China Focus Travel Trip Report
I recently returned from the China and Hong Kong 15 day tour with China Focus. There are very few trip reports, not counting the agency's testimonial page, so I wanted to put our thoughts here to maybe help other people decide if this is the trip style that they would be comfortable with. I have travelled independently to many different countries. My only other group tour was a two day in Egypt with another company. For the most part, we like the freedom and flexibility of travelling alone.
PLANNING: When planning for China, I was quite frankly overwhelmed by the prospect of putting together a two week trip by myself. When I read a good China Focus review by Arthur Frommer in my local paper I decided to check out the website and could not believe their prices. We would have spent close to that for the flights had we booked ourselves never mind paying for guides, food, hotels and entrance fees. After much trepidation we bit the bullet and booked with China Focus. Jason, one of the travel agents there is amazing to deal with and made me feel very comfortable about the tour and the company. He was easy to get a hold of, returned calls promptly if he was on the other line, and was just extremely pleasant and knowledgeable.
VALUE: The one thing I read over and over again about China Focus is that they deliver what they promise. It's absolutely true. There is huge value if you are going to book a tour with them. Everything besides the tip for the guides (which I will discuss later) is included. Except for the one day free in Hong Kong and one day free in Shanghai which we were on our own (which we loved).
CHINA AIR: Eh, it got us there and back. Old planes without personal tv's for a long flight. The flights from city to city in China were usually of better quality than the overseas flights. The food, again, not to my liking. Bring your own on the flight over and back.
GUIDES: All of the guides (but one) were extremely well educated and knowledgeable and very efficient. Our national guide, Mark, was the most caring, concerned father figure/big brother/mother duck who bent over backwards for every individual's needs. And some individuals were more needy than others. Mark made sure that 36 people never got lost and were on the bus on time and everything was on schedule. He also tried, and succeeded, to make sure everyone got their room requests, plane requests (one traveller just HAD to have a window seat on every flight).
There was one city guide who was a real scatterbrain in Shanghai. She wasn't bad she just wasn't good and we were used to having top quality guides up until this point. Luckily, we were only with her for one day. Shanghai itself was amazing.
FOOD: Ugh, I really got sick of eating the same foods day after day. China Focus needs to up their game here. There were 8 to 10 people to each table and the servers would bring out no less than 8 platters of food, many times much more than that. There was always rice, a few vegetable dishes, some sort of mystery meat dishes, always watermelon for dessert. A few times there was oranges. Plates and plates of food that seemed to be cooked in the same sauces. The soups were usually awful. Mostly looking like dirty dish water with a couple of frozen veggies thrown in for good measure. There were a few different soups that many at my table enjoyed. To drink, we all could have a small glass of soda pop or a glass of beer. You could buy more to drink if you wanted.
Although I disliked most of the food I will say that many in our group liked the food very much, although they were also tired of the lack of variety near the end of the tour.
The "American" buffet breakfast was good in some hotels, not great in others. Temperature of food was not right at a few places. I recommend not eating meat that is served at room temperature.
HOTELS: All of our hotels were of very good to excellent quality. Big to enormous rooms, very clean, lots of amenities, some suites. I was quite surprised, again given the price of the tour. I have already given separate reviews on TA for most of our China hotels.
Most of the hotels were not centrally located, except the Shanghai Riverview Hotel which was close to the Bund and the old city. This usually did not matter since there was very little time to venture out on our own. We were constantly on the move. Only in Hong Kong did had we wished for a more downtown location. Our room there was nice land modern but too far from the main areas since we did have a free day there. We took the free hotel shuttle to the main train station and use the subways (very clean with English signs). Also, taxi cabs are quite reasonably priced.
TRAVELLING WITH A GROUP: Like I said, this is my only time travelling with a group, other than Egypt. We had a great bunch of people. I was really worried about that but most of them were excellent to travel with. There were a couple of whiners that found fault in everything and expected to be catered to like they were on a high paying private tour but we were not personally bothered by them in any way.
TIPS: We all know going into this that there are tips to be paid. It is $8 per person per day. This covers everything. I have read that the guides get this money not as an actual tip but as their only pay. I believe it. I wish China Focus would just put this into the total cost and stop calling it a tip. Quite frankly I thought it was appaulling that the guides had to ask for it themselves. God knows, the guides earned their fee.
FACTORY STOPS: Yes, there are factory stops almost everyday. We all knew that going in. I wasn't particularly happy about this but all of the tours do it and so if you are taking a tour you need to suck it up. In the end they weren't bad stops at all. It was nice to just rest for a bit. There is no hard sell here. The mark up on most of the stuff was huge. I don't think I bought anything at any of the factories but many of the people in our group shopped until they dropped at every site. We were never much more than an hour at any of the factories. We once went to a teahouse that was ridiculously overpriced. Still, lots people bought.
The worst part of the factories is that a couple of times we had to eat at the factory afterward and the quality of food was particularly bad.
SITES: Most of the sites and cities were absolutely amazing. There were a few little sites that I felt we were doing just to kill time until our next flight which was fine. It's better than sitting at the airport. We had to do something but no one needs two hours to walk around the outside of the Bird's Nest.
SHOWS: We saw three shows. The only optional show was the one in Yangshuo ($40 US pp) and was not to be missed. Everyone loved the Shanghai acrobats and the Tang Dynasty Music and Dance show.
FREE TIME: Hardly any except in Shanghai and Hong Kong. I really would have liked to have more free time to explore and possibly find something to eat that I liked.
Will we take another tour with China Focus? Possibly. Now that we have been to China, I know where I want to go back and I am more confident that we could do this on our own and at our own pace. I might book a tour just for the price of the flights and hotels and just opt out of most of the tours.
Overall, China was and is absolutely an awesome and interesting country to visit and we will be back. China Focus Travel truly gives an outstanding value tour and I highly recommend the company if you are going to do a tour. Just know that there ARE trips to factories and 'tips' to be paid.
I am willing to answer any questions.