How to Plan Your First Trip to China: Part 1 – Group Tour or Independent Travel?

Before my first visit to China last year, I did a lot of research. In this series of posts, I hope to share what I learnt about what type of tour to take, a first time itinerary,  and tips for visiting and scams to watch out for. In this first post, I look at what type of tour to take: A fully escorted group tour, independent travel or a mix of both. I look at the pros and cons of each and also provide links to several sites which I found helpful in my research.

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Fully Escorted Group Tours

Fully escorted tours are one of the most popular ways to visit China at present. The tour company will arrange the itinerary, select and book accommodation, arrange transfers, sort out meals and entry to attractions etc. Fully escorted tours, as the name implies, will have some one looking after you every step of the way.  Someone will pick you up at the airport on arrival, accompany you everywhere, and provide local guides for all the attractions.  The cost of a package tour usually covers accommodation, transfers, entry to attractions and most meals. I investigated this option a lot for China, and compared tours from a number of travel companies:

  • Wendy Wu and Just You: Wendy Wu and Just You provide the more high end tours to China. Hotels are usually 4 stars, most meals and attractions are included, and group size is relatively small (20 to 30 people). They also sort the visas for you. But the luxury comes at a price, and their tours are more on the expensive end of the spectrum.
  • Explore and Intrepid: Explore and Intrepid specialise in small group tours (15-16 people). They also specialise in adventure travel, so cover some of the more unusual destinations and offer walking/trekking/cycling holidays. For China, these two are in the middle of the price range. Hotels are usually 3 to 4 star and only the breakfast is included in the package price, so you need to allow extra for lunch, dinner and tips etc. You also need to sort out you own Chinese visa.
  • Travelsphere: I found Travelsphere to be the lower end of the price range. However, the reviews aren’t particularly glowing, and the comments left me doubting that it was the right tour for me and the tour sizes are pretty large too (with 50-60 people)

Now to look at some pros and cons of an escorted tour:

Pros

  • With a fully escorted tour, everything is taken care of. You will be escorted the entire length of your trip (sometime this starts at the UK departure airport). So you don’t need to worry about finding taxis, catching trains, looking for the ticket counters. It’s all done for you. This is a big plus, for a country like China, where the tourism industry hasn’t reached it’s peak yet.

Cons

  • The obvious disadvantage of the group tour is that it is not your trip. The itinerary might not be exactly what you want and you have no say in how long is spent at each location.
  • You will be travelling with a group – and a group is as only fast as the slowest person. If you are impatient like me, this might bother you (a lot?).
  • Shoppertunities: Shoppertunities, is the name given to unwanted shopping excursions that almost all tour guides will take you when you are in China. It might be a visit to a silk factory, tea centre, jade workshop, pearl market etc. but the basic format is the same. There is usually a demo session at the start, where you can see how silk is made/jade is carved/participate in a tea ceremony etc. But then you are shown into a large show room, where clever and personable sales people apply a bit of gentle pressure to buy something. Some people love the chance to shop for authentic (if a bit pricey) souvenirs, whereas others hate it. If you go as a group, you will have to wait until everyone has had their fill of shopping, and depending on how large the group is, it might be a long wait.
  • What’s included in the cost of a package varying from one company to another, so doing an accurate comparison is tricky at best. The best way to do this comparison, I found was to rely on an excel spreadsheet. List out all the package tours you are interested in, and their prices, and check to see if the following are included in the tour or not: flights, visas, meals, excursions, attraction entry tickets, tips for local guides and drivers, hotel deposits. Anything that is not included, the tour operator will provide a guide price, so you can calculate how much extra you will have to fork out during the trip. If the information isn’t specified, ask.
  • Rooms on all group tours are twin share (unless you go with a solo travel specialist like Just You). Unless you are to happy share a room with someone else, you will have to pay a single supplement on top of the package price.

Pick the escorted group tour option if:

  • You just want to book and go, and don’t want to worry about anything.
  • You are a fairly laid back person and happy to go with the flow.
  • You are a solo traveller, or if you have not travelled much before.

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Independent Travel to China

This one is for the adventure traveller. You will need to plan and book everything. Flights, transfers, hotels, tours, taxis, the lot. Some people find it an adventure, but some find it stressful. This is an increasingly popular  option for China as many of the hotels (especially in cities) are bookable on international websites like hotels.com or booking.com or their own websites. Companies like Tour Beijing provide a lot of information about visiting attractions and booking day trips.

Pros

  • It’s your trip. You can do exactly as you please.
  • You don’t have to plan ahead (unless you want to of course), you can take each day as it comes.
  • Depending on your tastes, the overall costs can often be cheaper than booking package tour.

Cons

  • Although it is improving very fast, booking tours and accommodation in China is still not as straightforward as booking a trip to Europe or North America.
  • Visitors from most countries need a visa to enter China. For the visa application you need to provide evidence of return flights and a full itinerary detailing where you will be visiting etc. Getting these from a recognised agency makes the visa application process more straight forward.
  • If you are on your own, there is an increased risk of getting scammed. I will write more about this on a later post. But, I have to add, it is a very small risk, and doing your research and having a slightly suspicious attitude will minimise the risk of getting scammed.

Pick this option if:

  • You are fiercely independent.
  • You like to do your own planning and research.
  • You have a long time to spend in China, so you can travel at a fairly relaxed pace, taking time to figure things as you go.
  • If you are planning on visiting only the large cities (E.g. Beijing, Xian, Shanghai) in China. In cities It is much easier to get around on your own in the cities and public transport is pretty good and it is not difficult to find English speakers.

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Semi-Independent Tour of China

For me this was the best of both Worlds.  You decide the itinerary, how many days, where to visit, which parts you want to do on your own, which parts you want a guided tour etc. and the travel company books everything.  So in the end, we ended up going on a semi-independent tour tailor made for us by The China Travel Company. We booked hotels, trains, transfers and several guided day trips to the biggest attractions with the company, but leaving enough free time to explore on our own. This gave us the freedom from stress when it comes to getting around in a new place, but the flexibility to set our own pace and explore things on our own. On the days where we had guided tours, we had our own car, driver and guide.

Pros

  • It’s your trip, arranged exactly the way you want, but the hard work is done before, so when you get there, you don’t have to worry about anything.
  • It’s great if you are short on time but want cover a lot if ground. We only spent 7 days in China, but we arranged a packed tour, which allowed us to see the so much more compared to a package tour.
  • You can mix and match, and choose which attractions to visit on your own, and where you would like a guide. On our 7 day trip, we had guides for the first few days, but as we got used to China, we spend the last few days mostly on our own, with no problem.
  • The guides – all the guides we had were fantastic. They went a lot further than just showing us around attractions; recommending places to eat, places to shop, taking our photos and for me the most important part, answering our questions.  In Beijing I had a discussion with our guide about China’s Last Empress, Express Cixi and how she is portrayed in Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (one of my favorite books). In Xian, we discussed property prices inside and outside the city wall with our guide and in Shanghai, our guide told my mother how to tell fake silk from the real deal.  To me this is what made the trip really memorable and personal to us.

Cons

  • It is not a cost effective option if you are a solo traveller. You need at least 2 (and ideally 3) people to make it cost effective compared to a package tour.
  • Depending on the guide, you might still get taken for shoppertunities. The guides get a commission for each tourist they bring through the door. You can of course say no, but when they’ve been really nice and helpful to you all day, it can feel rude to refuse a polite request to visit a Jade Factory/Silk Workshop etc. We ended up doing this a couple of times as we really liked our guides. But, we didn’t feel the need to buy anything. When the demo was over we had a quick look in the shop and came back to the car when we had enough. And of course, you will only be waiting for your party, so it is a much quicker turnaround. At every place we went to we were on our way again within half an hour.

Pick this option if:

  • You like to do the planning and research, but don’t want the stress when you get there.
  • You are happy to spend a part of the trip on your own.
  • You have 2 or more people travelling.

You probably gathered that my favoured option is the last one. If there are 2 or more of you travelling, then this really is the best option.

Note: I have no affiliation with The China Travel Company. I just think they are really good and we were very impressed with the service received, both in the UK and in China.

What’s your view on the best way to Visit China? Or any other country for that matter?  Any Pros or Cons I may have missed above? Leave a comment below, and let me know.  Next week, I will be sharing an itinerary for a first time visit to China. 

3 comments

  1. Great information about China tour. China, it is a popular tourist place all over the world. Beijing is my favorite place in China. The Great Wall which is known by people all the world is located in Beijing. Before three months I had gone to Beijing with my friends. We travel there by help a tour guide namely Beijingtransfertours.com. All great wall sections in Beijing are so attractive.

    Liked by 1 person

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