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Thinking About Traveling to China with SmarTours in November

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Hello,

I am thinking about taking the China & Yangtze River Cruise with Hong Kong tour using the SmarTours travel company. Has anyone taken this tour with SmarTours? If so, how many people were in your tour group? What is the weather like in November? From what I have read, northern China is very chilly, but I am not sure if it is miserably cold. This would be my first trip to China. I will be traveling solo. I would appreciate any help/insight.

Thanks in advance.

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    Not to China but have taken the Vietnam/Cambodia trip and was so impressed with ST that I also went to India/Nepal with them.

    Our guides, hotels, transportation were all top notch and almost everyone on these two tours were repeat ST travelers . . . and most had made several trips with them.

    Hope this helps until someone who's been on one of the China trip responds.

    Happy travels,
    Sandy (in Denton)

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    This month's issue of International Travel News has a letter from someone who took a smarTours trip to China. She says: "... be prepared to spend $300-$400 per person in tips, not including the tip to the tour director".

    If you've read the threads I've linked you'll have learned that China is a no-tipping country! PeterN_H reports that the Chinese call tips the "stupid foreigner tax". An excellent reason to avoid this company.

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    Tipping tour employees is usually a "recommendation" and they'll give you a suggested amount, a ridiculously high one; I cut it by 70% and then only for days I thought were well worth the efforts of the personnel. People have different preferences regarding do-it-yourself vs. tours (as you see already). However, the logistics of travel (and the ease of having your travel arranged, luggage schlepped, bypassing long lines into popular sites, etc.) can be made much simpler via an organized tour for those intimidated by a first visit to China; and the air costs alone can often make up for any fear and loathing of tours.
    I went with a different company, and there were several solo travelers along. It was a cordial group, but not overly familiar. Most opted for as much free time (going only on the included-in-the-price site visits) on their own as possible.
    Do not tip in restaurants or taxi drivers, etc.(even if your tour guide assures you that it is now the custom in China). Don't buy anything on organized stops (tho you might find lectures on silk making, etc., interesting?); suckers only need apply (even though you have a 30% off coupon, good for your group only!). Feel free to say "when and where will we meet" if you want to visit a site sans guide. And, try to arrange your own meals when you can!
    And the next visit you will might be comfortable enough to forge out on your own.

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    Sylvia3, thanks for the great answer. Thanks esp for the tips on tipping!
    We're on the SmarTours China trip for Sept. It will be our third ST and obviously we're happy with the company. We did Australia/NZ in Feb 2010 and MachuPicchu/Galapagos in Jan 2009. They were very different experiences, not just because of the obvious differences.
    So. Amer had 26 very friendly, compatible travelers, mostly senior citizens (like us), no solos. A very knowledgeable, experienced, local guide met us and stayed with us in each country. Until then we were totally DIY travelers (have been all over Europe on our own) but were converted to the guided experience, esp in countries where we had minimal language skills, and so much to learn. The price alone made this a wonderful tour, and it was truly wonderful, all the way. Highly recommended.

    The trip Down Under was different (but still wonderful), in that our "guide" was more of an escort--a very experienced American. The group was 36, only one solo. Fewer meals were included and the two of us dined alone most days, so there wasn't quite the camederie for all these reasons. We carried our own luggage from planes to buses--sometimes a longish walk--unlike in S Amer. The bus drivers were the "guides" and did most of the talking. We tipped according to who rendered what service on what day...adding or subtracting to the guidelines offered by ST.
    We booked the China trip as we were leaving for Australia. Several people on that trip had been on the China one and recommended it. Will let you know how it goes. Interested in whether the OP has booked the trip. travelexplorer, have you??

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    Joyce - I will be VERY INTERESTED to hear from you when you have done this trip in Sept to China. Three of us wish to go to China in Sept 2011 - we live in the UK and will be making our own flight arrangements from London to Beijing/Shanghai (whichever one is appropriate to meet the group. This would be my very first escorted trip - I always go as an independent solo traveller. Await your experiences with baited breath!!

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    > This would be my very first escorted trip - I always go as an independent solo traveller.

    It would be of interest, then, to know why you particularly want to take an escorted tour in China? It's perfectly easy to travel there independently, thousands are doing so even as we speak, and there are many accounts on this site from those who have done so.

    It would also be of interest to know whether you've looked at any of the links given by thursdaysd in her post above, and whether you've taken note of her subsequent post concerning the company's cheating of naive travellers with its tipping policies?

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    We took the ST trip to China 2001 in October. Excellent in everyway except for the shopping stops which we did not like but most others did. Good group of people...most experienced travelers, educated, pleasant. Several solo travelers. China our only group tour and we are very frequent travelers. Yes you can travel independently in China but a group tour makes it much easier and you will need to join others for most tourist sights unless you are willing to pay much more.

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    "you will need to join others for most tourist sights unless you are willing to pay much more" - sorry, but I totally don't understand that remark. Certainly not my experience.

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    China Highlights, often praised by the poster above, has sent shills to this site before, and ought to be avoided on those grounds alone.

    But the company's recommendation of tipping of ¥80–150 to the guide, and half that figure to the driver, per day, tells you everything you need to know, namely that your pocket is being picked to the tune of the same figures as quoted for Smart Tours (which is only a local operator with a Smart Tours brand on top, of course--experience in other countries is irrelevant) in thursdaysd's post above. And no doubt there's more and worse at the shopping stops.

    If you must take a tour, be very inquisitive about shopping stops, tipping, whether you'll have a tour manager from home, etc. (see detailed list of questions to ask under other threads), and never take a tour with an astonishingly cheap company. What appears to be too good to be true always is.

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    I can only comment on our own experience. We found ST to be much cheaper and MUCH easier than trying to do the same things on our own. One nice thing about SmartT is that the price includes the airfare. There are always several internal flights...at least so far. The hotels are lovely--I'm sure the same rooms would be out of our normal price range if we booked individually.
    I can't imagine being an independent traveler in a country where you don't even know the alphabet--such as it is--much less some of the language. After decades of independent travel, it was very refreshing to have someone else carry the luggage, drive us to the hotels and check us in, drive us to several airports and hand us the ticket, conduct daily tours, etc. Navigating a bus or subway system in Denmark or Spain or name-another-European-country has its challenges [and rewards], and can be the cause of marital discord when both parties are jet-lagged (eg wife wants to call a taxi, hubby thinks he's got it figured out.) Suffice it to say, we enjoyed the ease of the tours. We can do Italy, but for China--we're taking the tour, and Smart hasn't steered us wrong so far! Will happily post a review after the trip!

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    > We found ST to be much cheaper and MUCH easier than trying to do the same things on our own.

    According to your own account you have neither been to China with a tour, nor subsequently tried travelling exactly the same route making your own arrangements and then compared the two. So you cannot have found organised touring 'cheaper' in China, and not least because it isn't.

    You may choose to ignore the problems with organised touring in China described in some detail in the links given in a posting above, and may choose to ignore that Smart Tours (which is just a brand name plonked on top of a locally operated tour in China) is cheating you hand-over-fist on tipping (see other posting), but unfortunately that won't make these costs and problems go away.

    > The hotels are lovely--I'm sure the same rooms would be out of our normal price range if we booked individually.

    But you haven't even experienced the hotels yet--just seen pictures. They may, or may not, turn out to be what you expect. And being 'sure' that the same rooms would be out of your price range doesn't in any way constitute an argument or make that statement true. For Chinese-run hotels, published rates are an irrelevance. Again, you haven't even been to China and bargained down published rates.

    > I can't imagine being an independent traveler in a country where you don't even know the alphabet

    Insofar as this merely amounts to 'I don't want to travel independently in China' there's no argument to be had. But there's a wider readership here interested in the pros and cons of organised travel in China, 'I can't imagine' doesn't constitute an argument in general against independent travel, not least since many thousands of people who can 'imagine' such a thing are doing it right now, and others have left accounts of doing so on this site.

    > Navigating a bus or subway system in Denmark or Spain or name-another-European-country has its challenges

    In addition to the Chinese 'alphabet', signage on Beijing subways for instance is also in Roman script, announcements are made in English on the trains, guide books all have metro maps and there are plenty of sources from which to download them. In short, this is not any more difficult than Denmark or Spain.

    Having already booked a tour you may not want to believe that independent travel is in fact cheaper, and may want to believe that it is not possible, or massively inconvenient compared to independent travel elsewhere, but unfortunately none of this is the case. If you simply prefer a tour that's fine, but not an argument for a general rejection of independent travel in China.

    The problems outlined in the links given are very real, and the descriptions given are intended to help you make the best of your tour and to avoid some of the worst exploitation. Please do have a read of them, keep your wallet firmly in your pocket at shopping stops, and try to break away from the group as much as possible to find your own (better, cheap) meals, do your own shopping, etc.

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    Let's get back to the OP's question which was-Has anyone travelled to China and Hong Kong with Smartours? She did not express any interst in doing it on her own, even though we all know it can be done on your own. Whether it is better or cheaper to go on your own is debatable and more over the debate does not answer the OP's question.

    So here is my answer to the question-I went on the Smartours China and Hong Kong trip the beginning of Nov. 2009. I thought the trip was great. I got more than my money's worth. I was more than satisfied with the hotels, the meals, the guide and the itinerary. There was plenty of free time during scheduled optional tours to leave the group and do your own thing by taking the subway in Beijing and the subway and bus in Hong Kong to tour independently for part of the time. I did this for several days and found the public transportation very user friendly with signage and announcements in both Chinese and English.

    I am not a shopper so I felt that there was a waste of several hours in total for the whole 18 day trip in stores, but it was not excessive.

    For me the worst part of the tour was on the Yangtze River cruise, not because of the food or facilities on the ship, but because I found there was too much down time on the ship, but some people loved the experience.

    As far as tipping goes, although tipping is not usually expected or a custom in China, I believe in rewarding people for good service, so I did tip, but I tipped what I thought was a reasonable amount and not what was suggested which I did think was excessive.

    All in all, I would highly recommend this trip, although I do not know if they are using the same hotels as they did in 2009. Check out the hotels on Trip Advisor and see what you think. If the reviews are good, go, have a great time and please post a trip report when you return.

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    > Whether it is better or cheaper to go on your own is debatable and more over the debate does not answer the OP's question.

    Whether it is 'better' is indeed debatable. Some can only conceive of travel by fully escorted tour, while others hold that in complete horror. Whether it is 'cheaper' is simply a question of fact, however. It is not cheaper to take organised tours in China, but significantly more expensive in a mixture of a lack of quality for the money spent, and all sorts of hidden costs the independent traveller does not have to pay: the time wasted on shopping stops, the vast overcharging (think sometimes ten, fifteen, or even twenty times too much) at these stops, the poor quality food, and the further abuse of the customer with the tipping rip-offs.

    Hotels and domestic airfare costs are highly negotiable in China, and never as high as they are made to seem when supposedly discount or cheap organised alternatives are inviting you to make comparisons. The independent traveller can find far better value for money. This is, of course, of little interest if all that's wanted is a tour, but remains true nonetheless.

    The canny traveller may avoid some of the abuse on these tours, but at the price of sitting out multiple shopping stops, which is just time wasted, and sometimes putting up with intense pressure from drivers and guides for highly inappropriate tips (and any tip is highly inappropriate in China unless service well beyond the call of the contract has been provided, and even then an honest Chinese will only accept, and very reluctantly, on the third forcefully insistent offer, not be standing with his or her hand out. In China you agree a price for a service and that's what you pay, not a fen more.) Some visitors are their own worst enemies, and the Chinese guides themselves often refer to tips as 'stupid foreigner tax'. This may sound unpleasant, but it's just a matter of fact. No Chinese has to put up with this.

    And is it really appropriate to tip people who have failed to mention the shopping stops on the advertised itinerary, who are guiding you to these places that are guaranteed to rip you off profoundly if you are unwise enough to shop, sometimes offering you 'discount' vouchers that in fact mark you out for special overcharging and whose main purposes is to let the vendor know to whom to pay the 40% to 50% kick-back the guide gets?

    The lack of attractiveness of the shopping stops is nothing to do with 'not being a shopper' but in the deliberate cheating of tourists. The tipping 'recommendations' are another example of this cheating. It's in these abuses that the tour companies (or their Chinese ground handlers) turn substantial profits, and the tour guide incomes sometimes reach dozens of times that of a university professor.

    I find it hard to think of another discussion of commercial transactions in which we would say, 'They cheat you hand over fist, but that's OK--go and do business with them.' There are tour companies that do handle things much better, avoid the tipping abuse or keep it to an absolute minimum, and keep shopping stops down to one or two in a trip (sometimes these simply cannot be avoided) advising their clients not to shop. But of course these honest companies charge rather more up front, and travelling independently is a great deal cheaper than travelling with them, too.

    All of this is relevant to taking a tour in China, whether with Smart Tours or someone else and entirely relevant to the OP's question--not least because it's often the same ground handlers whatever the brand of tour chosen. The aim is that all readers considering a tour should approach the matter with eyes wide open and wallet firmly shut.

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    I took a look at that SmartTour, and I found another thing to beware of - the optional tours. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that the Beijing hutong optional is $55!!! Save yourself some money and walk it instead - see http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/new-beijing-hutong-walks.cfm - or, if you insist on a rickshaw, go solo and bargain hard.

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    How much should the hutong tour cost? A Fodors independent traveler posted in 2007:

    "For a price that I think was 150 RMB [$22], we would be driven through the hutong in a pedicab and allowed entry into one of the courtyard homes in the hutong where we would peek into the rooms and chat with the occupants over tea. The Peninsula was offering a hutong tour, which included transfers, for about $30 USD which was not only far too much money but would mean walking around with a large group at an appointed time and this was not for me." From http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/back-from-21-superb-days-in-seoul-beijing-shanghai.cfm

    I think that's high too, maybe three times what it should be, but it's a whole lot better than $55.

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    The optional tours are just that-optional. I paid for none of them, prefering to do them on my own. I walked through the hutongs, and got myself to the other optionals at very little cost. You definately can do the optionals on your own, but for those who do not want to, then they are available at a price.

    As far as "wasted time" , I think that I came out way ahead in terms of time wasted, when I consider I may have had to wait for a taxi at 4 or 5 airports and at hotels. And sometimes taxi drivers take their time finding your hotel or museum or whatever you are going to.. I also may have had to wait on line to check in at the airport and find the correct gate for about 4 or 5 flights in China.

    For our group there was no waiting at hotel or airport check in. It was smooth and fast. The drivers knew exactly where they were going. The few hours "wasted" at shopping stops was more than made up for by avoiding the wait in line at airports, hotel check in and at museums. .

    BTW, I noticed that only a few people actually bought anything at the stops. And nobody bought anything of great value. Most people knew enough to find shops on their own and not buy at the in cluded stops.

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    Well, shelleyk, if you avoid the worst of the scams, as you seem to have done, I guess it comes down to whether you want to travel with, and spend money with, a bunch of people who are trying to cheat you. And having traveled in China both on tours (Smithsonian and Intrepid) and independently, I have to say that I'll be going independently in future.

    And on the time wasting issue? My last trip I traveled exclusively by train, so I don't know what the airport taxi lines are like now, but the only time I had to wait for any length of time at the station was in Hangzhou on National Day, the absolute worst time/place to travel. Given the choice, I think I'd rather be in a taxi line, where I might get to chat with a local, than at a shopping op.

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    I went to china with Smart tours. If I hadn`t gone with a group, I wouldn`t have gone at all as I didn`t want to go alone. A lot of the group didn`t do the optional tours, so the bus was not crowded. I really enjoyed the tour, and though tipping is encouraged, it isn`t mandatory.

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    Thank you Shellyk, for keeping the discussion on track! Everyone's travel experiences and preferences are different. I didn't realize I'd be in the position of defending ours (point by point, no less!) We've been to over 35 countries and have taken exactly TWO organized travel tours. We enjoyed them for the reasons I outlined above and trusted the company enough to book this China trip. Once in a while, a tour seems a good choice, esp as we are over 60 now, and the culture is so different from ours. Maybe next time we'll try it as independents!
    As for being cheaper, it's debatable depending on the level of travel you choose. (We aren't backpackers. That said, we do realize that cheaper modes of travel provide better opportunity to get to know the local people and customs. I concede that. We usually choose mid-range, small hotels.)
    For our S American trip last year, we priced the airfare, hotels (usually Crowne Plazas or the like) estimated meals, ground transportation, the Galapagos cruise, etc, and decided ST had been a real bargain. That was not even counting our knowledgeable, helpful guides.
    The only "shopping" stops were at two--one in Peru and one in Ecuador--large interesting open air markets and the group voted on how much time to stay there, which ended up being about an hour. I'm familiar with the shopping shops you refer to. We had an "educational" trip to the carpet factory in Turkey as part of a daylong tour with an independent local operator--it was high pressure and it abused our time that would be better spent n a museum.
    In Australia there were a number of optional, pricey tours, which we skipped and enjoyed exploring on our own, or booked a local trip. Even on a tour, you have to do some homework ahead of time and make the best choices to see what you want to see. We chose art museums over bus rides in the countryside.
    In any country, of course you have to be savvy about local tipping customs and beware of scams.
    Have a good day!

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    > Thank you Shellyk, for keeping the discussion on track!

    The discussion has remained entirely on track throughout. To query points you put forward, although you may not like that, is not to go off track; and to warn potential future travellers considering organised tourism in China of the shenanigans that are almost unavoidable, and of those specific to Smart Tours in particular, are about as 'on track' as you can get.

    > As for being cheaper, it's debatable depending on the level of travel you choose.

    No, it isn't. And just repeating that it is won't make it any more true. At any level, independent travel is cheaper in China. It has nothing to do with being a backpacker. And 'mid-range, small hotels' are precisely the area in which you can save most. You may prefer the apparent convenience of a tour, but you need to be aware of many hidden drawbacks.

    > For our S American trip last year... and decided ST had been a real bargain.

    But this isn't South America; it's China. And has already been explained to you, it's just the same old Chinese ground handlers sub-contracted to run the tour, and who will take you hand over fist. The kindest interpretation to be put on Smart Tours' situation is that it is entirely ignorant of how China works, and is itself being taken by its ground handlers. You can avoid most of the worst rip-offs if you take the advice given, but you'll just have to put up with the food and the shopping stops.

    > In any country, of course you have to be savvy about local tipping customs and beware of scams.

    And in this case is Smart Tours helping you to be 'savvy about local tipping customs' and about 'scams'? No, On the contrary it is taking you to the cleaners on both fronts.

    > I didn't realize I'd be in the position of defending ours (point by point, no less!)

    If you want to take a tour, that's up to you. But this is a public discussion, which may be read by hundreds of others trying to make a decision on this point. You are advancing reasons why taking this tour in particular is a good idea. None of these reasons are valid. This is unfortunately since you've already booked, but the reasons you advance for taking the tour are based on assumptions about China, costs there, and the nature of the travel industry there, that are not correct.

    Nor can you really claim to be defending your decision 'point by point', as there's at least one important issue, pointed out by both myself and thursdaysd, namely whether it is appropriate to recommend a company you know is trying to cheat you?

    > As far as "wasted time" , I think that I came out way ahead in terms of time wasted, when I consider I may have had to wait for a taxi at 4 or 5 airports and at hotels. And sometimes taxi drivers take their time finding your hotel or museum or whatever you are going to.. I also may have had to wait on line to check in at the airport and find the correct gate for about 4 or 5 flights in China.

    This is a logical fallacy which involves including in your initial assumptions what you want to find in your conclusions (not least an oddly assumed inability to read gate numbers in Arabic numerals and signs and boarding passes in Roman letters). You choose to assume the time wasted is greater than that lost on assorted aspects of organised tours, but this isn't necessarily true, and even if true, is not necessarily a good reason for taking tours if there are other substantial drawbacks to doing so: amongst these not least (setting aside poor food, tipping rip-offs, etc.) because there is an intention to waste your time (rather than this happening accidentally) to the financial benefit of those who should be protecting you from cheating, not performing the cheating themselves.

    As for China Spree, recommended in another posting above, a search using the box above will reveal how that company is as bad, or possibly even worse, and is to be avoided at all costs (with the emphasis on 'cost').

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    So Peter, when I say I went with Smartours to China and that generally the food, hotels, guides and itinerary were good, are you saying I am incorrect, or merely that I could have had a better trip if I had not gone on a tour? I've travelled independently and extensively for over 40 years and I can assure you that I know what a good hotel is as well as good food and good guides. Might the trip have been better (or worse) if I had done it independently. I don't know. I do know that I had a good time and was more than satisfied with what Smartours delivered.

    It is quite obvious that you are totally against anyone taking an organized tour to China. We get it. But there are those that want a formal tour, despite the pitfalls you have warned them about. And for them, I would say- Go. You will have a great time.

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    > So Peter, when I say I went with Smartours to China and that generally the food, hotels, guides and itinerary were good, are you saying I am incorrect, or merely that I could have had a better trip if I had not gone on a tour?

    This is a question of the 'Have you stopped beating your wife yet?' variety.

    Many people come back from tours in China feeling that they have had a great time. That doesn't mean, however, that certain tours should be recommended since they cheat their clients in so many ways. Once a client knows all the cheating involved, can he or she still really recommend the company to others?

    > I've travelled independently and extensively for over 40 years and I can assure you that I know what a good hotel is as well as good food and good guides.

    So do you know what another hotel in China you didn't stay in was like, and do you know how much that hotel would have cost had you travelled independently? Would travelling elsewhere for even a century tell you this?

    Similarly, just how knowledgeable are you about the real costs of things you buy in China? The business of guides on organised tours is to lead you to where you'll be overcharged ten times of more for souvenirs, and to take a cut for themselves of up to 50%. Is this something that should be recommended?

    On food, if you stayed within the confines of the tour then there's no chance whatsoever that you discovered the immense richness and variety of food in China, one of the country's greatest pleasures, and dramatically different to (and superior to) the pap that is for the most part sold as 'Chinese' food overseas. Food choices on tours are largely based on which restaurant is paying the biggest kick-back, or what factory tour/product demonstration can be included, with the potential for kick-backs from sales.

    And if your guide tells you the stele is set in the back of a turtle do you really know enough to tell her that in fact it's not a turtle but a bixi (赑屃)? The Chinese education system and the organised tourism industry are part of the same government propaganda effort, and guides are trained to tell you what the government wants you hear, while having precious little grasp of accurate details of their cultural history. If you don't have that grasp yourself, how can you judge the quality of what you hear? The quantity isn't in doubt; but that's not the point, is it? Travelling for decades elsewhere isn't going to help in any way.

    Knowing all this, which is highly unpalatable to recount (but that's the industry's fault, not mine), and knowing that the tipping advice was even further massive abuse of your good faith (see earlier postings on this thread), is it truly possible to feel 'satisfied' with Smart Tours? Unfortunately this isn't specifically a Smart Tours problem but one with the majority of tour companies in China, and these problems are well known.

    > It is quite obvious that you are totally against anyone taking an organized tour to China.

    There's no need, and indeed it does nothing for your case since it is entirely illogical, to get personal. What I am, or am not, in favour of, has no effect whatsoever on the facts of abuse within organised travel in China. But as a matter of fact what I am in favour of is that people who take organised tours do so with their eyes wide open so that they do not assume that touring in China is like touring anywhere else, and so that they are able to avoid at least some of the abuse. Perhaps your view on that differs. but this is a public conversation, and it's the welfare of those who have yet to take a tour in China that is the most important consideration.

    Peter N-H

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    Peter,

    Why do you care so much about what strangers do with their travel dollars? You just spent your whole Sunday afternoon trying to convince someone you don't even know to travel in a certain way.

    travelexplorer,

    I'm not an organized tour person, and I haven't been to China, but last year I met a ST group on a ship in the Galapagos. They had also been to Machu Picchu. I was impressed with the a) the authenticity of the itinerary, b) the price they had paid, and c) the people - a much cooler and more interesting group than you would expect to find on a tour. It made me curious about ST...They seem like as great choice if you don't want the hassle/expense of setting up a trip to a complicated destination.

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    Peter, Your replies are so strong they certainly discourage me from wanting to be involved in answering any questions. I reported on my experience. As far as saying that ST cost me less than doing it on my own...maybe you could do it for less, but maybe I couldn't. I responded to the tone of the original question. That person wanted to know about the ST experience. Thank you Shelly and Joyce for your responses.

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    Elainee: My replies address (as yours should) not what I think of other posters but the facts of travel in China. You suggested that independent travel costs more, and I joined thursdaysd in quite simply pointing out that this isn't true. This is a public forum for the debate of travel-related issues, for the benefit of a readership far beyond those who contribute on any one particular topic, and no one posting here can reasonably expect to deny others a response. Those who have still to make their travel decisions need to know that organised tourism is not cheaper in China, although frequently presented as such. There are no special circumstances, as you seem to imply immediately above, which mean that you or I would be charged differently from anyone else. You may still prefer to travel in a group tour and that's entirely up to you, and others may have their own reasons for wanting to take a tour, but your claim that doing so is cheaper in China remains incorrect, and it is important that they know this (and know of other drawbacks with tours mentioned above that you may well not have been aware of while travelling), and make their decisions with this information in mind.

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    Let's let everyone tour China as he/she wishes--just as long as they DO go. China is now considered the #2 economy in the world. The importance of this country will keep growing. It is extremely valuable to have a first hand look. And while you're at it, consider studying a little Mandarin.

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    JoyceM, Please do start a new thread when you return. You are certainly not alone in this, in fact you are in the majority. We are very interested in what you have to say. Have a nice trip!

    Aloha!

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    Elainee-Do not be discouraged from participating and answering questions based on your travel experience. Although you may feel browbeaten and belittled, I am sure that there are many here who value what you had to say, and your views will help them make an informed decision as to whether to go on a formal tour with Smartours (which was the OP's question)

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    Thanks...I'll definitely send a report after our trip. I'm happy to report that our SmarTours travel docs arrived yesterday. The suggestions for tipping are VERY minimal. (Not everyone is out to scam you.)

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    I hate to get into the "cheaper to travel independently" argument, but common sense tells me it depends on how you travel and what you compare.

    If one spends his vacation wandering around the streets checking hotel after hotel and begging for a bargain, worrying about never paying too much and only getting the cheapest things you can find, and gets his laundry done in a filthy "primitive" hutong where it is hung to dry under smoking locals, then of course, your trip is likely to be cheaper than most tours. It depends on HOW you like to travel.

    I was a little amused today after hiring an English speaking driver for the full day for 700 yuan to take me to Mutianyu, and added up the admissions and cable cars, etc. for the attractions and realized there are package tours for considerably less -- but that's not how I wanted to go. Sometimes it isn't a matter of what's cheapest, it's how you want to do it. But I'm learning that a single traveler can easily spend more doing his own day tours that many package tours cost. Of course if you're dividing the cost of a driver and/or guide between two or more people, that becomes a different matter.

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    JoyceM - I shall DEFINITELY read your report with interest as we (3 ladies in our 60's from the UK) are planning to go to China in Sept 2011 for 3 weeks. We have no idea which way to go - independent or with a tour company - so your feedback will be invaluable. Have a great trip and look forward to reading about your experiences. We just want to keep it simple and as stressless as possible.

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    > The suggestions for tipping are VERY minimal. (Not everyone is out to scam you.)

    ANY suggestion that you tip in China is a scam, as there is no tipping except that foisted on naive tour groups. Just ignoring the facts you've been given on abuse within most organised touring in China, and which have been given you for your own benefit, won't make them go away.

    Remember thursdaysd's earlier post:

    > This month's issue of International Travel News has a letter from someone who took a smarTours trip to China. She says: "... be prepared to spend $300-$400 per person in tips, not including the tip to the tour director".

    Are you suggesting that Smart Tours has abandoned this practice, or simply reduced the abuse a little? What exactly is being suggested? What is the wording? There's no mention of tipping at all on the website, of course. So what do you make of this suggestion now you've booked and your money is safely in their bank, that you should perhaps tip in a country where there's no tipping?

    Perhaps you'll also let us know exactly how many shopping stops there are. After all, the company mentions none at all in its itineraries, so none there should be.

    Travel companies have gone two ways since their abusive tipping policies have been more widely publicised: one is to start calling the tips a 'service charge' (the same rip-off under a different name), and the other is to play it cool, using words like discretionary, in the knowledge that foreigners will apply their own cultural traditions rather than finding out what China's are, and some will feel this means they MUST fork out wads of extra cash. In some cases they lean heavily on travellers during the tours with constant mentions of tips, whereas any Chinese not directly involved in the deliberate deceptions of the tour industry will look puzzled if you try to tip, and if a waitress, for instance, will chase you down the street to return money left on the table. But even to suggest you should tip anyone except a foreign tour leader is rank abuse of your good nature, and you shouldn't be tipping at all. Perhaps you could give us an honest account of what happens as a result.

    Although you seem quick to descend to abuse rather than deal with the facts and arguments presented to you, very good advice has been offered, and with the best will in the world, to help you make the best of the tour you've booked. If you take the advice offered to you for your own protection, then you won't shop at the shopping stops (although you'll find that these can't be avoided even if no one wants to shop, and probably will have to be of a certain minimum duration), you'll take your own reading materials for historical and cultural information, you won't buy any extra services from this company, and you'll break away from the group for as many meals as possible.

    There's no need to take any of this personally, or make personal remarks. This is all about the facts of travel in China, and not about who is speaking them (which is irrelevant). You offered suggestions about the cheapness of organised travel and the difficulties of independent travel in China which were not based on experience and were inaccurate, and argued firmly for these positions, so you can hardly complain about responses which address the points you raised. This is a public forum, and leaving such inaccurate statements unquestioned may lead to others who would prefer to travel independently to feel they must take a tour, and to hand money to people who are setting out to cheat them. This would be regrettable, wouldn't it?

    As for getting a life, I have one thank you, much of which over the last 15 years has been spent in China researching in very great detail precisely the issues under discussion.

    Peter N-H

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    ANY suggestion that you tip in China is a scam, as there is no tipping except that foisted on naive tour groups. Just ignoring the facts you've been given on abuse within most organised touring in China, and which have been given you for your own benefit, won't make them go away.

    I am sorry but this is not true. There is tipping in China no matter how many times you say there isn't. It is now a fact of life in Beijing and just because you keep closing your eyes to it and saying it does not exist does not change the fact that it does. Come into the 21st century and stop living in the past or how you "wish" it could be.

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    Times change. Maybe some can call an added "service charge" a rip off, but it is becoming a fact of life in China. I had drinks at the top of the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai. A 15% service charge is added to the bill automatically. I guess that is a "rip off", but if you want to have drinks at the top of the Hyatt's Cloud Nine, it is a required rip off. And numerous hotels in China I've learned DO now have a "service charge" added to your bill. This is in some Chinese hotels as well as American owned or managed ones.

    It is unfortunate that major hotels are being referred to as "out to cheat" their customers. It is simply a changing policy in a changing world, like it or not. After all isn't a service charge added by a hotel the same as a service charge added by a company providing you with other services?

    I suspect some people who like having things done for them rather than fend for themselves at every turn wouldn't mind paying a little more when that service is given and wouldn't really call paying for services being given a "rip off".

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    My husband and I went with SmarTours to China in Summer 2007. We went on the tour that includes Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. We have avoided organized tours in the past, but were intrigued by the low cost of the trip and the itinerary. As others have said, the hotels were great and we were very happy with our experience. Was everything perfect? No, but we felt we received good value for our money.
    Our group numbered around 24 and was a mix of retired people, middle aged couples, young professionals and families. Everyone was very pleasant and friendly and several were repeat ST clients. I think a group tour is wonderful for the solo traveler, as you have someone to share your travel experience. Although I was traveling with my husband, he didn't want to go to the Opera or the Shanghai Circus. I could attend these events with my new friends from the tour. I would never have gone by myself if we had been on our own. I would have missed out on these experiences.
    We were never pressured to go on the optional tours and we did quite a bit of touring on our own during the free time that was scheduled in the itinerary. There were shopping stops, but we were not pressured to buy anything. I enjoyed looking at the items for sale and watching the artisans creating the jade and cloisonne items. As far as tipping goes, yes, there is a recommended amount, but your tips are a private matter and no one is checking to see what you are tipping.
    Another benefit was convenience. We do like to travel independently, however there is something to be said for having someone else work out all the details and worry about travel connections, etc.
    I think you should try SmarTours. It was our experience that it was a good introduction to a country that we found a little bit intimidating to try on our own. We loved China and now that we have found it to be so accessible, we are thinking about going back as independent travellers.

    Sara

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    Amen, Hawaiiantraveler.

    Both my taxi driver in Beijing this morning and my taxi driver in Xian this afternoon "assumed" a tip. The fare plus toll in Beijing was 93 yuan, and when I gave the driver 100 I paused then asked for change. He only nodded and smiled and nothing came. Why make an issue over $1? Then in Xi'an, the meter read 178 and I know he also paid a 10 yuan toll, so my 200 didn't yield anything in return. Do I feel ripped off? no. Do I want to call the authorities and have these scavengers thrown in jail for cheating a tourist? No. Do I feel guilty for causing a total clash to the culture standards of China? No. I'm over it. Others should be too.

    Meanwhile I'll pay the added 10% at my hotel in Xi'an and not call it a rip off. Others might, but I won't.

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    I've never taken an escorted tour, but I have two separate colleagues from work who are repeat SmarTour customers and always rave about their trips. The above reports confirm what they say.

    It's nice to read of first hand experiences with tour groups on this forum. Since I'm "The Traveler" and "The Researcher" among my family and friends, from time to time I get asked for help in choosing a tour, but I'm always at a loss. I hope people here are made to feel comfortable posting their experiences with tours because many will benefit.

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    I always read independent vs. tour groups on this site and some people are so adamant about not using tour groups.

    I am a solo female traveler and find that with tour groups at least you always have someone to talk to and if you want to be alone, you can. The same goes for the optionals and dinner. You do not always have to be with the group.

    The many times that I traveled to Europe I went alone, but to Asia or Africa I feel a tour group is beter for my situation.

    This year I booked a trip to Vietnam with Gate 1 because I had the option of using my own ff miles, so that worked out for me.

    I don't understand why people have to be so snarky if you do not agree with them. Why can't you just respect someone's opinion and give advice, if asked.

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    "Many people come back from tours in China feeling that they have had a great time."

    Poor deluded fools! More naive, hapless tourists who just don't realize that they actually were miserable. :)

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    Sari80: Your points on the general benefits of taking tours contain nothing to disagree with, but as for recommending one tour company in particular, again the question arises, is it appropriate to recommend a company you know is setting out deliberately to cheat you?

    It may be possible to avoid tipping, but there should have been no recommendation that you tip in the first place, as there is no tipping in China beyond that foisted in this money on naive foreign visitors. No Chinese is ever advised to tip, nor does so. Outside the confined of mass tourism your tip/change will be returned to you with puzzlement. There are companies that don't cheat you in this manner, or that have it all under control, and the point here is that those who want to take tours (for the reasons you mention, and others) should make shrewd choices. Most travellers, knowing nothing of China and faced with the recommendations, will feel obliged to tip. You may not have tipped, but if you did you were conned.

    And on the shopping stops, is it really right that these should be omitted from the published itinerary but unavoidable in fact? And although, as you point out, these can be sat out, the fact is that you are taken there not for your own benefit but because the guide and driver (or the ground handling tour company, depending on the arrangement) receive cash benefits, and typically 40% to 50% of any money you spend. You may not have shopped, but anyone who does will be vastly overcharged (can be ten, fifteen, or even twenty times too much), with the company conniving at that overcharging for its own financial benefit. This, too, is a massive con.

    It's a shame in a way that one company is being named here, because there are many others with the same practices, and tours priced so that you'll be 'intrigued by the low cost' as you put it. Setting aside hotel and restaurant selections and itinerary issues are also driven by kick-back issues rather than by a consideration of what's best for the traveller, the 'low cost' is apparent, not real.

    So again, can such practices really be recommended?

    There are tour companies that avoid the worst of these issues, and that understand how China works. Those intending to visit China on a tour need to ask careful questions about the issues mentioned above (and others discussed in other threads) in order to choose a company that will protect them from scams, rather than participate in them.

    Peter N-H

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    Peter, would you not be doing a service to the community if you would name at least some of those "tour companies that avoid the worst of [the shady practice] issues, and that understand how China works"?

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    When someone says, "if you really appreciated the services your guide or others received then you can reward them with a small cash token" -- I don't consider that being "conned". What an odd way of looking at things. It is no different than giving someone a gift. You don't have to give them one, but if you choose to do so -- that doesn't mean you've been ripped off. Some people do things and pay for things because they think it is worth it. Others would rather keep every penny in their pocket than reward others with thanks.

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    rizzuto - I'm not Peter, but I'll put in a good word for Intrepid. No tipping in China - not even the tour leader as it's an Aussie company. In the three weeks I spent in China with them the only shopping ops were one silk place and one carpet place, both in Hotan in Xinjiang province, and since Intrepid actually urges you to go off on your own, easily skipped if you chose. However, unless you're on the comfort level tours, the hotels are a bit down-market.

    I could recommend the Smithsonian for the no tipping part, but unfortunately there were way, way too many shopping ops.

    NeoPatrick - I think how you see "you can reward them with a small cash token" may reflect whether you grew up in a tipping or no-tipping culture. And would you try that in Japan? Some people see handing out cash as very different from a gift.

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    rizzuto: I think it is better simply to make sure those who are thinking of booking tours are alerted to the problems of organised tourism in China, and given specific questions to ask tour companies they are considering. Everyone has other criteria (wanting small group tours, those that concentrate on art, slower itineraries, more or less free time, tour companies of a certain age, more remote itineraries, etc., etc., etc.) and should do their own research. I've outlined these questions (concerning tipping policies, shopping stops, foreign tour director, etc.) several times under other threads.

    I certainly obtained mostly right answers from Intrepid (as mentioned above) when I last talked to them. And there's another Aussie company, related to Intrepid I believe (I don't have my notes in front of me) that has the same approach, and uses mostly public transport to get around more backwater places as well as the big names. But, as mentioned, they may not be comfortable enough for some.

    I think the point is that people should be aware of the massive corruption in the industry (and name another Chinese industry of which this isn't true, if you can), and alerted to ask the right questions so as to avoid the worst abuses. This also brings about visible change (although not necessarily improvement, admittedly, as it just means some items disappear from the websites, or become renamed). But eventually the message may get across that honesty is best policy.

    The only other general observations to add are that tours that appear to be too good to be true are usually precisely that, and also that booking with an unknown Chinese tour company via the Web is almost always a mistake. However, several now try to appear as foreign companies by opening offices overseas, or, more commonly, establishing free-to-call booking numbers that appear to be, for instance, North American, but that actually ring in offices in Beijing, Xi'an, or Guilin.

    Organised travel in China is a tricky business.

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    "Some people see handing out cash as very different from a gift."

    Yes, true. But I'll bet you $100 that NO guide in China in the year 2010 would be offended with a cash tip. Do you honestly want to argue that point? Sorry, but their culture changes too, just like ours, and it has.

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    By the way, I may just be playing devil's advocate here, as I do not tip guides. Yesterday my private guide set up by the Hyatt in Xi'an was great and at the end when he shook my hand, I felt he expected a tip -- surely he is used to them from people booked via the Hyatt -- but I didn't give him one.

    Still the argument here seemed to be that there "is no tipping in China ever" and I honestly feel that it simply an outdated cultural statement. There IS tipping in China in 2010, and I have little doubt that guides who work for big tour companies catering to Americans will expect them and their salaries are even based on expectations of additional tips.

    By the way, speaking of Xi'an. I was only here for one full day and decided to do the guided bus tour as it would include more than I could manage on my own figuring out transportation. This was to be the first organized tour I would take in Asia. The price was 395 for 8 hours -- including lunch (a 110 yuan buffet at Tang Dynasty) and all admissions, which according to my calculations added up to 215 yuan. But oddly in the morning I found that I was the only one who had signed up for the bus tour, so they gave me a private guide and driver instead. I'd say I got an incredible deal. It was nice that they honored the pre-paid agreed price, even though I got something much better.

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    When I started planning my trip to China for Sept. 2011 I was all set to go with a private or small group tour. After reading trip reports and the threads about tour companies here on Fodors, and researching on TA, Flyertalk, and other web sites I did a complete 180 and am now going to be doing an independent trip. My husband and I begin conversation Chinese class on Sunday and will have 9 months of classes in before we go, hopefully we can do some of our bargaining for hotel and driver prices in Chinese.

    My first trip to China in 2001 was a tour with Pacific delights. I now realize that I was one of those who thought it was reasonably priced for what we got but now know otherwise. I don't feel ripped off but we definitely overpaid. As for getting the Chinese party line view of history and culture, our guide gave us a massively skewed version of history. This was a month after the 9/11 attacks and it colored his commentary on everything. The Chinese were saying America deserved 9/11 because we bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. I don't know whether our guide really disliked Americans or was told to talk like that. At the same time he kept begging a few of us who owned businesses to take him to America to work for us. He was employed by CTS and provided to Pacific Delights.

    If you go with a tour, remember buyer beware.

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    I'm glad I found this! I'm also considering booking the 15 night escorted China tour w/Yangzte & Hong Kong offered by Smartours in November. It would be great if you "China experts" would address the TEMPERATURE query posted by travelexplorer. From my Internet search, it appears that 1) "sweater weather" with much less precipitation can be expected in most of the itinerary and, 2) The "peak season" is generally Sept./October (and the pricing of all tour companies reflect that!) However, personally, I don't mind blue skies and cooler temperatures when doing excursions. High temperatures of 55 in Beijing and 78 in Hong Kong with little rain seems OK. Am I missing something?

    PS) PLEASE try to refrain from going "Off-Topic" by discussing the merits of independent vs. escorted tours: As a female solo traveler, visiting China alone is NOT an option I would ever consider !
    Thank you,

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    Your internet research regarding weather should give you a sense of what to expect. AS you note, you need to check every city you plan to visit.

    While I understand that you may not be willing to go to China independently, take a look at this account of a solo traveler in China right now
    www.fodors.com/community/asia/neopatrick-in-asia-a-report-as-it-happens-sort-of.cfm

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    You might want to look at the low as well as the high temperatures.

    If this is your first visit to China I understand that you may prefer to go with a tour, but there is nothing inherent in being a solo female traveler to require that you do so.

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    On Tuesday night, I was talking to a former student of mine who returned to China on Wednesday (on a Fulbright Scholarship) and one of the things he mentioned was that, although Beijing is about the same latitude as Philadelphia (where we live), the climate felt more extreme to him...and the skies are not too frequently blue. So I'm guessing November could possibly be unpleasant, but it's so worth it to be able to travel off season. I was there in a heat wave (July) but was able to get around fine for the most part; I did slow down a tad, though!

    Here's my trip report as (hey, guess what?) a solo female traveling in China:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/solo-but-not-alone-three-weeks-in-china.cfm

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    > I'm glad I found this! I'm also considering booking the 15 night escorted China tour w/Yangzte & Hong Kong offered by Smartours in November.

    Which raises the question: Have you actually read this thread?

    > PLEASE try to refrain from going "Off-Topic" by discussing the merits of independent vs. escorted tours:

    Apparently the answer must be, 'No, I haven't read this thread.'

    Please, if you're going to join in an already lengthy conversation, do have the courtesy to read what was asked, and what has been said in reply. Since the OP originally asked for opinions on an escorted tour in China, factual information provided on the problems with taking tours in China is entirely on-topic, and probably of more use to those who decide to take them than to those who don't. If you actually read the postings you might find information that will help reduce the problems on your own tour, and if you haven't actually booked, many good reasons why you might want to reconsider.

    > As a female solo traveler, visiting China alone is NOT an option I would ever consider !

    If you are implying that being female, a solo traveller, or both somehow makes independent travel difficult, dangerous, or impossible then you are ill-informed, as a little look round this site using the search box would tell you. You may prefer an organised tour (in which case you really had better read carefully what has been said above, and follow the links helpfully given early in the discussion), but China is full of independent solo female travellers who may travel there as enjoyably and safely as anyone else. China is not a country in which independent solo female travellers need have any special fears and in general it is safe for any visitor to walk the streets at any time of day or night, the biggest hazards being poor lighting of obstacles, uneven paving, and terrible driving.

    You might also care to note that this is a public conversation, and will in time be read by hundreds. Your own individual aversion to independent travel is not in itself any justification for instructing others what they may or may not say in answer to the original query, others that come up, or with the aim of helping the wider readership.

    As for the weather, try this link:

    http://tinyurl.com/2f7exhv

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    Thank you so much Amy for the link to your trip to China in 2006 ... fascinating! Cathy, I'm really enjoying the day by day report from Patrick who's in Asia right now. And, Thursdaysd, I concur that being a solo female traveler doesn't necessarily rule out independent travel. But I'm rather intimidated by the language barrier and I'm hoping to enjoy a smooth "hassle-free" vacation. Perhaps it's best for me to tolerate a "herd-like" group tour experience for my first venture in SE Asia!
    I found a good site on weather data by city and month. Indeed, low temperatures are kind of scary but perhaps the low precipitation relative to other months may bring more sunny days?:
    http://www.travelchinaguide.com/climate/

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    Peter, as many have mentioned above, it's your own staunch aversion to escorted tours which is rather obvious. We get it and thank you for all your lengthy input. With regard to other issues posted in this thread, here's my 2 cents:

    1) Tipping: When a tourist spends THOUSANDS of dollars on international airfare, hotels, tours, etc., the issue of tipping is trivial and best described as "a drop in the bucket"! Not worth all the air-time on this forum IMO. The only time you're subjected to "mandatory tipping" is when it's on your bill. Do what feels right and fair.

    2) Shopping stops on tours: The MO on most tours worldwide, no? Only tourists with "the IQ of a carrot" actually buy stuff at these tourist traps. The rest of us just browse and watch the factory demonstration for a minute. BTW, I'd rather "waste time" browsing at expensive merchandise than devote a lot of time being a DIY tourist ie.) coordinating transportation, waiting in long lines to buy a ticket at tourist sites, figuring out all the logistics, etc... When on vacation, I'd rather not "work".

    3) Tour guides: It's naive to think you'll get high intellect and unbiased talk from local tour guides. Do you really expect a PhD scholar?! Just do some reading and educate yourself PRIOR to your trip. The tour guide is simply your ticket to easy transport, no waiting in lines and a generally smooth, hassle-free vacation. If you don't like the guide's babble on the tour bus, just smile and pull out your iPod!

    Peter, it's obvious you are very knowledgeable on China travel. Given the itinerary I'm considering booking on Monday, do you think a November tour should be passed on in favor of 1) April/May or 2) Sept./October . Thank you!

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    LA-Traveler, very well said.
    Since my thread was brought up I feel compelled to speak as well.

    I must confess that I was easily talked into doing China independently -- as I've never been fond of organized tours. And yes, I'm having few problems traveling on my own in China. But a couple of points. I think anyone who says it is "JUST as easy" to travel in China as it is in Europe has probably never really done both. There is a huge difference between walking into a train station in Italy and knowing you want to go to Zsfzaaal and looking at a schedule and finding that name and being able to see when the trains go and what track they go from, and walking into one in China where the schedules are ONLY in Chinese characters so it is impossible to even guess which one says the city or street you are looking for. And I have found it much more difficult to find English speakers off the beaten path in China than I always have found in Europe. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's really difficult, but I don't get the comparison that it's "just as easy".

    And while I agree that shopping visits on tours are generally a waste of time, I must confess that I'm well aware if I were on a tour I'd be seeing a lot more specific sites than I am. When you have to figure out your own transportation, look for it, walk to it, wait for it, or often have trouble finding it, not to mention standing in line for tickets -- there's something to be said for being picked up at your hotel and whisked from site to site to be led to the front gate of every attraction with your tickets already in hand or your being escorted through. The one day I did an organized tour in Xi'an, I clearly "did more" and "saw more" than I have been able to do on my own any other day.

    And the idea of doing it cheaper on your own? Well, not always. Especially, when traveling alone and if you want to make the most of your time by taking a taxi and getting somewhere without a lot of bus or train changes and waiting, then the cost for a SINGLE person really starts soaring compared to dividing by two or more for a "per person" cost. And when admission fees are paid full price by an individual compared to the miniscule group prices paid by a tour, I'm not so sure something you pay no more for the transporation and guide than you'd pay for the list of the same attractions on your own without transportation and guide. I KNOW that was the case of the tour in Xi'an (never mind that I ended up with the bonus of a private guide and driver because I was the only one signed up -- I'm talking about the bus tour itself as planned and priced, even my local "buddy" couldn't believe they could do it all for that as he knew what the admissions alone cost.

    And although some here keep saying "read the other threads" it should be noted that while this forum is primarily geared at independent travelers so of course the bulk of the posts are about traveling independently, those who really do read ALL the posts will see that there is a share of people who HAVE traveled with a tour and loved every minute. If people read with an open mind, it is not quite so true that there is only one side to this topic.

    So what am I saying? Am I sorry I'm doing it independently? No, not at all. But I'll readily admit that there are some definite advantages to group travel that some seem to ignore -- especially for the single traveler. And I'm also well aware that if it had not been for having some local friends or acquaintances in several of my locations, I would not have enjoyed my trip solo nearly so much as I have.

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    Patrick, thank you so much for your unbiased input! Indeed, there are pros and cons associated with either form of travel. I'm now at your week 2 and I'm doing a copy/paste on your recommendations. Thanks again and ENJOY!

    PS) I wish I had your zillions of air-miles and could travel first class from LA :)

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    Ah, LA_traveler, I only have "millions", not zillions of miles, so I traveled business, not first (although flights that have no business class, I get upgraded to first). LOL

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    > Peter, as many have mentioned above, it's your own staunch aversion to escorted tours which is rather obvious.

    I enjoy the implication that you have now actually read the postings combined with the simultaneous revelation that you haven't actually done so.

    Here's what has already been said:

    'What I am, or am not, in favour of, has no effect whatsoever on the facts of abuse within organised travel in China. But as a matter of fact what I am in favour of is that people who take organised tours do so with their eyes wide open so that they do not assume that touring in China is like touring anywhere else, and so that they are able to avoid at least some of the abuse. Perhaps your view on that differs. but this is a public conversation, and it's the welfare of those who have yet to take a tour in China that is the most important consideration.'

    > We get it

    Apparently not. But if you're wise you'll look carefully through the advice given.

    > 1) Tipping: When a tourist spends THOUSANDS of dollars on international airfare, hotels, tours, etc., the issue of tipping is trivial and best described as "a drop in the bucket"! Not worth all the air-time on this forum IMO. The only time you're subjected to "mandatory tipping" is when it's on your bill. Do what feels right and fair.

    Again, it would be really nice if you'd read the information and arguments set out. There is no tipping in China. The company, in suggesting that you should tip, is cheating you. This has nothing to do with the amount of tip (although the suggested amounts are utterly abusive and bear no relation whatsoever either to local practice or to local economic reality--hundreds of dollars if you read the postings and not insignificant at all), or the relationship to the costs or reaching China which is entirely irrelevant, but in the deliberate conning of naive travellers, and a deliberate hiding of costs in order to make a tour seem cheaper than it actually is.

    The question has been asked several times, but every defender of all this chicanery in China avoids answering it: Do you really think it is right to recommend a company that knowingly an deliberately sets out to cheat you? (And not only in the matter of tipping.)

    I think this cheating should be pointed out so that it can be avoided by not taking a tour, by choosing a more honest tour company, or at worst by carefully sitting out certain parts of the tour (although this seems a complete waste, and needs to be factored into any assessment of value for money).

    > 2) Shopping stops on tours: The MO on most tours worldwide, no?

    50% kick-backs on items 20 times too expensive, on multiple occasions? While collusion in such matters is by no means unknown elsewhere, is it to this degree? And even if the answer were to be, 'Yes, you get flayed alive everywhere else, too' would that make it right? Or something you should permit when you can pick companies that don't visit this on you?

    > Only tourists with "the IQ of a carrot" actually buy stuff at these tourist traps.

    But many people do precisely go with tours because they expect to be saved, by being in the guided tour environment, from unknown variables, crime, and general rapacity (you know, 'solo females' and others). They expect honest pricing advice from their guides, not that their guides will deliberately, time and again, lead them into places where they'll be charged as many as twenty times too much for items, in order to get a kick-back. But instead of avoiding pick-pockets, they are hiring them.

    There are many who post here who had no idea what was practised on them, who resent having it pointed out to them after the event, but who will nevertheless no doubt rightly feel unhappy about being told they have 'the IQ of a carrot'.

    > The rest of us just browse and watch the factory demonstration for a minute.

    You think? You're making assumptions about how the tour is going to be in order to get the conclusion you have decided you want. But you haven't taken the tour yet. The following link contains a detailed comparison by a traveller of the shopping experiences on a European tour with that on a China tour (as well as comparisons of many other points, and the highlighting of several other problems):

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/hate-tours-but-travelling-to-china-beijing.cfm

    But on time spent, here's a key paragraph:

    'There was a huge difference in the time spent at these stores. We spent only 30 minutes at these stores on our European tour (I videotaped every stop that we made)…our tour director gave us a time limit (e.g. 15 minutes) after the so-called ‘product demonstration’ before moving on to the next attraction. On our China tour, we spent at least an hour at these stores. If a single person was browsing at the merchandise (which is common to do if there is no place to sit down), the tour director waited until the last person stop browsing before taking the group to the next stop. After a while, the group figured this out so the group started to round up the browsers so that we could go sightseeing instead of shopping.'

    > BTW, I'd rather "waste time" browsing at expensive merchandise than devote a lot of time being a DIY tourist ie.) coordinating transportation, waiting in long lines to buy a ticket at tourist sites, figuring out all the logistics, etc... When on vacation, I'd rather not "work".

    As an earlier poster did, you're again assuming in your premises exactly what you want to find in your conclusions. You have no idea about the relative time issues, but just assume 'long lines' or other difficulties in order to make your case. You may want to take a tour, and that's sufficient under itself, but there's no logically sound argument here for doing so.

    And again, as asked several times and by more than one poster, do you really want to go with a company that fails to mention any of these shopping stops in its itinerary, springs them on you, and deliberately sets out to cheat you at every one?

    Furthermore it isn't a matter of choosing between wasting what may amount to hours browsing naff, overpriced, tat that you don't want to buy, but between doing that (which the published itinerary failed to list) and spending time actually at the sites that interest you.

    > 3) Tour guides: It's naive to think you'll get high intellect and unbiased talk from local tour guides.

    How unfortunate. One of the common reasons for taking a tour is to obtain fulsome and accurate information from qualified (no one has said intellectual) local people. That expectation is precisely why the government goes to some lengths to make sure you are told exclusively its point of view. Not all the material is as unsubtle as that quoted in susiesan's post above.

    > Do you really expect a PhD scholar?

    An entirely illogical question as no one has suggested any such thing. You can find tours that have them, of course, but again this misses the point and suggests that earlier postings have not been read: the Chinese PhD scholar would be as misleading as others, and you need an independent foreign source (available in both Beijing and Shanghai, but not cheaply).

    > Just do some reading and educate yourself PRIOR to your trip.

    Entirely agree. And take some reading with you.

    > The tour guide is simply your ticket to easy transport, no waiting in lines and a generally smooth, hassle-free vacation.

    Right. It's no hassle at all to have your restaurants and hotels chosen according to the amount of kick-back they pay, or to be repeatedly directed into rip-off shopping stops, or to be pressured inappropriately for tips.

    Neither independent travel nor organised touring are 'hassle-free', and that is precisely the point of the information that has been set out, so that those intending to travel to China may make informed choices about whether to travel independently, by fully-escorted tour, or by something in between; and that if they do decide to take an escorted tour they choose wisely, and knowing fully what is to be included in their itineraries, and in their costs.

    Peter N-H

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    "There is no tipping in China."

    Peter, this may have been a valid statement 10 or 15 years ago, but it's time you got over it. There IS tipping in China. This is 2010. What you mean is, "I don't believe in tipping in China because it never used to happen and I don't want to see it change." I mentioned in another thread about the family near me at a local restaurant (Muslim Quarter) in Xi'an. He mentioned he was taking out his family for dinner because he had a very good day in tips. And he does NOT work for just an organized tour company. The Chinese people are not so dumb that they haven't figured out that giving better and more personal service MAY reap them certain rewards -- and those rewards may come in the form of tips. Pure and simple.

    Also 10 or 15% service charge is being routinely added in many hotels and even in some restaurants. Maybe you don't like that idea, but it is wrong to say that isn't a tip. It is.

    And Peter what YOU still don't "get" is that many people do not mind paying for a little extra service. If they pay a little more for a tour because they are being pampered and taken care of, you see that as a rip off, some see it as a valuable but insignificant added expense. And if they are getting a better rate at hotels or group restaurants because they are also being herded to a kick-back place --why care, so long as they enjoy it. You still do not "get" that for some, saving the last single penny on a trip is NOT their end goal.

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    And before I'm misquoted or misunderstood, as I often seem to be here, I am not saying that tipping is routine, expected, or necessary (ever except when a service charge is added), but rather that the almost universal custom of offering tips for special service HAS sometimes reached China. Yes, you can go to China and NEVER tip a person. And that's OK. But to say "there is no tipping in China" is simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

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    "looking at a schedule and finding that name and being able to see when the trains go and what track they go from, and walking into one in China where the schedules are ONLY in Chinese characters so it is impossible to even guess which one says the city or street you are looking for."

    I'm a little puzzled by that, NeoPatrick. I traveled on a number of Chinese trains back in 2004, and my memory is of large electronic boards that switched between characters and pinyin on a regular basis. Is that no longer the case?

    Plus, I memorized the characters for my destination, and had little trouble recognizing them - useful for bus stations, which (especially in more remote areas) mostly did not have pinyin. I admit that I did not buy my train tickets at the station, but from a travel agency, but I did buy bus tickets (when needed) in person - sometimes I simply showed the characters for my destination to the person at the entrance to the bus parking lot, was sent to the correct bus and paid on board.

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    Thanks once again to Patrick for highlighting the relative merit of "Group Travel" for some, if appropriate. Perhaps both I and the OP travelexplorer are on the wrong forum as Fodor's appears to cater to "Independent Travelers". Where do you suggest we go for objective advice on the merits of one tour operator versus another? As Peter pointed out on TripAdvisor ( yes, rather vocal there as well!), the TA forums are full of suspect posts from employees pitching their travel company. A travel agent friend of mine can only weigh in on tour operators that deal with ( pay) travel agents. Good data on these can be found on a great "Advanced Search Engine" I found for free on vacationstogo.com, where many of the tour operators can be sorted by class, length of travel, itinerary, etc. This covers most mainstream operators from Budget class (Intrepid, etc.) to Ultra Deluxe (Abercrombie & Kent, etc.).
    Peter, earlier in this long thread you belittled a traveler with "how can you be so certain that you could not have afforded to get these hotels for a lower cost ?"
    To quote Patrick: Wrong, wrong, wrong.......
    In this wonderful age of the internet, it is most certainly possible to price out an itinerary and evaluate the cost of independent versus escorted travel! Surely you know that all itineraries are detailed to the "nth degree" on the tour operator's website? Certainly, you've heard of Kayak, etc...and their powerful search features? Sorry for the condescending tone, but you kind of deserve it...

    Newsflash: there is NO WAY an independent traveler can get the same pricing as a big tour operator, as Patrick mentioned. And, we're not talking about a 10% or 15% differential. Try at least a third less!

    Here's the scoop on just the cost issue of the tour both the OP and I are considering ( an apples-to-apples comparison)
    Airfare Nov 2nd to 19th: $2200 ( no hotel/cruise transfers, per Kayak, multiple carriers ).
    LA to Shanghai, to Beijing, to Xian. Then, Chongquing to Guilin, to Guangzhou. Lastly, Hong Kong to LA.

    Four night cruise Yichang to Chongquing:
    Victoria Cruises website has 3 classes of ships, with less than $100 difference each. I assume the midpoint. The cost is $810 PLUS a 75% single supplement, in addition to excursions at $90 a day. Total DIY cost of cruise: $1700 (+tax?)

    Hotels listed on tour are thankfully minimum four star and Shanghai/Beijing are both 4.5 star. I don't know what the "TripAdvisor Popularity Index" really means but 2 of the 5 hotels are ranked in top 3 percentile, Guilin is in top 17%, HK more "middling" at 38% popularity ranking. The one in Xian is rated highest by TA as # 9 of 693 hotels in Xian ( and is booked solid through all of November, so I used an average price of $75). Total for Hotels, assuming 10% tax/fees, and I doubt breakfast is included ( but let's not split hairs): $1350.

    I'm too tired to research the cost of the Catamaran from Guangzhou to HK, ditto transfer fees, the various included tours, dumpling dinner, acrobats, etc... So far, I'm at a sub-total of $ 5250 as a DIY independent traveler. Add maybe $350 for the other stuff I don't care to waste time pricing? The approximate total reaches $5600 !
    Compare that to the Smartours I'm considering : $2699 plus 699 Single Supplement, or $3398 (add 300 Serv/tax? for 3.7k?).
    My math seems to indicate a minimum SAVING of almost $2000 or one third less by opting for that tour, which is a "medium of the road" type tour. No Peninsula Hotel but certainly no hostels/one star hotels either. Plus, I would hopefully get pleasant companionship and focus more on having FUN versus coordinating all the logistics of a "dream vacation" !

    As Patrick said so well above:
    "And Peter what YOU still don't "get" is ... if they are getting a better rate at hotels or group restaurants because they are also being herded to a kick-back place --why care, so long as they enjoy it. You still do not "get" that for some, saving the last single penny on a trip is NOT their end goal."

    It's always wise to " pull back from the trees and look at the forest."

    If anyone can help me find other tour alternatives, please do so. Otherwise, like others have said above, "I'm outta here".
    Thanks!

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    LA, I know we aren't of much help to those looking to compare tour operators, as we are primarily independent travelers. I don't frequent the site, but I've heard others say that the Frommers site is more oriented to travelers who prefer a group tour.

    I do feel compelled to comment on your attempt at price comparisons... As (even) Peter mentioned, the one place tour operators may be able to beat the price an independent traveler can find is on the trans-Pacific airfare. But if you were going to travel independently, you would have started researching this trip last year, and your transpacific fare should be in the $900-1100 range.

    For hotels, as an independent traveler you'd likely use one of the discount internet booking sites. You'd take taxis to/from the airport, etc. As a solo traveler you might end up paying a bit less on the tour (as it has quite a reasonable single supplement, as opposed to those tours that charge nearly double for singles), but by no stretch of the imagination is a tour 30% less than doing it independently. As a member of a couple, tours almost always price out at a significant premium to independent travel.

    One other tour company to look at is Adventures Abroad. It has a good reputation, but I cannot vouch for it personally.

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    I will add that, as a solo traveler booking internally for the most part--that is, getting prices that one can't necessarily find in advance-- I paid significantly less for my trip than for a similar tour group itinerary, and didn't have the parts of the trip that I didn't want.

    But I would like to bring another company to your attention, since you are looking for options:
    Overseas Adventure Travel. They have small groups (16 is the largest) which I find to be more comfortable for traveling, and the two trips that I went on with them (South Africa and Peru; in both cases, there were circumstances that made a group trip a better choice at the time) were great. Their China trip includes Tibet: http://www.oattravel.com/Trips/2011/Imperial-China-Tibet-and-the-Yangtze-River-2011.aspx They often have special deals for solo travelers.

    I have traveled reasonably extensively in Europe, by the way, and I found it just as easy to get lost in Italy as in China. :)

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    > Peter, earlier in this long thread you belittled a traveler with "how can you be so certain that you could not have afforded to get these hotels for a lower cost ?"

    Again, it really helps to read the posts, and if you're going to quote someone, then to reproduce something that was actually said. In a posting that simply addressed the arguments set out, and did not 'belittle' anyone, the remark made was:

    'But you haven't even experienced the hotels yet--just seen pictures. They may, or may not, turn out to be what you expect. And being 'sure' that the same rooms would be out of your price range doesn't in any way constitute an argument or make that statement true. For Chinese-run hotels, published rates are an irrelevance. Again, you haven't even been to China and bargained down published rates.'

    And all this applies to everything else you've gone on to say. You have never travelled to China, you don't have a clue how things work there, and you've no way of knowing about hotels not listed in your itinerary, or what you would pay for hotel rooms if you turned up and bargained yourself. Several above have tried to explain this, but you've apparently no interest in this information. Ignoring it won't make it less true, however.

    > In this wonderful age of the internet, it is most certainly possible to price out an itinerary and evaluate the cost of independent versus escorted travel! Surely you know that all itineraries are detailed to the "nth degree" on the tour operator's website?

    Ah. Strange. No mention of the shopping stops on the itineraries. These must be the 'nth degree' + 1.

    The information on real costs is not available except by actually going to China and trying independent travel for yourself. TripAdvisor could not conceivably be more misleading, and is the those of limited information and the wilfully deceitful leading the entirely blind, dealing with a tiny sub-section of what's available and misunderstanding or misrepresenting most of that. China is effectively unknown to Trip Advisor.

    Whatever you may want to imagine, there is no reliable information on Chinese travel costs available from such corners of the internet: not from the websites of Chinese-run hotels, not from Chinese tour 'advice' sites, not from user-contributed sites full of shills in disguise and from others who were duped and either don't know it or refuse to recognise it, who've only seen one hotel and can't compare it to any others, and so on. Nor is there reliable information on many other tour costs. Even the existence of most Chinese domestic flights is unknown to most foreign travel search engines, and prices quote for those they know of often three times what you actually have to pay. Putting together absurd quotes from the worst of tourist-as-victim sites (e.g. Yangzi River cruises) will lead you to any conclusion you want to be led to, but have nothing to do with reality.

    If you read the postings, much of this has been explained. You just presume things are the way you want them to be so that you can arrive at the conclusion to you want to arrive at. It seems there's no way to help you. If you want to take a tour, take a tour. But others need to know that guided tours are not cheap (and just saying they are won't make them so), and that selecting web pages with prices to suit your argument doesn't help if these prices don't have to be paid except by those who insist on paying them.

    The arguments against recommending tour companies who deliberately cheat you with tipping rip-offs, shopping rip-offs, poor food, kick-backs left right and centre, and other shenanigans (so why on earth would you rely on anything they say?) have still not been addressed. Is it right to recommend those who deliberately set out to cheat you, who misrepresent their schedules, and who dip their hands deeply into your pockets at every turn? Can they really be trusted in any way?

    Nor is it a matter solely of published prices. Is there any discussion here of value-for-money, of time reduced at key sights because there's another shopping stop to squeeze in, of reduced quality food, of wasting time being ferried from one modest hotel to another so another product demonstration can be squeezed in, etc. Again, there's a very detailed description partway down this thread, as you've already been told:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/hate-tours-but-travelling-to-china-beijing.cfm

    Your tour doesn't have to be like that. But it will be if you don't read and take the advice given.

    And If the savings of taking a guided tour are actually so immense (they are nothing of the sort, of course), how is it imagined these people make a profit? Are they in the tour business just out of charity? Or could it be because they are making immense profits out of naive foreigners? Why do some other companies have higher rates? How come these usually have fewer shopping stops, and advice not to tip? Make you think, doesn't it? If it doesn't, it should.

    Yet again (going blue in the face), no one is set against group travel, merely trying to ensure that those who don't usually take tours don't feel that they have to do so in China, and are not duped by the too-good-to-be-true (for that's what they are) claims about cheapness, etc. For those who prefer to take tours, the pitfalls (particularly at the cheaper end) are pointed out--the hidden costs, the rip-offs, the poor food, the mangled itineraries, the shopping stops--and a series of questions on such matters suggested to help people search out a company that will treat them better. Such companies do exist: ones that have no tipping nonsense, and keep shopping stops to a minimum, have a foreign tour leader to keep away room and meal downgrades and other shenanigans by the ground handlers, but their more honest pricing make them still more expensive than independent travel. In general, the fewer the shopping stops, the higher the tour price. Again, some examples of companies that actually seem to have their tourists' welfare at heart have been given, along with the questions that tour companies need to be asked in order to get to get at least a hint of what the experience will actually be like.

    And then there are the mid-way options to consider: travelling independently but taking (carefully selected) one-day tours when convenient, and using agents to organise rail and air fares as you go. Or, if you must, booking travel in advance through Chinese domestic agencies that have prices near reality, and accepting that there may be problems, but on average this will work.

    Peter N-H

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    Thank you so much ladies! I'm bookmarking both your suggested travel companies and hope to find something good!

    Cathy, indeed, the airfare Kayak gave me was "insane" surely because of the "intra-China" flights. I just did a Kayak search for a simple trans-pacific (LAX to Shanghai nov 2nd, returning HK to LA Nov 19th) and flight on China Air via CheapTickets, Orbitz, etc.. is only $846 tax included (not non-stop). I guess domestic China flights are best researched elsewhere, huh?

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    We were able to duplicate an Abercrombie and Kent trip for China for about half the price. The prices on the Victoria website are hypothetical. You don't have to be on a tour to get a deeply discounted price from a China travel agency for the Yangtze cruise. I'm in agreement with Peter that the cruise is a pass.

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    Yes, LA, domestic China fights are quite cheap, but the big search engines like kayak (and expedia and travelocity) will quote silly prices.

    Good luck in finding a tour you will like.

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    Thank you Kathie and Marija, I'll try my best to find something suitable for me in spite of the feeling of DREAD that this discussion has triggered in me. I've just skimmed the "closed" June forum Peter referred me to. Yikes!

    So ... When does the fun start? According to all the verbiage, The Tourist industry in China is beyond AWFUL and corrupt, international tour operators that ship us out to China are AWFUL, no one can be trusted, no websites can be trusted, etc...
    You need to lighten up Peter and be realistic. You stress amongst other things that the "best way" to negotiate the best deals is face-to-face in China. Oh? So I take an El Cheapo flight halfway across the globe and lug my suitcase from hotel to hotel to "negotiate" sans-reservation? Then, I "negotiate" my visit to landmark sites with sign language and hope that trustworthy hotel staff will rush to my aid ? Next day, rinse and repeat? You've got to be kidding, right?
    Also, on the presumption that all on this Forum are dim-witted except you, allow me to point out that I'm fully aware that Tour Operators are for-profit organizations. Let me point out the obvious: if my guess-estimate was that DIY w/ same hotels, etc. was APPROX 1/3 more, the Tour Operator certainly does not pass on to the tourist ALL the cost benefit of their "Bulk Buyer Discount". For instance, I would venture to say that the 4 night Yangzte cruise costs them no more than $400... (7 day 5* luxury cruises in Alaska, Mediterranean, Caribbean, etc. are very cheap now, I'm sure the 2* China cruises follow suit)
    In a nutshell, I thank you all for your input. Lots to digest. And, it's unfortunate I've been told that all the usual US websites are suspect, same with Chinese based websites. OUCH! Gee, talk about taking the fun out of it !

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    > So ... When does the fun start?

    Whenever you're ready. As you can see if you actually read the threads, a lot of people get a lot of fun out of travelling in China.

    > According to all the verbiage, The Tourist industry in China is beyond AWFUL and corrupt, international tour operators that ship us out to China are AWFUL, no one can be trusted, no websites can be trusted, etc...

    All rhetoric with no meaningful content at all. The Chinese tourism industry is indeed horribly corrupt (glad you actually did read some postings), but it has been suggested multiple times that there are more reliable tour operators, and methods suggested as to how these may be identified, and even some of them have even been named. Again, it really helps to read the postings, which are intended to help you.

    > You need to lighten up Peter and be realistic.

    If 'lighten up' means, 'Don't warn those intending to travel to China of the difficulties of travel there,' I think I'll decline. 'Realistic' (instead of ignoring the realities and just making up arguments to suit myself) is exactly what I'm being, for the benefit of you and other readers.

    > You stress amongst other things that the "best way" to negotiate the best deals is face-to-face in China. Oh? So I take an El Cheapo flight halfway across the globe and lug my suitcase from hotel to hotel to "negotiate" sans-reservation?

    Not if you don't want to.

    That won't stop it being the best way, however (although on choice of airline, nothing has been said). Nor will it stop there being intermediate options such as to book a couple of nights ahead to ensure a soft landing, to use agents to get travel tickets, and to take the odd one-day tour, as has already been said. Otherwise take things into your own hands, as Indeed, thousands of travellers in China are doing precisely as we speak.

    You claim to have read the travel accounts here of others who have simply made up their trips as they went along, bought their own bus tickets, got themselves to sights without difficulty, eaten out, etc., and done so all without a word of Mandarin. It's a very common way to travel, little more difficult than tackling Paris without French, and your inability to imagine it has no effect on its reality, or the impact on hotel room prices, cruise prices, and many other prices, of simply showing up and negotiating. Many enjoy the flexibility and often substantial savings that this gives them. As has been repeatedly said, if you prefer other ways to travel that's entirely up to you, and sufficient in itself. Suggestions have been offered as to how to make a wise choice of organised tour.

    > Then, I "negotiate" my visit to landmark sites with sign language and hope that trustworthy hotel staff will rush to my aid ? Next day, rinse and repeat? You've got to be kidding, right?

    You did read the trip reports you claimed to have read, right? The ones in which non-Mandarin speakers happily navigate their way across China? They just jump in taxis, hand over the characters for their destinations, and get taken there? There are plenty here, and sites such as Lonely Planet's have nothing but accounts and queries from travellers doing precisely that. It only takes an absolute minimum of gumption (the IQ of a carrot, as you put it, will do), and not a word of Mandarin, to be able to get done anything you want. If you use the search box you'll find plenty of discussions on this topic. If you don't want to do it that's up to you, but there's no point in denying reality.

    > Also, on the presumption that all on this Forum are dim-witted except you,

    Please, spare us the rhetoric and stick to the facts and arguments.

    It has already been pointed out to you by several voices that your calculations are entirely meaningless, and you have already accepted that conclusion on both international and domestic air fares. Just apply that to the other figures, too.

    > I would venture to say that the 4 night Yangzte cruise costs them no more than $400...

    I'd venture to say that you don't have a clue what you're talking about. What's the point of simply imagining figures?

    The Chinese tourism industry simply doesn't work in the way you think it does, local costs are not what you think they are, and this guesswork is entirely pointless.

    And the 'fun' is taken out of it not by the account of the corruption in the industry, but by the corruption itself, and attempts have been made here to help you avoid this. Most people don't regard being ripped off as any fun at all. But there are lots of ways to take control of your holiday, and to avoid scams, and there are plenty here to offer help and suggestions to those willing to listen, rather than to deliver lectures about China before even getting there.

    Peter N-H

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    Peter, you said (or similar comments, many times):
    "You have never traveled to China, you don't have a clue how things work there, and you've no way of knowing about hotels not listed in your itinerary, or what you would pay for hotel rooms if you turned up and bargained yourself. Several above have tried to explain this, but you've apparently no interest in this information. Ignoring it won't make it less true, however."

    But again you fail to realize one thing. Other people have traveled to China and your thoughts and posts are NOT the only ones here. You say that the poster chooses to ignore the information that it is easy, but yet you seem to want them to ignore the information from others that it is NOT so easy. I have read numerous reports from posters who DID try to negotiate lower prices than those they arranged in advance at huge discounts and could not match them on the premises. One in particular comes to mind when a couple tried to add a couple nights to their stay and the lowest price they could bargain in person was almost double, another was someone who mentioned that they talked with someone else who happily bragged about the great price they got by negotiating at the last moment, but kept silent to them that they themselves had gotten an even better rate booking direct months ahead. And I even mentioned the poor couple with their luggage who were begging for a room where they had planned to stay all along in Beijing, but there were simply none available. If a person DOES care about what hotel or even type of hotel he stays at -- then your system simply MAY not work -- and there are many accounts that show that. Please try to realize that YOUR way is not as once again you quoted above always "the BEST way" for all people.

    And while you keep talking about ignoring reality, there is one bit of reality you keep ignoring as well.

    It is REALITY that you may not get a taxi when you want one, that there may be lines of a half hour or even an hour long to get tickets and again to enter some attractions, that the hotels you planned on bargaining for may be full and they may not be able, yet alone willing to negotiate -- certainly below the half price many of them offer online with advance booking, and you MAY spend half a day trekking around checking out your second, third, or fourth choices -- and hopefully you made all your choices in the same basic location. This IS the reality as it sometimes happens and to pretend that it doesn't is really ignoring realiaty that you accuse others of doing.

    The same is true of your statements like hopping in a taxi, "there are lots of them here". Perhaps the poster has read any of many reports about people waiting and waiting for taxis (I have a number of times and often just gave up), or of the reports of people who got in taxis with the Chinese written destination only to find the driver unwilling to go there -- perhaps because it wasn't far enough, or of the many people trying to get a taxi in a city at 9 in the morning or worse yet in the rain.

    I feel I have a great attitude when I travel and I turn lemons into lemonade. When the line to get tickets at Forbidden City was over an hour, I just decided to go the next day --and yes WAIT IN LINE at the North entrance, despite being told here there is "NEVER" a wait there. It wasn't a biggie, but to someone who is trying to do a lot in one day -- it IS dramatically different when you have to wait in lines, wait for taxis, or even wait for bus for 20 minutes only to have the bus arrive, four people get off and four or five more get in, and the bus pulls away with you and the other 20 or so people still standing there -- wait another 20 minutes and hope it doesn't happen again with the next bus. These are FACTS -- not some imagined horror story. The pages here are filled with such stories. The only difference is whether the traveler finds such things "an adventure" or a total inconvenience that would have been avoided on an organized tour without such glitches.

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    Well said, Neo Patrick. I totally agree with what you have written, but I have decided not to respond to Peter's "opinions", many of which do not jibe with my experience in China, because I am not interested in getting into an on line argument with him. He has his "opinions". I have my travel experience on tour in China. Readers can read each and draw their own conclusions as to what is best for them, how they wish to travel, and how they spend their travel dollars. I am not quite to the point of saying "I am outa here", but I certainly understand why others have taken that course.

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    "Readers can read each and draw their own conclusions as to what is best for them, how they wish to travel, and how they spend their travel dollars."

    Of course, PeterN_H has said the same thing about a million times. I don't need to defend the guy and I doubt he wants anyone to defend him. But take what you want from what he says, if anything, and move on.

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    "Of course, PeterN_H has said the same thing about a million times."

    Yes, he has, but he also invariably adds a few comments to get across the point that if you DON'T do it "his" way, you must be a blithering idiot who can't find his way out of the dark, or you are just a silly fool who doesn't know or care that you're getting ripped off. I'm all for those who want to travel with a group instead of individually, although I'm happily traveling independently, but I refuse to believe the only reason to use help is because you're an idiot.

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    So he is condescending and relentless (he reminds me of a tennis player who will always get the ball back no matter where you hit it). I am reacting to people who say they are outa here because of Peter. Is this kintergarden?

    Read his stuff, ignore his style and do what you want. Enjoying your report by the way.

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    It isn't rocket science either. Seems to me there is agreement that:

    Tours can be the right choice for some people.

    If you don't want to take a tour, you can travel successfully (and, if you choose, cheaply) in China on your own, whether or not you are a solo traveler, or a female traveler, or even an older traveler. And without speaking a word of the language.

    If you choose to take a tour there a several potential rip-offs you should be aware of when making that choice, and when picking a company. These include high "suggested" tips, and multiple unadvertised shopping ops.

    Does anyone disagree with any of that?

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    I think you've summarized well, Thursdays.

    There is a lot of good info here, but sometimes it's hard to find it amongst all the "attitude." While Peter advocates just showing up and negotiating for hotel rooms, buying plane or train tickets the day before, etc, as the absolute cheapest option, he has also gives good info for those who don't want to travel that way. I've learned that if I want to buy intra-China tickets before I get there, ctrip and elong are good sources with reasonable prices. If I want to stay at Western chain hotels (Hyatts, Sheratons, the Pen, etc) I should book directly on their sites (and showing up and trying to negotiate there doesn't work). If I want to stay at Chinese hotels and want to book ahead, the Chinese sites, elong and ctrip offer reasonable prices.

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    New trip report from a solo female traveller with no Mandarin, who booked practically nothing in advance, and yet who did whatever she wanted to do and had fun doing it.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/thanks-for-helping-make-my-trip-to-china-amazing.cfm

    Of no use to those who prefer to take tours wherever they go, but the perfect antidote to the belief that tours are the only way to tackle China, or that everything is best booked in advance.

    Peter N-H

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    Has anyone ever said or indicated here that "tours are the only way to tackle China"? If so, I've certainly missed that. But someone here does keep saying "independent is the only way to travel in China" unless you're a mindless idiot who doesn't mind getting ripped off.

    Some of us DO see two sides to this issue and both of them with good validity for different people, some see two sides but only one as being right and the other as being a horrible mistake for anyone with a touch of intelligence.



    By the way, the report Peter linked is a great one, but I'm still amused when someone says "I waited till I got there and negotiated great hotel rates". I'm always curious what those are. I'm the first to agree that published rack rates are nonsense, but in most of my cases, I managed at least a 50% discount from those by booking in advance, and usually including breakfast and perhaps other amenities. I have no way of knowing, but is the usual "last minute negotiation" something like 75% off? If so, in most cases, that would mean additional savings of $20 to $30 a night. Maybe that's worth a lot to some people, but to some of us, that is a small amount to pay to arrive in a city with our reservation firmly in hand at a hotel chosen carefully after looking at dozens and dozens of them. Just a different way of life. And if you aren't getting 75% off last minute, then what's the point again of not prebooking at 50% off a month or two ahead?

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    Once again, I agree with you Patrick. IF I ever were to travel independently, I certainly wouldn't wing it ... way too stressful! It's certainly OK to do so on my numerous road trips here in California, etc., but way too intimidating in a foreign country.

    Thank you Peter for the link to that "hot-off-press" report from that solo traveler.
    BTW, in my earlier reports I barely touched on the "companionship" issue in regard to my reluctance to travel solo. I've done my share of business travel over the years and, bottom line, I don't cherish eating at a "table for one" ... not much fun for me. I put up with it because I must for business. I elect to avoid it for recreation.

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    NeoPatrick - I think you are missing some of the nuances of Peter's posts, and confusing apples and oranges.

    As Kathie pointed out, Peter advocates different approaches for different types of hotels. Since the rack rate for kja's Beijing hotel is $42 for a double, she would (and did) seem to fall into the "show up and negotiate" class - and an "additional savings of $20 to $30 a night" would mean the room was close to free! Since the "best available internet rate" for your Beijing hotel (for the end of October) is $130 a night, you would (and did) seem to fall in the "book ahead over the internet " group.

    Peter has also written things like: "If you simply prefer a tour that's fine" and "what I am in favour of is that people who take organised tours do so with their eyes wide open" on this very thread.

    LA_Traveler - as a solo traveler I take your point about companionship, and am in fact considering taking a tour half way through a six month trip partly for that reason - although I have found you're a lot more likely to meet people in guesthouse-type hotels than in business ones! But Peter's warnings about how to chose a tour and what to watch out for when you're on one still apply.

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    We typically independently travel worldwide but decided to take a small group tour-16 max, guaranteed, with OAT/Overseas Adventur Travel in the fall when the weather is better and after the china national holiday that ends 10/7 wh en all are travelling. Size is a factor in relationship to price and your time so bear this in mind whether you go with smartoturs or others. As for tipping, many tours including those mentined have shoping trips and it is a way of reducing their costs to you and something you have to deal with-so a tour is a compromise in this and other repsects. As for tipping tour drivers and guides, the fodors website and tripadvisor are rife with comments that this is becoming more of a practice but there is nothing to say that you have to follow the tour operator's recommendations in any respect-tipping is for service and if the service is nt there neither should any thought of tipping, in my view. Tipping in other respects appears to be not the practice, i.e. of taxi drivers, waiters, etc. except in some of the 4-5* hotels and restaurants.

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    Patrick, there are plenty of posters who assume tours are the only way to travel in China. We see them regularly as they arrive and post that they have traveled the rest of the world independently, but "know" they will need a tour for China.

    If people really want a group tour, fine. But if they believe thay MUST travel in a group tour, the info from independent travelers on how it is done is very important.

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    > IF I ever were to travel independently, I certainly wouldn't wing it ... way too stressful!.

    If you feel like that about it, that's a perfectly good reason to take a tour (although you've seen others describe it here as not stressful at all, and many other people who travel that way all over the world should be aware they can do so in China, too). And there other good reasons for taking tours, such has having guaranteed companionship (although, as has been pointed out, there's little problem in meeting people when you're there). But simply preferring tours is good enough, and no other justification is necessary. However, if you are going to take one, there are problems you need to know about, and some of these have been set out.

    Some of the benefits normally associated with taking tours are typically not benefits of taking tours in China, and you (and many other readers) need to know that. And you've advanced arguments for tours which don't hold water: their cheapness (apparent rather than real), that solo female travel is a problem (other solo female travellers have suggested otherwise), and that real costs in China can be calculated using the Internet (unfortunately no chance whatsoever).

    I hope the advice you've been given helps you (and other readers) to choose a better tour company, and to exercise caution where appropriate.

    > Peter advocates different approaches for different types of hotels.

    I have to admit I didn't follow the argument that followed, but it's not the overall price that makes a difference to the approach to obtaining the local fair market price (if that's what's being suggested), but the management. Under normal circumstance there are sums to be saved at all Chinese-run hotels (except jingji hotels) and the monetary value of the gap between the price asked for and the price accepted grows the (nominally) higher up you go. Chinese five-star hotels in general resemble Western (or Japanese/Hong Kong/etc.) managed ones in asking price and little else. The price actually accepted is often hundreds of yuan less (but still often too much for what you get).

    Real prices for any of these hotels are not available on the Internet, although for those who cannot bear to wait, some Chinese booking engines sometimes come close (Ctrip, eLong, etc.) although there can be assorted problems with using these. Looking at these sites will give you some idea of real pricing but their rates can usually be beaten, their representation of hotels is often highly misleading, they only show a limited proportion of what's available, push at you the hotels that are giving them the biggest yield rather than the best value hotels, and should not be used for booking anything other than Chinese-run hotels.

    But at all Chinese-run hotels (except jingji) under normal circumstances which hold for most of the year in most of the country all rates are highly negotiable, and the published rates are merely positioning statements which no one ever pays. Chinese walk in, are told the rate and usually immediately a discount from that, and push for a further discount. As a foreigner do this in a winsome, pleasant way with mime and a calculator, persistently and persuasively, and you can even end up paying less than Chinese do. You won't get these rates over the phone even if you speak fluent Mandarin, and you won't get them over the Internet. You'll only get them in person.

    > As for tipping, many tours including those mentined have shoping trips and it is a way of reducing their costs to you and something you have to deal with-so a tour is a compromise in this and other repsects.

    So it's all right for tour companies to post a low price up front in order to drag you in and rip you off. Such chicanery is a 'compromise'. The question has been posed several times without until now receiving an answer, 'Is it right to recommend a tour company that you know is ripping you off?' Here, the answer appears to be, 'Yes.'

    How about offering a fair price based on local costs plus a reasonable profit, cutting out the tipping and shopping and other shenanigans, thus giving the visitor more time at the sights s/he came to see (and better food)? There are companies that come far closer to doing that. Wouldn't they be a better choice? Can you trust in any way a company that is repeatedly going to guide you to places where you will be ripped off in order to make an illicit profit? Shouldn't your tour company be protecting you from pickpockets rather than employing them?

    > As for tipping tour drivers and guides, the fodors website and tripadvisor are rife with comments that this is becoming more of a practice

    The numbers of people who quite incorrectly state this has nothing to do with the reality. If it did I would bring (conservatively) 1.3 billion people to comment that tipping isn't 'becoming more of a practice' in China. The only people who argue that it is are those who want to dip their hands in your pocket, or who have tipped and who are incapable of recognising that it wan't appropriate.

    > if the service is nt there neither should any thought of tipping, in my view.

    There shouldn't be any thought of tipping even if the service is there. As in many other countries, in China people are paid to do their jobs, there is no expectation of a tip, no giving of tips, and you shouldn't be tipping unless someone has gone so extravagantly far out of their way to do something for you way beyond any reasonable call of duty. Then, if an honest person not deliberately trying to exploit tourists, they will refuse it repeatedly and not take it unless you absolutely and repeatedly continue to insist. In China you negotiate a price for some service, and that's the price you pay. Not a fen more or less, and the Chinese continue to be astonished at (and indeed to mock) the insistence of some foreigners in handing over extra free money.

    > Tipping in other respects appears to be not the practice, i.e. of taxi drivers, waiters, etc. except in some of the 4-5* hotels and restaurants.

    Tipping in all respects is not the practice. There are even sometimes signs to tell you this, such as at Beijing airport where signs in English tell you not to tip the porters (they don't bother to say so in Chinese because there's no need to tell Chinese this), and a request not to offer tips is often written in the manuals in hotel rooms. Ask hotel managements for tipping policies and they'll tell you, 'no tipping'. It's not the system here. Tell them that a bell boy has pressured you for a tip and he'll likely be (quite rightly) fired, and this is true at upmarket hotels especially, where they don't like their guests abused. Go on a Chinese tour and you won't see a single person tip the guide. It isn't done, and a suggestion that a tip should be given would be greeted with bewilderment or derision.

    Sometimes the argument is advanced, 'Well I offered him a tip and he didn't refuse, so there is tipping in China.' This is equivalent to saying, 'Well I left the window open and the burglar happily took advantage of it', and is only evidence that someone has inappropriately taken advantage of your good nature.

    In up-market Western-run hotels things are managed in the Western way, and unfortunately a service charge is added to many bills, which is just a Western way of disguising real prices. You wouldn't tip on top of this in (most of) the rest of the world, and you shouldn't here, not least because there is no tipping in China. Most soi-disant up-market Chinese-run hotels (and many middle-market ones) advertise that they add a service charge to room rates because they mimic Western hotel management methods (although typically not in services actually provided) but don't in fact dare to do it because the Chinese won't stand for it. The room rate you agree is the one you pay, with no sneaky supplements, and that's that.

    A service charge may appear on Chinese-run hotel restaurant bills, too, although, as with one or two Chinese-run restaurants outside hotels in Beijing now (mimicking top-end foreign-run enterprises such as Maison Boulud, Capital M, etc.) sometimes they'll try it on but only with foreigners. Either way, no tipping. Tip in an ordinary non-tourist-targeting Chinese restaurant and you'll find someone running down the street to return your money.

    There are much longer threads on this theme elsewhere on the site, but the point is that if it recommends you tip (with the possible exception of to a foreign tour leader, to whom foreign rules apply), the company is cheating you in a bold and bare-faced manner which ought not to be accepted, and you should not trust this company to treat you fairly in any way.

    Peter N-H

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    In all my time of seeking answers from Fodors travelers, I have NEVER seen such a debate going back and forth on tours vs independent travel. Do what you feel comfortable with when you travel and enjoy it.

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    > I have NEVER seen such a debate going back and forth on tours vs independent travel.

    Odd, since that isn't the debate here. As has been said multiple times, people who want to take tours should take tours; but they should be aware of many possible pitfalls when doing so in China, ask certain questions of their tour company, choose their tour companies on the basis of its answers, and show some caution to avoid certain rip-offs. It really helps to read the posts before making a contribution.

    > Do what you feel comfortable with when you travel and enjoy it.

    So with regards to your request for information on how to get from Beijing Airport to the Ritz-Carlton by taxi, the two people who have so far responded shouldn't have said, 'Don't go with touts who approach you in the arrivals hall', but 'If you feel comfortable with touts then go with them'?

    This advice could lead to you easily paying double or triple the right amount for your journey. Perhaps it might not be such good advice?

    It isn't being said that you shouldn't take tours any more than it's been said that you shouldn't take taxis. But information has been provided to help people take the right tour, and the right taxi.

    Peter N-H

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    I'm a little hesitant to jump into the fray here given all the controversy. I've never been to China, so no personal experience. I have traveled to Thailand/Laos/Cambodia and Peru (and most of Europe) independently. I also went on a group tour to Egypt, using Gap Adventures http://www.gapadventures.com/ and to Central Europe with Intrepid. I've enjoyed ALL my trips. I like some things about independent travel far more. But the group tours were fun, as well. Gap and Intrepid both limit their tours to small groups (12-15 or less). Both are on the budget end, use public transportation, and give quite a bit of free time. We thoroughly enjoyed the people we met and the ease of having the logistics taken care of. On the other hand, our trip to Thailand/Laos/Cambodia was probably my favorite trip ever (and one I'd never have attempted without all the help I got on this forum!!). I loved the personal interaction we had with locals that we certainly would not have had with a group.

    Anyway, I chimed in to say that if you do want to use a tour group, I can recommend both Gap and Intrepid. In my experience they offered good itineraries, good guides, and small groups, for what seemed to me to be a fair price. Maybe I could have done the trips cheaper, I don't know. But I thought I got good value for my money.

    For me, there are times I'll go independent and times with a tour.

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    I think it's important for readers of this thread -- and for Fodor's editors, for that matter -- to understand that PeterN_H has a business stake in having people travel independently rather than as part of group tours.

    According to the web site in PeterN_H's profile, PeterN_H is an author or contributor to various guidebooks on China. People who travel independently are far more likely to buy guidebooks than are people who go on escorted tours. Therefore, it's in Peter's financial interest when people travel independently rather than in tour groups. Which is not to say that Peter's advice is good or bad, just that he has a financial stake in it all.

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    You know, I bought just as many guidebooks when I was on a tour as when I traveled independently. Why wouldn't I want to be just as informed if I were on a tour?

    And in both instances, the advice that I received for free on sites like this tended to be what I used the most in terms of decision making. So color me grateful for the encouragement to boldly go and split infinitives...erm, to boldly go and travel solo on a great and interesting trip to China. I appreciate all of the advice I received, compared and weighed, and did a variety of things: booked my first few nights hotel via the web for comfort sake, had a marvelous time in a Thorntree recommended guesthouse in Chengdu, went in the North Gate, visited the Milu Deer Park (which was from a guidebook!), followed the journeys of thursdaysd and others, and just generally went about on my own having a good time. So I really appreciate a poster who takes the time to give such complete information as Mr. N-H does, gratis and without advertising.

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    Re) Tipping

    posted by Thursdaysd
    on May 20, 10 at 7:32am
    This month's issue of International Travel News has a letter from someone who took a smarTours trip to China. She says: "... be prepared to spend $300-$400 per person in tips, not including the tip to the tour director".

    Thursdaysd, I couldn't find that letter in their archives. The information I got from Smartours was that the SUGGESTED tip for the Tour director, the local tour guide and the driver is $10 a day for all three. They stressed that it was just a guideline.

    Before booking with them, I had explored the Overseas Adventure Travel trip thanks to Amy's suggestion (above). It seems their suggested tipping is about double but that is NOT the reason I chose Smartours versus OAS. (length,accomodations)
    As I mentioned above:
    on Aug 28, 10 at 10:19pm

    With regard to other issues posted in this thread, here's my 2 cents:

    1) Tipping: When a tourist spends THOUSANDS of dollars on international airfare, hotels, tours, etc., the issue of tipping is trivial and best described as "a drop in the bucket"! Not worth all the air-time on this forum IMO. The only time you're subjected to "mandatory tipping" is when it's on your bill. Do what feels right and fair.

    PS) I've taken a lot of cruises. Ten bucks a day is "standard". I usually add if exceptional service. Also, I add if traveling solo because I feel the cabin steward shouldn't be short-changed (vacuuming the carpet and scrubbing the bathroom takes the same effort whether one or two people are in the room).

    BTW, my date was sold out. I'll be going during Thanksgiving and indeed, I have a LOT to be thankful for :)
    Very, very excited about going to China !!!!

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    "Thursdaysd, I couldn't find that letter in their archives" - what exactly are you suggesting? The letter I quoted was certainly in the printed copy I received. In fact, I sent a letter to the editor in response which ITN chose not to print.

    Actually, if you had looked at the dates, you would have seen that the most recent Traveler's Intercom section on the ITN site is from August 2009 - there's nothing from this year yet.

    What is a minor expenditure for you may not be for others. But in any case, the issue is not about the amount but about whether the tour company is deceiving you. And whether you are following the customs of the country.

    I hope you have a great trip.

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    Oops! You're absolutely correct about the online archives of ITN. Sorry, didn't realize 2010 was not there. I would LOVE to see your response t the editor !
    BTW, I will be reading the suggestions on China on this site even though I'll be part of a group. There will be free time to break away independently and I'll suggest the restaurants I've read about here.
    Thanks again!

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    > 1) Tipping: When a tourist spends THOUSANDS of dollars on international airfare, hotels, tours, etc., the issue of tipping is trivial and best described as "a drop in the bucket"!

    While realising that there's a general dedication to not reading the postings, this non-argument is simply pasted in from higher up, and has already been replied to in some detail, thus:

    'Again, it would be really nice if you'd read the information and arguments set out. There is no tipping in China. The company, in suggesting that you should tip, is cheating you. This has nothing to do with the amount of tip (although the suggested amounts are utterly abusive and bear no relation whatsoever either to local practice or to local economic reality--hundreds of dollars if you read the postings and not insignificant at all), or the relationship to the costs or reaching China which is entirely irrelevant, but in the deliberate conning of naive travellers, and a deliberate hiding of costs in order to make a tour seem cheaper than it actually is.'

    Just repeating what you said before won't miraculous make tipping normal practice in China, nor somehow make the rip-off vanish. The costs of getting to and around China are no more relevant to how much you should tip there than the costs of getting to and travelling round the USA are to how much you should tip there. In both cases the courteous traveller asks what the local norm is and abides by it. The local norm in China, as in many other countries, is 'nothing'.

    So both of these companies (with curiously disparate tipping recommendations if tipping is actually a norm in China) are ripping off the people they are supposed to be protecting from rip-offs, and intending to make their tours seem cheaper by springing costs on hapless travellers after booking. Pay up and you only encourage this con to continue.

    > PS) I've taken a lot of cruises. Ten bucks a day is "standard".

    But were these Chinese cruises? Nothing a day is standard there.

    You'll certainly be pressured for tips on the Yangzi Cruise as it's a real tourist maelstrom, but that only means that you are being abused the more, and in a manner that astonishes and embarrasses Chinese outside the tourism industry.

    But some people simply cannot adapt to other cultures and cannot be helped.

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    I'll do what seems right and fair.

    While on the ITN site looking for that letter Thursdays mentioned I did find a mention that "some on the China Smartours gave NOTHING and others gave a token $10 after the entire 16 days".

    It's up to the individual. If the tour operator doesn't pay a "fair wage", I will in no way feel obliged to compensate for that. A tip needs to be earned IMO.

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    "If the tour operator doesn't pay a "fair wage", I will in no way feel obliged to compensate for that."

    Does that mean you don't feel obliged to tip in the US? Tipping in the US is all about making up for the fact that the wait staff is deliberately (and legally) underpaid in the expectation that they will be largely paid by tip income.

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    It's been rare, but is HAS occurred that I did not tip! Always followed by a talk with "management" of course.

    Speaking of "adapting to the culture", doesn't it feel repulsive that in France you're billed the 20% service automatically and then they have the audacity to expect a tip on top of that ???!!!!

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    "The company, in suggesting that you should tip, is cheating you. This has nothing to do with the amount of tip (although the suggested amounts are utterly abusive and bear no relation whatsoever either to local practice or to local economic reality--hundreds of dollars if you read the postings and not insignificant at all), or the relationship to the costs or reaching China which is entirely irrelevant, but in the deliberate conning of naive travellers, and a deliberate hiding of costs in order to make a tour seem cheaper than it actually is."

    Hmmm. There are two ways of looking at this point too. If a big tour company hires their own guides and pays them less than usual with the understanding that they are asking their clients to tip -- then I hardly call that "cheating the customer". In fact I rather like the idea that a guide must work harder and be more pleasant if he wants to earn more. And that the customer has a right not to tip if he isn't thrilled with the service. Instead I'd call it "cheating the customer" to charge more for the service without an option for the customer to decide whether he wants to pay for the wonderful service or not pay when it wasn't so good.

    So some may call one thing cheating -- others may call it "modern sensibility" or familiarity. I suppose the same person would call it cheating in the US -- paying wait staff a paltry couple dollars in salary with the understanding that if he gives good service his main income is in tips -- and of course at the same time doing that to make the meal seem cheaper than it really is. Absolutely NO difference.

    "But some people simply cannot adapt to other cultures and cannot be helped."

    Absolutely true. But it's equally true that some people cannot accept that other cultures ALSO change. Chinese used to not go to KFC for lunch. Now they do. Chinese used to live without air conditioning. Now most have it, even in almost slum level apartments. Chinese used to be paid a full wage for being guides for tour companies. Now they may not be, as their salaries have been adjusted by those paying them to allow compensation in the form of tips. Some may resent such practices, but that doesn't change the fact that such changes are real. Cultures change. And people who can't realize THAT can't be helped either.

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    I am an American woman who has been living in China for over 5 years. I have seen MANY tour groups come through the cities in China I have lived in. There are definite pros and cons to these tours. I am not for or against them, but would like to say a few things about China to help better guide those visiting the country or thinking about visiting.

    The whole debate of which way is cheaper and whether the tour companies are cheating you is secondary to making the most of your time in China and figuring out how to best go about accomplishing that.

    China is an enormous country and for many a once in a lifetime trip. It is not an easy country to navigate, but no more difficult than any other non-English speaking country contrary to most peoples assumptions. Many Chinese in the big cities know enough English to assist foreigners in basic getting around questions. And many more speak very well to go beyond that.

    Trains and buses leave on time and tickets, especially buses, if only going short distances (1 to 4 hours), can be purchased at the station the same day. For instance, if traveling from Hangzhou to Suzhou, ask the hotel what is the correct bus station and go. Most of the time you will only wait 20 to 30 minutes for the next free bus. As for trains, major hotels have business centers that will purchase the tickets for you and give them to you a few hours later for a small commission (usually between 10 to 30 RMB/per ticket). Train tickets do fill up quicker, but if it is not during a holiday it is usually not a problem. Even speaking Chinese, I opt to do this to save the hassle of going to the station or trekking around the city looking for a ticket outlet.

    Chinese cities are very safe for foreigners. Getting lost can be fun and, although, sometimes frustrating can lead to funny stories to tell once home. This is where tour groups are a drawback. Since China is safe, exploring on your own will most definitely lead to more experiences. Tour guides tend to be overly nurturing and parental. This is one complaint I have heard repeatedly by foreigners while on tour here. Most were older (over 65) and wished, once seeing how safe China is, they traveled on their own.

    One big problem with these tour groups is they book rooms at hotels they get deals with. These hotels can be far from city centers and in not the most ideal settings, although they advertise on the Internet to be in the city center. Chinese cities are HUGE and have 'suburbs' that can extend over a hour outside anywhere a tourist would want to be. The hotel will most likely be comfortable, but located in a very boring, unfinished 'suburb'. Make sure each hotel is listed in the schedule with an address. Always look at a city map and know where you are staying. This can make or break your trip!

    As far as tipping, Chinese in bigger cities are expecting it more and more, but that does NOT mean you have to feel it necessary. Unlike other Asian countries, when Chinese help us with our bags or getting a taxi they never linger and make us feel guilted into tipping. In a tour group it might be the other tourists tipping that makes others feel awkward. I would not let this interfere with your decision. Tip at the end and only to the tour guide if you feel they went above and beyond their job. Better yet bring a 'gift' from your city. Chinese LOVE gifts from foreign countries...things they cannot get here. For instance, if you know your guide is a woman bring here Body Shop face wash! It sounds silly, but they cannot buy quality products here without paying high prices. Or a New York Yankees baseball hat if a man. The Chinese might not seem excited about the gift, but that is the culture. They like to open gifts once alone and may push your gift aside, but believe me they appreciate it.

    I love living in China and have a lot of advice and have seen it all here! Feel free to email me and I will send you good advice on the cities and where to go and not to go depending on your interests. My husband and I are both Americans who speak Mandarin and love assisting other foreigners.

    Send me an email:

    DandDchengdu@gmail.com

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    DandDchengdu, you're a godsend ! I appreciate you offering your email address and providing a VERY intelligent assessment of this lengthy public discourse. It was no fun to be browbeaten by certain individuals who have a financial interest in advocating independent travel (Rizzuto pointed it out it specifically yesterday, I chose a subtle inference by mentioning the guide book offered on said profile!)

    Meanwhile, I'm anxiously awaiting the full report that hopefully ShellyM will share with us after her return from her Sept. Smartours tour.

    I extend a heartfelt "Thank you" to the many travelers who "joined the fray" on this very long thread. Smartours now has my money, I evaluated every specific hotel, I liked the itinerary, the free time alloted, and I'm looking forward to visiting fascinating China in a manner that suits me and the OP ( original poster).

    再见
    Goodbye !

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    > As far as tipping, Chinese in bigger cities are expecting it more and more

    This should read, 'As far as tipping, Chinese in bigger cities working with tourists and certain expats are expecting it more and more because said tourists and expats have taught them free money is available.' They aren't collecting tips from Chinese, of course, who would greet the expectation of a tip, were it ever shown to them, with puzzlement and derision; the 'expectation' of a tip not being any indication of entitlement in a culture where there's no tipping except under the exceptional circumstances already discussed.

    Wiser expats who've actually cottoned on to the culture in which they are live, don't offer a tip. Those who venture beyond expat ghettos and the usual expat-packed restaurants and services, beyond the drivers they perpetually recommend to each other and who take them for a ride in two senses, find no tip is ever expected and any offered greeted with puzzlement. There is no tipping in China other than that foisted upon themselves by certain types of tourists and certain types of expat within very closed environments where people have been taught (by other foreigners' behaviour) to exploit them, and it is a mistake and a disservice to all who follow to encourage the exploitation of foreigners in this alien way.

    In the USA (since it usually seems to be Americans we're talking about) tip according to local norms. In China do the same. And the local norm is that there is NO tipping; and to bring this back to the original topic, no independent traveller will find him- or herself ever having to tip, while the recommendation by some tour companies not only of tipping, but of sums vastly disproportionate to the local economy, and which are nothing but a scam, should not be justified by pretending that tipping is in fact a local norm in China, or growing to be one.

    1.3 million Chinese (when at home) don't tip, and that includes the guides who are squeezing the tip out of you, calling it 本老外费 (stupid foreigner tax), and laughing all the way to the bank.

    Why you'd want to bring a gift for someone working to cheat you, guiding you to places where you'll be massively overcharged, and advising you to pay prices dozens of times more than needed so ask to get a fat kick-back, is another question. If you manage to find an honest tour, however, that's another matter.

    Peter N-H

  • Report Abuse

    It is unfortunate to have to dignify a piece of petty spite with a response, but unfortunately Fodor's moderators cannot always be relied upon to remove postings consisting of nothing but bile and ignorance.

    As is well known to Fodor's editors, who are not as dim as is apparently assumed since this is hardly a well-kept secret, I am the author, co-author, or editor of numerous guides and reference works on China for several different publishers. I don't mention these here because this isn't a commercial site, because I make no profit from sales anyway, and because presumably the purpose of running this site is to promote the Fodor's brand and sell Fodor's titles and it would be impolite to mention other titles. The promotion of other titles is, in this case, rizzuto's work, not mine.

    I do, however, for those curious at the level of detail sometimes given in postings, provide a link to a page that mentions who I am (although the two titles actually pictured are long out of print, so no sales there.) As I say, this is hardly a well-kept secret. Rather than hide behind anonymity to throw abuse, I am happy to stand publicly by what I say here, and the detail available comes from periods of residence in China and extended stays every year, stretching back to 1986. Of course, it is only possible to offer such detail for free because others have paid for me to be there and do the research. Fodor's editors have been kind enough on occasion to write and thank me for this. I hope they are the ones who actually sell more books.

    There's little point in addressing the fatuous non-logic of the supposed cunning plan mysteriously to increase sales of certain books by vaguely promoting independent travel, not least because there never was any intention to form a logical argument, but only playground-level malice. Even supposing there was any income to be made from sales, I think I could devise a better marketing plan than spending hours giving detailed information for free, and without mentioning any titles.

    The purpose of this site, as the owners say but only inconsistently enforce, is the discussion of travel in Asia, not speculating grubbily about other posters, or making false and vapid accusations. I apologise for going off-topic myself, and I won't reply any further on this subject.

    Can we talk about travel in Asia now?

  • Comments have been removed by Fodor's moderators

  • Report Abuse

    Peter,
    You have resorted to ad hominem insults, characterizing my post as "consisting of nothing but bile and ignorance," accusing me of "[hiding] behind anonymity to throw abuse," engaging in "fatuous non-logic, and "making false and vapid accusations."

    Then you declare that the last word is yours, and we should get back to talking about travel.

    I do not object to your posting your thoughts, Peter, even if they misstate and twist fact. I am hardly anonymous -- I've posted several links to my eponymous travel blog (Travel with Mr Topaz), and I will be opening my home to Fodorites for an upcoming GTG.

    I believe your latest post to be utter tosh, but I believe that you have the right to express your opinions. I will never ask that an editor remove your post. Let the readers decide for themselves what is worthwhile. And that, Peter, is the great difference between you and me.

  • Report Abuse

    Peter, for a person who is constantly telling others they apparently haven't read the posts, I suggest you follow your own advice and read the posts. Can you cite a single post here than even vaguely suggests that "tipping is a local norm"? I sure haven't seen that. But I do know of one very poor misguided soul here who has stated several times "there is no tipping in China". Now that is wrong, wrong, wrong. Pure and simple. The fact that you don't want to accept that today some Chinese tour guides pay is actually SET to allow for tips does not mean it doesn't happen. Talk about ignoring facts!

    Nor when someone says that such a thing IS happening sometimes, it does not mean to imply that regular tipping is the norm in China. Can you possibly understand that very simple idea?

    And for the record, there is a gigantic difference between "HAVING to tip" and "wanting to tip". I still haven't seen a single reference here to HAVING to tip in China except for you when misquoted completely what others are saying.

This topic has been closed by the moderators to further comments.

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