Should you travel independently in China? Or is it worth booking a tour?
That’s a big question when it comes to travel in China, and I’ve done it both ways now. In a way, it’s a question that arises every time you travel but China does present certain challenges that many other countries do not.
It’s huge, for one, which means that internal travel logistics become critical.
It’s less easy to bumble your way around China than it is Belgium, for example, when if the trains do go on strike, you can at least hire a car and cross the country that way in an afternoon.
Then there’s the language, alphabet and customs. They’re the things that make travel exciting and exhilarating but also, let’s face it, sometimes just tiring, confusing and prone to induce anxiety along the way.
The first time I went to China, I travelled independently with a (male) friend. It was one of the best trips of my life. We relied on hand gestures, embraced the alphabet, ate the unidentified food and revelled in the challenge of it all. But we were young. And we had time.
China has changed a lot since then. Post Beijing Olympics you’ll find a lot more English about and a population a lot more used to seeing tourists, for better and for worse (in the tourist hotspots that is.)
But the second time I went, I was short on time. I no longer had a student summer to flex into but a short, working itinerary. I opted for a tour and an English-speaking guide.
I opted for China Odyssey Tours.
On the whole, I’m not a tour person. I love spontaneity and I love immersion in the country I’m in and you lose both when you sign up to a big group tour. I also hate the movement of big buses on winding country roads (and Guilin, China has a never-ending supply of those.)
China Odyssey Tours offered a bespoke itinerary, a one-to-one guide (although things might have felt a little more relaxed if there’d been one or two more of us) and the promise that “you are not alone in China.”
You are not alone
I gained the things I expected to gain: less time lost in sorting out flight transfers, feasible itineraries, waiting for buses or getting lost on the road. Plus, there were a few nice touches such as a guidebook and fresh water waiting each and every morning.
But the real gain was the guide, whose level of knowledge and expertise elevated my trip to a whole new level. This time around I wasn’t relying on hand gestures but on meaningful, in depth conversations in English.
I’ve written about the places we visited and the insight I gained over here.
But I thought I should write a clear, nuts and bolts piece about my experiences of travelling in China with and without a guide, as I know it’s a place where some people (even experienced travellers) have run into difficulty.
So, would I recommend China Odyssey Tours? Absolutely. They’re professional, friendly, informed, reliable, flexible and creative.
Would I recommend a tour in China? It depends on how you like to travel and on how much time you have.
Ultimately, though, it’s great just to get there, no matter what steps you take after that. And, let’s face it, it’s always nice to have someone meet you at the airport.
Disclosure – I paid a reduced rate to travel with China Odyssey Tours. However, I kept the right to write about whatever I like. As ever, as always.
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