or as a family? Please let us know in comments so we can add it to our list!
2. Get to eat at cheap places
When you just walk into a nice looking restaurant without giving the menu a glimpse, you will be flabbergasted. You’ll make that mistake once, but not twice. The hip and trendy places, the ones located in the middle of a touristic spot and especially the western-oriented restaurants are highly overpriced. You will spend your entire daily budget on just one meal. And you will definitely not find the most quality dishes only in those restaurants. If you want to go for the experience, however, some of those expensive places offer great food or are situated at exclusive locations. If you perceive it to be money well spent, that is, of course, the way to go. But that is not what this article is about. So let’s talk about those options that will keep your budget healthy.
The way to go is definitely to eat local. You’ll pay nearly anything and the food is absolutely delicious. You’ll get to learn more about the local cuisine and just taste all the herbs and spices they use. Shanghai has a cuisine that is one of the most diverse in the world. If you want some mouthwatering dishes, just go outside to one of the foodcourts, grab some street food or go to a very local restaurant.
Don’t be afraid to get sick. Just pick those places where the food is freshly baked, and not in the sun for hours. We ate it all the time and it only gave us lots of tasty pleasure.
Shop at a supermarket or local market
When you are looking for accommodation, try to book something with a kitchen. It could be a private one in an apartment or a shared one in a hostel. It will save you a great deal of money if you can cook your own meal now and then. We sometimes bought instant noodles to get a quick meal in the evening or got some bread and an egg for our breakfast. Be aware that some supermarkets are quite expensive, however. The first day we shopped in a very local market, bought some eggs, meat, vegetables and rice and only paid 72 yuan, which is around €9/$10,5. We ate 3 or for meals for this price.
Go to the shopping malls
Our kids like Chinese food, but now and then they are just tired of rice and noodles. In regular restaurants, western food, unfortunately, is quite pricy. We discovered, however, in the shopping malls, there are often more affordable places to eat some French fries or Italian pasta. It is not the highest quality food and for sure not as tasty as street food, but our kids were happy and our daily budget wasn’t gone.
3. Get around at very low costs
Unfortunately, Grab or Uber aren’t available in Shanghai. If you speak and write Chinese, there are some cheap options to grab a taxi, but otherwise, it is just a regular taxi or the subway.
We have to admit, the subway in Shanghai is one of the most efficient and well organised underground systems we have ever seen. It is very crowded, so keep your children close to you. But if you go with the flow, everything runs extremely fluently and you’ll get everywhere on time at a very low cost.
There are different lines, divided into different zones. The rates depend on how far you go. You can go all the way to the airport if you want. Using this site, you can easily calculate your route and fares. A single ticket in the city centre is only 3 Yuan, which is less than €/$0,5. Going from the city centre to the airport or the other way around will cost you less than €/$1.
4. Free experiences
Being in a big city, you could spend hundreds of euros or dollars on visiting all kinds of top attractions. From big buildings to museums, from beautiful houses to big theme parks. If you are travelling on a budget, however, you often have to cut down on those expenses. Especially when travelling with four, the total fees build up quickly. However, you don’t want to lose all the fun on the other hand. Luckily, Shanghai has a lot of free experiences or attractions at a very low cost.
Walking down The Bund
It is a delight, the beautiful buildings on one side and the river on the other side. And then we haven’t mentioned the skyline of Pudong yet. Especially in the evening, when all the lights turn on, it’s a real treat.
Watching the skyline of Pudong by daylight or at night
Why pay lots of money for a theme park when there is a free show every evening? Our kids absolutely loved the lights of the Shanghai Skyline. The gigantic billboards and lights on the big skyscrapers change in all the colours of the rainbow. You won’t be the only one watching it, but it’s more than worth it.
Wandering through the streets of Tianzifang
We just loved these streets. They are crowded and touristic but have such a nice vibe around them. Embrace the atmosphere and just wander around for some time. Although it is a free experience, you will have to be strong to buy nothing as there are many shops and art galleries. We didn’t succeed and got ourselves some souvenirs.
Strolling through one of the parks of Shanghai
Get there real vibe of Shanghai in one of the old parks, such as People’s Park. Stroll around and watch the elderly play some cards, rest on one of the benches or perform Tai Chi in the morning hours.
Visit Yuyuan Garden (at a low cost)
Although this experience is not completely free, it is worth mentioning. We paid €7,5/$9 for the four of us and we just loved the place. Walking up the gardens is an experience in its own with all the beautiful old houses lined up filled with shops and restaurants. And the gardens themselves are a nice example of the Ming Dynasty and peaceful heaven in the middle of the city. Although a bit crowded we have to admit, but you are still in Shanghai.
Experience some Chinese culture in one of the food courts
This is a free experience if you only enter the food court to walk around and get lost in a real piece of Chinese food culture. However, we are sure that you will be sitting down soon enjoying your own food court meal after watching all those delicious dishes and tasteful juices.
Joining a free walking tour
Free Tour Asia is an organisation of young enthusiasts who offer free walking tours in the city. You either go for the Shanghai highlights, the French Concession or the bar tour. They get really good reviews. We, unfortunately, discovered this only after we left Shanghai, so if you walked along with them, let us know your experiences.
5. What we actually spent
We spent 5 days in Shanghai, with a family of four. We made some ‘mistakes’ in the beginning but for 90% of our trip, I can say we succeeded to visit Shanghai on a budget with kids. Now, what did we actually paid being there?
In total, we spent 516,12 EUR for our trip. That is without our flight tickets to and from Shanghai. All the other expenses are included. This could, however, be even lower, as there were some costs we could have avoided and some other we choose to do but can be missed if you have an even tighter budget. One of our biggest costs was visiting the highest platform in the Shanghai Tower (68 EUR). If we would exclude this, our total amount would be 448,12 EUR.
We spent 187,04 EUR on food, which is 37,40 EUR per day for four persons. That is quite reasonable. We went to the supermarket a lot, but also had a meal at the hipper ‘The Green and Safe Barn’ and 2 other restaurants. In other words, if you are really tight on budget, you could cut down even more on food. But we like to go to a nicer or more western place now and then. Especially the kids appreciate if they get to eat something they know for a change.
We paid 171,95 EUR on our apartment via Airbnb for 4 nights. That is about 43 EUR per night for 4 persons. We were situated in Xintiandi, which is in the centre of Shanghai and in easy reach of all the highlights. The place was nice and we had a little kitchen as well (which is an important advantage if you want to save on your money and cook yourself). Two of us had to sleep on a sleeping couch, however, which was quite comfortable.
Activities and entrance fees
There are a lot of free sights in Shanghai. However, being there probably only once, we really wanted to visit some highlights. Our kids were over-excited about the second highest tower in the world, so we decided to go up. Even though the entrance fees for two adults and two children were quite expensive, being around 68 EUR. The only other entrance we paid, was getting into the Yuyuan Gardens, but that was only 7,5 EUR. If you would, of course, include al lot of other buildings, museums or even theme parks such as Disneyland for the kids, these expenses would go way up!
When we enter a new country, we buy a local SIM card for calling, sending messages and of course having access to the internet if there is no WIFI available. We bought our SIM card at the airport and paid 37 EUR for it, which is quite expensive. We had however 20 GB worth of data. There are much cheaper options once you get to the airport, as we later on discovered. Especially if you are staying in China only for a couple of days, as 20 GB is way too much then.
34,90 EUR was spent on transport. This is mainly the cost of the subway. When we arrived after a long flight at six o’clock in the morning with two kids, we didn’t know yet what the cheapest way to town was. So we took a taxi which cost us around 20 EUR. Leaving Shanghai and knowing our way around, we chose the subway and only paid 3,5 EUR. In other words, our total transport costs could have been way less, around 20 EUR.
Souvenirs and miscellaneous
Being on a long term trip, we can not buy too many souvenirs (although our girls share a different opinion on the matter). As Shanghai was the first stop of our trip, we just bought some little souvenirs, worth of 7,5 EUR. The other costs were 1,5 EUR spent on copies for our registration in China with the local police office.