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Just got home from Smartours Beijing/Shanghai

Just got home from Smartours Beijing/Shanghai

Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 06:08 AM
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Just got home from Smartours Beijing/Shanghai

There were a lot of questions that I had coming into this trip that I wasnt able to find answers to. So I decided that I was going to post my experience with Smartours to see if it would help some future travelers.

First off I would like to say that I absolutely loved my trip, and overall Smartours was a great experience. One question that Smartours wouldnt answer prior to my trip was which tours fell on which days. They said it could change based on each group, but mine fell like this...

Day 1 - Forbidden City
Day 2 - Great Wall
Day 3 - Xian - Terra Cotta Warriors
Day 4 - Hutong Tour
Day 5 - Fly to Shanghai(Got to Hotel around 4pm)
Day 6 - Shanghai Tour
Day 7 - Suzhou Tour

The Airplane did not offer outlets. I called Smartours twice and both people said I would have outlets on the plane for my laptop, but that wasnt the case. The seats were pretty comfortable with decent leg room, especially for me since i am 6'2. They served 2 meals on the flight.

Airports in China are FAR more efficient than America. After landing it was about 30-45 minutes before we were on the smartours bus and headed to our hotel. When we landed in JFK when coming home, it took about 2.5 hours before we made it through customs and were able to get our luggage.

After getting to the hotel, you have about 60 minutes to decide which tours you want to sign up for. If you pay by credit card, there is a 4% fee. If tours arent filled, you can sign up later. We enjoyed the Forbidden City tour so much, we ended up signing up for just about everything.

One thing I was thrilled about bringing is a power strip. The Beijing hotel offers a single US outlet, the Shanghai one offers 2. Between camera batteries, 2 cell phones, laptops, and portable movie player... we really needed the outlets. Get a 2nd battery for your camera! Bring extra memory cards or offload the pictures to your laptop after each day. Saw many people miss out on pictures because of lack of memory or battery power.

Bring a roll of toilet paper, some toilets there are "Eastern" meaning you are basically going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. I only had to do this twice the entire trip, most bathrooms are your normal US bathrooms, depending on when you have to go, every tour offers a normal sit down bathroom at some point. But if you do end up needing to use an Eastern bathroom, they do not supply toilet paper.

You dont want to drink tap water there, but the hotel gives you 2 free bottles of water each day. The bus driver also sells 2 bottles of water for $1 US dollars.

Markets/Peddlers - Some of the more touristy spots are going to have people walking around the streets trying to sell you stuff. We went to China in November and the temperatures are basically the same as where we are from, SE Pennsylvania. So it was pretty cold. But these people were selling gloves and hats for $1 US. You will also have people trying to sell you fake rolex's, wallets, scarves, kites, etc. Anything that is sold on the street, you can easily get for 10% of their asking price. I saw people pay $1 for a scarf, then another person haggle for 10 scarves for $1. We really didnt appreciate how cheap things were in China until the end of our trip. You will sometimes walk away thinking you got a great deal on something, then see someone in your group get the same item for a fraction of what you paid. The biggest piece of advice I can given when dealing with people trying to sell you stuff.... WALK AWAY! You will not get the best price available until you walk away. You might even have to walk away several times. Also dont appear overly interested in the item. Make faces and gestures as if you arent even sure you want to buy the thing. You will also most likely spend some times in Markets. The same info above applies. The items you buy from people on the streets can easily be obtained for 10% of the original asking price. It appears that stuff sold in markets is closer to 15%-25% of the asking price. I can pretty much promise you that you will never ever get the best price until you walk away. China is famous for its knock offs. My wife got fake Coach Purses for about $20. They looks absolutely real and are very well made. Gucci, Louis Vuton, and other popular brands are available. When traveling to China you are allowed 1 piece of checked luggage, but 2 pieces when coming home. For $60 we got 2 pieces of Gucci luggage to take home with us. At these markets sometimes people will take you down back alleys, or their actual homes. Its very scary when it first happens, but its very safe. They are just taking you to other locations where they have more variety of items. Even our tour guide said they were safe. But the $50 chinese bill is counterfeited alot in China, so dont accept those. And many of these vendors will give you russian $20 bills that look like chinese $20 bills. Saw many people get duped by this. A 20 bill in China is $3, so it isnt a huge deal when it happens. But always inspect your change.

I found the haggling to be one of the most fun aspects of China, but it was a big turnoff for some people. If you dont want to deal with these people the absolute best things to do to avoid getting harassed... Do not ask the price of something. Once you ask for the price, they will be all over you. Try to not look at the items, show no interest whatsoever. And just flat our ignoring them. Ignoring them works far better than saying No.

Air Pollution - REALLY BAD. Every city we visited appeared to be permanently foggy. At times breathing didnt feel easy, but it wasnt a huge factor in us enjoying the vacation.

Now to the optional tours! I really couldnt find any reviews online about these tours, so this is my take. Overall I really enjoyed them. I believe around 77 people signed up for our smart tours trip, and more than 50% of them didnt do a single tour. Many of the sites we went to had these audio devices that you could carry around that would give you a virtual tour guide. You definitely could navigate China for much cheaper than the using the optional tours. We chose to take them because we really didnt want to have to deal with the hassle of getting tickets, and navigation. But from hearing from other people, taxis and subways were very cheap and easy to use. Also having a tour forced us to get out of bed. My wife and I arent morning people. The biggest knock on the Smartours is that every tour ends up having you at some "Market" for about an hour where you see a presentation and shop. Its pretty obvious that smartours gets a commission on these sales. You will go to a Jade market to see how Jade is made. Also a Pearl, Tea, Rug, and Silk stores. I suggest you dont buy anything at these stops. You will find these items at shops and they are priced way higher than other markets that you will visit, and you cannot negotiate the price much if at all.

These tours also include a lunch. They are either buffet or lazy susan type lunches. The lazy susan lunch has you sit at a 8-10 person table, and they bring out about a dozen or so dishes and you eat family style. Overall these lunches were very good.

Tour 1 - Forbidden City - Absolutely loved this tour. I love Chinese Architecture. The buildings were beautiful. If you sign up for 2 free tours, you get this one for free. Definitely recommend this one.

Tour 2 - Great Wall of China. Loved this tour as well. Its about a 2 hour bus ride to get to the wall. Our guide Patrick was great and talked to us at all times. So the rides always went very quick. The section of the wall that they take you to is very steep. You will basically be climbing up stairs nearly the entire way. They are some souvenir shops setup at many points during the hike. Dont feel obligated to buy anything at these shops. There were many things I wanted to get here, but I can promise you that everything you see at these shops, will be sold at dozens of over shops during your time in Beijing. Spend the time enjoying the wall. I think they gave us 90-120 minutes on the wall.

Day 3 Xian - Terra Cotta Warriors optional tour isnt listed on their site, but once you get the packet in the mail, you will see it is an option. For us, it was $400 a person. After getting off a 14 hour flight, we almost didnt sign up for this tour because we were so exhausted, but after reading the itinerary, I was impressed how little time you needed to spend at the airport. Smartours actually handled everything, Took us to the airport, got our tickets. From the time the bus arrived at the airport, it was about 30 minutes later and we were boarding. It was really impressive. Did I mention how more efficient Chinese airports are?

$800 for my wife and I was a hefty fee. Was it worth it? Many places including National Geographic named the Terra Cotta Warriors the 8th Wonder of the world. I hope to visit China again, but its possible this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so we signed up. We definitely enjoyed the tour, was it worth $800... I guess that depends on the person. I dont regret signing up for it, but it wasnt my favorite of all the tours, but easily the most expensive.

Day 4 - Hutong Tour - Wow... The write up is pretty bad for this tour and was easily one of the most, if not the most favorite tour by many people. We originally didnt sign up, and boy was I glad that I did. If you signed up for this Smartours vacation, and dont plan on doing any optional tours, you should consider this one. You get a rickshaw ride through the city streets, seeing how basic Chinese people live. You stop at a chinese person's house and get a brief history lesson about them. Then you stop at another chinese person's house and the make lunch for you. It was a GREAT lunch! You also stop a tea shop. This wasnt so bad because you get to see the chinese tea ritual. But the tea and cups are overpriced. This just isnt something you can do on your own, and I am not sure if anyone else provides this tour.

Chinese Opera - We did not sign up for this, and from hearing from the people that did... boy I am happy I didnt. I didnt find a single person that was happy about signing up for this. People fell asleep, some left 15 minutes into it.

Day 5 - Arrive in Shanghai and the optional Shanghai Night River Cruise - We didnt sign up for this, but everyone I talked to enjoyed it. You can take this cruise at your own convenience for $15 a person.

Day 6 - Shanghai Tour - Absolutely regret signing up for this tour. The site mentions a Children's Palace, we never visited this. The Shanghai Museum wasnt awful.. but it wasnt very enjoyable. No one was pleased with it, and the tickets are actually free to see this. So you could easily do this on your own. We visited the bund, which I believe is the same as the Shanghai cruise but during the day. The buildings were nice to look at, but the smog really took away from it, you can easily take a cab here and get some pictures. Afterwards we visited a factory where rugs were made. Overall the group was pretty angry about this. The rugs cost about $4000 a piece. Just a complete waste of time. Afterwards we visited the Yu Gardens and the Yuyuan Market. Both of these were Awesome! But could easily be visited on your own. The hotel we stayed at gave out these cards with popular places to visit in English and Chinese. So you can get a cab, point to where you want to go, and easily get there. The Yu Gardens are basically attacked the YuYuan market. I would visit this later in the day. You will want to see the Yu Gardens during the day, as well as the market. But once it gets dark, the Yuyuan Market is completely lit up with lights, very very nice.

Day 7 - Suzhou Tour - This tour I could take it or leave it. Its a 2 hour bus ride. Its about a 30-45 minute boat ride that fits about 12 people. The first half of the tour you are traveling down the Grand Canal and seeing all the houses along the sides. Very cool. But after 15 minutes or so, the houses are gone and you are just traveling down the river, with not much else to see. After this you stop at a Silk Market. Of all the stores they make you stop at, this is easily the best. You get to see silk worms, and the entire process of how silk is made. Then you get to walk through a small silk mall. You also stop at the Master of the Net Garden. The Garden is very nice, but also very similar to the Yu Gardens. So if you visited the Yu Gardens, you wouldnt be missing much here.

Shanghai Acrobats - Very good, and definitely should be seen. The show is about 90 minutes.

Hopefully I remembered everything I wanted to say. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
MadHookUp is offline  
Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 06:27 AM
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"This just isn't something you can do on your own, and I am not sure if anyone else provides this tour" - just show up and bargain with the rickshaw drivers - although you probably wouldn't get lunch. I'm quite sure you can book that tour with a bunch of travel agents and hotels, too.

Sorry you didn't like the Shanghai Museum - I went back to Shanghai specifically to revisit it. Plus there are lots of gardens in Suzhou, although the Master of Nets was one of my favorites, and a quite different experience to YuYuan.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 08:31 AM
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This report is a very interesting account of the impressions you had on your trip. Thank you for posting in such detail!
JaneB is offline  
Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 10:22 AM
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> Xian - Terra Cotta Warriors optional tour . . . $400 a person.

For comparison, I believe that a soft-sleeper from Beijing to Xi'an and back (if purchased in China) costs about $120 per person, the bus from the train station in Xi'an to the warriors and back costs at most a few dollars, and admission to the Terra Cotta Warriors is about $10.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 12:53 PM
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pat
 
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I did the same tour 2 years ago and enjoyed it too. A lot of people were on the bus coming from the airport and going back to the airport and I didn`t see them otherwise. They did whatever they wanted on their own, which worked out well for them.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 01:48 PM
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I also enjoyed the Shanghai Museum,returned there a second day and plan to visit it again next year.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2010, 11:00 PM
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There were a couple exhibits closed, so maybe I missed out on some things at the museum. I enjoyed the calligraphy and furniture. Didnt have much interest in the currency, pottery, and jade which made up a lot of the remaining exhibits.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2010, 05:51 AM
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Well, if one takes the overnight trains to/from Xian, that saves two nights of hotels as well. Making that trip even cheaper (or free, or even make money).
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Old Dec 3rd, 2010, 10:36 AM
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Thank you for your detailed report of your China trip!
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