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The single biggest decision first-time visitors to China often have to make is whether to travel independently, booking all accommodations and onward transportation on your own as you go; travel on a structured escorted group tour with a group leader, where everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation are included; or travel on an unescorted package tour, which straddles the two by having the basic elements such as airfare, accommodations, and transfers taken care of, but leaving you the freedom to visit sights, shops, and restaurants at your will. Your decision will, of course, depend on your experience and goals. Shanghai itself can be comfortably explored on your own (especially armed with this guide!); any package tour, escorted or otherwise, is really just a waste of money, unless you are seeking a special theme or expert-guided tour. The rest of China is possible to see on your own, even if you don't speak the language, but it will require a lot of patience, energy, resourcefulness, time, goodwill, and not a little luck.

If convenience is paramount and money no object (as you may be able to do a trip more cheaply on your own, particularly if you're willing to stay in hostels or very inexpensive hotels), consider booking with one of the agencies listed in the next section, which can also book unescorted tour packages. You can also check with the China National Tourism Administration for a list of registered Chinese agencies that can help. In each case, always comparison-shop, as package tours vary widely with regard to choice of airlines, hotels, and other hidden expenses; never go with the first company on the list. Do not under any circumstances book with private Chinese tour agencies or guides online, as many of them are not licensed.

As an alternative for those desiring a more personalized and customized experience, concierge service providers creating tailor-made itineraries and private guided tours -- a relatively new business in China travel -- have also started to appear on the scene. Run by two expatriates in Shanghai, Luxury Concierge China (Wulumuqi Bei Lu 457, Ste. 403; tel. 135/0166-2908; fax 021/6249-2316; www.luxuryconciergechina.com) can custom-design your trip in whole or in part from the minute you land in Shanghai. Services provided include itinerary planning, hotel booking, transportation, and private guided tours (art, architecture, culinary, fashion design, history, and shopping).

Escorted General Interest Tours

Escorted tours are structured group tours, with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation, but not usually domestic or international departures. Most require you to pay upfront. Many, but not all, escorted China tours include Shanghai (1-2 nights), but do not cover it in any kind of depth (as with any escorted tour, you'll get little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals and you'll likely miss out on some lesser-known gems).

As noted previously, it is possible to travel through China on your own even if you don't speak the language (even more so through an increasingly international city like Shanghai), but time, energy, and resourcefulness are required to arrange your own way. For those short on time and who want the security and ease that come from knowing all you have to do is show up, escorted tours have traditionally been and continue to be the preferred way to see China.

But there can be drawbacks to taking an escorted tour. So before you book, read the section below.

Evaluating Tours

In evaluating tour companies for China, besides the usual considerations of price, itinerary, schedule, size and demographics of the group, physical ability required, types of hotels you're likely to stay at, existence of single supplements if you're traveling alone, and payment and cancellation policies (especially as they pertain to health-related issues like SARS or H1N1), here are some other questions to ask your tour operator:

  • Shopping Stops: This is how tour guides, drivers, tour operators, and all their kith and kin make money: by ferrying you to as many shopping outlets as possible in between the sights, and then collecting commissions on every item purchased. (Equal opportunity fleecers, they do this to all tourists, not just foreigners.) The better foreign tour operators try as much as possible to design their own itineraries, keeping shopping stops to a minimum, but it is difficult to avoid the stops entirely. Ask your tour operator how many of these stops are included, and if they don't know, find another company. This is as sure a sign as any that your company is not a China specialist and is only cobbling together a package without much concern for their clients. If you're stuck at one of these stops, sit them out if possible, as prices are astronomically marked up to begin with, so any discounts promised are no big deal.
  • Additional Costs: You cannot be too clear on what exactly is included in the price of the tour. Watch out especially for additional tips that may be asked of you. For what it's worth, there is officially no tipping in China. Taxi drivers, your average restaurant waitstaff, and the staff at your typical Chinese hotel do not expect tips and will usually return any change. However, where escorted tours are concerned, there invariably ends up being some form of tipping of guides and drivers. In general, payment for the tour guides and drivers, including reasonable tips, should be included in the initial cost quoted by your tour operator; if your tour operator tells you that tips are not included, you will need to add the anticipated tips onto the initial cost quoted you. As a general rule, despite the nonstop pressure you'll get to tip and tip well, only tip for truly excellent or exceptional service, and then pull together a reasonable (by Chinese standards, not the West's) sum from the group. Some guides claim they would not be making a living wage were it not for tips and shopping commissions, but it's also true that many tour guides make many times more than what an ordinary factory worker makes. Any excessive or misguided tipping merely makes it more difficult on the travelers that follow you.
  • Guides: The quality of guides in China varies widely, from genuinely knowledgeable and critically thinking guides to those who merely repeat verbatim every bit of propaganda they've had to study to become licensed, to those whose grasp of the English language makes it all sound like Chinese to you. Your chances of encountering the first are considerably greater, though hardly assured, in the big cities where competition has forced the better guides to a level of proficiency and accountability not demanded of guides in smaller towns and areas. Many guides, though, still tend to err on the side of telling foreigners what they want to hear; others don't have much experience beyond their limited purview. Ask your tour company if they will be sending an accompanying guide or tour manager from home to oversee the trip and supplement the local guides. This person, who should be knowledgeable about not only Chinese history and culture, but also the workings of Chinese tourism, is worth paying more for as they can help ensure a smoother trip. Depending on your itinerary and tour operator, you may get a Chinese tour guide who will accompany you throughout China (called a quanpei) as well as local guides in the different cities, or simply local guides at every destination. As noted above, make sure all the guides and drivers' fees are included in the tour cost, or factor in the accurate number of guides along the way if you have to prepare for tips.

Tour Companies

The following is but a short list of companies offering packages to China that span different interests and budgets. While they are located in North America, the U.K., and Australia, they have representatives around the world, and it's usually possible to fly in on your own and join only the land portion of the tour.

  • Abercrombie and Kent (U.S.): Classy top-of-the-line luxury-travel company that specializes in tailor-made private tours and escorted small group travel. tel. 800/323-7308,  www.abercrombiekent.com (U.S.); tel. 08450/700610, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk (U.K.); tel. 1300/851-800, www.abercrombiekent.com.au (Australia); tel. 0800/441-638 (New Zealand).
  • Academic Travel Abroad (U.S.): Arranges all the tours for the Smithsonian (educational, cultural) and National Geographic Expeditions (adventure, natural history). tel. 877/EDU-TOUR (338-8687),  www.smithsonianjourneys.org; tel. 888/966-8687, fax 202/342-0317, www.nationalgeographic.org/ngexpeditions.
  • Adventure Center (U.S.): Touts a plethora of China trips that offer a more adventurous twist on the standard itineraries; activities can include walking, cycling, and even staying at a Hangzhou farm. tel. 800/227-8747 (U.S.); 888/456-3522 (Canada); www.adventurecenter.com.
  • China Focus (U.S.): Its large mainstream tours have received good reviews from travelers on Frommer's message boards; they have been described by an enthusiastic client as "champagne tours at beer prices." Watch out for additional costs to cover extras. tel. 800/868-8660 or 415/788-8660; www.chinafocustravel.com.
  • Road Scholar (U.S.): Popular educational tours for those 55 and older, formerly known as Elderhostel. tel. 877/426-8056; www.roadscholar.org.
  • Gecko's Adventures (Australia): Budget adventures aimed at 20- to 40-year-old travelers who normally journey independently. Uses local accommodations and transport, and has branches worldwide. tel. 03/9662-2700; www.geckosadventures.com.
  • Helen Wong's Tours (Australia): Well-regarded, experienced group offering longer stays to savor the "local" experience. tel. 02/9267-7833; www.helenwongstours.com.
  • Intrepid Travel (Australia): As its name suggests, adventurous trips with competent guides; good value for money. tel. 613/9478-2626, www.intrepidtravel.com (Australia); tel. 877/448-1616 (U.S.).
  • Laurus Travel (Canada): A small China-only specialist that runs well-received small group tours. tel. 604/438-7718;www.laurustravel.com.
  • Pacific Delight (U.S.): Popular outfit offering a wide range of mainstream tours, many economical. Also offers special tours for families with children. tel. 800/221-7179; www.pacificdelighttours.com.
  • Peregrine Adventures (Australia): Upmarket counterpart to Gecko's Adventures; emphasizes soft adventure and new angles on standard experiences such as visiting an untouristed part of the Great Wall or checking out Shanghai's local food stalls. tel. 03/9663-8611, fax 03/9663-8618, www.peregrineadventures.com (Australia); tel. 800/227-8747 (U.S.).
  • R. Crusoe & Son (U.S.): Classy outfit offering custom, private, or small tours that include extras such as viewing the terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an up close at eye level. tel. 888/585-8555; www.rcrusoe.com.
  • Ritz Tours (U.S.): The largest China tour operator in the U.S.; offers different China packages with maximum group size at 32; varying ages, popular with families. tel. 800/900-2446; www.ritztours.com.
  • SITA World Tours (U.S.): Experienced outfit offering different grades of tours to China. Also guarantees its advertised departures so there is no fear of a tour canceling. tel. 800/421-5643; www.sitatours.com.

Another option is to visit Shanghai on a themed escorted tour, such as one on Chinese cooking, shopping, architecture, tai chi, traditional medicine, art, or another topic. Such tours are usually one-time offerings, however, led by experts in the field, so finding them requires research and some luck. Search magazines, newspapers, and the Internet for groups that specialize in your interest.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.