World ? Asia ? China

China: Escorted Tours

Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation, but usually not domestic or international departure taxes.

Again, due to the distorted nature of the Chinese industry, escorted tours do not usually represent savings, but rather a significant increase in costs over what you can arrange for yourself. Foreign tour companies are for now required to work with state-owned ground handlers, although some do book as much as they can directly, and some work discreetly with private operators they trust. But even as markets become freer, most deals will continue to be made with the official state operators, if only for convenience. Tours are very attractive if you wish to see a large amount of the country very swiftly. Please read the brochures with as much skepticism as you would read a realtor's (one man's "scenic splendor" is another's "heavily polluted"), and read the following notes carefully.

Most tour companies peddle the same list of mainstream "must-sees" -- not all of which can hope to live up to the towering hype -- featuring Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Guilin, and the Yangzi River, with some alternative trips to Tibet, Yunnan Province, or the Silk Routes.

As with package tours, the arrangements within China itself are almost always managed by a handful of local companies, whose cupidity often induces them to lead both you and your tour company astray. Various costs, which should be included in the tour fee, can appear as extras; itineraries are altered to suit the pocket of the ground handler (local operator); and there are all sorts of shenanigans to separate the hapless tourist from extra cash at every turn, usually at whatever point the tour staff appears to be most helpful. (The driver has bottles of water for sale on the bus each day? You're paying three times the shop price.)

When choosing a tour company for China, you must, of course, consider cost, what's included, the itinerary, the likely age and interests of other tour group members, the physical ability required, and the payment and cancellation policies, as you would for any other destination. But you should also investigate the following:

Shopping Stops -- These are the bane of any tour in China, designed to line the pockets of tour guides, drivers, and sometimes the ground handling company itself. A stop at the Great Wall may be limited to only an hour so as to allow an hour at a cloisonne factory. In some cases the local government owns the shop in question and makes a regulation requiring all tours to stop there. The better foreign tour operators design their own itineraries and have instituted strict contractual controls to keep these stops to a minimum, but they are often unable to do away with them altogether, and tour guides will introduce extra stops whenever they think they can get away with it. Other companies, particularly those companies that do not specialize in China, just take the package from the Chinese ground handler, put it together with flights, and pass it on uncritically. At shopping stops, you should never ask or accept your tour guide's advice on what is the "right price." You are shopping at the wrong place to start with, where prices will often be 10 to 15 times higher than they should be. Your driver gets a tip, and your guide gets 40% of sales. The "discount" card you are given marks you for yet higher initial prices and tells the seller to which guide commission is owed. So ask your tour company how many of these stops are included, and simply sit out those you cannot avoid.

Tipping -- There is no tipping in mainland China. If your tour company advises you to bring payments for guides and drivers, some costs that should be included in your total tour cost are being passed on to you through the back door. Ask what the company's tipping policy is and add that sum to the tour price to make true comparisons. Some tour guides make as much as 400 times what an ordinary factory worker or shop assistant makes, mostly from kickbacks from sights, restaurants, and shops, all at your expense, and from misguided tipping. Some tour operators say that if they cut out the shopping stops, they have to find other ways to pad the tour guides' income or there would be no tour guide. Shopping-free trips are nearly always accompanied by a higher price or a higher tip recommendation (which is the same thing). The guides are doing so well now that in some cases, rather than receive a salary from the ground handling company, they have to pay for the privilege of fleecing you. The best tour companies know how China works, make what arrangements they find unavoidable, and leave you out of it. Some take the middle path of collecting a small sum from each tour member, putting it into a central kitty, and disbursing as they must, but only for truly exceptional service, and at a proper local scale which short-time visitors from developed nations are incapable of assessing. Foreign tour leaders can be tipped according to the customs of their country of origin, and most companies issue guidelines for this.

Guides -- Another problem with mainland guides is that they rarely know what they are talking about, although they won't miss a beat while answering your questions. What they will have on the tip of their tongue is an impressive array of unverifiable statistics, little stories of dubious authenticity but which will amuse you, and a detailed knowledge of the official history of a place that may bear only the faintest resemblance to the truth. The guides' main concern is to tell foreigners what they want to hear, and to impress them with the greatness of China. So you may be told that the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (silly), that China has 5,000 years of culture (what does this actually mean?), that one million people worked on building the Forbidden City (it was only 100,000 on last year's trip), and that the little old lady you've just met in a village has never seen a foreigner before or heard of the United States (she tells every group the same thing).

Ask your tour company if it will be sending a guide or tour manager from your home country to accompany the trip members all the way through and to supplement local guides. This is worth paying more for, as it ensures a smoother trip all around, and it helps you get more authoritative information. Otherwise, you're better off bringing background reading from home written by independent authorities. Guides in Hong Kong and Macau, however, are often extremely knowledgeable and both objective and accurate with their histories.

Tour Companies

Between them, the following tour companies (a tiny selection of what's available) cater to just about all budgets and interests (contact them directly for specific itineraries and pricing). The companies are from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia, but many have representatives globally, and you can anyway just buy the ground portion and fly in from wherever you like.

Abercrombie & Kent (U.S.): Group size is typically 12 to 18 participants (with a maximum of 28 persons), ranging in age from 35 to 70 (although "China: A Family Adventure" can accommodate children ages 8 and older). The company maintains offices in Hong Kong and Beijing and Shanghai, has its own guides, and books many services directly. Tour leaders include Mandarin-speaking Westerners and Chinese, and local specialist guides. There are no compulsory shopping stops, but assistance is given to those who wish to shop on their own in their free time. Tipping is included in prices, with the exception of tips for the main tour escort, who typically receives $10 to $15 per person per day. Tours have a historical and cultural focus and are upmarket, using China's very best hotels and direct contact with local artists, archaeologists, and colorful personalities. In the United States (group tours and custom private tours): tel. 800/323-7308; fax 630/954-3324; In the U.K. (custom private tours): tel. 08450/0700615; fax 08450/0700608).

Academic Travel Abroad (U.S.): Groups are typically of 20 to 30 people, in their 40s to 70s (one Yangzi River trip requires 100 participants so that an entire cruise ship can be chartered for a special itinerary). The company works with local non-CITS ground handlers. A subsidiary maintains offices in Beijing and Harbin. Tour leaders are Mandarin-speaking Americans, with additional specialty study leaders. There is one noncompulsory shopping stop per city (on some tours none at all), and those not interested are taken to their hotel. All tips are included in the tour price. The company has been operating tours to China since 1979, with seven Mandarin speakers in the office and more in China, and operates educational and cultural tours in China for The Smithsonian (educational, cultural) and National Geographic Expeditions (natural history, soft adventure) on fairly mainstream itineraries, but with some surprises. For more information, check the website at, but book through individual sponsors. The Smithsonian: tel. 877/EDU-TOUR; fax 202/633-9250; National Geographic: tel. 888/966-8687; fax 202/342-0317;

Adventure Center (U.S.): The maximum group size is 18 (typically 12), consisting of travelers of all ages. Local ground handlers with an understanding of small-group adventure travel are selected, and some services are contracted directly by regional managers based in China. Both foreign and local tour leaders are used, as well as local guides. The company favors local shopping over organized tourist stops, with only one or two brief stops in a 15-day trip. The company offers a range of trip styles from more affordable grassroots-style trips designed for younger participants to more inclusive trips using upgraded accommodations for those wanting to combine adventure and comfort. Itineraries are a little more adventurous than the mainstream, and include walks on stretches of the Great Wall, the Eastern Qing Tombs, and Chengde. The choice to tip or not is up to the individual traveler: tel. 800/227-8747 in the U.S., or 888/456-3522 in Canada. Representatives can also be contacted in Australia and New Zealand. See

China Focus (U.S.): Group sizes are between 6 and 50 persons (typically about 30); most participants are over 40 years old. Ground handling service companies are hand-picked in each region. Groups of 10 or more are accompanied by a Chinese national throughout the tour, which will include four to five shopping stops in 15 days. Tipping is recommended at $4 per day. Itineraries (such as "Tibet and the Best of China") deal mostly with mainstream sights, covering a lot of ground quickly. They're very competitively priced, but you pay in other ways: tel. 800/868-8660 or 415/788-8660; fax 415/788-8665;

Elderhostel (U.S.): Group size ranges from 33 to 40 participants in their 50s to 80s, with an average age of 72. Tours are developed in cooperation with Chinese educational institutions, and partly based in them. Excursions and activities supplement the educational theme of each course, not shopping. Gratuities are included in program costs. Elderhostel has been operating its educational programs in China since 1986, which include working holidays, and an opportunity to teach English in Xi'an: tel. 877/426-8056;

Gecko's Adventures (Australia): Gecko's tours are aimed at a younger crowd (typically, 20-40-year-olds) and group sizes are 6 to 14 participants (typically 10). The ground handler is a small local company. Tour leaders are locals with Gecko's training. Shopping tours are avoided (not least because tours use public transport as much as possible), but one in 15 days may be unavoidable. A tipping kitty is organized for local guides, and a tip of $1 per person per day for the tour leader is recommended. Itineraries stick mainly but not entirely to the highlights, but these are more down-to-earth budget tours using smaller guesthouses, local restaurants, and public transport. Branches across Australia: tel. 03/9662-2700; fax 03/9662-2422; and now in the U.K. too (tel. 01/635872300; For representatives worldwide, see

Intrepid Travel (Australia): Tour groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people drawn from all over the world; ages range from 17 to 75. These trips are for more adventurous travelers. CITS is used for ticketing, but smaller local operators are used wherever possible. A directly employed tour leader accompanies all groups; some are Chinese nationals. Shopping stops are specifically avoided. Tipping is encouraged but is entirely left to each traveler's discretion. Trips are graded for physical requirements and culture shock, ranging from relaxed holidays to those requiring more strenuous effort. Small local guesthouses are used rather than big hotels. Itineraries are a deft mix of popular destinations and the less visited. There's also an interesting route from Hong Kong to Hanoi, and a gourmet tour: tel. 1300/360-887 in Australia, or 61 3/9473-2626; tel. 613/9478-2626 or 877/448-1616 in the U.S., or 0800/917-6456 or 44(0)20/7354-6170 in the U.K.; fax 613/9419-4426;

Laurus Travel (Canada): Group sizes range from 10 to 20 people with some departures limited to 16; ages range from 40 to 70. Ground handlers are personally known to the owners and hand picked from smaller operations. The company maintains an office in China and directly books its own hotels and local airfares. Most of the local guides are hand picked by the owners (one of the owners used to be a tour guide in China) because the owners understand that the priorities of many tour guides are misplaced. A tour leader accompanies the tour from Canadian departure or from arrival in China. Currently, shopping stops are restricted to three per trip but the company's goal is to eliminate such stops entirely. Tips for local guides and drivers are included; $5 per day is recommended for the tour leader. Laurus is a China-only specialist, but itineraries are mainstream: tel. 877/507-1177 in the U.S. and Canada, or 604/438-7718; fax 604/438-7715;

Pacific Delight Tours (U.S.): Four grades of tours offer group sizes of up to 16, 25, or 32 people. On longer tours, the age is over 45, but shorter tours have a broader range of ages. There are special tours for families with children and tours can be modified or extended to meet client needs. Ground handling is by Pacific Delight's own Beijing office. Top-range tours are accompanied by a bilingual tour manager from the West Coast onward (most having 15-20 years of experience); midrange tours have a guide throughout China, and some other tours are locally hosted. There are typically four shopping stops in 15 days, with no more than one stop allowed per city. Recommended tipping is $6 to $9 per person per day, plus $4 to $7 for the American tour director. Pacific Delight was the first U.S. company to offer tours to China after the normalization of relations, and is the largest U.S. travel company in volume to China. It offers a large variety of mainstream trips, with endless permutations for different time scales and budgets, but with a heavy Yangzi River content, including one of the longest river trips. Pacific Delight also has the lowest airfares and most space with the key U.S. airlines serving China, which include Northwest, United, and Continental, which works with Pacific Delight exclusively, as well as Cathay Pacific, Korean Airlines, and Air China: tel. 800/221-7179;

Peregrine Adventures (Australia): Group sizes range from 4 to 15 people (typically 10-12). The company designs its own programs and uses closely monitored major ground handlers to book them. Tour leaders are locals, selected and trained by the company. Shopping stops are kept to a minimum: typically two in 15 days. A tipping kitty is recommended, running to no more than $1 to $2 per participant per day in total, which is disbursed by the tour leader to local guides, drivers, and consultants. Trips include visits to private houses and smaller restaurants frequented by locals, and can include walks and bike rides. But good-quality, centrally located accommodations are used. This is the slightly more upmarket version of Gecko's: tel. 800/227-8747 in the U.S., or 03/9663-8611; fax 03/9663-8618;

R. Crusoe & Son (U.S.): Tour groups never have more than 24 participants (typically 18). The company uses a local Hong Kong operator with incentive travel experience and the CITS head office in order to get special access. Groups are accompanied by a Hong Kong Chinese or occasionally by a hand-picked Chinese national, joined by local guides at each stop. Time is left at museums, for instance, for optional browsing in their shops, but factory shopping stops are kept to a minimum and are limited to 45 minutes. A sample 19-day tour includes only two shopping trips, and one optional evening shopping trip. Tours include extras such as a visit to an area of the Forbidden City that is usually closed to the public, a cooking demonstration dinner in Shanghai, and a view of Xi'an's Terra-Cotta Warriors at eye level, rather than just from the viewing gallery: tel. 888/490-8045;

Ritz Tours (U.S.): Groups range in size from 10 to 40 people, and ages range widely; parents often bring children. Ritz's own Shanghai office organizes the selection of local ground handlers -- a mixture of large and small companies, with a preference for those providing good English-speaking guides. Tour leaders are Chinese nationals. Shopping stops are limited to one in each city. Tipping consists of $2 per day for the guide accompanying the group throughout the tour, $1 per day for local guides, and $1 per day for the driver. Ritz is the number-one U.S. tour operator to China in terms of volume. It maintains offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Itineraries are mainstream, with a concentration on the Yangzi River: tel. 800/900-2446;

Steppes Travel (U.K.): Group size is usually no more than 16 persons, and participants are ages 45 to 80. Ground handlers are hand-picked operations with decent pan-China networks. Tour groups are accompanied from the U.K. by a British tour leader. There are no shopping stops, but leaders are happy to advise those who want to use free time to shop. The company regards tipping as now unavoidable, and simply gives guests a guideline, with an emphasis on not over-tipping. Tours are organized to very high standards, and most business is from referrals by previous satisfied clients. The company's is strong on the Silk Routes and Tibet, and specializes in multicountry itineraries that include China but can be combined with Vietnam, central Asia, Russia, and Mongolia, usually along the Trans-Mongolian railway: tel. 01285/651010; fax 01285/8858888;

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