Not all guided tours are made equal and not all tours are for the same purpose.
A couple of weekends ago we went on a tour and paid way more than what we should have. We brought along one of our close Chinese friends.
As we were walking with the tour group he whispered to my husband Bobby…
“Did you pay for this?”
“Yes, we did,” Bobby responded.
“Are you serious? This was not worth the money. I could have taken you to better places than this.”
I felt so embarrassed because the tour was not what I expected from a tour, but honestly it was my fault for not asking more thorough questions before agreeing to sign up.
Thankfully we all have a good sense of humor even as we’re charged way more than what we should have been. As we went through the tour, in Chinese we would say things like:
“And to your left you will see a large rock recently put there for decoration purposes. It signifies China’s strength.”
“To your right is McDonald’s. It is a very important restaurant for foreigners. Without it they would die.”
Chinese Traveling Culture
If you have good Chinese friends, they are by far the best tour guides, and most enjoy travelling and sight seeing in a big group. Listen for your friends saying things like 出去玩 (chū qù wán or chū qù wánr for Beijingers) which literally translated means, go out play, but is used more like, “hang out.”
It’s also a phrase most frequently used for day trips. If you’re going to spending the night someplace as typical for company outings and team building exercises, it would have a more formal name like 郊游 (jiāoyóu), meaning excursion.
You might find traveling in such big groups and to place with lots of people unnerving, but I suppose I’ve become a bit local in that I actually like traveling with huge groups of people, especially if they’re my co-workers or friends.
Travelling with kids is normal and having a big group with lots of people is described as 热闹(rènào) meaning bustling or lively with joy. What typically happens in a big group is that older kids take care of younger kids, with a handful of adults taking turns all helping keep an eye on children, unless they’re really little, mom-clinging types. But even in that situation, there’s always someone around to lend a helping hand.
Tour Guides as a Last Resort
If you’re new to Beijing and you have to go with a tour guide or you’re only coming to China as a tourist, here’s a long list of questions you should always ask before you agree to go on a tour:
- What’s the itinerary of the tour?
- What type of traveler was in mind when this tour was planned?
- How many times has this tour been held?
- How much information and history will you be sharing about the places we’re going?
- Do you have a video of the tour guide speaking or introducing herself/himself? (Just to check to make sure the language level of your tour guide is up to your expectation.)
- How have you made this tour family friendly?
- How many rest stops will there be?
- What’s included in the cost of the tour?
- What extra costs should we expect when on the tour?
- What should I bring on the tour?
If it’s truly family friendly, they’ll have provided children’s activities, speak in a way that engages children in the conversation, and perhaps include special children’s gifts, like a themed coloring page at the places where kids must stop and sit for a while. Not all tour guides are good with kids, but kids do enjoy tours.
I fell in love with tour guides on a national park tour with my family when I was eight. The park ranger asked if the crowd knew why the cave was sucking in air, and I quickly said “because of barometric pressure.” My parents beamed at me with proud faces. Kids understand much more than some adults believe, and a good tour guide knows that too.
Lastly, always look for online reviews about tour guide companies. There are hundreds of options for tour guides, van rentals, and excursion experiences in China, but some should be avoided.
Pro-Tip for City Tours
To look for a tour guide company in a specific city, you should check out city-based expat resources like The Beijinger or beijingkids for Beijing, Playtimes for Hong Kong, and City Weekend Family for Shanghai. Search in their events and to-do sections. Also use the search function to look for “tour” or “tour guide” mentions on their site. They’ll have either listings or reviews.
The reason I suggest using these city guides rather than looking at a travel website is because the expats already living here have high standards for tours and they aren’t going to be willing to pay for fluff. There will also be tours to outlier places, using these cities as main bases.
Do you have any tour companies our guides to recommend? Comment below or tell us in the group.
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Vanessa Jencks founded China Family Blog to connect internationally-minded parents through semi-humorous stories of China life-and-parenting fails. She is the former managing editor of beijingkids magazine; see her previous work here. She writes about relationships, her body image struggle, and faith at vanessajencks.com.