Whose Bus Should We Ride?
July 28, 2010 11:13 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I really want to go to China, this fall or next fall. All of our Chinese friends strongly recommend that we take a tour, rather than just do it on our own as we normally do. But -- which tour company should we use? Who is reputable, affordable, and won't pack us in with a mob of 40-50?
posted by bearwife to Travel & Transportation around China (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just a note that I've travelled in China without a tour, and it wasn't too difficult. A bit more of a challenge than Europe, but not too tricky.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:15 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We went with On The Go Tours. Beijing, Luoyang, Xian, and Harbin. Very pleased with them, excellent value for the money and a good guide (who was with us the whole time). There were about 10 of us in the group.
posted by cosmac at 11:22 AM on July 28, 2010

Well, where in China do you want to go? If it's the major cities and tourist attractions, then I think your Chinese friends are overestimating the difficulty of it. If not, then it would help to know where you'd like to go.
posted by smorange at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

We went to Tibet and Southwest China on our own and had a great time.

The tour groups we saw always seemed like the kindergarden classes we see stateside tied together with rope.

We did a lot or research, made our reservations from the US, and only got into a mess once and the Chinese made getting out of the mess painless and easy.
posted by leafwoman at 11:31 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, smorange. Yes, we are aiming for major cities/tourist spots, i.e.

Shanghai, Beijing, the Yangtze, Three Gorges, Guilan, Yichang, Xi'An, and Hong Kong. And maybe a side trip to a resort via our time share company on Hainan.

But we'd really like a tour recommendation, thanks. We have both talked to a lot of friends who are native Chinese, and they've convinced us.
posted by bearwife at 11:37 AM on July 28, 2010

I went on a couple of Chinese-language tours while in China. Here's how they work:

You sign up because you want to go to some famous sites. The price seems great! And they will take you to these sites. But they will also waste half of your day with unadvertised stops: Jewelry stores, overpriced restaurants, and comically bad fake tourist sites that are engineered to sell you tourist junk at a huge markup. This is infuriating, but they do these first, and you'll miss out on the real things if you get pissed off and leave. The tour company and/or bus driver get kickbacks from these detours, and this is the reason the tour package was so cheap.

Maybe this is less of a problem for foreign-language tours, but this is what will happen if you go with the lowest bidder. I can't recommend a specific tour company, but you're definitely doing the right thing by seeking recommendations.

On the other hand, when I was in Jiuzhaigou, we hired our own personal local driver/guide who was a fun guy and knowledgeable about the region. That was a good experience, despite one tourist trap jewelry store (which even he admitted was a rip-off, but apparently he would get in trouble with the tour company if he didn't take us there).
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:40 AM on July 28, 2010

Best answer: I had a great experience with Intrepid Travel on a trip to Egypt, and they were recommended to me by a friend who had done a Chinese tour with her dad. According to their website, they've got several tours of 5-30 days with various itineraries, and a sliding scale of rough-to-plush planning and pricing. They aim to have no more people than will fit in a passenger van (~15-18); population of my tour was primarily 25-35 year-olds, plus one retired couple. say half to 2/3 from Australia and New Zealand, as was the tour leader. Nice mix of destinations and unprogrammed time, and included some "relax time" (in Egypt, for example, a day and night on a sailboat on the Nile, and another 2 nights in beach huts on the Red Sea) which turned out to be essential to my sanity during 2 weeks of travel (it's like they'd done that before and knew when we'd be exhausted - who'd've guessed?!). Flexibility of tour, in that some things were part of the tour, and others were "extras" - there was a morning trip to a certain temple that wasn't part of the tour, so you could sleep in or go to the market or whatever if you felt like it; but it was a normal event for the tour leader and there was a guy with a van who was usually called for whoever did want to go. It was my first time going on a vacation where we did a ton of things I wanted to do, but I didn't have to plan any of of the logistics, think about which temples I wanted to see in advance, or think too hard about any of it, really. Good times. When I scrounge up the cash, I'll try another of their trips, but that's twice as challenging now that I've got a husband...
posted by aimedwander at 12:07 PM on July 28, 2010

Response by poster: Is this the outfit, aimedwander? (There are a few Intrepid Travel companies out there. We hear there is a common practice among some folks, especially for China tours, of setting up a company that "borrows" the name of a reputable one.)
posted by bearwife at 12:13 PM on July 28, 2010

Best answer: I have never used them but I've seen others recommend Gap Adventures (http://www.gapadventures.com/).
posted by kat518 at 12:19 PM on July 28, 2010

Best answer: I have a cousin who's done a number of tours with Gap Adventures (including one with a Chinese component, IIRC), and she has never been less than pleased.

My personal data point was that when I was traveling (4 of the 8 on your hit list), my native Chinese and Mandarin-speaking Canadian friends were convinced that I would experience great difficulty traveling alone. They were quite surprised when I met them in the remote village after taking an intercity bus to a chicken bus on my own, with no problems (although plenty of adventure). I didn't find it particularly difficult to travel on my own.

One possible additional option is a mix-and-match; Hong Kong is inherently doable independently, for instance, and Beijing's not too terrible either, since the Sights To See are pretty clearly delineated and accessible, especially with all of the subway that's opened up since I was there.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:03 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Save money and frustration; do it on your own. China, especially the places you've mentioned, is in no way difficult. Former residents of less developed nations often believe we are incapable of navigating their country of origin by ourselves. They also want you to see a sterilized version of their home country so as not to expose you to what they consider to be the bad parts - poverty, lack of English, transport schedules, etc. which aren't up to what they now know are our standards. They want you to see sites which highlight modernization, such as shopping centres, model schools, etc.

Tours can involve rigorous/tiring schedules, and you may get stuck with a group you don't particularly get on with. Tour leaders will most likely take you into "special" shops which 'only they know about' because the commissions they receive are actually their main source of income.

Get yourself a guidebook, have faith in your own planning abilities, and enjoy your trip!

If you have any particular questions vis-a-vis traveling in China, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by gman at 2:35 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

it has already been said, but i would like to reiterate:

if you consider yourself a decently seasoned traveler china ain't no thang. learn a few words (hello, bathroom, numbers) and have a good guide book. that way you don't spend your whole time in the cousin of the tourguides tea shop being pressured into buying overpriced "special 500 year virgin tea"

i highly recommend western china - drop me a line if you have questions!
posted by wackoacko at 2:38 PM on July 28, 2010

gman beat me that comment much more eloquently...
posted by wackoacko at 2:39 PM on July 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for your opinion, gman and others, that we can and should travel China by ourselves. Please let me reassure you that we have traveled to places like Africa and Latin America all by ourselves, so we aren't afraid things like driving on our own, eating the local food, seeing poverty, or navigating a different language. But actually, I'm looking for recommendations, at least for mainland China. Do you have any?
posted by bearwife at 3:06 PM on July 28, 2010

Response by poster: Meant to say looking for tour recommendations, at least for mainland China. Do you have any?
posted by bearwife at 3:07 PM on July 28, 2010

I know you are looking for tour recommendations, but I just have to say, as an American who has lived in China for 6 years, Chinese peoples' ideas of touring are very different from Westerners'. I know you want to go by your friends' advice, but Chinese tours are like this: wake up at 6:30 every day, have breakfast, get on a tour bus and listen to a guide talk about all the sites on a microphone, get to the site, walk very quickly through it, get back on bus. Repeat again and again. Oh, and also your guide will walk you through stores to look at over-priced merchandise as part of the tour. It is totally exhausting. Also, they will take you to restaurants with mediocre food, just because those restaurants have connections with the touring company.

Keep in mind that your Chinese friends may like this (a lot of Chinese people do), but will you? If you must go on a tour, I would recommend one that is Western-operated.

If I may ask, why are your Chinese friends so insistent that you go on a group tour? What is their reasoning? If it has to do with language concerns or difficulty getting around, I can tell you you needn't worry, especially if you are used to traveling on your own.
posted by bearette at 9:47 PM on July 28, 2010

Best answer: I went to China last year with Intrepid . I (early 20's) went with my parents (late 40's) and aunt & uncle (late 50's) and we all had a fabulous time. We were time poor and wanted to get around a lot of sights quickly, so we chose a tour. I spent 2 weeks in China beforehand by myself, and have to say, I loved having a tour guide - someone who could answer my questions instantly, rather than digging for hours through a guidebook myself etc etc. However, I did my own thing when and where I wanted. We never ever got pressured to go anywhere for commissions. IF you've got any more questions about this specific trip please ask!
posted by teststrip at 4:38 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thirding Intrepid - they tend to attract a younger (and young at heart) crowd and are used to more independent travellers.
posted by harriet vane at 7:56 AM on July 29, 2010

Response by poster: I have to wonder about people who think the AskMe Poster must explain and justify a question about what tour companies are recommended for an overseas trip.

My husband and I do not want to travel on our own for this first trip to Mainland China. We are settled that we want to take a tour, ergo we are looking only for suggestions for tours and tour companies.

If you do not have this information, please feel free to respond to some other AskMe, not this one.
posted by bearwife at 11:54 AM on July 29, 2010

I have to wonder about people who think the AskMe Poster must explain and justify a question about what tour companies are recommended for an overseas trip.

We were giving you information about what bus tours in China are like, since you asked a question about bus tours in China. Also, in your question you say that you usually travel alone, so many of us gave that suggestion. Sorry for disturbing you- I was just trying to be helpful.
posted by bearette at 3:01 AM on July 30, 2010

Response by poster: I know you are looking for tour recommendations

See, bearette, you did know what I am asking about. And if you can provide information on that topic, rather than critiquing me for asking about it, I'd sure love to have it.
posted by bearwife at 10:29 AM on July 30, 2010

« Older Calling all generic folder names!   |   Help me figure out who hit my car this morning Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.