I am not a “group tour” girl

Organized group tours are not my thing. The one I took in China is a reminder of that.

Granted, I signed up for the escorted tour at the last minute because I didn’t want to think about planning my time in China. I had spent the past several months fending for myself in Nepal, India and Thailand — negotiating, planning, organizing, trouble shooting. I was exhausted by it. There was major appeal in being shepherded around like a child.

Plus, I negotiated a good price with the company for my solo inclusion into the tour group. So often, solo travelers get slammed with the infamous “single supplement fee,” which can increase the base price considerably. That blow was softened this time, given my travel agent accreditation and the tour company’s last-minute availability. As is often the case, last-minute deals can deliver tremendous value, and this scenario is a perfect example of that. I’ll just divulge that I would have paid way more to fly to China from Chicago than what I paid for my seven-night package┬áthat included tours, transportation, meals and accommodation at luxury hotels. The deal was absolutely ridiculous.

My tip to anyone who wants to take a last-minute jaunt somewhere is to call or email the tour companies and hotels directly, and see how desperate they are for your business — it never hurts to ask, and you needn’t be a travel media type to do it.

Insane tour deal aside, I don’t think I’ll be joining another organized group tour again. Not in the near future anyway.

My time in China reinforced my fierce love for traveling independently. Group tours just don’t mesh well with me, even in my exhausted state. I savored the opportunities I had to explore on my own, in the few days I had to myself in Beijing and Shanghai, before and after the group tour. I felt trapped and bound to time with the group itinerary. When I wanted to break away from a boring stop or annoying sales pitch, I couldn’t. When I wanted to linger longer in a particularly awe-inspiring setting, I couldn’t. I had to follow the flock.

Problem is, I make a very, very bad sheep.

I realize that this might come across as condescending to those who do enjoy the group tours — and that is not my intention at all. Remember, I signed up for this tour because I didn’t want to plan, didn’t want to think, didn’t want to stress. I wanted a worry-free trip with everything already taken care of. Problem is, I discovered in the midst of the tour that I am far too independent to sink into these scenarios.

To be fair, I devised a list of pros and cons for traveling on an escorted group trip to China.

PROS

Joining an escorted tour is an extremely efficient way to see a diverse cross-section of China. The number of places and tours that were woven into the seven days was impressive: Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Trying to replicate this same itinerary would have been a logistical nightmare.

You can often score a ridiculous price for escorted tours of China. Even when you don’t hold travel media credentials as I do, the prices on budget group tours to this country are very, very attractive. It is one of the reasons I opted to visit China in the first place — I was confident that I could get a good deal. In fact, my tour included 17 guests who all purchased their vacation through Groupon for $1,400 per person. This encompassed everything, including roundtrip flights from Los Angeles. Among the best China tour organizers that cater to Americans: ChinaSpree, Chinatour, Gate 1 and Friendly Planet. (Viking River Cruises, which my parents took to China last year, also has a great reputation. But it’s more upscale, and the prices reflect that.)

The tour guides provide valuable insight into the China of yesterday and today. We had long stretches of travel between destinations by bus. During this time, the tour guides addressed many aspects of China’s history and culture, and answered many questions from our group. (Most of those questions came from me in the front seat, naturally.) I found this component of the trip extremely interesting and helpful — it’s knowledge that I would not have gained had I traveled the distances as a solo traveler.

The hotels included on the China packaged tours are extremely upscale. Massive, fluffy beds. Marble bathrooms. Flat-screen televisions. Room service. Spa, restaurant and gym amenities onsite. There is no way I’d be able to do the same kind of journey, staying at the same caliber of hotel, in America for the same price. These are hotels that could easily charge $300 or more per night in the USA. The way I look at it, I was achieving a $2000 value in the hotels alone — but was paying nowhere near that price for my entire tour. Not even close.

CONS

The set itinerary provided little free time to explore. We had a set schedule with a lot crammed into it, so our stops at each destination were extremely short. We typically had a night or two in a city, with hour-long stops at various destinations before getting back on the bus to travel to the next stop. As a “sampling platter” of China, this was fine. We got to see a lot. But I am someone who likes to dig into a place, so I found it frustrating to have each stop clocked so rigidly.

There were way too many “factory tours” included in the itinerary. I put this in quotes because they weren’t factories at all — they were more like two-hour long sales pitches in giant shops disguised to look like factories. Nearly every day, we had one of these “educational” stops: jade factory, peal factory, silk factory, tea village, medicine hospital. It was annoying, especially since I didn’t care to purchase any of these items. But, I had to sit through the lectures and sit through the hour of “free time” our group had to make purchases.

During the tea village “tea ceremony,” where we got a tutorial on the benefits of green tea, I actually felt like I was an audience member in an infomercial. At one point, I sarcastically shouted out, “And all for the bargain price of $19.95! But wait, there’s more!” That got a few snickers from the others on my tour, a few of whom shared my annoyance with these stops.

Disclaimer: I suspected that these stops were helping to fund the group tours. In other words, the Chinese tourism board/government mandated these stops in exchange for financial reimbursement to the company, which could help enable these companies to offer such ridiculous prices for the group tours. Plus, the money spent by tourists at these stops would be pumped back into the Chinese economy and perhaps commissions were another benefit. These suspicions were confirmed by a source who asked to remain anonymous. I actually appreciate the genius of this approach from a destination marketing standpoint, just hate when I am a victim of it.

A huge chunk of the itinerary consisted of travel time by bus and plane. We were on the road a lot. While it was nice to observe the Chinese landscape from the window of a bus, it always felt like a mad dash given the short time of our complete itinerary.

The upscale hotels were in terrible locations. Each hotel definitely had a four- or five-star quality, which was amazing — but they weren’t within walking distance to anything of interest. A few of them were in here middle of nowhere. I was effectively trapped once our group arrived at our hotel each evening. I didn’t come all the way to China to order room service and drink at the hotel bar. The nights when I was game to explore, it just wasn’t practical.

Group tours don’t always include people with whom you’d choose to travel. There were some personalities in my group, which made it fun at first. But it got old after about a day or two. There were also a handful of twenty-somethings on the tour with a constant desire to seek out alcohol. I think I would have appreciated being on a tour that included a more mature audience.

After I paid in full for the tour, I received spotty communication follow-up from the tour company. I really should “out” this company for that, but I won’t. I felt like after they got my money, they didn’t see the need to continue taking care of me. I was annoyed by this poor customer service. A low tour price is no excuse. But I suppose the old adage holds true in this case: You get what you pay for.

 

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