China Highlights travel agency review

Dec 3rd, 2009, 11:14 AM
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Join Date: Jul 2009
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China Highlights travel agency review

I undertook a 17 day trip to China with China Highlights CITS Guilin in November. My experience was mixed. The booking was very efficient and they certainly came back quickly with an itinerary and trip suggestions.

However I had a serious problem with the guide in Beijing. My itinerary promised a hutong trip "A maze of historic alleyways and old single storey traditional courtyard houses, now fast disappearing. Dotted around the hutong are the Drum and Bell Towers, Kindergarten, Tea House, and local people's houses. Your tour includes a visit with a local family, a primary school (10 yuan per person, not included in the quotation), and a local flea market." I got a 10 min rickshaw bike ride with a short visit to a local house. I did NOT get to see the Drum or Bell Towers, the kindergarten or tea house. China Highlights to this day have never properly explained why I did not get to see this and as I am unlikely to fly all the way back to Beijing just for that I have lost out. Unfortunately I was jet-lagged at the time having just come off a direct flight from London and I didnt have my itinerary with me or I would have spotted the problem.

My itinerary stated I would get a "Summer Palace: Much-loved summer retreat of the Imperial families, the lovely landscaped gardens, halls, pavilions and corridors are set around the lake and rivers in natural harmony. You can expect to spend 2-3 hours here. Renovations (complete in 2010) mean that an individual section or building may be closed at any one time". And yet the guide claimed entrance to the octagon tower on the Longevity Hill within the Summer Palace was not included in the price (nor was entrance to the Theatre Stage)! So I paid extra in order not to miss out. Apparently that is standard practice so make sure you sort that out ahead of time.

I was keen to see Suzhou street near the Summer Palace that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide book. She refused and said it was too far (it didnt look far on the map!) but was prepared to take me to a shop she recommended!

My itinerary stated I would have lunch at "This traditional Mongolia Restaurant brings Mongolia's long and distinguished cultural and literary history offering live performances of Mongolian music and the unique opportunity to dine in a traditional Mongolian yurt(tent). Experience the passion of our traditional customs". And yet I ate on the fourth floor of the restaurant in a little private room instead of the third floor which had the tents and the music. Apparently that was a mistake in the itinerary and there is only music and dancing in the evening.

Finally she said she would pick me up from my hotel for my early morning flight to Xian at 06.30am. At 6.30am there was no sign of the guide or the driver. I called her mobile and she said she was stuck in traffic! After waiting ten minutes I had to ask the hotel to call me a taxi to take me to the airport so I didn’t miss my flight.

During my trip to the Summer palace I texted China Highlights twice to get them to resolve the problem but they said they did not receive the texts. I also complained by e-mail to China Highlights (to the person I booked with Tina Qin) but she claimed not to have received the e-mails either. I did speak to her on the telephone but she was unable to explain what had gone wrong. When I returned I was asked to fill out a satisfaction form so I responded and said that I had raised several questions during the trip but that these had yet to be answered. Still nothing. It was only when I posted on Trip Advisor that they finally responded! Result - a refund of £96.

Fortunately the rest of the trip was less hassle. Please note the guides and drivers are subcontracted to other providers so you are not dealing direct with China Highlights staff.

The driver I had in Zhongdian happily overtook cars around blind corners on steep mountain roads. Also the car seemed to have a dodgy gear box and we spent about 5 minutes trying to get it in gear! As we were miles from anywhere, if we had broken down it would have been a nightmare. Similarly my driver in Shanghai happily drove most of the time on the motorway with both hands through the steering wheel and rested them on the central column! Not great if he had had to react quickly.

I booked my own flights and hotels so cannot comment on China Highlight's efficiency for those things. My guide in Juizhaigou spoke particularly poor English which made communication almost impossible. He also disappeared to speak to his "onck" in a factory outlet for about 15 mins which then reduced my time at a temple (so I didn’t miss my flight!).

I hope other travellers find this helpful. Good luck.
Thumbelina2 is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2009, 06:33 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 1,778
Fortunately it seems you got off lightly (although we don't know anything about costs).

Writing for those who have yet to travel, the basic rules to learn from this experience are:

Don't think you have to arrange for tours or guide in China if you usually travel independently. You can travel entirely independently in China and many thousands without two words of Mandarin do so every year.

If you do prefer tours or guides, do not deal with Chinese companies picked up from the Web, and especially not if praised to heaven on Internet travel sites. Postings are very frequently from employees posing as happy customers, and genuinely happy customers with no other or not alternate experience of travel in China often come away unaware just how much they've been conned. Note, too, that some companies posing as, for instance, American companies are in fact Chinese companies with a token office overseas, or that merely retain a US phone number from which calls are re-routed to offices in China. For the most part it is best to avoid tour companies or guides of any kind, but if you do take them it is generally better to employ a genuinely foreign company based in your home country. This will still use the same ground handlers, and the arrangements may cost more, but when things go wrong you have someone easily to hand to pursue for compensation using your own country's trading laws; no threats of criticism on the infinitely misleading TA site required.

Try not to think you have to have everything (or, indeed anything at all except perhaps the first couple of hotel nights) booked in advance. Travel in China doesn't work like that, and you'll travel a great deal more cheaply simply by making arrangements as you go, which, with the assistance of local ticket agents, is far more straightforward than many seem to fear. Booking flights and hotels from overseas can often lead to paying double what is necessary, and sometimes even more.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2009, 07:19 PM
Join Date: Mar 2003
Posts: 111
I had a trip with China Highlights this summer: Beijing-Xian-Chonqinq-Yangtze River-Yiching-Shanghai. Primary reason we went was to see the solar eclipse but the whole turned out to be much, much better than expected. Our small group of five did not have any problems. Sure, the personalities of the local guides differed, but we got to see everying we were promised and more. I had never done a tour quite like this where we were handed off at the airport and then picked up at the other end without a hitch. I wouldn't hesitate to do another tour with them.
PinotNoir is offline  
Dec 6th, 2009, 09:12 AM
Join Date: Dec 2009
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Unfortunately it took me a while to recognize that tour leaders who take you to a "shop they know" are getting a sizable kick-back from the shop. I also found tour companies that do the same. I prefer to go with a tour company because of the convenience & go to the sites I want to see, but bow-out of stuff I can do without. Then get a cab and it the shops I want to explore.
Conchetta is offline  
Dec 6th, 2009, 02:36 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 1,778
The tour companies are not only getting a kick-back from the shops of at least 40% per purchase and often more, with every interest in seeing you pay ten to 15 times too much as foreigners often unknowingly do, but take kick-backs from every other angle of the trip as well, including hotels, restaurants, and all but the bigger name sites. Indeed, the whole structure of tours, the choice of hotels and restaurants, etc. is often entirely driven by the amount of kick-back paid. This is why food on tours is almost universally poor (although those only familiar with the awful dumbed-down North American and European Chinese food may not realise it), and why groups sometimes find themselves not only in an inconveniently located hotel, but taken across town through thick traffic for lunch at another (while some demonstration of some unwanted product is given). These kick-backs, together with demands for entirely inappropriate tips at ever-increasing rates (which will continue to rise until resistance is encountered) provide the vast profits, entirely at the tourist's expense, that make offering the tour at an apparently low price to start with viable.

There are certain questions that need to be asked to sort the wolves from the sheep. See this thread:

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
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