Are you a an individual or group traveler?

How to plan your trip to China

There are many ways to travel to and in China, so first you have to decide which way is best for you. Basically it’s between individual and group travel.

Many shivers at the thought of group travel. Picture a slow gang of 60 year old somethings, that you have nothing in common with. And the shame, oh the shame to be seen with them, walking into touristy restaurants and shops. Yikes. As a tour leader for many groups, I kind of agree. It is a peculiar way to travel, forced to be with people you don’t know for days and weeks. That being said, there are some benefits that you shouldn’t overlook.

School children at Temple of Heaven
In China you never walk alone

If you have short time, but want to see as much as possible, nothing beats a group tour. The itinerary is tight and efficient, you get to see all the highlights. Some of them you might not have chosen yourself, but you can be surprised. And also, a good tour guide allows people to sneak off from activities and has tips to what they can do on their own. You will learn more. All groups have a local guide taking them around explaining the sights. In China, that is not a bad idea.

The price can be cheaper. It costs a lot more to rent a guide for two people than for twenty. Hotel rooms and restaurant food are discounted. After having paid for the trip, you will have few other expenses on the way, and it’s easier to keep to your budget.
Group travel is not only for old people. Many companies specialize in younger people, taking them slightly outside the main trails, making backpacking easier.

It’s social. You meet all sorts of people on these trips, and you can actually make some new friends. If you are thinking of travelling alone, I highly recommend a group tour.
You don’t have to think. You are told when to eat, food is pre ordered, tickets to sights, airplanes and trains a bought for you, you just show up at the right time, ready to go. The tempo is high, but at the same time it is relaxing never having to think about any of the boring, practical stuff.

That being said, if you enjoy the practical stuff and don’t want to be seen dead behind a guide with a flag, individual travel is probably the best option. Here you also have a few alternatives.

Many tour companies in China can basically make you an itinerary similar to a group travel, but for you and your companions only. It can include hotels, transportation within and between cities, sightseeing with licensed guides and meals, as much or as little as you want. If you want the freedom of an individual traveller, but without the hassle, this is the best way.

This is not the cheapest option, as the tour company will take a commission on tickets and hotels, and you need to first pay for and then tip your local guide and driver. If time is money, it’s not so bad. Everything will be agreed upon in advance, so little time needs to be spent on getting tickets, finding hotels, figuring out how to get to the sights and so on. This can be real time suckers.

Having your own guide gives you all the benefits of a group tour, but with much more flexibility. You chose when to start the day and how long to stay at the different places. Your guide will also be able to help you with whatever needs you have – finding a special shop, bargain for a souvenir, getting tickets to a show or take a detour to something not on your original itinerary. Note that you still will be taken to the touristy restaurants and shops. If you want to skip this, you probably have to pay more or give extra tip to compensate for the loss of payback the guides get from these places.

And of course, you can do it all on your own. Book the hotels, find the taxis, discover the sights and be a true explorer. With good guide books and plenty of research you can have a fantastic journey. The feeling of accomplishment when you have purchased your first train tickets at a Chinese train station is priceless.

Internet is the best source for finding the things you need. Plenty of good hotel search sites, you can book transfers from car companies, air tickets and even train tickets can be purchased online (note that train tickets are via agent, not directly from train company). As with everything on the internet, use your head and double check all the facts. A hotel  located 2 km from the airport, Forbidden City and the Summer palace just can’t be. You can also get help from the hotels you are staying at, most places have an office that can fix tickets and sightseeing trips.

Travelling all on your own is probably best if you plan to stay in one or just a few places, or have plenty of time to roam around getting kite t shirt as gits for friends or other souvenirs. In China, doing things yourself always takes longer time than planned. That being said, it is part of the experience, and can be just as fun (or irritating) as going with a guide or a group.

So who are you? How much convenience do you need? Is the idea of holiday to relax or explore?

Either way, China will be unforgettable and exciting.

Christine Surlien

Christine has studied Chinese culture and language extensively. She has spent two years at The People’s University of China in Beijing, done five years of Chinese studies at the University of Oslo, and has her masters degree from Hong Kong University. She has been associated with KinaReiser, Norway’s leading agency for travel to the The Far East, for a decade. She was also employed at the administration of the Norwegian Embassy to China for two years, before relocating to Washington DC with her diplomat husband and their two children.

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