What are the advantages and differences of independent travel in China versus China tour groups?
Whether you choose to join a tour group in China or you travel independently is a very personal decision that depends on a number of different factors. This could include your travel experience, personality, and budget. In the end, There are number of trade offs you need to understand on both sides that will help you decide which mode of travel in China is more appropriate for you or your group.
Personally, I almost always travel solo (but then again, I’m a bit of an introvert). I also feel constricted by schedules and need to have total freedom to decide where to go moment-by-moment.
Oddly, I actually enjoy the uncertainty and challenge of figuring things out in an unfamiliar land. On the other hand, there were plenty of times in my travels when I wished I had a helping hand and some local knowledge.
In general, going with an all-inclusive tour package deal in China is more suitable for travelers with little to no overseas travel experience. Or perhaps for the kind of person that prefers having somebody else decide where to go, how to get there, which hotel and restaurant to choose, and so on.
When you’re figuring out how much to budget for your China trip, it makes a difference whether you choose independent travel in China or Chinese tour groups. For the serious budget traveler, going solo is almost always cheaper (but you’ll likely won’t be traveling as comfortably).
However, because tour groups can get volume discounts and share transportation, this isn’t the case 100% of the time. For this reason, it’s worth looking at the pros and cons of each mode of travel.
Organized Tour Groups in China | Pros & Cons
Although there are differences, an organized tour group in China usually refers to a full-package tour with a local guide who handles virtually every detail of your itinerary, including which attractions you’ll see (and stops along the way), where’ll you’ll stay and eat, and so on.
Pros of Tour Groups in China
Let’s begin with a look at the pros of joining a tour group in China. These include:
- They are Hassle-Free: With tour groups in China, you just show up and do what they tell you. You won’t have to figure out how to buy tickets or negotiate with taxi drivers or look for a hotel. It also means that you and your friends won’t have to bicker endlessly about where, when, and how to go to your next destination.
- You’ll Have a Chinese Tour Guide: This tour guide should have specialized information about the sites as well as serve as a translator for your group.
- There is Safety in Numbers: Larger groups feel safer and you’ll even have your tour guide who can help steer you clear of trouble and annoyances.
- New Friends: You’ll have the opportunity to socialize and share experiences with other travelers in your group.
- More Variety of Foods: You’ll be eating Chinese family-style for most meals (shared by entire table) so you’ll be able to sample a wider range of foods that you might not otherwise try.
Cons of Tour Groups in China
As you might imagine, tour groups in China aren’t always the best travel option. Here are some reasons why you might not want to join a group for travel:
- Lack of Flexibility: You might feel as if you’re back in summer camp since someone else will be dictating all the details of your day (such as when to wake up, etc). Do you want to take a detour to check out something interesting? Have a craving for some non-Chinese food for a change? Sorry, the bus is leaving in 10 minutes.
- You’ll Have a More “Watered Down” Travel Experience. Being part of a large tour group — which largely go to the same popular tourist spots — means fewer opportunities to have genuine interactions with locals and appreciate the subtleties of daily life in the back streets.
- You Might Be Stuck With a Bad Tour Guide: If your tour guide is unpleasant (or just annoying), you’re out of luck since you’re stuck with him/her for the rest of your trip. The quality of your tour guide is critical in other respects — some can barely speak English and are not as knowledgeable as they should be so do your homework first.
- You Might Be Stuck with Bad Tour Mates: If other people in your group are unpleasant or annoying, it can be harder to appreciate the majesty of the Li River as you listen to Bubba loudly tell the story of how he once caught a 20 pound catfish with his bare hands….for the fifth time.
- You Might Waste Valuable Time: Some tour groups in China make you visit attractions and pit stops that are thinly disguised tourist-trap gift shops. Since tours typically get some sort of commission or kickback for bringing in a bus load of rich tourists, you might get annoyed at all of the pit stops as well as the mediocre restaurants that cater to tourist groups.
Overall, tour groups in China are a very positive experience for travelers who want that kind of travel. Before you purchase a tour, make sure you check reviews and get detailed information about where you’ll be stopping and what you should expect during the trip.
Independent Travel in China | Pros & Cons
What I’m calling “independent travel” basically means traveling without the services of an organized tour company (either solo or with your own group). The pros & cons are pretty much covered in the above, but to summarize the main points:
Pros of Independent Travel in China
- It Offers Great Flexibility: You can tailor your own itinerary based on your specific interests. And if something else more interesting comes up, you can simply adapt your plan and take a detour. You can wake up whenever you want, take an afternoon nap, or take a chill day watching the world pass by instead of rushing to the next tourist spot. Maybe you really enjoy a place — you’re free to stay a couple of extra days. Or maybe you want to leave at a moment’s notice.
- Get Closer to the “Real China” Although tours will usually have built in certain periods of “free time” (when you’re on your own for a certain time to explore a place), they also often follow the footsteps of countless tour groups (which also attracts hordes of vendors). Traveling solo (or with a small group) makes you more approachable to the locals, opening up opportunities for memorable interactions and experiences.
- Meet Other Travelers (foreign and domestic) who you meet at your hostel or on the road. It’s easy to be insulated in a tour group. Traveling independently in China will present lots of opportunities to meet others (such as sharing a taxi or having a drink). You might end up traveling together with some cool folks for a while. And if you decide you need your space, you can always say buh-bye…
Cons of Independent Travel in China
- Flexibility Cuts Both Ways: If traveling with a larger group or with indecisive friends, you might have difficulty agreeing on where and when to go to the next destination, where to eat, when to wake up, and so on.
- What’s the opposite of “hassle-free”? Oh yeah, it can be a huge hassle. Without a Chinese-speaking guide, you’re on your own to figure out how to get from point A to B and whether the meat from that dumpling that you just ate is pork or baboon (answer: neither — it’s tofu).
- If you need help, you’re also on your own. There may be certain times when you’re laid up in your hotel when you wish you had a Chinese-speaking tour guide to tell you where to buy some anti-diarrhea medicine and a fresh pair of underwear.
Hybrid Approach to China Travel
An increasingly popular option is what some call the “mini-package tour,” which combines the best aspects of organized group travel and independent travel.
Also arranged through a tour/travel agencies, you rely on them to arrange essential bookings (such as train/airline tickets, accommodation, transportation to and from hotel). In each new city, you’ll even be met at the airport or train station by someone who will take you to your hotel.
In this way, you’ll avoid the big travel hassles while enjoying the flexibility of exploring a place on your own.
Similarly, another option is to travel independently but join day tours once you’re settled in a new city. For example, even though I personally dislike traveling with a group, it often makes sense to join a tour to see sights outside a city, such as the Terracotta Army outside Xi’an.
Or if you’re traveling in a small group (say 2-4) around China, a good option would be to hire a private driver who can serve as an interpreter and help arrange bookings.
Recommended Tour Operators in China
If you’re looking for some recommended tour operators in China, here’s a helpful list based on my research and conversations with numerous travelers (please feel free to give me feedback):
Full-Package China Tour Operators
Wendy Wu Tours: An excellent option for those traveling from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.
China Highlights: A reliable tour operator that also offers help with China train tickets and flights.
China Odyssey Tours: Odyssey offers amazing tour packages that cater to specific interests. You’ll want to check out what they have to offer before you do anything else.
If you need something beyond what these tour providers can offer, take a look at CITS, which is China’s state travel agency.
City-Specific Tour Operators in China
For those who don’t want an all-inclusive tour package, you might find these city-specific tour operators in China to be a great fit.
- Beijing: If you’re in Beijing, I recommend checking out Beijing by Foot, a small travel company that specializes in walking tours of Beijing’s major sites. If you love culture and history, what would be better than visiting these amazing places with a China historian as your guide?!
- Shanghai: There are plenty of great tour operators in Shanghai, but my favorite is Jenny’s Shanghai Tours. Jenny’s offers great day tours of the “real” parts of Shanghai with English-speaking guides.
- Chengdu: If you’re traveling to Chengdu, you won’t want to miss the famous Sichuan cuisine. To get a guided taste of the best the region has to offer, check out Chengdu Food Tours. They’ll take you to the restaurants that the locals visit and have you tasting food you didn’t even know to try on the menu.
Luxury China Tour Operators
I know there are a few luxury travelers who prefer to experience the most amazing parts of China with unbelievable comfort. If that’s you, here’s what I recommend:
Adventure & Specialized China Tours
Finally, if you’re seeking a specific type of adventure or outdoor experience in China, here are a few China tour operators worth checking out:
- Bike Asia: I’ve biked around different parts of China, and this is definitely an amazing way to experience the country!
- Explore Worldwide (UK): This travel agency arranges specialized boat, rail, trekking and family tours in China.
- National Geographic Expeditions: Wouldn’t it be amazing to travel China with National Geographic?!
- Naturetrek: If you like birding, plant hunting or monkey watching, you might enjoy the offerings of Naturetrek.
Final Thoughts | China Tour vs Independent Travel
Each traveler is different. Whether you decide to join a China tour group or do your own independent travel in China, it’s best to make that decision based on your budget, your personal comfort level and your time constraints.
In the end, I recommend a hybrid approach that gives you the flexibility of independent travel alongside the benefits of day tours. Using the recommended China travel agencies listed above, you should get a good idea of what’s available.
Enjoy your trip to China and stay safe!