Just returned from China with SmarTours

Old Oct 5th, 2010, 07:43 AM
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Just returned from China with SmarTours

I promised to send a report… Overall, the trip was a big success. Our guides, hotels and itinerary/sites were excellent.
Our guide, Mr. Ma, aka Mark, was wonderful: likeable, capable, knowledgeable, experienced, just about perfect, as guides go. He traveled with us from our arrival in Shanghai til our departure from Hong Kong 18 days later. He handled the unexpected with a high level of professionalism. During the bus rides, he talked at great length about Chinese culture, today and in the past, and answered all our questions, no matter how inane, intrusive or complicated.
We feel we saw some major [tourist] sites, from the pandas to the Three Gorges Dam to the Great Wall, to lots of things we’d not heard of.
Being part of a tour made it easy to get around without having to make individual plans, select hotels, wait in lines, etc. And when the unexpected did happen, we were in good hands. For example, one time our plane was delayed several hours. On our own, we’d have probably sat at the airport and waited. Instead, Mark arranged for some of us to take an impromptu tour of the city and lunch, and for those feeling too sick or tired for that activity (the majority), he arranged rooms in a luxury hotel, with lunch. No extra charge for any of that. [And later, when the plane was suddenly ready to take off sooner we expected, he somehow made sure it waited for our group.]
I guess the nightmare scenario is to be seriously ill on vacation in a foreign country. This happened to one of our group, and SmarTours made sure she was taken care of, rearranging her schedule to fly to Hong Kong ahead of us, where she made a quick recovery and rejoined us.
The hotels were beautiful high-rises, Crown Plazas or similar. It was great to have a large clean room with a buffet breakfast each morning. However, if your goal is to mingle with the “common folk,” this isn’t how to do that. That truly should be a goal of travel, but in this case, that was a trade-off.
The food was very good, with a few exceptions. Some were buffets; the rest were served family style (i.e., we didn’t order—the food just kept coming), with lazy-susans built into the tables, which usually seated eight. I don’t eat meat, so there were a lot of dishes that I skipped, but I had plenty to eat (and not just rice.) The rest of the group enjoyed most all the food. There was almost no seafood.
The main negative feature is that there were too many people in our group: 44. It’s just hard to move that many people efficiently. Nothing happened very fast. Someone was inevitably late each time we returned to the bus, and that time added up each day. With one exception, the buses did not have a rear entry door, so it took awhile to load/unload. Traffic was extremely heavy, so it took a long time to get to each venue, often more than an hour. The result is that, where the itinerary says “rest of day at leisure,” that never happened. We usually had one hour between arrival from the day’s tour, and going to dinner. We essentially had no free time until the last half-day, which was in Hong Kong, unless we'd opted to skip the organized activities.
There has been some discussion of tipping in China. YES, the tour guides expect tips, and SmarTours gives guidelines for the amounts, stressing that it’s purely voluntary based on your satisfaction with the level of service. It added up to about the same amount that cruise ships automatically add to each passenger’s bill, $10-13 per day. We had different guides in each city and all had good language skills, knowledge, and a sense of humor. We were happy to give them a few dollars as we said good-bye to each one.
I can’t compare to the many other companies. We did not shop around, as this is our third SmarTours trip and all in all, we find the company very good. (Our previous tours had 25 and 36 people.) We met some guys on an [I think] Odyssey tour. There were 10 in their group and they paid about twice as much as we did for the same length trip.
Depends on what you want. I’ll be happy to answer any specific questions.
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Old Oct 5th, 2010, 09:28 AM
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We went on this tour several years ago and thought it was great. I can't remember how many people were on our tour, but it was not so large as to take more than 5 minutes to load and unload the bus. Fortunately, we did not have to wait for anyone, as I remember, so the trip ran smoother and faster than yours. As far a free time to mix and mingle with the locals, we did not take any of the optional tours, and we left the group at some point so that we could use public transportation in Beijing and Hong Kong, which was very easy to use. Granted there was only one full day and one half day to do this, as well as many evenings, but it was enough time for me to get the vibe of both cities.

I enjoyed reading your report which brought back many happy memories. Welcome home, and thanks for posting.
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Old Oct 5th, 2010, 09:11 PM
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Hi everyone, what is done is done and it will be better to redirect the thread to a more helpful information. Critics, good and bad, just shows the different opinions of different people. Though good critics also say their recommendations to support their points. What can you recommend, Peter, that will be useful to us other travelers? For instance, through research, I find out that we can walk by ourselves with our own time and convenience to The Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square which is very near to some hotels where we can stay. Maybe you can give me some suggestions on which hotel nearby the Imperial Palace and other attractions can we stay with the proper heating inside the room since we are going this november, free internet access and nice service. Restaurants where we can eat good foods and foods which we should not miss. Round trip transportation to this attractions from the hotel, time schedule and fare price or their sites. I believe you know a lot about it to be able to criticized. And it will be a big help for me.

There are really other people and times where you will get a paid package tour. The people who did prefer it doesn't want the time consuming planning for their trip or simply doesn't have time to do it. Maybe you can recommend cheaper or better tour agency. It is business as usual and it will always depend on their marketing strategy. For instance, the Badaling Great Wall tour, I prefer to hire an agency for that particular trip unless someone can justify to me that it is better to do it by ourselves.

Hi Joyce, can you give some details on your trip to the Badaling Great Wall? Like can we climb it through foot and not use a cable car. Will be a great help if you can tell me whether it is safe to climb it on foot and is it very high? What is the weather there when you were at beijing? and any useful information you can give me.

I am going with my mother who is 70 years old and cannot see and it is her dream to be able to go to beijing and have some pictures specially at The Great Wall.
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Old Oct 5th, 2010, 09:39 PM
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Jessica_ong, I can't recommend The Kapok in Beijing enough. It was a great hotel choice for me, easy walking distance to the Forbidden City. It was a quite new and quite modern hotel, with very modern bathrooms and big walk in glass showers rather than tubs and shower curtains. Free internet in the room which really worked. I had a great deal booking direct (about $80 for a courtyard room), but it did not include breakfast which was a huge and extensive buffet (I only did it the last morning there). But I did have lunch there one day and it was really delicious food (albeit very hot and spicy which they warned me about when I ordered the dish).

The staff was great and helpful and friendly. I especially liked that the girl in the business center booked a flight for me within China -- absolutely no charge to do so, and printed off my e-ticket when I was unable to do so on my own laptop. And even more -- although the hotel books tours, the "concierge" or doorman independent of the hotel booked me a private taxi with an ENGLISH SPEAKING driver to take me to the great wall and other sites for the day. It was little more (or perhaps even less, depending on negotiating skills) than most people pay to hire a taxi on their own -- but with the helpful difference of not having to spend an hour or more trying to find and deal with a taxi driver to get him to agree to do so and negotiating a price, and being sure he spoke great English. He also provided me with a cell phone so that a each site I could call him when I was ready and he'd drive right up and pick me up rather than looking for each other. The hotel told me that if I just wanted my own driver, that the doorman would do that for me -- so it was surprising that the hotel actually encouraged it rather than insisting on taking one of their organized tours.

http://www.kapokhotelbeijing.com/
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Old Oct 6th, 2010, 06:11 AM
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JoyceM-our first trip to Thailand was a private tour. It was great. We have returned seven times. Tours are fine. You pay extra and have more limited choices, but you enjoyed your trip which trumps all. There are many firmly held opinions. Yours is as valuable as anyone's. Plus, I can't count the number of times that we ignored advice and prospered.

Thanks for your report.
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Old Oct 6th, 2010, 10:10 AM
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Great report, JoyceM. Thank you for sharing thoughts on your trip with us. When I travelled to China many years ago, we had traffic isues, too. But it wasn't from all of the motorized vehicles on the road, it was because of the thousands of bicycles!
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Old Oct 6th, 2010, 01:25 PM
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Joyce, so glad you ended up having a good time! Group travel or not...you've proven that either travel style (independent or organized) can prove successful. One is not better than the other.

Thank you as well for being so even-handed in your assessment of your tour.

On a side note, since I wasn't able to contribute to all the fun happening on your original thread, I wanted to point out something I find very interesting (and somewhat hypocritical.)

On your now legendary planning thread, one particular poster felt very strongly about his viewpoint. Said poster, ironically enough, has made a similar fuss in the past about others on here adhering to the rules of Fodor's forums to the T. I guess the poster must've somehow brushed past this post from our dear editor Amy (she posted this message on a thread about the new guidelines once they were implemented):

"An Original Poster (OP) shouldn't feel as though they "own" any thread they start. Instead, the OP should be happy to entertain differing viewpoints. By the same token a forum is not a blog---it's a place for two-way conversation, and if one voice begins to drown out all the others we want to be able to gently remind that voice to give others a chance to speak."

That last sentence kind of says it all. Although in this case I guess the reminder was shutting down the post.
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Old Oct 6th, 2010, 02:10 PM
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Thank you very much for posting your trip report . . . I enjoyed it very much.

I have made two trips with Smartours . . . one to Vietnam/Cambodia and another to India/Nepal . . . they both were fantastic.

Sandy (in Denton)
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Old Oct 6th, 2010, 02:12 PM
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>>Hi Joyce, can you give some details on your trip to the Badaling Great Wall? Like can we climb it through foot and not use a cable car. Will be a great help if you can tell me whether it is safe to climb it on foot and is it very high? What is the weather there when you were at beijing? and any useful information you can give me.

I am going with my mother who is 70 years old and cannot see and it is her dream to be able to go to beijing and have some pictures specially at The Great Wall.

FIRST OF ALL, I don't do cable cars unless there is no alternative, as I have a fear of heights. I can't remember if that was an option...maybe I blanked it out!
There are options from where the buses stop: steep, steeper and steepest. Depends on what you call steep! We chose the "easiest," which is a left turn (down the steps and across the street) from the starting point. The steps are made up of, let's call them slabs or bricks, maybe 4-5 inches high. Some steps are one or two stacks high. Easy. Higher up, some of the steps are stacked 3, 4, even the killer 5 of these increments (by which time I was almost crawling!) I made it to the first level and my husband (age 65 and very fit) went lots further. He took pix for me! Lots of our group were in the 70-year age group and it depends on the fitness level on what your mom can do. Indeed, she can have her photo taken and climb at least a few steps on the Great Wall (even with limited eyesight).
It was about 95 degrees. Don't believe the guidebooks about the daily high being in the 80s in Sept.! Ok, maybe that's the average, but it was hot, hot, hot! We live in S Fla, so should have been used to it, but my advice is go later in the year. October is a big holiday over there and seems to be prime time, lots of fun.
Too bad some of the posts have apparently been removed, as I wish I knew what I responded to and wrote last night. What an odd forum indeed. Thanks for referring to my "legendary planning thread." I love "legendary"! It is an odd forum with some people not just sharing knowledge, but, um, pontificating? I've learned a lot. Again, I'll be happy to answer any questions about this trip, esp about SmarTours.
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Old Oct 7th, 2010, 10:20 AM
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>>"As far a free time to mix and mingle with the locals, we did not take any of the optional tours, and we left the group at some point so that we could use public transportation in Beijing and Hong Kong, which was very easy to use. Granted there was only one full day and one half day to do this, as well as many evenings, but it was enough time for me to get the vibe of both cities."

On this trip there weren't the optional tours (I think maybe one dinner which no one went to, as we were all too tired). As opposed to our Australia tour, where there were lots of [sort of expensive] optional full-day tours, and dinner was usually on our own. Much more "free" time. Every tour is different, even with the same company. Our best--so far with Smart--was the MachuPicchu/Galapagos...it had a nice mix of free time and group activities...dinners were about half and half. I don't remember "optional" outings (or shopping stops), but there surely were a couple such outings.

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR NICE COMMENTS ABOUT MY REPORT!
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Old Oct 8th, 2010, 04:34 PM
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Your tour report was excellent. All the details so many of us like to know.
I think tours are a matter of luck. Our tour with Smartours to China could not have been better. Nobody was ever late (even one minute), nobody was ever unpleasant, everybody loved everything we did. I was the only person to skip even one dinner...and it was very special one with a banquet and dancers. We became lifelong friends with two other couples. Wonderful. In Hong Kong we chatted with two women who had just done a similar tour with A&K. They had a terrible time since one of the 10 people on the tour was very unpleasant and always late and always complaining. Bad luck.
Fortunately, most people make the best of the situation and manage to enjoy their travels.
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Old Oct 11th, 2010, 06:35 PM
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Joyce I just stumbled into the Asia forum. I don't usually go here. But I'm so glad I did.
I really enjoyed reading your trip report .
I have been in one Smartour and really enjoyed myself. I think they are excellent value
It's great to know that this is an enjoyable tour.
Thanks for posting
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Old Oct 13th, 2010, 08:25 AM
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Neopatrick- how much for the taxi at the kapok, if u dont mind.
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Old Oct 13th, 2010, 05:28 PM
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The English speaking taxi driver that the doorman at Kapok arranged was 700 Yuan for the day -- and he paid tolls and gas.
I had been told that if you can negotiate a taxi for the day for 600 that's a good price, so it didn't bother me in the least to pay 700 when I was guaranteed one who spoke good English (surprisingly good, in fact) and for whom I wouldn't have to run around the streets trying to find one willing to go for the day and trying to negotiate a price.
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Old Oct 16th, 2010, 11:48 AM
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Elainee, We had no unpleasant people, and the reasons some were late were, I'm sure, unavoidable. It was never the same person twice. One person's watch battery died; one misunderstood the meeting place, etc. It just added up. It was a nice, compatible group. The uncontrollable things (excessive heat and heavy traffic) were the most unpleasant. Things can always go wrong on any tour or independent vacation!
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Old Oct 17th, 2010, 08:13 AM
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Hi Joyce, Thanks so much for your report.I'm on the Nov. 8th Samrtours 10 day Beijing Shanghai trip. I really like the hiring of the taxi guide idea. I will be staying at the Marriott Courtyard in Beijing.The location is downtown and except for the great wall everything seems to be in walking distance. I'm not one for large groups and I like the ideal of small groups. I took a 12 day cruise in the Mediterranean last year and was able to hook up with fellow travelers trough a site call cruise critic before the trip and that enable us to form small groups and book the tours before we left at half the price of the cruise ships and twice the valve. Were you able to hook up with fellow travelers and form small groups for private guide tours. Thanks again for sharing your experience with us. Willie
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Old Oct 17th, 2010, 08:48 AM
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wcopel - Beijing is incredibly huge, and there's no hotel that can be within walking distance from most sites in the city. The inner city within the old city walls is over 4 miles wide and over 5 miles across. In contrast, in London it's only 4 miles from the northwest corner of Hyde Park to St. Paul.
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Old Oct 17th, 2010, 02:59 PM
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My husband & I are going in the Beijing/shanghai on November 30th. All of the informationhas been very helpful and enlightening. We have traveled with and without tour groups and their are pros and cons to both; for China we opted for the tour group with Smartours. Thank you to everyone who has voiced their opinion on Smartours.

I have questions about the airline used for this tour...Air China. How long was the flight from JFK, was the plane nice, did you have a personal seat back TV?? Once you arrived in Beijing was a represenative from Smartours clearly visable? Was there a clear plan for meeting to get on the plane to Shangai...we plan on doing independent exploring and are concerned about staying in the loop with the tour director.

Thank you
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Old Oct 17th, 2010, 03:51 PM
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Thanks, Patrick! I would pay extra as you recommend. Did u tip on top of the 700 yuan? Regards, kitty
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Old Oct 17th, 2010, 06:39 PM
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No tip. The doorman said not to, that it was all inclusive.
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