Having recently returned from a 2 week family vacation (7/28-8/14) in China, I am want to thank the Tripadvisor destination experts, in particular, and to all of you who have shared your travel experiences on the China forums. Your advice and insights were invaluable in our preparing for a relatively “independent” trip through China. Our family, which includes 2 sons ages 14 and 16, is so grateful to you. So this trip report is a both a thank you note and return of the many favors that you all provide.
Please note that my observations are intended as just that--my perspective on our family’s experiences. As travelers, we can visit the same places and have totally different experiences and perceptions. This is my second trip to China, having visited it 24 years ago on the then-required group tours. The changes that I saw, while expected, were amazing at times.
Traveling with a family is also a very different experience. While this was not a budget trip by any stretch of the imagination, we were price sensitive and sought value without sacrificing comfort. I have divided this trip report into sections so that they make more sense and can be posted separately.
I. GENERAL OBSERVATIONS & TIPS
Research: Like all the Destination Experts advise, doing more research on China generally results in a more meaningful and smoother trip. I used the DK Eyewitness Travel China book (great pictures) and 2 other guide books, examined the itineraries of various travel companies, and read many posts in this forum to narrow down with my family what locations and sights to visit and how much time to allocate to each.
Booking: I was one of those people victimized by the 1-800hotels.com bankruptcy. I learned that my prepaid hotel reservations had been cancelled a few days before leaving on this trip after I e-mailed our first hotel in Beijing to confirm our reservation. About half our hotel nights, which consisted of 2 rooms per night due to our exceeding the 3 person per room that appears to be followed in much of China, were cancelled, leaving us scrambling at the last minute and paying again for hotel rooms.
What did I learn from this fiasco?
• The old financial investment maxim applies: past history is not a guarantee of future performance. Despite my prior research on this company checking its past record on the Internet prior to booking and weighing the seals of approval on its web site from such organization as the Better Business Bureau, the worst case scenario occurred.
• Try to book through hotels and/or online travel agencies that don’t require prepayment. As to those online travel agencies requiring prepayment in full, I would use them only when truly necessary, such as internal flights within China. From now on, I, for one, will attempt to book only through the hotels directly, seeing if they will match the best rates offered by the online booking agencies.
• Avoid prepaying for hotels. If the hotel or online travel agency require partial or full prepayment, use a credit card that offers protection if hotel or agency default. If you wire funds to the hotel prior to your stay, there may be no realistic recourse against the defaulting company. If a default occurs where you paid by credit card, contact your credit card issuer immediately and complete its claim forms ASAP. Why? There may be time limits on the filing of such claims.
• Always check with the hotels before leaving to reconfirm your reservations. Since I don’t speak Mandarin and would be arriving after 2 long flights from Chicago, I can only imagine the nightmare it would have been to arrive without a reservation or any information about this bankruptcy.
Additionally, my experience in securing lower rates on hotel and internal flights has been different from past experiences reported on this forum. My flight costs did not decrease in the weeks and days prior to our planned flights. On the contrary, a number of flights and hotel prices increased significantly. E.g., the Radisson Shanghai New World Hotel’s and various hutong daily rates either remained the same or increased by at least $30 plus dollars per room. Perhaps my experience was due to the popularity of the flight routes, the Expo, or just continued bad luck.
Medicines: Bring all medicines (antibiotics) and remedies (Lomitol) with you from home. While I found that at least some Chinese pharmacies sell antibiotics over-the-counter without a prescription, you really don’t want to chance it if you have an emergency like my tooth abscess that came on suddenly in Yangshuo late at night. I was advised that I had to go to the local hospital and try to communicate my problem to an emergency doctor. (I insisted on stopping at a pharmacy first, and I was lucky.) I saw some references in this forum to bringing Cipro, which is a really heavy duty antibiotic that kills both good and bad bacteria. I would suggest that you consult your doctor as to which antibiotic(s) to bring.
Money: It is safest to wear a money belt under your clothing. We were repeatedly warned that pick-pocketing is on the increase. Note that counterfeit money is also a problem---one that I encountered with a cab driver in Shanghai. My hotel concierge confirmed the counterfeit and reported the driver on my behalf---even though I did not insist on a receipt (stupid on my part), but had memorized the license plate number. There are tips on how to tell counterfeit money on the forum, but I didn’t suspect the fraud until exiting the taxi. Please note that this was the only bad experience we had with taxis, and I was refunded my money by the taxi company.
Safety: Crossing streets can be hazardous to your health/life! Pedestrians are at the bottom tier, with right of way belonging first to trucks/buses, cars, motorcycles, and bikes (in that order). Also in big cities, it is not enough to look right and left---you need to look in nearly all directions. We had cars and motorcycles come from behind us, literally driving on sidewalks. We found that the best way to get across busy streets was to cross with the Chinese residents, but still keeping a watch out for vehicles and bikes.
Pollution & Weather: We encountered a fair amount of pollution in Beijing and especially Xian. Visine for red eyes proved helpful. I think the pollution was exacerbated by the very high temperatures and humidity that lasted throughout our trip. Make sure to keep hydrated and wear good sun-block. Many sights have no or little shade.
Hiking: For middle-aged flatlanders like us, we found that walking sticks (retractable carbon ones) were helpful at the Great Wall and the Summer Palace.
Local Flights: Make sure that you arrive well before your internal flights departure time. In addition to figuring out different airports, some of which are huge, and check-in and frequent gate changes, we actually had a flight leave 7 minutes before departure time! The speed at which the Chinese have flights boarded is amazing. Note that in many airports we had to check screens to determine the numbers of “check-in lines” for our flights. Also, it pays to keep a tight eye on what is going on at your departure gates as gates change and sometimes announcements are in Mandarin only. We had 4 internal flights on 3 different airlines, and all of our flights were very good with at a meal served on each flight, even though most of the flights were 2 to 3 hours.
Pack light: A local (internal), economy flight ticketholder is allowed one checked suitcase, which generally was not to exceed 20 kilos. Some check-in personnel were more vigilant than others in watching the weight.
Chinese History/Culture: I found that our family’s reading about Chinese history and culture prior to our trip greatly enhanced our appreciation and understanding of China and the Chinese people. While our sons had studied a small amount of Chinese history in school, they didn’t know who Mao was or much about the “Cultural Revolution,” muchless the phenominal advances of the Chinese people throughout history.
Food: While the Chinese cuisine is one of the world’s outstanding ones, our teenaged sons longed for “Western food.” At times, we did as well. So it was a welcome break to eat Western food on occasion. Energy bars brought from home helped when we didn’t have time to eat a full meal.
Retaining a Guide: While I appreciate the position of those who advocate travelling without a guide, we elected to retain private guides in most of the major cities. Here is our rationale:
1. Guides conserve travel time. Having only 2 weeks to see Beijing, Xian, Yangshuo and Shanghai, our time was limited. Good guides know how to get quickly from one sight to another, get tickets to free museums when the lines are prohibitively long (e.g., buy admission to a special exhibit for a few yuan thereby allowing general admission as well), help you to learn how to do things like use the subway on days without guides, etc.
2. Guides provide not only historical and cultural information, but answers to questions that arise as to them and other topics. The good ones provide you with insights that help you better understand and empathize with the Chinese people. They also assist those who did not have the time or inclination to do the requisite research and reading prior to the trip.
3. Guides make the tour-planner’s life easier. As one Tripadvisor contributor noted, it is nice to have some time off. While I am an experienced international traveler, I like to have time off to just enjoy the sights and relax, instead of constantly being on duty as “tour guide Barbie,” as my sons have dubbed me. (Don’t you just love the irreverence of teenage boys?)
4. Guides can provide you with invaluable trip assistance. The good ones can assist you in figuring out refinements to your itinerary, dealing with travel problems, shopping assistance, restaurant/entertainment recommendations, etc. With all of the issues we faced in our trip, we were so fortunate to have Lily Fuwa as our guide in Beijing, who provided us with invaluable assistance both prior to and during our trip.
As a family of four, it proved to be economical for us to retain private guides for about half of the days of our trip. We had excellent guides, and they made our trip much more rewarding and fun. I will provide a review of each of our guides---Lily Fuwa (email@example.com) in Beijing, John (firstname.lastname@example.org) in Xian and Jean Liu (email@example.com) in Shanghai in the sections of our trip report on the various destinations.Edited: 07 September 2010, 04:30