How to Do Hong Kong on a Budget: Where to Spend & What to Skip

Most world travelers love a good bargain. For some, this means getting the cheapest option for lodging, food, and entertainment in Europe. For others, it refers to subsisting on a handful of dollars a day while hanging out for months in Thailand.

While I do admit there’s a certain exhilarating challenge in seeing just how cheap I can go, getting the lowest price is not always the best value when it comes to travel. On the contrary, sometimes going too cheap is a waste of money. That’s why I’m willing to pay more for an engaging travel experience that’s worth the extra effort and cost. At the same time, I am also careful to avoid buying into the contrived tourist event.

Based on a recent trip to Hong Kong, I’m excited to report that great values do abound in this glitzy metropolis – if you are a careful traveler and consumer. On the flip side, China, which is notoriously famous for its knockoff purses and bootleg videos, is rife with travel rip-offs and false promises, too.

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Yes, I learned the hard way. But the good news is that you don’t have to. Consider this list of Hong Kong deals and gimmicks when you plan your trip and you will not fall prey. Instead, you will have a little extra cash to apply to your next adventure.

Best budget accommodation in Hong Kong

Due to trade fairs, business conventions, and a thriving tourist market, Hong Kong had (on last count) 56,500 hotels rooms. Even though the lodging ranges from backpacker hostels to five-star high-rises, one fact is certain: due to competitive demand, overall rates for a good night’s sleep are much higher than other Asian cities – and quality and comfort do not necessarily match the price.

Now, you might be tempted to save money here by staying in a hostel with shared communal bathrooms, loud snoring, and other inconveniences. But why not grab a friend to split the bill and pay a little more to sleep in the YMCA Salisbury Hotel in Kowloon? For its location to local attractions, price, and amenities, the YMCA Salisbury is a true value. In addition, suites are available for larger groups, many of the rooms have views of the famous Hong Kong Harbor, and the colorful nightlife of Nathan Road is steps away.

>> Find cheap hotels in Hong Kong

Best budget transportation in Hong Kong

As is the case in many great cities of the world, public transportation in Hong Kong is an inexpensive and efficient means of getting places. The Octopus card, sold at subway stations and the airport, is a wonderful money-saver for a wide range of transportation needs.

Conveniently, your Octopus card can be used for airport transfers, the subway line, the Star Ferry, Victoria Peak trams, city buses, and even double-decker buses.

Without a doubt, I recommend foregoing an airport shuttle and avoiding all taxis. Moreover, don’t mistakenly believe that an organized guided tour will save you effort or frustration. Moving around the city via public transportation and your own two feet will save you heaps of time and cash.

Best cheap and tasty food in Hong Kong

Whether you want Chinese noodle bowls, British pub food, French pastries, or western fast food, bargain meals abound in Hong Kong. If you want affordable authentic fare, however, I recommend two memorable dining experiences.

First, visit a dim sum restaurant for brunch. Having eaten at several in the area, I recommend the Luk Yu Teahouse for its 1930s atmosphere and delicious dishes. Located on Central Island, this traditional local restaurant has two levels where waiters make the rounds showcasing their delicacies, all the while noisily ramming their carts into one another. Be sure to get there before 11:00 am though, since after that the strolling food cart service is suspended for the day and a traditional menu takes over.

For dinner, grab a table under the neon lights at one of the many food stalls lining the Temple or Stanley Street Night markets and chow down on any one of the local seafood specialties. You can’t beat this food experience for challenging your palate as you sit side by side with locals.

Like many major destinations, Hong Kong also boasts a few overrated dining experiences that you can skip. Regrettably, due to its prices, packs of tourists, and marginal food, I would recommend avoiding the Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant, a widely popular tourist restaurant experience.

In addition, the historic Peninsula Hotel’s Afternoon Tea is tempting for the chance to sit among the gilded pillars and painted ceilings, but the plates of scones and sandwiches are more than a little overpriced – and who wants to wait in that horrendously long line? By all means, step inside the lobby and take a peek around the romantic premises, but you don’t have to spend money to enjoy the ambiance.

Best budget-friendly sights and entertainment in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a city where many pleasing or educational encounters can be had for little to no cost.

Don’t pass up the chance to restore your chi with a foot massage or integrate with locals at the Yuen Po Bird Market. Appreciate the natural scenery in one of the fishing villages or take the tram up to Victoria Peak to stroll around the perimeter. Ride the Star Ferry at night and see the glittery city lights, visit a Buddhist temple and saunter down the Avenue of the Stars at sunset. Or simply adopt my favorite (free) pastime – people watching in a public park.

If you’re looking for an escape from the big city hustle and bustle, outlying Lantau Island is a welcome respite. Home of the Giant Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island is an easy and popular day trip from Hong Kong. You can even use your Octopus card on the subway to get there. Walking up the steps to the world’s largest seated bronze Buddha and eating a vegetarian lunch at the monastery are engaging experiences and cost little.

However, while you’re on Lantau, be careful not to get pulled into the other theme-park-inspired tourist scams that surface the moment you arrive on island.

Skip the masses at the gondola cable car ride and take a bus up the mountain instead. You’ll save quite a bit of money, and while others are waiting in lines that rival the ones for Space Mountain, you’ll be riding along a narrow thrilling path up to the Buddha.

In addition, while the seemingly quaint Ngong Ping Village and children’s Monkey Tail Theatre may be fairly entertaining, they are fabricated and commercialized experiences. They both promise enlightenment, but you may end up feeling like you are in Disneyland without intending to be.

Best shopping in Hong Kong on a budget

Hong is often cited as being a shopper’s paradise, and it turns out that budget souvenir shopping is also easy to do. The open markets and dusty curio shops usually have inexpensive (albeit cheesy) knick-knacks. Fake Rolexes are everywhere, and there is no shortage of embroidered Chinese silks to rifle through. Even standard grocery stores offer up an interesting selection of tea, cookies, crackers, and candies that can be conveniently transported back home.

But what about the other kind of fabulous shopping that Hong Kong is famous for? Visitors rave about the deals that are supposedly better than what you can find at home. Luxury handbags are seen in every store window, the glitzy jewelry stores beckon with their sparkly displays, and those custom-made dresses and suits advertised by eager tailors all over town seem too special to pass up.

But in my mind – and I know this won’t resonate well with everybody – with a minimal amount of research, you can probably buy those exact items in your own hometown or online for the same price or cheaper. That includes jewelry, jade, ceramic teapots, Chinese curios, and just about everything else. In essence, shopping in Hong Kong is the ultimate false promise of them all.

Nevertheless, if you absolutely cannot return home empty-handed, I recommend approaching shopping in Hong Kong in the spirit of “no expectations” that you’re getting the best price. By all means, negotiate the cost down as much as you can, but all the while, know that you’re still paying too much.

Trust me on this one. Even if you think you are an expert haggler, the Chinese are expert salespeople.

Ready to go? Book flights to Hong Kong, find a hostel in Hong Kong, read about things to do in Hong Kong, and discover some lesser known places to visit in Hong Kong. Or read our tips for having an indie travel experience in Hong Kong.

Photos by: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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  • Ryan Jardin Watin said at 2013-02-26T05:15:45+0000: I just checked rates at ymca - 2 people for about 268 USD. ;/
  • said at 2012-03-27T19:41:12+0000: First of all - amazing photos of Hong Kong and of course, a great article. Regarding accommodation; I stayed at Chungking Mansions at one very nice guesthouse. You can read about it here - http://tipsfortravel.net/reviews/guangdong-guest-house/.

Older comments on How to Do Hong Kong on a Budget: Where to Spend & What to Skip

Bec Kinsella
28 February 2010

i’ve never been to Hong Kong but there is heaps of great advice here! love the last line of your article too

Barnaby Davies
31 March 2010

Great Mary! If I go, perhaps I’ll just treat myself to a fridge magnet then..

Aland84
28 May 2010

Thanks for the warning I will be careful while bargaining. I am off in June and have found a Hong Kong discount hotel. I am looking forward to the trip.