Personally, I almost always travel solo (but then again, I’m not that sociable). I also feel constricted by schedules and need to have total freedom to decide where to go moment-by-moment.
And 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 those who really dislike the hassles of deciding where to go, how to get there, choosing a hotel and restaurant, and so on.
Cost-wise, it depends. For the serious budget traveler, going solo is cheaper (but you’ll likely won’t be traveling as comfortably). But because tour groups can get volume discounts and share transportation, they aren’t necessarily more expensive than independent travel and can be a good value.
Organized tours in China: Pros & Cons
Although there are differences, an “organized tour” in China usually refers to a full-package with a tour 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.
- Hassle-free: 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, who (should) have specialized information about the sites as well as serve as a translator for your group.
- Safety in numbers as well as a 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.
- 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). 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Waste valuable time in 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.
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:
- 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 build 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 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…
- 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 — 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.
External links on backpacking & independent travel:
Backpacking Tips Asia (Backpacking-tips-asia.com) Insider tips on budget traveling in SE Asia & beyond
Another 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.
Which tour operators?
Here’s a list of recommended tour companies based on my research and conversations with numerous travelers (please feel free to give me feedback):
China Focus Travel: www.chinafocustravel.com
Choice Travel: www.choicetravel.cn
China Odyssey: www.chinaodysseytours.com
Overseas Adventure Travel: www.oattravel.com
CHINA MIKE recommends….China International Travel, a San Mateo, California-based family business (the wife is from Shanghai) tour/travel agency: www.chinatravelca.com
Absolute Asia (US): www.absoluteasia.com
Artisans of Leisure: www.artisansofleisure.com
Audley Travel (UK): www.audleytravel.com
Imperial Tours: www.imperialtours.net
Voyages Jules Verne (UK): www.vjv.co.uk
Adventure & specialized tours:
Bike Asia: www.bikeasia.com
Explore Worldwide (UK): www.explore.co.uk
National Geographic Expeditions: www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com