Trip to China- tour or independent???

Jul 8th, 2009, 04:44 AM
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Trip to China- tour or independent???

My husband and I are interested in a trip to China next April for about 12-14 days. We are debating whether to go on an organized tour or whether to travel independently. We don't consider ourselves "tour people," but we are concerned about the language issue. Any suggestions? Which tours are good ones? How difficult is it to hire guides and make independent arrangements in China? Thanks, Karen
karenmadorsky is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 04:55 AM
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Yes, you can travel independently in China. There are several recent reports here from people who have done it. You need a good guidebook, with place names in characters (if you're going beyond the big east coast cities), and a phrase book (with characters, NOT just pinyin).

Make sure you pick up your hotel's card, to give to taxi drivers on the way home, and have your hotel write down your destination in characters on the way out. Taxis are quite cheap, and there is metro in Beijing and Shanghai as well. I don't speak Mandarin either, but I managed fine, and found that the few locals who did speak English would go well out of their way to help (that was away from the east coast, where there was less pinyin or English).
thursdaysd is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 05:04 AM
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If you like more flexibility in what you'd like to do and see, I would recommend traveling independently instead of doing a tour. My husband and I went to China two years ago for 3 weeks and arranged to have guides in each location to deal with the language issue. While it took more upfront research and coordination of logistics on our side, in the end it worked out great!

We went to Beijing, Xian and Yangshuo (highly recommended!) and wrapped up our trip with a 3-day Yangzte cruise. I can certainly pass along the names of the guides I used if you're interested. Good luck with planning your trip. China is truly amazing!
blue06 is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 07:13 AM
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Thanks for the quick replies. This is the first time I have participated. Blue06, I would love the name of guides. I am not interested in the cruise. Please keep the responses coming. i love it and appreciate the help.Karen
karenmadorsky is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 08:20 AM
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There's little more of a language issue in China than there is in any other country that you might visit without knowing its language. If you prefer to travel independently, and usually travel that way, don't feel that you have to change your ways. Many thousands of travellers with no Mandarin at all travel independently in China every single year.

There are many difficulties indeed with guides in China, and these have been extensively discussed here (they don't know their history, they are part of the propaganda process, their choices are based on the kick-backs they received, etc.). Choosing their 'assistance' constitutes a middle way between entirely independent travel and a fully escorted tour, but there are no situations in which they are actually necessary, and you are better to bring some good reading material and simply jump in taxis.

In a handful of locations local one-day tours do provide a convenient way of getting around sites otherwise inconveniently connected by public transport, or for good value (Beijing, Xi'an, Datong, are three examples, although selection of tours needs to be careful as some targeting foreigners are hugely overpriced, and many waste your time with shopping rip-offs). Either way, all can be selected and booked on arrival.

As for other independent arrangements, you can make these as you go, and using ticket agents to acquire your air and rail tickets (the former for much lower prices than you'll find by booking well in advance from overseas), if you wish (and these agents are innumerable), takes much of the effort out of independent travel.

Other navigation is merely a matter of having a good guide book, getting hotels to write down the characters for your destination, and taking the hotel business card to show to a taxi driver when you want to come back.

A use of the search box above will find you lots of threads discussing guides, language, and ticketing issues, as well as trip report from fully independent travellers with no previous knowledge of the country and no ability in Mandarin, and thousands of others elsewhere on the Internet.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 10:27 AM
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We are not "tour people" either. In our 50s now, we have traveled the world independently. Having said that, we did travel with a small tour group for our trip to China. I consulted our neighbor during the planning process (granted, this was nearly 10 years ago), he is Chinese, lives in Hong Kong and has a big manufacturing plant in mainland China. His wife and children live next door. His advise....go with a group. He said that the language difficulty and the lack of tourist infrastructure in many parts of China would make him advise even his own family to go with a group. As it turned out, we woke up in Shanghai on the morning of 9/11/2001 and we were awfully glad to have had a very good tour operator taking care of us.

We were very pleased with the group we chose -- R. Crusoe and Sons, Chicago. They provided an excellent tour with many extras; like meeting with museum curators and behind the scenes into the restoration workshops of terracotta soldiers, etc. There were only 10 couples, many of whom we still stay in contact with. I believe its not so much the going with a group, but the group you choose to go with. Do your homework and find travelers with like interests and an operator that caters to those interests and attracts people like yourself. If one picks a tour based only on price, it might not always give the desired satisfaction.
TC is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 03:08 PM
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Copy & paste from what I wrote

"The entire travel industry in China that deals with tour groups desparately need an overhaul.

In early 1980s, Chinese tour guides considered themselves as embassadors to show their country to foreigners, they looked at gratuities as insults and would turn them in their working units.

The practice of accepting gratuities & kickbacks began in China almost at the same time in late 1980s, at a time when China International Travel Service, China Travel Service & China Youth Travel Service were still running all tours.

Gratuity is a normal practice for service business but kick back is unethical and illegal.

Today all Chinese tour guides & Chinese tour directors are trained in the tourism school.
Teachers in the schools are retired CITS, CTS & CYTS guides who taught gratuity & kickback to their students as one single entity. French fries always comes with ketchup.

Tour operators like Ritz, Grand Circle, Oat, & Pacific Delight tour PDT using Chinese Tour Directors & local guides take people to shopping stops they get enormous kick-backs (typically 40%, Junk Antiques & Grade B Jades 50%+) on any purchase tour members make, on prices which may be 10 to 15 times more than is actually reasonable.

People who join tours are usually non frequent travelers or retire seniors.
They go where the guides lead them and do what the guides tell them.
They never thought of going to another country thinking everthing being shown or told is a scam.
There will always be some tourists who believe that they're smart enough to avoid all the traps.

It is pathetic to see the Chinese tour managers and guides cheating on the seniors, a country traditionally treat their elders with enormous respect and dignity.

It is still worth paying more for a tour company that has a foreign tour manager who will accompany the group throughout the entire trip.

He would act as the “bad guy” to keep an eye out for attempts by the local operatives to add in extra shopping stops, provide smaller size tour bus to sardine passengers, downgrade group meals, and other shenanigans.

Nothing can be done in China without the collusion between Chinese Mafia and corrupt officials from behind."
Cat12345 is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 03:22 PM
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China tour these days, other than rip off, lots of travel time are wasted in the scammy shopping stops.
Cat12345 is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 04:19 PM
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We're just completing another trip in China independently and we had no trouble with the language, even though we only speak a few words of Chinese.

The first thing I did, once inside the country, is to buy a couple of prepaid SIMs for our phone(70 CNY each). Apart from being able to call each other I used it to call our hotel, the concierge, and I get them to translate what I want to the party I'm talking with be it taxi drivers, waitresses etc. The IPhone also have a apps that will translate English to Chinese and will even pronounce it for you over the phone's speaker.

Go independent as other have said it's much more fun, flexible and a whole lot cheaper too. We only hired a guide on 2 occasion, easy to find, and we paid 100 CNY per day for the guide.
Hanuman is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 05:56 PM
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I've lived in China for 6 years and you can travel inpendently around China with little difficulty. One trick is to book all of your hotels and flights in and around China through C-Trip (also very convenient and best rates). Keep their number on speed dial and whenever you run into an issue, like getting to your hotel from the airport, call them and let them talk to the taxi driver. Getting "tour guides" or "translators" is also very easy. Post on any University website, craigslist, etc. where ever you plan to go and hire a student. They speak excellent English, really want to practice their English with foreigners and will work for too little (I always buy them lunch, dinner and tip them generously - afterall they are students). If you plan ahead you can have a great time travelling independently in China. Don't be too afraid - that said you will experience some frustartion and language issues, but isn't that part of the World travelling experience. It's an amazing country!
ChinaJim is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 09:19 PM
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I traveled independently without knowing any of the language and without hiring tour guides or using CITS...and if I can do it, pretty much anyone can! (I have a rotten sense of direction--possibly dyscalculia--and vision issues.) It was great, and I made all of my arrangements except for my first few nights in Beijing while I was in China. The card with the hotel written in characters was always sufficient, and I even had lovely folks on the street helping me out in that universal language of pointing in the direction of whatever I was looking for on the map. Here's my trip report for a bit of info:
Amy is offline  
Jul 8th, 2009, 09:48 PM
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Enjoyed your TR, Amy - I didn't find Fodors until 2006, so I hadn't seen it. Have you been back since?
thursdaysd is offline  
Jul 9th, 2009, 01:55 AM
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Thanks, thursdaysd! I haven't been back yet, as unfortunately I'm usually limited to one trip abroad per year, and there's still so many places that I want to visit. (2006 was Poland and Lithuania, 2007 Peruvian Amazon and Panama, 2008 India...I have eclectic tastes. Oh, and I'm due to leave for South Africa tomorrow.) There is definitely a lot more of China I'd like to see, so I'm still trying to figure out how to manage more travel time and enough money to travel with!
Amy is offline  
Jul 9th, 2009, 04:33 PM
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China is probably one of the easiest Asian countries to travel in without a guide or a tour. See my trip report.

I thoroughly enjoyed the country, traveling within it and the people I met. I am in my late 60's and traveled by myself with no knowledge of the language.
Nywoman is offline  
Jul 11th, 2009, 07:21 AM
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I took my 14 year old son on an independent tour in 2005. It's not difficult. I booked 3 hotels from home and we booked a Beijing hotel once we arrived.

Don't worry about the language. My best tip is to print and take the city/walking maps from Frommer's. The keys are bilingual. Just point to where you want to go when you hop in a cab.
tinlizzy2 is offline  
Aug 14th, 2010, 08:43 AM
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Hi, I am after some advice and have been reading all the discussions. Again, it's all about whether we need a tour guide or not! We have travelled independently in America and Italy and do prefer the independent way. We are thinking of flying to Beijing for 3 nights, then on to Xian by plane or train, then on to Guilin. After that perhaps 3 nights on the tropical island of Hainan and then fly back to the uk from Guangzhou.
Has anyone any advice please? Thanks
honkytonk is offline  
Aug 14th, 2010, 08:53 AM
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I don't know what it is about China that makes people think they HAVE to go on a tour. If you can travel independently elsewhere in the world, you can do so in China.
Kathie is offline  
Aug 14th, 2010, 09:07 AM
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There are already way too many threads here about whether or not you need a tour and/or guide. Bottom line, as Kathie says, if you travel independently elsewhere you can do it in China. Especially for the kind of itinerary you outline.

Any reason you've resurrected an old thread, rather than starting your own to ask about your own trip? Also, there are plenty of threads about booking plane tickets ( but better to do it when you get there) and the Beijing-Xi'an train (see also ).
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 14th, 2010, 09:11 AM
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This is the first post I have made, maybe I should have started a new thread!
honkytonk is offline  
Aug 14th, 2010, 09:55 AM
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Ah, I see you are a new poster. Welcome to fodors. Yes, you would do better to start a new thread - but please, not another one about whether you need a tour/guide. Just read the existing threads on that!
thursdaysd is offline  

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