China by tour or plan and go independently? Here’s how to decide
China famously has about 20% of the world's population, but it hasn't been a tourist hot-spot for most outsiders. I knew I had to see it for myself so in September of 2017 I painstakingly planned a 14-day visit there. At first I considered doing it on an organized tour because that's how the vast majority of people visit this huge country, but in the end I decided I should try to do it myself so I'd know how easy or difficult it really was.
It turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined, although certainly not impossible and I very much enjoyed my trip. I've now been to just about every major destination in Asia and I was surprised by how different visiting China was compared to the rest. If you are thinking about visiting China you absolutely should. If you are wondering whether to plan it and go on your own or go on an organized tour, I think you'll find the information below useful in making your decision.
The short version: Most people should do a tour, but there are exceptions
As someone who has visited almost 100 countries and always traveled independently, it's strange for me to say it, but I think most people are better off on a China tour rather than planning and going yourself. I've been to pretty much every tourist-friendly country in Asia and this is the only one I'd recommend visiting on a tour, although Taiwan is a close call.
For the reasons I'll discuss below, China is not like other countries. The short version is that it takes a LOT of research and work beforehand and quite a bit of stress when you are there to see the main highlights. Stranger still, you'll be surrounded by tour groups once you get to the main sights, whether you are on a tour or not. It's just that the tour groups had a much easier time of it because all of the complicated arrangements were made for them, and a guide was there to make sure they were in the right places.
Why are you visiting China? This matters most
If you are a hardcore independent traveler who has long had a fascination with China and you really want to uncover the soul of the country, it's probably best to start by visiting the main tourist places first in order to see whether you really like it. After that, and especially if you've somehow studied the language, you could be ready for a multi-month independent trip all around China to explore its deeper nature.
But if you are like the other 99% of us and your main goal is to see China for yourself, and especially visit the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, karst hills along the Li River, and see the skyscapers of Shanghai, it's MUCH easier to do that on a tour. There are small-group tours with between 8 and 20 people that aren't much more expensive than the tours with 40 people on them, so you don't have to be part of a zoo in order to see the best of China on a tour.
English isn't widely spoken, and it's more of an issue than most other places
Perhaps the most shocking thing I encountered on my two-week independent trip to China was how “Western” tourists are basically ignored wherever we go. When I say “Western” I mean almost all tourists from outside of China, as we nearly all speak English as our lingua franca.
In a city such as Bangkok or Cairo or Athens or Cancun, English-speaking tourists are so prized by local merchants and hospitality people that we almost feel like celebrities. In fact, the attention from merchants and hucksters can be so intense that it discourages us from walking around. However, in China we English-speaking tourists might make up 1% or 2% of the tourism market, with the rest being domestic Chinese tourists. As a result, English speakers are mostly ignored because we aren't worth the trouble as a tiny minority.
The fact that so many Western visitors are also part of tour groups means that even restaurants and hotels usually don't have to bother with English menus and signs, because their guide will take care of that for them. As an experienced tourist it's an unusual feeling to be identified as a Westerner and therefore ignored. So on one hand it's refreshing, but on the other hand it can be frustrating as if you were deaf and mute.
By the way, the Chinese alphabet is not one of those that can be picked up casually in a week or two before your trip. For most people, it's just random-looking box patterns that all look quite alike.
Independent travelers and tour groups end up in the same places anyway
As mentioned in the top section, China has a fairly small number of checklist highlights. If you carefully plan your Beijing visit for a week by reading all the guidebooks and online sources you can find, you'll still probably have a list that is similar to the fixed itinerary of most tours. If you DON'T want to visit the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall, then you probably are better off on your own. But if you DO want to visit those and the other top highlights, it's much easier on a tour.
Again, one of the main issues is that even China's tourist cities are mostly impenetrable to those who don't speak the language. If you learn about some small and obscure museum or cafe, chances are very high that English will be of no use to you when you eventually find it.
Tours can actually be cheaper for the same things
When considering a tour or going on your own it's also important to factor in the prices of each. In almost anywhere else in the world, going independently is cheaper for the same things, as long as you plan well. But amazingly enough, China tours can be much cheaper than going on your own, although it's still important to compare for yourself.
The reason that the tours are often much cheaper is that big tour operators can buy huge blocks of seats on flights into Beijing, and reserve huge blocks of rooms at large hotels. The flights will always be bilingual (Chinese and English), but the hotels don't need any English-speaking employees because the tour guides will handle that part. Also, the hotels can be outside of the city centers so big buses can come and go, rather than more expensive central hotels that independent travelers would prefer to book in.
Tours to China will usually include most hotel breakfasts and some lunches and dinners. Where these are included, you'll usually get buffet or family-style service where each person helps themselves from big plates and bowls. This is also very common among Chinese tourists, and it's cheaper per person than ordering a la carte from restaurants you find yourself.
China independently takes a LOT of research and some stress
For nearly all visitors, a visit to China will start with obtaining a visa from the Chinese embassy or consulate nearest them. It's fairly expensive (US$150 or so) and it requires FAR more paperwork and time than visas from other tourist-friendly countries. If you book a tour the tour operators will take care of much of it for you, but if you go on your own you'll probably have to hire an agency to help you (unless you happen to live near an embassy and have plenty of free time).
Once you have your visa sorted out, you have to figure out which cities in China you want to visit. It would be crazy to go to all that trouble and the long flight and then only visit Beijing, so the most popular visits are Beijing and Shanghai or Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. If you have more time you'll probably want to add in Guilin (all of these are covered below), or a Yangtze River cruise, and some tours also include Hong Kong and Taipei, even though they aren't technically in the same China.
You could read the China Lonely Planet from cover to cover, and if you only have three weeks or less you'll probably end up doing one of the itineraries mentioned above in the end. If you check the popular itineraries from the main China tour companies, you'll see all of those exact same itineries. Many of them will move faster than you'd prefer (2 days in each city), but you can actually see a lot in a short time if you've got a bus waiting for you at every stop.
If you are NOT on a tour you'll be on your own to figure out how the metro systems and local bus networks work for tickets and transfers. They are mostly straightforward, but this can be fairly stressful since you will likely be the only non-Chinese speaker there at the time.
Public transportation can be tricky, and taxis can be even more difficult. Uber is banned in China (as of this writing) and public taxis won't stop for you under most circumstances. They (justifyably) know from experience that if they stop for a non-Chinese person, chances are very high that they won't be able to understand you and it will waste a lot of their time.
The good news is that a Chinese app similar to Uber called Didi Dache bought Uber's China operations in 2016, and in 2017 they launched an English-language version of the app. I'm told that English-language customers can input their destination in English and it automatically gets translated for the driver. I didn't try it myself, but an expat friend of mine in Beijing said it works well.
How to prepare for your China trip
Sort our a visa
As mentioned above, the procedures for a China visa are more expensive and more complicated than virtually any other tourist-friendly country in the world. There are agencies that can help you and are probably a wise investment. I used one that has offices near each consulate in the US, and they were very helpful when the Chinese consulate first rejected my application and asked me to include another form. This service added another US$150 or so to the price, including Fedexing my actual passport back and forth.
Decide where you want to go and how you'll get there
When you apply for a visa they will ask to see your inbound and outbound flight confirmation, as well as your hotel reservations in China. For the most part you need to have these locked in before you even get approved for the visa, although I've heard of backpacker types being allowed in and wandering around for a couple months.
Sign up for and download a VPN app for your mobile devices and laptop
You may have heard of the so-called Great Firewall of China, which blocks residents from access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many other services that you might use on a regular basis. If you want to be able to use any of these you'll need to get a VPN (virtual private network) app on your smart phone, tablet, and lap top if you bring them.
It's obvious that the Chinese government is aware that many tourists use VPNs during their visits, and they usually look the other way. Evidently the goverment sometimes shuts down the VPNs in the run-up to official meetings and events, but it seems that most of the time a VPN will work fine. Their goal appears to be to keep the citizens from being able to readily access outside services that might suddenly turn against the official news of the Chinese government.
After a fair amount of research I chose ExpressVPN, which seems to be the most popular service and worked on all of my devices. It's not cheap, but it's much better and more reliable than other VPN services I've used before.
A brief summary of the major China highlights
China is obviously a huge country, but most of it is of little interest to first-time visitors. The language barrier also makes it very difficult to just roll into a random city and get by as a non-Chinese speaker. Below are the most popular destinations for first-time visitors to China.
Beijing is obviously the home to the Forbidden City and it's also the best and easiest place to see the Great Wall, as several tourist-friendly sections are just north of town. You pretty much have to visit Beijing on your first visit to China, but you might not want to linger here any longer than necessary.
The Beijing air quality is famously bad (although evidently getting better), and it's actually among the more challenging cities to visit. If you book into a hotel with an English-language version of their website, chances are strong that at least the front desk people and the concierge will speak enough English to help you out. But even in Beijing, English is not widely spoken by most people in the hospitality industry or most restaurants.
It's also worth mentioning that Beijing is mostly a low-rise city and it's very spread out. As a result it's not as walking-friendly as the other cities below. The metro system is cheap and fairly easy to use, with all signs in English, but since the city is so spread out it might mean that the restaurant or shop that you want to visit is still a 15 minute walk from the nearest metro stop.
Shanghai has a long history as China's main commercial port and it was even occupied by European countries at times. Because of this, Shanghai is far more international than Beijing, and it's much easier to get by in English here. More hotel and restaurant workers seem to speak English, and many businesses and shops have more English signs than Chinese ones out front.
Another major difference between Beijing and Shanghai is that Shanghai has a wide river at its core, with the riverfront Bund neighborhood on one side and the futuristic skyscrapers and shopping malls on the other side. Shanghai is also much more vertical than Beijing and it's much more of a walking city. It does have its own modern and easy to use Metro system, as well as reasonably priced taxis.
I spent 4 days in Beijing and 4 days in Shanghai and even though Beijing has its classic sights that I enjoyed, I had a much better time in Shanghai and if I had to live in China for some reason there is no question that I'd choose it over all the others.
I wasn't alone in expecting Xi'an to be a small town that happened to be near where they discovered the Terracotta Warriors, but it turns out that it's a huge city of 9 million people within the city limits. The city walls are the largest in the world, but aside from a few key monuments such as the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, virtually all of the buildings are new and modern.
The area around the Bell Tower in the center of the walled city is fairly tourist friendly, but the city itself isn't as charming as you might expect. Most people seem to come here primarily to visit the Terracotta Warriors, which are about an hour outside the center by bus or taxi. The story of the Warriors is among the most amazing archeological finds in the world and I'm a big fan of it. But to be honest, visiting the huge complex where the dig continues felt somewhat dull to me. For hardcore travelers seeing the Warriors is a major bucket list item, but if it doesn't mean that much to you I would probably skip Xi'an.
The surprising highlight of Xi'an for me was the Muslim Quarter neighborhood, which is like an ongoing outdoor food festival with excellent snacks and street food meals. The nearby Bell Tower and Drum Tower are worth a look, even if they are very similar to each other.
If you've ever seen photos similar to the one to the right of the Li River between Guilin and Yanghou, you might assume that they are both small towns. Guilin has around 5 million residents, however, and the docks where the boats leave from each morning around about an hour drive outside of town.
All of that said, Guilin itself actually has many similar karst hills in the middle of the city and it's one of the most scenic places I've ever visited. It's extremely popular among domestic Chinese tourists, but also popular enough among non-Chinese that getting by in English isn't as difficult as in Beijing or Xi'an. Another big tourist attraction is a huge set of rice terraces in some nearby mountains, and they are also some of the most amazing things I've ever seen in person.
If someone was planning a visit to Beijing and Shanghai and wanted to add in one other stop, I'd suggest Guilin by far over Xi'an. It's a large and busy city, but the tourist district between the four lakes and the central square is very friendly and nice. Xi'an is a huge (and not charming city), while Guilin is unique in all the world. Hotel prices here are also very modest considering the quality.
A few other places that are often bundled into China tours
Each of the places listed below can be reached without a special China visa, but most China visas are issued with two entries so that visitors can exit to one of these places and then come back into China on the same trip if they like.
While Hong Kong is certainly dominated by Chinese people and Cantonese speakers, it's also one of the most international cities in the world. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see in any direction, and it's something amazing to see in person at least once.
Since Hong Kong was run by the British until 1996 it's no surprise that English is pretty common here, and especially at hotels and most restaurants. The food is excellent, as long as you like Asian cuisines in general. If you are thinking about adding Hong Kong to a China trip and you don't think you'll have a chance to visit otherwise, I would highly recommend it.
This former Portuguese colony is a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong and now it's known as by far the biggest gambling destination on the planet. Most of the city is older and similar to older areas in Hong Kong, while another area resembles a much smaller version of the Las Vegas Strip, with a cluster of huge hotel-casinos and wide streets.
Non-Chinese people who are looking for Las Vegas-style fun won't find it here. There is very little drinking in the casinos and there are very few shows. The main attraction is the giant casinos themselves, and almost everyone inside is playing baccarat exclusively. Overall I don't think it's very interesting for most non-Chinese.
Those familiar with the history of China and Taiwan will know that there is a lot of controversy here. Taiwan is another huge city that has been richer for longer than China's huge cities. Many say that the countryside of Taiwan is very much worth a visit, but I have only been to Taipei so far.
This is another city that foodies gush about, and I found plenty of reasons why on my own visit. The huge and famous museum here actually holds many of China's most important antiquities, so it's a good place to supplement your Chinese history knowledge.
Overall it's hard to recommend Taipei unless you already have a specific reason to come. English isn't widely spoken and it's quite a bit like China's big cities in that those who don't speak Chinese will find very limited choices when it comes to restaurants and other cultural offerings.