Travel Money Diary: Lainy and Sean in China

Trip Details: 

Dates: Nov. 18 to Nov. 27

Per Person Spending
Vacation Savings: ~$2,500 
Projected Spending: ~$1,800
Total Spent: ~$1,700
Takeaway: ~$700 under max budget, $100 less than predicted

Pre-trip Planning: 

My fiancé Sean and I both subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that sends email alerts about flight deals. We didn’t end up using a flight deal from the service, but the emails helped to spark ideas for traveling and give a baseline on the average flight cost to certain areas. Because I work for a public school, I can only take long vacations over holidays. When we found an affordable flight to Beijing ($100 under the average cost) scheduled over Thanksgiving, we had to jump on it. We added Hong Kong to the itinerary for a few hundred more dollars. We spent $762.65 per person for the flights through JetBlue and its affiliates, Hainan and Hong Kong Airlines, which included two free checked bags and several meals. On the flight back, we ended up having to pay $15 each to sit together since our flight was changed and we didn’t know that we needed to re-assign our seats. 

To visit China for more than three days as a U.S. citizen, you need a special visa, which you obtain by visiting the Chinese consulate in New York. Sean’s brother Dan lives in New York and went to pick these visas up for us, which cost $200 per person. The visas allow for multiple entries and last for 10 years; we are already planning a trip back!

NOTE: All prices are per person unless otherwise specified. We shared our meals, but I attempted to display the costs of each item as though a single traveler may purchase them. 



We left for the airport around 7 a.m. on Saturday and arrived in Beijing at 7 p.m. on Sunday, about 23 hours in travel time. Travel days are hard, especially going to the other side of the world. We budgeted a lot of money for travel days in order to make them as comfortable as possible. An Uber to the airport ($30.79 total), breakfast ($6.90), lunch ($26.71) and snacks ($1.50), cost $50.49 each. The burgers, mac and cheese, and beer were so delicious we ended up getting the same exact meal on our way home.  


Sunday night:
After taking out the local currency (RMB) from an ATM using Sean’s Charles Schwab debit card, which waives all international and ATM fees, we headed for the airport express, which is the subway line that runs to the airport. We purchased smart cards ($15) rather than single-ride tickets. It costs an extra fee that is refundable if you return the card to certain stations ($3). That night, our dinner was the best and cheapest of any meal we ate on our entire vacation. It was $8.84 for two local, 16-ounce beers, six small grilled pork skewers and a giant bowl of dumplings. Sunday night’s total was $19.42 per person.

We spent Monday exploring the city: Lama Temple ($3.75), Houhai Lake, the Drum Tower ($4.50) and several Hutongs (traditional Chinese alleys). We attempted to eat a local breakfast, but the language barrier meant that we were only able to eat about half of what we bought ($0.53). We needed coffee, which is not an early morning drink in Beijing. We ended up having to stop at a chain, Costa Coffee, where we got two coffees and a croissant ($5.40). We made some more local food mistakes, such as buying overly sour fruit that everyone else seemed to love ($3). However, we had delicious Korean barbecue for dinner ($11.40) and some local ex-pat brewery beers ($8.63) to make up for it. We picked up a cool hacky sack-type souvenir ($1.50) and ate meat on a stick ($1.95). All in, we had three meals and visited several attractions for $51.21 each.

We booked a service to take us to the Great Wall; it was our most expensive single-item purchase. It cost $103.35 per person for a four-hour, round-trip taxi ride and a guide to bring us to the wall from the village. The guide provided us with water, snacks and a phone in case of emergency; he was waiting for us at the end, despite us arriving at the designated meeting spot early. We hiked from an unrestored section of the wall, Jiankou, to a restored section, Mutianyu, which allowed us to appreciate the wall in its true state as well as experience the “Disneyland” version. There are cheaper ways to get to that section through public transportation. However, it takes much longer, and time was a factor because we had only three full days in Beijing. This day ended up being the most special: Sean proposed at the first tower! The lighting was beautiful as the sun was cresting over the mountains and the feeling of standing on top of a 650-year-old tower with that view is just indescribable. We continued our hike, met an adventurous French traveler and enjoyed a local beer ($3). We finished with a toboggan slide down to the parking lot at Mutianyu ($15). That afternoon we celebrated with Peking duck ($28.35) and then crashed at our hotel with some snacks and hot chocolate ($12.08). It was, by far, our most expensive single day, but it was worth it ($161.78).

Our last day in Beijing was spent visiting all of the “must-sees.” We went to Tiananmen Square (free) and Jinshan Park ($0.15). We also visited the Forbidden City ($6) and Summer Palace ($3). We had breakfast at a local bakery ($6.34), ate ice cream at Dairy Queen to feel more at home ($2.25) and tried a donkey meat sandwich, which was remarkably delicious ($1.50 total). Negatives to the day would have to be accidentally buying tickets to see Mao Zedong’s dead body ($2.25) and not going, as well as ordering pigs ears which we tried but couldn’t stomach for too long. Lunch ($7.35) and dinner ($7.50) were both from reasonable local places. We finished our last night in Beijing with some craft beers ($5.40) and got some snacks for our early morning trip to Hong Kong ($2.10). We spent $46.99 per person on Wednesday.

The next morning we left the hotel early so we weren’t able to redeem our smart card payment. We also had to pay for a taxi, which we booked through the hotel to make sure that we were at the airport on time, for $27 total, plus some Starbucks and water. Our last RMB spent totaled $37.80 each.

  • Spending Victory: Great Wall trip was pricey and could have been done cheaper through public transportation, but we would have never been able to get to the Wall to see the sunrise. The pictures speak for themselves. ($103.35)
  • Spending Loss: Any time the language barrier caused us to do something stupid, like buy the wrong tickets or eat pig ears. We downloaded Google Translate which helped us to read some signs and menus as well as communicate through text. 


Arriving in Hong Kong, we were ready for the warmer weather and some different food options.  We discovered, after attempting to take out money from the ATM at the airport, that we had left our debit card in an ATM in Beijing. Luckily, the Hong Kong airport had Wi-Fi and we were able to call and cancel the card. Unfortunately, for the rest of the trip, we had to use a different debit card that included international and ATM fees, which ended up adding about $20 to our trip. We took the airport express and purchased an Octopus Card, Hong Kong’s version of a smart card ($19). The airport express and subway were more expensive than anticipated so we quickly had to put more money on our cards ($13). That day we went to two local spots, Mak’s Noodles ($5.98) and Kam’s Roast Goose ($16.32), both highly recommended online. We walked through some markets ($6.50), had coffee ($5.85) and picked up street snacks ($1.17 total). We also took a bus to Victoria Peak for an overlook of the entire city. Some online research helped us avoid the rooftop view payment and find a better view with far fewer people. We decided to walk down the massive hill, rather than waiting for the tram because it saved us time and money. Looking back, we should have saved our legs and took a taxi, but for some reason, we valued our money more than our bodies (a common theme for the trip). On the way back from the peak, we stopped in the main bar area, LKF, where we had some beer at the 7-Eleven.  The convenience stores are everywhere in Hong Kong and were a staple on our trip. We bought snacks, drinks and beer there every day. There are no open container laws in Hong Kong so many people in LKF buy cheap beer at the 7-Eleven and drink on the street. We bought two beers for $2.60 each and stood next to people in bars paying more than $10 a beer; we then indulged in a bar deal offering a burger and beer for $13. Exhausted, we stumbled back to our Airbnb after spending $77.42 per person for the day.

Friday was a “rest day.” We had a dim sum breakfast at a traditional tea house that Anthony Bourdain visited while in Hong Kong ($7.02). We purchased some snacks ($8.13) and souvenirs ($8.32 total) at local markets and had lunch at a local chain ($12.81). We bought a knock-off designer backpack that turned out to be a great purchase ($15.6 total) and overpaid for some chopsticks that turned out to be a novelty and not very useful ($6.50 total). We watched the sunset on the roof of a local mall and drank beers we had purchased earlier that day ($5.10). A late-night dinner led to desperation pizza that was way overpriced ($16.58). We spent $67.44 per person on Friday.

We left early to get to Lantau Island, a more scenic, rural island adjacent to the center city. Our plan for the day was to take a gondola to a large Buddha statue, which is in a small tourist village, before hiking to Lantau Peak and arriving in the traditional fishing village of Tai-O. We needed to add more money to our Octopus Cards to pay for the trip ($13). We purchased tickets for the gondola online ahead of time and paid extra for one with a glass floor. Reviews online mentioned long lines and suggested splurging on a gondola with a glass floor because the separate line is often shorter. However, we got there early enough that it didn’t matter, so we wasted about $8 per person for peace of mind ($26). The gondola was a bit pricey, but was the easiest and most enjoyable way to get to the Buddha (free). We hiked up the peak and then along a ridge with spectacular scenery (all for free!). Once arriving at the end of the trail, we had to wait for a bus to take us to Tai-O. Tai-O has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, but the street food is still affordable ($8.26) and if you divert from the main drag, the authentic experience still exists. We ended our day by taking a bus to another village to catch the ferry back to Central. It would have been a bit faster to take the bus and subway home instead, but the ferry was cheaper and a more enjoyable ride. That night we went back to the bar district, LKF, drank some Long Island Ice Teas in a moody hipster bar ($11.70) and then enjoyed the rest of the night talking to world travelers outside of the 7-Eleven ($9.55). We spent $75.28 per person for an amazing day in the mountains and a drunken night in the city.

By our last day we were beat. After a local breakfast ($3.58), we visited several free sites: Lion’s Rock Peak, a 1,500 foot climb that overlooks the city from the opposite side of Victoria Peak; interesting architecture; and a Buddhist temple. We were starving and purchased regrettable Thai food for lunch ($7.93). The rest of the day was spent in our Airbnb icing our legs ($2.86 total) and drinking beer, eating snacks from 7-Eleven ($3.13) and cake from a local bakery ($8.32). Those purchases also included breakfast for the next morning. That night we booked a ride on Aqua Luna, a junk boat that sails around the harbor ($28.60). With a free drink included, we thought the price for the 45-minute ride couldn’t be beat. However, we ended up having to pick up other passengers at another location and wasted time at the dock. We ended the night at Ozone, a ritzy bar on the 118th floor of the tallest building in Hong Kong. The drinks were overpriced but the lights, view and feeling of drinking in the eleventh-highest building in the world and one of the tallest bars was pretty cool. Plus we pretended to be rich for a night ($27.90 for one drink). By the time we got back to our apartment it was late, so we ended up grabbing dinner at, you guessed it, 7-Eleven ($5.40). We were able to get some money back from turning in our Octopus Cards so our daily spending ended up being $100.75 per person.  

We started our 24-hour journey home on about three hours of sleep with a taxi to the airport ($44.85 total). Coffees ($6.05), lunch ($8.18) and souvenirs to spend as much remaining cash as possible ($11.70 total) were our last expenses before landing in America. We had our burgers and beer in the airport once more ($28.10) and were lucky enough to have Sean’s parents pick us up from the airport in Pittsburgh, which saved us some money. Ten days later, we were ready to see our dogs and sleep in our own beds.

  • Spending Victory: Drinking beers at the 7-Eleven for a fourth of the price of the bars and the same atmosphere. Also, hiking in Lantau was free, other than the gondola, and was one of the best overall days of our entire vacation.
  • Spending Loss: Overpaying for a pizza because nothing else was open late near our apartment for dinner. Paying extra for the clear-bottomed cabin on the gondola thinking it would be faster, but since we got there so early it turned out to not matter.


This was our first serious, international vacation and I think overall our research paid off. We ate local most of the time, which helped to save a good amount of money. It was cheaper to always order local and throw out the food you couldn’t eat rather than pay for an English menu. We also used public transportation, which cut down on costs. Unfortunately, we were so afraid of being scammed and overspending that we avoided taxis at all costs. This ended up meaning that we walked about 120 miles during our trip, over a half marathon every day! I can’t tell you the pain in my knees and the stench from my shoes at the end of it all. Overall we came in under budget and will use some of that money to purchase prints of the amazing photos we captured.

For our next trip, we definitely learned to always eat local, take taxis if need be, continue to pay minimally for where you lay your head at night and do as much research as you can to be prepared, but understand that things won’t turn out the way you planned. In the end, I wouldn’t change it for the world. We experienced an amazing culture for cheaper than when we visited the Caribbean earlier in the year. Traveling in Asia means that flights may be expensive, but the lodging, sights and food are significantly cheaper than anywhere else and, arguably, more exciting. 


This is Lainy and Sean's spending breakdown for the trip. 

This is Lainy and Sean's spending breakdown for the trip.