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Old Feb 16, 10, 6:21 pm   #1
 
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Tour Operators

A good friend of mine is looking to take a trip to China to celebrate his bar exam success in the Summer and I may join him.

Does anyone have any recommendations for reliable and reasonably priced tour operators?

We're looking at the typical Beijing and Shanghai, but any other good operators that will take us to other interesting places?

Thanks
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Old Feb 16, 10, 7:20 pm   #2
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Originally Posted by gsforfree View Post
A good friend of mine is looking to take a trip to China to celebrate his bar exam success in the Summer and I may join him.

Does anyone have any recommendations for reliable and reasonably priced tour operators?

We're looking at the typical Beijing and Shanghai, but any other good operators that will take us to other interesting places?

Thanks
I suggest you point him to this forum and we'd be happy to help him plan his trip (no need for tour operator).
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Old Feb 16, 10, 11:16 pm   #3
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You could try the grand-daddy of tour groups in China - CITS.

If you don't need a tour 100% of the time, you can also try emailing the hotels for more info.
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Old Feb 26, 10, 9:09 pm   #4
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For most travelling to all the Usual Suspect places in China, you don't need a tour operator. For Tibet, you will but that's a special case. Tell us your time frame, entry/exit points (if known) and interests. We'll make suggestions on what and how to do.
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Old Feb 26, 10, 9:32 pm   #5
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For most travelling to all the Usual Suspect places in China, you don't need a tour operator. For Tibet, you will but that's a special case. Tell us your time frame, entry/exit points (if known) and interests. We'll make suggestions on what and how to do.
Since the OP's "gone dark" (i.e. Jack Bauer style), I'm not sure that he cares for our advice, but if he returns, we'll hook him up with a solid plan.

As for the rest of the peanut gallery, the same promise is on offer; buy your plane tickets (to and from China) and we'll help you connect the dots. Even Tibet is within reach (especially if you have Asian blood; I don't and I'm still intent on making that trek, without the aid of any group tours).
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Old Feb 26, 10, 10:48 pm   #6
 
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> You could try the grand-daddy of tour groups in China - CITS.

I'm afraid of all the Chinese tour companies that will rip you off hand over fist and take you for every penny you have (and that is all of them, with minor exceptions), this is indeed the one with the longest and most comprehensive history of corrupt behaviour. It should be your very last choice, although chances are if you book with some non-specialist foreign brand-name company it will actually be CITS making the arrangements on the ground. In which case better hope you have an experienced foreign tour manager with you all the way.

>If you don't need a tour 100% of the time, you can also try emailing the hotels for more info.

You could. But the chances of getting any useful reply, or in most cases any reply at all, are extremely slender.

If you usually travel independently then there's no reason to behave any differently in China. But if you usually travel with a tour group, then you need to exercise considerable caution, as the benefits you usually assume you'll get from tour companies (reduced prices due to their buying power, reliable information from well-trained guides, maximum exposure to the most interesting places with minimum inconvenience, fewer hassles all round) are not commonly benefits of using tour companies in China.

You can get around China quite easily with a decent guidebook, a bit of advice from here and elsewhere on-line, the odd day tour (sometimes good value and convenient), and the occasional use of intermediaries to book tickets for you. If in the possession of a little common sense there's no need to be in possession of Mandarin.

If you simply must take a tour, then in addition to your usual requirements on typical ages, group size, destinations, quality of hotels, arty itinerary or not, etc. you should be asking each company you consider what their tipping policy is (and if they tell you so much per day for guide and so much for driver, look elsewhere, or at the very least add this extortion to the tour price to find the total sum due--there's no tipping in China); and how many shopping stops there will be (these are the bane of organised tours in China, and if you are foolish enough to shop or take your guide's advice on price you'll pay several multiples of what you need to for the same item when off the tour and without the guide).

Peter N-H
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Old Feb 27, 10, 3:40 am   #7
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As many of you know, I detest tours, and I think I've made decent case as to why upthread.

That having been said, I entertained a few visitors in ~2006 who booked PDX-PEK-SHA-PDX for $1,000 pp, including hotels (~10 days). IMO, if you can snag something like that, then go for it; there's no requirement to join in the tour activities.
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Old Feb 27, 10, 12:51 pm   #8
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Good point.

I booked a private tour (with a group of people) that included Shenzen-PEK-Hainan-Shenzen. 10 days including hotels, airfare, 2 guides (1 that followed us the entire itin and another that met us in each city), breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about $1K.

Not all tours are bad. We had complete control over our itin.
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Old Feb 27, 10, 4:43 pm   #9
 
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Since the OP's "gone dark"
Looks like I'm back (and the e-mail notification wasn't working for this thread for some reason :-( )

We know that the two cities we're definitely visiting are Beijing and Hong Kong (at the end of the trip, so not so much of an issue there).

Any suggestions of where else to go? How is it getting around without knowing any Chinese?

We're probably going to be about two weeks in China and will want to experience something more than the typical tourist spots.

Thanks for all the commentary so far. Will let you know more detail as soon as I know.
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Old Feb 27, 10, 7:06 pm   #10
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\
Any suggestions of where else to go? How is it getting around without knowing any Chinese?
My vote is for Xinjiang, especially if you can get all the way to Kashgar and do a bit of surface transportation through the desert on the way back. You won't need to speak much Chinese during your travels, regardless of where you go.
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Old Mar 5, 10, 11:05 pm   #11
 
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Knowledge of Chinese in southern Xinjiang in places is sketchy. I'd take a Chinese-Uighur or English-Uighur dictionary with me (I use an electronic Uighur-Chinese dictionary I picked up in Urumqi).
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Old Mar 6, 10, 12:23 am   #12
 
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Since the OP's "gone dark" (i.e. Jack Bauer style), I'm not sure that he cares for our advice, but if he returns, we'll hook him up with a solid plan.

As for the rest of the peanut gallery, the same promise is on offer; buy your plane tickets (to and from China) and we'll help you connect the dots. Even Tibet is within reach (especially if you have Asian blood; I don't and I'm still intent on making that trek, without the aid of any group tours).
I went to Tibet in Sept 2009, without the grand tour package. I was there 3 days, stayed at the Sheraton, flew Air China to & from BJ after buying the tickets on C-trip. I had to get the Tibet Visa in BJ, (north 4 th ring road). they did suggest a guide with a car, which did work out ok. Its not china 101, & tibet is abet like Wisconsin Dells tourism, selling the religious trinkets.
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Old Mar 8, 10, 11:05 pm   #13
 
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In regards to taking a tour to China, my recommendation will be to do independent travel based upon my experiences having taken a tour of China as well as doing independent travel in China with my family (twice). We are planning to take a trip (independent travel) to China (Shanghai, Hangzhou and Huangshan) this fall.

In regards to independent travel, you can fly into Beijing or Shanghai (my preference is Shanghai…it is more cosmopolitan than Beijing in my opinion) to start your trip. While traveling in China, it is our preference to stay at hotels that are North America-based (e.g. Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott, etc.), European-based (e.g. Kempinski Hotels) or Asia-based (e.g. Shangri-La) brands instead of the local Chinese hotels because I think they offer better service than the local Chinese hotels; having staff members that are more fluent in English and etc. Of course, there are exceptions such as the real first class Chinese hotels like the Peninsula Palace. For example, we have stayed at four Chinese hotels (three of the hotels, stayed at least four nights or more) and I never saw a vacuum cleaner and the carpets looked very dirty in these hotels. I stayed at a Marriott brand hotel (Renaissance Beijing Hotel in Beijing) and a Crowne Inn (Shanghai) and I saw someone vacuuming the carpets every day.

You can go to the concierge desk and sign up for the day and full day tours from a company such as Grayline that will take you to the exact places that these tours will go at less cost. These day and full day tours that we took, the tour directors and tour guides were better than the one on our tour as well as it cost less. Your travel agent can book you passage on a Yangtze River cruise without being on one of these tours; book your intra-China airline tickets and etc.

If you decided to take a tour instead of independent travel, my first recommendation is to deal with a travel agent that has personally been on the tour (if not, there is\are other agent\s in his\her travel agency that have been on the tour or the travel agent has a network of fellow travel agents that he\she can call upon) or has taken a tour from the company or talk with individuals that has taken tours from that company. When talking with a travel agent or an individual about their experiences, quiz them about their standards and etc.

What is acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to another person. There are individuals that are perfectly content to justify poor services, accommodations and\or etc. with “This is China (or insert the country that you are traveling to); so this must be the best that they can offer” rationale. If you have never been to China before, you might have a perceived notion that China is a third-world country and etc. Yes, there are parts of China that is very poor and etc. especially the countryside/rural areas. However, in the larger cities, it is very common to find them to be similar to the larger cities in the US and Europe, having modern conveniences and etc. There are several four and five-star hotels in China…many of them being just as good as or even better than the four and five-star hotels in the US.

We were scheduled to take a Ritz tour (most of it cruising on the Yangtze River) departing on September 16, 2001 and the tour was cancelled as well as the remaining tours for 2001 so we ended up doing independent traveling back in November 2001. Since we have been to China before, we knew what was available and etc. In the tour that we took in 2005, we were the only couple in the tour group that has been to China before. The tour operators know that most if not all of their travelers have never been to China and some of them will take advantage of this situation by using the rationale of ‘this is China, what do you expect!” on their tour. If you have never been there before, most people will buy this line while the tour operators are lining their pockets with cash by not providing the level of service that you actually paid for.

Sub-Contractors: Most tour operators subcontract services to local, third-party tour companies. In other words, the tour director isn’t an employee of the tour company nor do the tour companies conduct ‘quality’ checks. The bottom line is these contractors can run the tour anyway that they can because there are no on-site controls over the quality of service. The tour that we took, we found out that the tour that we were on was subcontracted to a local travel company with limited experience and the tour director could barely speak English when we checked into the hotel.

One tour company that I will recommend to check out is Viking River Cruises. The main reason why I recommended them is that they don’t sub-contract their tours out to local, third-party companies. This fact stands out on their website and in their brochures when discussing their China tours.

Another tour company that you might want to check out is Tauck Discovery Tours. We have never taken a tour with them but like Viking River Cruises, they employ their own employees for their tours. Please be advised that Tauck is a high-end tour company when comparing them to most other operators.

Shopping – Tourist Traps: Shopping stops at ‘tourist traps’ on most of these tours are standard and only the high end tour operators have initiated a "no shopping stops" policy. On the tour that we took, the itinerary didn’t list a single shopping stop at these ‘tourist traps’ but the focus of our tour was shopping not sightseeing. We have been on tours before so we were expecting some stops at these ‘tourist traps’ but not the main focus.

For example, we took a 21-day tour to Europe and made only five stops at these ‘tourist traps.’ Whereas, our China tour was 17-day long and we made at least one shopping stop at these ‘tourist traps’ per day except for the two days that we were on the cruise ship on the Yangtze River and several of the days, we had at least two to three shopping stops at these ‘tourist traps’ stores. We made 28 stops during our tours. We spent more time shopping than seeing the sights.

There was a huge difference in locations of these stops between our Europe and China tours. In Europe, all of these stores were located in the shopping districts on the main streets, right aside other normal businesses/stores/shops…located on the first floor…all of them were open to the public. In China, except for one stop…all of the stores were located not in the shopping centers on the main streets…most of the them were located not in the shopping districts…most of them were not located on the first floor…all of them were not open to the public.

There was a huge difference in the quality. The stores that we went to on our European tour were recognized brand. The stores that we went to on our China tour had no brand, no recognition, no market leadership and two shopping stops sold counterfeit\pirated\bootlegged products.

There was a huge difference in the prices. The stores that we went to on our European tour, the prices were higher than their counterparts down the street but by 10% to 100%. The stores that we went to on our China tour, the prices were at least 1000% to 3000% higher for the same product in the local markets, stores and etc.

There was a huge difference in the time spent at these stores. We spent only 30 minutes at these stores on our European tour (I videotaped every stop that we made)…our tour director gave us a time limit (e.g. 15 minutes) after the so-called ‘product demonstration’ before moving on to the next attraction. On our China tour, we spent at least an hour at these stores. If a single person was browsing at the merchandise (which is common to do if there is no place to sit down), the tour director waited until the last person stop browsing before taking the group to the next stop. After a while, the group figured this out so the group started to round up the browsers so that we could go sightseeing instead of shopping.

If you do your research and read the reviews posted on the Internet, you will find out that the tour directors and/or tour companies get a kickback or commission of 30% to 50% from these ‘tourist trap’ stops with 40% being the average. It is very common if you purchase something at these stops that you will be ask what group are you with or they even will even give you a card to identify the group so that your tour director will get his 40% commission.

There was a huge difference in the time spent on personal shopping. For example, on our European tour, we were given plenty of personal time to go shopping on our own; whereas, on our China tour, we were given a grand total of three hours over the 17 days for personal shopping. It seems to us that if the tour director wasn’t getting a commission\kickback, he had no desire to give personal shopping time to the group.

There was a huge difference in the attitude for these ‘tourist traps’ stores. On our European tour, we didn’t felt that none of the five stops were tourist traps because 1) the prices were somewhat “reasonable”; 2) quality product, quality brand and etc; 3) no mention of the tour director getting a commission\kickback; 4) spent a reasonable amount of time at these stops and etc. Whereas, on our China tour, it was clearly blatant…clearly evidently that these stores were ‘tourist traps’…prices were ridiculous high, the tour director made claims that this store was the only store that made this product so you better buy here which wasn’t true, the clerk at the stores will follow you around hounding you to buy, tour director refusing to leave until somebody buys something, the time spent was too long and etc. On the China tour that we took, we went to five silk rug stores…the fellow travelers on our tour thought that two silk rug stores would have been enough. By the time we got to the last store, the group was telling the host the answers to her questions during the product presentation so that we could get out of there sooner.

Meals: If the tour includes meals, ask if the meals, especially the lunches, are served in a normal restaurant or served in a ‘factory’ restaurant at these tourist traps. On our tour, except for two lunches, our meal service for lunch was served in these tourist traps’ restaurants. Just think of putting a table in a conference room in your office or factory. These restaurants are not open to the public and most of them were located on the second floor of the factory, or at the back of the store and etc.

The food is average at best. There are ten to twelve dishes or plates of food which includes appetizers like a plate of peanuts. In regards to beverage service, they will serve you 8 oz. of a soft drink or a beer…anything after 8 oz. you must pay for.

It is my guess that these ‘tourist trap factory’ places have made arrangements with the tour operators such as offering the lunch for free or at little cost in exchange for the tour to stop there so that their travelers can purchase their ridiculously over-priced merchandise. The prices at these ‘factories’ are outrageous…for example, at one stop, the price for silk paintings were $ 200 to $ 500 USD; whereas, we purchased our silk paintings for $ 16 to $ 25 USD on our own.

The breakfasts at the hotels were Western and Chinese. The dinners on land were Chinese. The dinners on the cruise ship were Western (25%) and Chinese (75%)

Tip Extortions: Another common thing that you run into on these tours is tip extortions. The reason why we selected the tour that we went on, it stated in the brochure, on the confirmation of our purchase and in the travel documents that we received, that tipping was included for everything (except for the tour director) such as luggage transfers. Our tour director took away our passports before each intra-China flight and extorted tip money for luggage transfer before handing back our passports.

This practice of tip extortions is very common on these tours in China. One couple on our tour showed the tour director their paperwork that clearly stated that tipping was included for everything except for him and his response was that isn’t correct…pay up or be stuck at this destination. We are not against tipping but why should we tip twice if we already paid for tips in advance!?!

Tour Director: IMHO, the tour director makes or breaks the tour regardless where the tour is. Two individuals could take the same tour but had different tour directors and their opinions on the tour could be 90 to 180 degrees different.

Our tour director that we had for our Europe tour spoke five languages, had four college degrees (one was a BA in European History, one was a BA in European literature), be doing these tours for 24 years and etc. We left the hotel every morning at 7:30 AM on the nose (if you were late, you were on your own) and came back to the same hotel or roll into the next hotel at 8:00 PM or later…she made sure that we had a full day. When we were on the bus, she told us the history and etc. but the area that we were going through, the destination that we were traveling to and etc.

Our tour director for our China tour was nearly the complete opposite. He could barely speak English. He never has been outside of China. He constantly lied to the group (all of his lies were captured on video). He spent all of the time on the bus calling the group ‘foreign devils’ and espousing Chairman Mao (all of this was captured on video). One day in Beijing, he left the tour early so he could be home early so we was stuck with a bus driver that could only speak “Hello” and “Do you want to buy a bottle of water” in English.

Again, my first recommendation is “independent” travel. If you still want to do a tour, I will recommend Tauck and Viking River Cruises. Our current travel agent recommends General Tours (we have never been on a General Tour). If your budget calls for a tour with a lower price, then it is our recommendation to take a tour from Pacific Delights World Tours or Ritz Tours because their prices are low making them a good value. Please understand that there will be shopping at these tourist traps and everything else that I listed in this post but at least you will be aware and won’t go on a tour ‘blindly’ and you will have the proper expectations. We have never been on any tours from Ritz Tours (was scheduled but cancelled due to 9/11) or Pacific Delights World Tours from these companies but have friends that have been on them as well as I spoke with passengers from these tours when we were on the Yangtze River.

In closing, research the tours, read the reviews on the various Internet websites and work with a professional travel agent that works in a brick & mortar travel agency in your community.
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Old Mar 8, 10, 11:27 pm   #14
 
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Any suggestions of where else to go? How is it getting around without knowing any Chinese?
I will recommend Hangzhou (West Lake) and Huangshan (aka Yellow Mountains), the Grand Canyon of China. You can take a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou.

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How is it getting around without knowing any Chinese?
Not a problem...there are lot of Chinese that speaks English. It is my recommendation to learn some phrases and some words in Chinese.

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Originally Posted by gsforfree View Post
We're probably going to be about two weeks in China and will want to experience something more than the typical tourist spots.
Back in 2001, we took a bus trip from Shanghai to a village (about a hour or so from Shanghai). We saw people working in the race paddies and there were homes with thatch roofing and etc. on our way to this village. This village was somewhat surround by water, there were canals, this place had a lot of poets and etc. years ago and etc. It was a very nice place to visit. If I can find the name of the village, I will post it.
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Old Mar 9, 10, 12:09 am   #15
 
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Three cheers for Arizona Road Warrior's detailed expansion of the points made earlier about the horrors of organised tourism in China.

Minor quibbles:

Grey Lines: Vastly overpriced, and in the case of the Beijing tours also unable to resist the shopping stop nonsense. On the other hand at weekends there's a wide choice of Chinese tours that make no shopping stops at all, and that are dramatically cheaper. Some of these run daily.

Internal flights: Never use a travel agent overseas if you want to pay anything like the real price. Most domestic flights in China are completely unknown to computers overseas, and the pricing available within China is often half or less than the pricing offered overseas on those routes that are on the system. Buy your tickets a few days in advance from local agents and pay a great deal less. If you absolutely cannot deal with this, then buy them no more than about three weeks in advance from one of the Chinese on-line agencies such as Ctrip (although there can be hiccups with these. Buying locally is best.)

Tipping: To be quite clear about this, there is no tipping in China other than that foisted on hapless tour groups. So it isn't that tipping is 'included', but just that the best (and most expensive) tour groups avoid the issue. The foreign tour director (and it's worth paying for a tour that has one of these as it can dramatically reduce the shenanigans routinely practiced on foreign tour groups) is tipped according to the standards of the nationality of the foreign tour company he represents (which may in many cases also mean no tips, depending on the company's nationality) and the advice it gives (and then it is truly performance-based, not guaranteed).

But poor food, overly packed itineraries, shopping stops with prices ten to fifteen times too high, and outrageous tipping recommendations, and Party-sanitized mendacious historical and cultural information, are indeed the common currency of budget tours in particular.

Peter N-H
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