Travelling in China can be daunting. The language and infrastructure are challenging. Even expats who have lived in China for years may quail at the hassle of queuing up to buy train tickets at a busy station or get an instantaneous headache when trying to find out the public transportation options to a little-known attraction. The quick, time-tried solution for the faint-of-heart is the package tour. While flashier, more expensive foreigner-only tours can be booked abroad, it's important not to discount homegrown package tours as a quirky way to see the country.
According to the World Tourism Organization's figures, in 2010 the Chinese took 2.12 billion domestic trips, working out to 1.15 trillion RMB worth of internal travel. Many of those people booked their trips with a tour organizer like CITS or CYTS and went on an all-inclusive package tour. Here's a look at some of the good things and the bad things for foreigners to consider about booking a Chinese domestic tour and going along for the ride.
1) It's Cheap
Choosing a package tour may be a cheaper alternative, especially if you're heading for a remote area of China or if you're planning on doing a lot of air or train transfers—trying to round up all of those tickets into one itinerary can get pricey and often train tickets can't be purchased in advance. The tour agencies know where to look for good fares, can magically obtain tickets, and give you the added bonus of stress-free planning.
2) It's fresh
You'll learn more going on a tour led by locals than you would following the jaded directions of Lonely Planet writers who seem like they were last on mainland China in the late 1980s. Instead of flicking through endless guidebooks looking for an attraction, pay a guide to show you things you wouldn't have found on your own. Of course, this approach doesn't always work out favourably—I particularly remember the morning we spent touring the BOAO Forum for Asia meeting hall on Hainan Island instead of visiting the gorgeous beach just down the road.
3) It's convenient
Busy people may be drawn to taking a package tour. “I don't have the time,” one of my Chinese friends told me the other day. “I want to travel independently, but how can I make the arrangements?” She and her husband both have office jobs with long hours and a son to take care of when they get home. She said she didn't particularly enjoy the package tour they went on to Yunnan last year because it was “all shopping!” However, she admits it was convenient.
4) It's exciting
Adventurous gourmands may also enjoy the benefit of a package tour where meals are included. It provides a chance to try new food – your Chinese co-travelers will insist on getting local specialties – and take you off of that fried-rice-and-mystery-meat diet.
5) It's friendly
Being the only foreigners on a Chinese package tour can be fun. When my boyfriend and I traveled to Inner Mongolia we had a group of geology and history professors take us under their wing. When the bus stopped they'd show us interesting rocks and at snack time they explained how to select rock melons. It was great practice for our Mandarin as well.
Despite all the perks discussed, taking a package tour in China can also be a frustrating experience.
1) It's a Waste of Time
The biggest hurdle you might encounter if you go with a low-budget “zero-dollar” tour is that you'll be sharing tour buses, photo op spots and maybe even your hotel room with some complete strangers who may or may not feel like humouring the laowai's strange fetish with being on time. Also, whenever you've got a group of people of any nationality on vacation, some of them will feel that because they're on holiday they don't have keep track of time. We spent an eternity once waiting for people to board the bus in Hainan Island. Where had they been? Buying ice cream. For an hour! Add to that some sights you may not want to visit: Touristy parts of China abound with designed-to-fleece-you so-called 'museums' that are really just shops with a few permanent displays. These can be places you'll spend hours wandering around in while your guide exerts not-so-subtle pressure for you to buy something so he can get a shop commission.
2) It's a Waste of Money
While the initial price may seem like a good deal, travelling by tour may not be as good a value as you initially thought. Beware of hidden fees. On our Yangtze trip we had to pay extra to use the boat's only sundeck so we could actually look at the three Gorges and breathe some fresh air. The supposed 'breakfast included' meant a single soggy tasteless roll and some watery congee. However, they offered a much better breakfast at a significant price. Unless you have a fantastic guide who speaks your native language in addition to Chinese and a small enough group to minimize waiting times, you might be better off going it alone. Also, your hotel options might be difficult to understand. On our Inner Mongolia tour, we were assured by the CITS office in the town we started from that we'd have two to three star accommodation. We're not fussy, we thought. Well, it turned out to be shared rooms in an army barracks with unisex toilets down the hall—not a place to go for a romantic get-away or if you've got kids in tow. For the money, we could have gone to any other hotel in town and tried our luck.
3) It's Rushed
Most Chinese people don’t have many vacation days per year. Generally they want to pack as much sightseeing as they can into a very short amount of time, and the tour operators know this. Expect itineraries to jam multiple sights into a single morning – sometimes even just driving by somewhere and pointing at the sight but not stopping to properly look at it. This can be an exhilarating, if exhausting, way to travel; but if you're blessed with more time to look around you might skip the tour.
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