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China -Tour Companies

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After much research a friend identified 2 tour companies that travel to China with itineraries we really like. So now we are just checking if anyone has had experience with either of them: Explorient and Kensington. THANKS

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  • Report Abuse

    There is often far less difference between China tours than there may appear to be, because in all but a very few cases, the ground arrangements are made by a limited number of domestic operators, and the package is branded, a profit margin added, and then sold on to you.

    In addition to the usual questions you may have asked yourself about age group, destinations included, hotel quality, etc. for China tours you also need to ask several other very important questions to separate out the less rapacious tour companies from the pack. Details of those questions may be found partway down this thread, followed by a discussion of their merit:

    For a recent discussion of problems with tours of which you need to be aware if taking one, see:

    Peter N-H

  • Report Abuse

    Just having a look round the websites of these two companies, neither looks promising. Prices are higher than the 'budget' tours, which often helps to reduce the shenanigans, but neither company is a China specialist, and at first sight it looks as though local ground handlers are doing all the work. Quite possibly neither company has much of a clue how China tourism operates on the ground. As remarked in the discussions to which links were given above, if you pay more you should be looking for a foreign tour manager to be with you and make sure the tour proceeds completely as planned. I looked quickly but it appears that neither company is offering such a tour leader.

    If you've gone through the questions it is suggested you ask to help with your decision, you'll see that both companies have problems with tipping. It always takes time digging around the web sites for this information, and it's usually buried in the FAQ section or the country guides. Both companies advocate tipping, which is nothing less than an abuse of trust. It might be thought that it's just boilerplate copy applied to all destinations without thinking, but one of the companies goes so far as to say in its China country guide:

    > Tipping is customary and expected by travel guides, tour bus drivers, porters and in hotels. On tours with private sightseeing, gratuities of $8-$10 for travel guides, $2-$3 for drivers per person per day is customary.

    At best this indicates that the company is profoundly ignorant of China, has been taken for a ride by its ground handlers (local operators), and so should be avoided. At worst it is itself corrupt. There is no tipping in China (it is the exact opposite of 'customary') except that practised on hapless foreign visitors who know no better, but even so the sums suggested here are monstrous. If you're nevertheless willing to travel with a company that's party to duping you quite so comprehensively, multiply up the daily 'tip' rip-offs and add them to the total for the trip to find the real price (assuming that you are cheated in no other way while on the trip). Be warned that if you quite rightly decline to tip (and tipping is, even in cultures that have it, supposed to be optional let's remember) that some tour guides have no compunction about putting you under considerable pressure (they are never going to see you again). Again, see the second link provided for a detailed description of this from one tour.

    The other company needs to be asked to state frankly what its tipping expectations are. The answer should be nil (except to a foreign tour leader operating under your own country's tipping rules, whatever they are). But it won't be.

    As for shopping stops, none are listed (as far as a quick read could show). It is extremely unlikely that there are none, and indeed, without a foreign tour director to suppress them, there are likely to be several as companies often simply omit these from schedules. Chances are your 'included' lunches sometimes take place in a 'demonstration/shopping opportunity' environment, and the food will be poor. Ask the tour company specifically whether this is the case. As been described in detail under the discussions to which links were provided, you want all shopping stops to be kept to an absolute minimum, and want to keep your wallet firmly in your pocket at any unavoidable stops. But the only way to find out how many there are (and not necessarily get a correct answer even then) is to ask directly.

    I hope all this helps you come to a decision on whether to choose one company over the other, or another company, or, indeed, none at all.

    Peter N-H

  • Report Abuse

    We used R. Crusoe and Sons - a Chicago based company for our China tour. They are amazing. We happened to be in Shanghai on 9/11 and R. Crusoe took the best care of us. They contacted all our family members at home to assure us they were o.k. and made hotel arrangements to care for us until the flight restrictions were lifted to get home. I can't say enough good about them.

    Their tour is truly outstanding. We had museum curators give us tours, got a behind the scenes in Xian - even going into the pits rather than just walking the catwalks, we had dinner with economists and tea in private homes. It was wonderful. Small groups of 10 couples.

  • Report Abuse

    It's worth noting (although this is be no means an argument in itself against any particular tour company, or against this particular recommendation) that there is no China tour operator, however abusive of its customers, that doesn't have many former clients willing to post enthusiastically about it in public. As has been said, many customers come home entirely unaware of what has been practised upon them.

    I haven't looked in detail at the offering here, but the price of a tour does look more realistic (which means of course, that you could do all of it independently--including going down to the pit at the Warriors--for a fraction of the price, if that would please you). I don't have my notes in front of me, but I do seem to remember talking to R Crusoe and getting more satisfactory answers than from many others.

    However, being 'Chicago-based', or based overseas in general, doesn't mean that the same old Chinese ground handlers aren't used, or are properly supervised if they are. You need to ask for yourselves about current policy.

    And you also need to ask quite specifically:

    For this price, are you sending a foreign tour manager/leader with long experience of China to accompany the tour through its whole itinerary? (Answer should be 'yes', and in general this brings benefits worth paying for.)

    How many shopping stops/factory demonstrations will there be? (Answer should be--but rarely is--none. It sometimes is, 'We cannot avoid some of this be we are aware of the problems, keep them as brief as possible, and advise travellers not to buy anything,' which, in a way, is better still.)

    What is your tipping policy? (Answer should be, 'There is no tipping in China', but at best will be, 'We've taken care of this,' and more likely, 'We have an entirely optional tipping kitty and manage this carefully within the context of the local economy.' More commonly, and most shamefully, it's what we've seen quoted above.

    Peter N-H

  • Report Abuse

    Peter, We by no means had the "same old Chinese ground handlers" on our tour of China with R. Crusoe.

    I saw no one other than our small group in the Xian pits. There was no one else in the backrooms to see the restoration process where we met with the curator to see the the few remaining chards of original colors that had once adorned the soldiers. On our Yangzte River cruise, we had our own private guide rather than the one provided by the ship. In Shanghai we were taken into the museum vaults by the curator to see murals not on display to the public.

    We had a lovely young Chinese lady with us the entire trip - from meeting our plane at midnight in Hong Kong until we finally boarded a plane for home post-9/11 in Beijing. She worked exclusively for R. Crusoe. In each city, we had a local guide join us. For example, our guide in Xian had been President Clinton's guide when he toured. These local guides worked in tandem with our tour chaperone. They knew each other and had obviously worked together many times.

    In answer to your other inquiries, we did only two facory stops - one our way to the Great Wall at a cloisonne studio to watch the process and the other at the silk embroidery artist's studio in Suzhou. I have to say that I would have been quite suspect if our guide had advised us "not to buy anything". The items we saw were of museum quality. I think the question should be -- are you being taken to quality artists or to tourists' outlets. A good organizer would be very aware of the differences. Sadly, an independent traveler might not.

    We were not "encouraged" to purchase at either place and found watching the artists fascinating. On other shopping forays - such as the amusing street markets in Beijing, our guide would go along and help us bargain for trivial souvenirs.

    Local guide tips were included as was any tipping for hotel, transportation, restaurant service, etc. We were left to our own descretion for our chaperone at the end of the 21 days.

  • Report Abuse

    Peter, I note that your ranting posts about China guides have been banned by Fodors on the above threads. However, I am curious, you stated in that post that you have been doing research for years "in order to present sound advice for publication in a number of guides". Since you presented that credential as your basis of expertise, I would like to know where, exactly, are you published? If you were to place your CV on the table for review, it might make your opinions appear more valid.

  • Report Abuse

    TC - so the answers to Peter's questions are:

    No - no western tour leader.

    Two - actually a good answer. I visited the cloisonne place on a Smithsonian tour (which had a western leader but way too many shopping stops), and the Suzhou embroidery place as an independent. Enjoyed both.

    We've taken care of it. So they didn't tell you "no tipping in China".

    I've looked at the Crusoe tours, but they're well out of my price range these days, and I can do China much more cheaply, and have more fun, on my own.

  • Report Abuse

    thursday; While I can appreciate that R. Crusoe is out of the financial reach of some, I still don't see that Peter's points are useful.

    Why would I need a western tour leader? I felt quite comfortable with our university educated, Hong Kong raised, English speaking (HK was a British colony don't forget) chaperone. I have no prejudice against a chaperone from the country to which I am traveling. I would much prefer to travel in the company of a well educated local than a studied American who will regurgitate only what they've read in books or viewed through Western eyes.

    Why would I want to go to a country and never be allowed or at least given opportunities to shop in the best places? I disagree that shopping is a dirty word in China. For excellence the shops and artisans must be hand picked, of course....and never folded into a dining experience.

    Why is "we've taken care of it" a worse answer than "no tipping in China"? Whether tipping is a typical Chinese custom or not, if one does a good job and a company wishes to reward them for that, is it not at their discretion? R. Crusoe has long standing ties with their people in China. If they want to tip them in order to assure the best guides, drivers, restaurant staff to their clients, I say "hurray"!

    It seems to me that Peter is saying that an American tour guide would somehow "protect" us from the evil people in China. If I were to have that attitude, I would never have traveled to China in the first place. I think Peter has been on the road too long. He is terribly synical about anyone who isn't American. I find it ironic that he makes a living writing about a country he finds so loathsome.

  • Report Abuse

    We have used two companies for China: 1) Pacific Delight ("PD") and 2) Chinahighlights ("CH"). We used PD for our first trip to Beijing in October 2007. PD is premiliary small group travel. We were joined by two others and traveled in a mini-bus. It was a set itinerary. I did not like the "foreign lunch halls," where all the tours went for lunch.
    We returned to China in May 2009 with a friend (3 people) starting in Shanghai where we booked a B&B and did our own sightseeing. The B& B arranged for our transfer to/from the airport. We used CH for a trip to Xi'an that included transfers, hotel, all touring including the terra cotta warriors for two nights. We liked CH because we went to local restaurants for lunch rather than the "big foreign lunch halls." The guide helped us select meals. It was great fun. We were the only westerners in the restaurants.

    As we toured Beijing previously our friend booked a package with CH for Beijing and we booked only an awesome courtyard hotel in a Huatong. We liked using CH because we were able to pick and choose the services we needed. We did use CH for transfers in Beijing.

    I highly recommend either company. PD has a New York office, but I communicated via email. CH is a Chinese company and were very responsive vial email. I organized the trip for my friend which was different from our trip and CH was very helpful.

  • Report Abuse

    I've learned a lot about China travel since coming to this board to research for my upcoming trip.

    Most of this wonderful knowledge has come from one poster. Examples:

    1) Only dishonest crooks become tour guides or tour companies in China. There is no such thing as a knowledgeable or honest local guide. The whole country, especially all those in the tourism business is simply "out to rip you off".

    2) Anyone can pick up a guide book or two and work his own way around the country and do a far better job of acquiring factual knowledge than using a person who has spent his whole life studying Chinese history and culture.

    3) The main goal of travel to China should be "how much can I save?" If it costs me an extra $5 to save a little time or effort, then I would be an idiot for spending all that money when it isn't necessary.

    4) Even if your life long desire has been to visit Shanghai, you would be better just to skip it than to visit that city which does not represent Chinese culture and offers nothing unique. (That is as close to the exact quote as I can remember it).

  • Report Abuse

    I do have to say that I had a wonderful solo trip to China that was strongly influenced by Mr. Peter Neville-Hadley's advice, including oriental-list postings and Cadogan's Beijing, one of the many guidebooks that he has written/contributed to. (TC, you can, of course, Google for a list. I don't find his advice to be at all contemptuous of China, just rather anti the tourist system and pro independent travel.)

    If someone prefers a tour company, of course that's just fine, but if a non-polyglot directionally challenged and visually impaired person can happily find her way 'round China for three weeks, I'd think pretty much anyone could.

  • Report Abuse

    "Why is "we've taken care of it" a worse answer than "no tipping in China"?" - because you haven't been informed that the local custom is "no tipping". Why would you want to import a custom (based in America at least on deliberately underpaying wait staff etc.) to a country where it's not native?

  • Report Abuse

    Amy, there is a big difference between your attitude of "if someone prefers a tour company, of course that's just fine" and an opinion expressed here which seems to say "of course if you are too stupid to travel on your own, and don't mind being ripped off and being lied to, then go ahead and take a tour".

    By the way, it is the attitude expressed that I object to, not the idea of independent travel. I'm biting my nails right now, but still planning to do my whole trip in China on my own and alone -- but I don't consider anyone who doesn't want to try it a complete idiot who doesn't mind being ripped off. And maybe I'm just too much of a Polyanna, but I refuse to believe that there is not a single Chinese person in the tourism industry who is NOT a crook and a liar and a cheat.

  • Report Abuse

    Patrick, first let me tell you that I'm still singularly grateful to you for recommending Hotel Castille in Valletta and I truly appreciate your posts, 'cause now I'm gonna say (as gently as I can)...

    I kinda think that both you and Mr. N-H tend to come off a bit more emphatically than you may realize, and intensify the responses when it seems like you're being called on something in which you're deeply invested. And in both cases, I think that you're being helpful, but just really, really...guys. Not to gender stereotype or anything.

  • Report Abuse

    Amy I have to agree with Patrick on this one. Mr. N-H has had his postings closed on this board due to his "emphatic" denigration of the Chinese population. If I were to read only his posts, I would never in a million years consider going to China. He instills the very worst fears in American tourists - that the foreign culture they are visiting is out to get them. Oooooohhhhhhh, my ! His statements of "watch your wallet" and the like encourages the very ugly American qualities that make me cringe.

    Keep in mind that Mr. N-H makes his living off of the very people he is bashing. In my mind he is no better than any other fear-monger. It appears that in all his many years of research he has found not one commendable person in the whole Chinese travel industry. Could it be that he is only looking for those that support his financial point of view? After all he sells books targeted to touring China without aid. Is it not to his pecuniary advantage to keep the fear factor of Chinese tour guides alive and well?

  • Report Abuse

    "denigration of the Chinese population" - come on, now who's exaggerating?

    "the foreign culture they are visiting is out to get them" - nonsense. He's warning you what to look out for on guided tours, and with tour guides, and when shopping, hardly the culture or the population as a whole.

  • Report Abuse

    Truthfully, TC, I've always bought guidebooks whether on tour or not, so that hadn't actually occurred to me at all. And not to be pedantic, but Mr. N-H isn't, in fact, American by either birth or location.

    I can only reiterate that I found his postings to be extremely helpful in my planning, and I was most definitely reading postings here before I bought anything. Of course, this was five years ago, but things were much the same. I'm not saying that I would always fully endorse his posting style, just giving an alternate view. (Here's my trip, by the way:

    PS: I've always looked at some of the R. Crusoe offerings with longing, but I'm one of the great unwashed who could live for a year on what the trip would cost, so...that's not happening.

  • Report Abuse

    Thursdaysd, perhaps you were taught reading comprehension differently than I was, but here are just a few recent quotes about guides. Note that never once does it suggest these are things that merely "could happen" or things to "look out for" as you suggest. Clearly they say to the reader that this is the ONLY way it is. Every statement lacks a "some guides" or sometimes" reference. Every one clearly states things as facts true of ALL guides. If someone said "Americans are loud obnoxious tourists who have no idea what they are looking at and don't care" would you be defending that statement as meaning it as a "sometimes" character trait? There is a big difference between suggesting that there is no such thing as a good or honest Chinese guide and that it is simply wise to look out for the bad ones.

    "Guides in China do not know their history or culture, and indeed have been trained to tell you falsehoods galore."

    "They overcharge you."

    "At every point there is a commercial transaction, with the sole exception of tickets for the biggest sights, the guide takes a kick-back. Your restaurant and shopping choices are driven by the kick-backs on offer, not by what is best for you."

    "In short a guide will typically and unmercifully take you for every penny while apparently being tooth-acheingly sweet at the same time, and while providing you with an entirely ersatz view of your destination."

    If those statement simply added the word "some" or "sometimes" I'd have no objection -- but that idea is clearly lacking in every statement -- therefore they are stated as meaning "all".

    And I find the following quote not only insulting to any Fodorite poster who has ever used a guide, but generally patronizing to everyone here -- even though at least this time it does include the word "most" and not "all":

    "To keep yourself at a distance from real food, real prices, and real experiences in general, the best way is to take a guide, and most people recommending guides here have absolutely no clue just how much they have been taken for a ride in two senses."

  • Report Abuse

    > Peter, I note that your ranting posts about China guides have been banned by Fodors on the above threads.

    What a shame to take a perfectly civil and reasoned conversation intended to help the general readership of this site make informed decisions when selecting tour companies, and to descend to the most absurd, ill-informed, and very unpleasantly personal abuse.

    Unfortunately for the egos of some here, the subject of this board is the discussion of travel in Asia, not 'what I think of other posters' (surely very tedious indeed for the average reader, who is here for advice on travel) and it is a descent to posts that contain nothing but abuse that causes the closure of threads, not reasoned argument and facts intended for the consumption of a readership no doubt amounting to hundreds of people over time (perhaps thousands) and not any individual reader who may mistakenly believe it all revolves around him- or herself. This is a public conversation for the benefit of many, and at least two posters to this thread have already had several postings deleted precisely for descending to the sort of personal abuse they display here.

    Those addressed in this thread are people who, like the OP, are attempting to make a decision on whether to tour or not, and if to tour, with which company, and not those who already have experience of China even if that experience is limited solely to taking a single, brief, chaperoned, tour. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with taking such tours for those who prefer them, but in terms of overall experience of China and of how the Chinese tourism industry operates, this amounts effectively to very little experience indeed, and cannot be generalised in any way to travel in China, whether organised or independent.

    The position so often seen here, 'I took tour X and I had a good time, so I'm going to get personally abusive if it suggested even that people ask questions before making their own choices,' is embarrassing, unreasonable, and the exact opposite of helpful. There are better tours, and worse tours; and better ways to deal with the Chinese tourism industry, and worse ways. Well-informed intending travellers will make better decisions.

    The questions posed here, if posed by intending travellers to the tour companies they are considering, will help them make wise decisions, and avoid some of the commonplace shenanigans of the Chinese tourism industry, which has its hands very deeply in the visitor's pocket.

    Attempting to personalise such a discussion, and in particular to descend to grubby personal abuse from behind the safety of anonymity, is reminiscent of the school playground, does nothing but reflect badly on the person who posts it, does a disservice to those who follow, and who are looking for reasoned discussion and informed advice.

    The Chinese tourism industry is comprehensively corrupt, and those intending to make a visit to China with its 'assistance' need to be informed how it operates so as to avoid its worst excesses, and be aware how many of the benefits available from organised tourism elsewhere are not typically available from organised tourism in China. The truths of Chinese tourism are sour an unpleasant to recount, but that's the industry's fault, not the fault of those who bring these faults to the attention of others.

    Can we perhaps now, with the intention of helping future travellers, please return to the topic of travel in Asia, the sole appropriate topic for this board (according to its owner).

    Peter N-H

  • Report Abuse

    Sigh. Your reading comprehension seems to be the one lacking, NeoPatrick. I said that what Peter writes about guides doesn't apply to the CHINESE POPULATION as a whole, the vast majority of which isn't involved with the tourist industry in any capacity, not that it doesn't apply to all guides. However, since Peter is more than capable of speaking for himself, and I have a lot of trip planning to do, I'm out of here. Enjoy the battle.

  • Report Abuse

    My battle? Who was talking about what YOU said, thursdaysd -- other than how you were interpreting Peter's remarks which I think I've fairly stated exactly as HE stated them? -- in fact that's why they are all direct quotes. You can pretend he isn't talking about all guides, but indeed that IS what he said!

    And yes, he is capable of speaking for himself and he has. In fact in that last post he still never says that the system is "sometimes corrupt" but still seems to indicate that the entire system IS so. He is clearly stating that there is no such thing as fair or honest practices within the Chinese tourism industry! Just once it would be nice to hear him say "there are some good guides in China but one must look for them" or something to that effect, but I have yet to see even a hint that he believes a single honest, fair Chinese tour guide exists.

    Peter, you also misunderstand my and others. The only reason I bring up these points is not to berate you (the way you berate anyone who doesn't have exactly the same travel philosophy as you) but rather to try to help travelers into believing that it just might be possible to use a tour guide and NOT be 100% ripped off. And I think it is helpful NOT to tell those who really don't want to travel independently that they need to stay out of China completely or they will have a horrible experience whether they know it or not.

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