Hong Kong on the Cheap
How Not To Blow Your Wad In Hong Kong (it’s a poker term)
The 2nd most expensive city in Asia, but there are plenty of ways to budget travel Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong is generally raved about, it’s not typically a backpacker stop, mainly because it’s too damn expensive. I’ve seen a lot of lists putting it in the top five most expensive places to live in the world. Even worse, it’s the 2nd most expensive place to drink beer in the world.
Oh my god! Why would anyone even want to go to such a hellish place?
This guide will help you fill your days with unforgettable but inexpensive (many free) things to do. I’ll hook you up with incredible food for great prices. And I’ll even let you in on how to drink a beer, with a breathtaking view, for only $1.50 USD.
Transportation Hong Kong on the Cheap
The Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, and one of the best. It’s an impressive terminal that’s organized and has convenient transportation going in and out.
Coming from China -- Shenzhen Bao’an Airport
You might be able to save yourself some money by flying into China’s bordering city, but there is more hassle involved. First off, you need a Chinese visa to arrive here so this is probably only going to work for you if you are coming from somewhere in China.
In the arrival hall, find desk A08 or B04, you can buy bus tickets there for about 90 RMB. The buses leave every half hour and takes around 100 minutes (depending on the border wait).
A cheaper (about 52 HKD) but longer (2 hours) option is to take the Metro system. Shenzhen Metro line 1 goes from the airport to Luohu station (about an hour ride). From there, walk the long corridor to the border gate. When you get through, you can jump on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line all the way downtown to Hung Hom.
When you arrive in terminal 1, I suggest setting yourself up for convenience and savings by purchasing an Octopus Card. This magic card can be used on public transit, in convenience stores, at vending machines, even McDonald’s accepts it. It can be bought at any Metro station, including the one at the airport. You’ll see a desk that sells tickets to the Airport Express train, you can get the card here (and return it there if you are leaving Hong Kong via the airport).
At that same desk, you can purchase a train ticket to Kowloon (downtown Hong Kong) for 90 HKD. The train is the quickest way to get downtown (20 minutes), but not the cheapest or the most beautiful.
I prefer the bus. Not only are they less expensive (10-40 HKD), but they also go over the 7th longest suspension bridge in the world, and past Hong Kong’s impressive shipping port.
A complete list of buses can be found on the airport website.
If you’re not sure which bus to take, you can do a public transit directions search in Google Maps. Bus A21 is great for getting to downtown Kowloon. It goes to Hung Hom Station via Nathan Road, past Jordan and Tsim Sha Tsui stations. The cost is 33 HKD and it operates from 6AM until midnight.
Getting Around Hong Kong
The public transit system in Hong Kong is extensive. It has to be, 90% of daily journeys in the autonomous territory are via public transit. The population density of the Mong Kok area is 130,000 people per square kilometer. That’s 3 times larger than the population density of Manila (the most densely populated city in the world), so it’s very important to keep people moving. The escalators in Hong Kong are faster, the trains run faster (they can because there are less stops), and the trains are more frequent. I’m not going to list all of the various bus, train, boat, tram options available in Hong Kong, but they’re all conveniently mapped out in Google Maps, so wherever you want to go you should be able to find a way by using the directions feature.
The best tip I can give you regarding public transit is to get the above-mentioned Octopus Card. It’s another example of keeping people moving in an efficient manner. Again, they can be purchased at any Metro station and can be topped up at most convenience stores. When you are finished with the card, you can return it to any Metro station and you’ll receive your deposit back. Overall, its going to save you money and time.
For more information about Hong Kong’s transportation system, read through Wikipedia’s article on it.
Hotels Hong Kong on the Cheap
In the thick mob of people and towering high-rises, you can’t expect to find a large room for a good price. Many budget travelers head to Chungking Mansions Tower, where you’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy drugs as you make your way to one of the 80 guesthouses.
If you want to stay in this downtown area, which is a great central spot, I suggest heading down the street to Mirador Mansions (54-56B Nathan Rd). It’s a bit safer, less jungle like, and just as inexpensive.
We stayed at Tai Wah Boutique Hostel, which is tiny but clean and sufficient.
If you prefer to be a bit further north, I found the best option in Mong Kok to be the Royal Palace Hotel. It’s not exactly a palace, but it will do.
There are only a few budget places on Hong Kong Island. In my opinion, Homy Inn North Point is the best of them. While I like the fact that the name kind of looks like it says Horny Inn, the real appeal to this place is it’s North Point location. If you are looking to hang out on Hong Kong Island for most of your trip, this might be the best budget option.
You can also browse Airbnb for a place to stay. There are some unique ones, and some locations that you won’t find on sites like Agoda. If you sign up using my link, I think there’s a discount or something… maybe only I get credit. I dunno. But it won’t cost you any extra and I’ll feel good about myself.
Things To Do Hong Kong on the Cheap
Discover Hong Kong has put out a series of self-guided walking tours that are easy to follow, informative, and free. You can combine a few of them to fill up an entire day, or plan them around other activities in the city.
You can also check out the self-guided Hong Kong walking tours on Walkli. They’re made by locals who provide insider knowledge, often taking you to lesser known places.
There are a lot of things in Hong Kong that will make you say, “that looks culturally and/or historically significant”. These tours will help you figure out what it is and why you should care.
Exploring Hong Kong Island
Explore the many Neighborhoods
While a walking tour with historic facts is great, sometimes you don’t want to be told why you should like something. Plus, it’s good to get out of the downtown and away from the swarms of people. Luckily, HK has some neighborhoods that are laid back but still filled with stuff to do, see, and enjoy.
- Stanley is a beautiful bay area that’s pretty popular with tourists. You can stroll the Stanley Market, a traditional street market that’s usually cheaper than anything downtown. There’s also a large promenade that offers great spots to sit for eating, drinking, and chillaxing. If you prefer man-made beauty, the colonial architecture of Murray House will impress you. It has shops, restaurants, and cafes that overlook the water. It’s also one of the oldest public buildings (a former quarters for officers of the British Army) in Hong Kong, however, it was originally built in Hong Kong’s business district and actually taken apart and moved to Stanley. Food and drink will cost more here, so you might want to consider filling up at the Stanley food market.
About a 20 minute walk south will take you to Saint Stephen’s Beach, where you can go for a dip or just relax in the sun.
- Sha Tin is north of the downtown, but just a short Metro ride away. There are a few cool spots by the river there, but I had the most fun exploring the hills around Pai Tau village, where you’ll find the Po Fook Hill columbarium and the incredible 10,000 Buddha Monastery. Read this post for all the details about visiting Pai Tau, an off-the-beaten-path gem in Hong Kong.
- For a laid back town-like atmosphere, Tai Po is your hook up. You can get here by taking the East Rail Line to Tai Po Market station. Not far from the station is the wet market, which is worth walking through. Head to the top floor if you are hungry.
Just a short ways from the market is the Hong Kong Railway museum. There you will be able to walk through classic trains, some of which stopped at the station where the museum now sits. The oldest is a 3rd class coach from a 1911 steam train.
Leaving the train museum, head up Yan Hing street to the Lam Tsuen river where you can turn right onto a riverside path. Following that (you’ll need to cross the river at some point), you’ll not only get a look at fishermen and some unique birds, but you’ll also end up at Yuen Shin Park. The park is very well designed and has a ton of cool features, but the best has to be the lookout tower with has a spiraling platform that takes you to amazing views. The tower was built to commemorate the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.
Museums and Art
There’s a museum for everyone in Hong Kong. The larger ones -- like the history, art, and space museums -- cost 10 HKD to enter. Many of the smaller ones are completely free. I spent a couple hours at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which had a free Bruce Lee exhibit that was fantastic.
Hong Kong Markets
I love me a market, and Hong Kong has a bunch of unique ones that will keep your camera clicking.
Temple Street Night Market
Yuen Po Bird Garden
Eating Hong Kong on the Cheap
Instead of recommending a pile of restaurants, I’m going to give you a tool. It’s that whole teach a village to fish thing…
OpenRice proved invaluable to us. When you’re suddenly hungry after walking around for hours, the worst thing is searching for a restaurant that’s both decent-looking, serves food you want, and is affordable. OpenRice is basically Hong Kong’s version of Yelp. It has 40,000 Hong Kong restaurants on it. If you click the little map symbol next to the search bar, you can set the map to show you restaurants in your area. Filter them by price to instantly become an amazing budget food discoverer.
Budget Gourmet in Hong Kong
If you’re a food lover like we are, you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks for a meal that will knock your special binging socks off (the ones you wear when you go to a buffet cause they stretch a bit more… no?). Lucky for you, the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant is in Hong Kong. I’ll say that again, but this time in title-form…
The World’s Cheapest Michelin Star Restaurant
Tim Ho Wan has several locations around Hong Kong. They’re all pretty much the awesome-ist, so don’t worry about going to the original (which isn’t even in its original location). Just make sure you order the BBQ pork buns.
Street Food in Hong Kong
Every budget travelers favorite meal is served from a booth, cart, or from a window. Hong Kong has a reputation for street food, but the scene is changing quickly. In 2005, there were 1075 contracts for fixed-position hawkers. That number dropped to 233 in 2011. The government is trying to take away our food!! Actually, they recognize the importance of street food in Hong Kong but they want to keep it safe, hygienic, and they don’t want vendors clogging up the flow of pedestrian traffic. That being said, you won’t have any problems finding Hong Kong’s street specialties: fish balls, egg waffles, stinky tofu, fried squid, roasted sweet potatoes, and tons of meat-on-a-stick.
An absolute must-try is the roasted meat that seemingly hangs at every corner. It’s sometimes referred to as Chinese BBQ, but the official name is siu mei which means roast or burn taste. Its players are all future hall-of-famers.
Char siu might be the most famous. It’s the red pork, usually a shoulder cut, that’s been roasted in a honey, 5 spice, soy sauce, hoisin sauce combo.
The pork with the crispy skin is siu yuk. You’ve never had pork skin this good. It’s crispy like glass and saltily delicious. Siu yuk is made from the pig’s belly, the same as bacon, so it’s quite fatty (which is great for my mouth but not my blood pressure).
It’s hard not to notice the roast duck or siu ngaap that hangs from the windows, head and all. If you’ve had roasted Chinese goose, this is basically the same thing, but in Hong Kong it’s much easier to keep ducks. Either way, these birds are incredibly juicy and flavorful.
White cut chicken or baat cit gai is probably the least appealing of the group, but I assure you it is delectable. The chicken is cooked in a salty broth that’s usually seasoned with generous helpings of ginger. It comes with a ginger, scallion, and oil (or sometimes chicken fat) sauce.
Lastly, we have si yao gai or soy sauce chicken. It’s not difficult to figure out what this will taste like. Expect juicy meat with a salty soy flavor.
When ordering siu mei, you can get just the meat or get an order with rice (and usually a couple stalks of bok choy). This is a cheap takeaway lunch (around $3) that can be mind boggling delicious. We feasted on this stuff many times in Hong Kong.
Drinking Hong Kong on the Cheap
While there are many fantastic bars in Hong Kong, I just can’t physically pay more than $7 for a beer.
I just can’t. I’ve tried. I’m thinking it’s a problem with my central nervous system -- some kind of a Tourette’s syndrome that’s triggered by getting ripped off. I’d get it checked out, but the doctors charge so much nowadays.
Lan Kwai Fong is the bar district on Hong Kong Island. It is THE place to be… but only if you’ve got a nice big fat wad. Which is really unfortunate, cause I really wanted to hangout in some LKF bars, with business dudes and their giant wads.
The alternative may upset you, but it’ll save you money and it’s less taboo than you think.
Club 7-Eleven is becoming one of the more popular places to drink in the city. While they don’t have chairs or even an area to stand really, what they do have is a selection of beers that are reasonably priced, and over 900 locations in Hong Kong.
Of course, I’m talking about the convenience store.
Because alcohol is so expensive, people drink in the streets more in Hong Kong. It’s not unusual to see groups sitting in a park with a bunch of beers, or even outside of clubs in the bar district. Some people say it’s a problem, it’s causing underage drinking, and it’s ruining the LKF vibe. Those people own bars, and they wouldn’t have a problem with it if they were selling as many $10 beers as they used to. Personally, I love it — and not just because I’m a cheap bastard.
The best place I cracked a beer in Hong Kong was along the waterfront by the ferry piers on Hong Kong Island.
You can get beer in convenience stores in the pier buildings. You’ll also find bathrooms there. If you want a craft beer, there’s actually a booth in pier 3 and 4 that sells what I’ve been told is the cheapest craft beer on tap in the city. There are some great spots to sit along the waterway while you watch the boats come in and out, the sun go down, and the city light up.
On the other-side of Victoria Harbour, there are a ton of areas to park yourself and watch that little ball of fire comedown. Just be aware that the nightly light show starts at 8:00PM, and the area gets packed around that time for about an hour.