We just returned from a terrific two-week tour (May 2006) of China with Friendly Planet/SmarTours. In case anyone is considering this or another tour of China, I would like to give my impressions. The bottom line is that we had a terrific vacation.
We have never taken a formal tour before, generally preferring to travel on our own. However, we decided to take this tour because of
concern over our ability to handle the Chinese language, both written and spoken. We are totally satisfied that this was the right choice.
The tour escort is probably the most important person on a tour in China, and that person can make the difference in a trip being a positive or negative experience. Our tour escort was Ms. Joy Zhou (Zhou Ying) and she was absolutely wonderful. I strongly recommend seeking a tour where she is the escort.
Next, do your homework. Understand that China has a population over one billion. Don't expect to wander off and be alone on this trip. And this is especially true if you visit China in the summer. Chinese students are on vacation in July and August, so you can expect Chinese families to visit the same attractions as you during those months. If you want less crowding, stay away during those months. Our visit in May included the Li River cruise in Guilin, the Great Wall at Beijing, the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xian, and the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River Cruise. None of these attractions were crowded. Each was a wonderful experience.
Also, China can be very hot during the summer months and this is especially true of Beijing, Xian, and Chongqing. So if you don't want crowds and heat, don't visit China in July and August!
The hotels on our tour worked out fine. The meals were excellent. We had combinations of buffet and Lazy Susan dining, but most of our tour group marveled at the high quality of our meals (and our hotels) given the low cost of the tour.
I did separate reviews of each of our hotels, so I won't go into much detail here. I would describe them as follows: Harbor Plaza in Chongqing and New World Renaissance in Hong Kong (Kowloon) were top of the line for both rooms and food; Presidential Plaza had very nice room and OK food; ANA Grand Castle in Xian had nice rooms and good food; Royal Garden Hotel in Guilin had OK rooms and good food.
The Victoria Cruise on the Yangtze River was the highlight of the trip. One reviewer in 2005 described the scenery as boring. What! How could anyone think this fantastic scenery is boring? We also took the Empress (as they did and complained about). It wasn't Victoria's newest, but it worked out just fine. And those small rooms? Yep, but there is space under the beds for the largest of bags (which ours were), so you will have enough room to meet your needs -- plus a balcony.
What we liked: Chinese people are very friendly to westerners. The cities on our tour were excellent -- and we would love to have spent an extra day in Beijing, Xian and Guilin. China is building an amazing infrastructure, some probably related to the 2008 Olympics and related tourism, and some on the Yangtze related to the impoundment of the Three Gorges Dam. It is impressive!
Finally, some potential irritants-
Getting there: Our Korean Air flight from JFK to Seoul was scheduled shortly after midnight, so we had a very long wait at JFK ; and then a six hour delay in Seoul for the flight to Beijing. After arriving in Beijing, we went right into "tour mode." Try to minimze the impact of this travel any way you can. In fact, a good night's rest in a hotel before starting out would help; and you can rent a hotel room near the Korean Air transfer lounge in Inchon Airport for six hours for only about $50. We would have taken this deal and got a mid-trip rest and shower if we had known about it when we got off the plan from JFK. Returning from Hong Kong wasn't as much a problem; but we did stay overnight at a hotel near JFK before completing our trip home.
Factory tours: There was a "factory" tour every day except during the Yangtze cruise. But while I would have preferred not to have these factory tours, various folks on our tour made purchases in every factory stop, so someone out there likes them. And just factor in the recommended tipping to your cost of the trip. It's really not that much per day considering the overall cost of the trip.
But whatever you do, don't miss visiting China! We enjoyed the natural beauty of the Yangtze and Li Rivers. And the cities on this tour are much more modern and sophisticated than we had imagined. We loved it.