terra cotta warriersMy wife and I have been to China (in May 2008) on the Trafalgar Uniworld "Grand China and the Yangtze" 20-day tour.

Why Write This Review?

We wanted to share our experience so others who are considering this tour will know the little details that the brochures don’t tell you about.  I like to research my own vacations beforehand, and so I made this web page based on all that information that I wish I had before our trip.

I am also writing this because there is a very negative review on epinions.com about a Trafalgar Tour to China, and our experience couldn’t have been more different!  It made me question many things about both his review, and his actual vacation.  We didn't want others to base their vacation decisions on his unrepresentative comments. I have also posted this Trafalgar China Tour review on epinions.com, with favorable feedback from others who read it. And, no, we are not related to Uniworld, Trafalgar, or any other travel agency. We are just normal travelers. [Update: I see that these reviews are no longer available.]

We have noticed that when people are happy with a travel experience, they aren’t as likely to share it with others as they are if they have a complaint.  This can create some apprehension if people are deciding on a trip based solely on these reviews.  Hopefully our positive experience will add a little balance.

Quick Jump menu:

 

Our Experience

If you have thought about going, but still aren't sure...go!

All in all, we had a fantastic trip, and would absolutely recommend it to others. It was very well-organized, thorough, educational, and a good value for the price.

At the end of the tour we talked to the others in our group (28 people), and most were also very pleased with it.  As in any group tour, we heard a few complaints from a couple of people, but they were from people who always seemed to find something to complain about anyway (these people were easy to identify early in the trip).

We chose this tour for two reasons:  I have taken three prior Trafalgar Tours, and know firsthand that they do a good job and offer a good value.  And knowing that China is a rapidly up-and-coming world power, we wanted to experience the many different attractions and get to know the people we have been reading so much about.

We are seasoned travelers, taking at least 7 weeks every year of international vacations, from rustic third world adventures to five-star big city pampering.  Trafalgar met our expectations, plus more!

Destinations Visited On This Tour

Trafalgar Uniworld Grand China itinerary map

Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Tongli, Suzhou, Yichang, Yangtze River, Chongqing, Dazu, Guilin, Yangzhou, Hong Kong

Booking the trip

Update: We booked the trip through a travel agent that our traveling companions used. Looking back, I wish I would have booked it using our own travel agent, Mindy, who is with Pavlus Travel. We have booked a number of trips with her, and have learned that we can get the same tours and cruises for substantially less money by going through her travel agency.

Attractions and Sites Seen On This Tour

Forbidden City, Hutongs, Sacred Way, Ming Tombs, Peking Opera, Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors and Horses, Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Bund Waterfront Promenade, Yu Yuan Garden, Pearl Tower, Shanghai Acrobats, Suzhou Humble Administrator Gardens, Three Gorges Dam, Xiling Gorge, Lesser Three Gorges, Victoria Park, Aberdeen Fishing Village, Stanley Market

Day-By-Day — Our Itinerary at a Glance (yours may be different)
    [you may download this itinerary as MS Word document]

Tuesday May 6 (Day 1) Travel

Travel to Beijing

(Cross international dateline; arrival on May 7th)

 

Wednesday May 7 (Day 2) Arrive in Beijing

Greeted by Uniworld Beijing (Peking) (local phone 86 13911789673), who will transfer us to hotel.

Hotel: Great Wall Sheraton

 

Thursday May 8 (Day 3) Beijing

Begin touring

Beijing is home to many sights that make China a must-see destination, including your stops today: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. You’ll also be treated to a relaxing foot massage. In the evening, enjoy a historic Peking Opera performance.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Highlight Dinner)

Hotel: Great Wall Sheraton

 

Fri May 9 (Day 4) Beijing

You’ll walk along the Great Wall, which dates from the 3rd century BC and extends 4,000 miles—a not-to-be-missed experience. Afterwards, tour a cloisonné factory, visit the lavish and historic Ming Tombs, travel along the Spirit Path, and in the evening, savor a traditional Peking Duck feast.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Great Wall Sheraton

 

Sat May 10 (Day 5) Beijing

Start your day with a visit to a silk rug factory.  See the giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo. Join your tour guides for a visit to one of China’s best-preserved imperial gardens at the Summer Palace.  Take a rickshaw tour of the Hutongs in the old residential area of Beijing, followed by a boat tour of Shishihai Lake.  In the evening, enjoy dinner in the home of a local Hutong resident.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Great Wall Sheraton

 

Sun May 11 (Day 6) Beijing, Xi’an

This morning, you’ll fly to the ancient city of Xi’an, where upon arrival, you’ll be greeted by a Royal Welcome Ceremony held just for you at the city gate. After the ceremony, transfer to the Sofitel Hotel.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Sofitel Xian on Renmin Square

 

Mon May 12 (Day 7) Xi’an

Visit the iconic life-sized Terracotta Warriors and Horses guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.  After a dumpling lunch, tour a jade factory. Admire the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a well-preserved ancient building and a holy place for Buddhists.. During the evening, enjoy a Tang Dynasty dinner and cultural show.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Sofitel Xian on Renmin Square

 

Tues May 13 (Day 8) Shanghai, Tongli, Suzhou

Fly to Shanghai, and then continue on to charming Tongli with its narrow streets, and elegant homes, teahouses and intriguing shops.  Next you’ll visit Suzhou, known for its famous and delicate gardens. Before going to your evening performance of music and dance, you’ll check in to the Shangri-La Hotel.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Shangri-La Suzhou

 

Wed May 14 (Day 9) Suzhou, Shanghai

You will tour the Humble Administrator Gardens, a splendid example of Suzhou’s famous gardens and also listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Board a traditional boat and cruise the 1,000-year-old canals. Visit the Embroidery Institute before returning to bustling Shanghai where you will transfer to the Regal International Hotel.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Regal International East Asia

 

Thurs May 15 (Day 10) Shanghai

Tour the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with its distinctive artistic spheres.  Enjoy the many splendors of Shanghai including Old Town, Yu Yuan Gardens, and an evening performance by the world-famous Shanghai Acrobats.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Regal International East Asia Hotel

 

Fri May 16 (Day 11) Shanghai, Tichang

Visit the Bund before your flight to Yichang, where you’ll board your luxurious Victoria Cruises ship.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Victoria Anna Cruise Ship

 

Sat May 17 (Day 12) Cruising the Yangtze River

Visit the Three Gorges Dam. Admire the dramatic shoals and verdant cliffs of Xiling Gorge, the longest of the Three Gorges.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Victoria Cruise Ship

 

Sun May 18 (Day 13) Cruising the Yangtze River

Board a riverboat for a voyage down the Lesser Three Gorges, depending on water levels. After returning to the cruise ship, sail through Qutang Gorge and Wu Gorge.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner) 

Hotel: Victoria Cruise Ship

 

Mon May 19 (Day 14) Cruising the Yangtze River

You’ll visit Shibaozai, the City of Ghosts. These are some of the Yangtze River’s most impressive sights.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Victoria Cruise Ship

 

Tues May 20 (Day 15) Cruising the Yangtze River, Chongqing, Dazu

Disembark the cruise in Chongqing, and travel to Dazu to enjoy the Dazu Rock Carvings from the Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Marvel at the more than 50,000 Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian rock carvings.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Marriott Hotel Chongqing

 

Wed May 21 (Day 16) Chongqing, Guilin

Tour Chongqing, known for its great Sichuan cuisine. Later in the day fly to Guilin.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Sheraton Guilin Hotel

 

Thurs May 22 (Day 17) Guilin, Yangzhou

Enjoy a half-day cruise down the Li River. Visit Yangshou, a leading economic and cultural center since the Tang Dynasty.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Sheraton Guilin Hotel

 

Fri May 23 (Day 18) Guilin, Hong Kong

Marvel at the distinctly-colored stalactites and stalagmites in the Reed Flute Cave. Visit a Chinese tea farm and fly to Hong Kong.

(Buffet Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)

Hotel: Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers

 

Sat May 24 (Day 19) Hong Kong

Enjoy the best of the island on a half day tour – Victoria Peak, the Aberdeen Fishing Village and Stanley Market.

(Buffet Breakfast)

Hotel: Sheraton Hong Kong

 

Sunday May 25 (Day 20) Hong Kong

Say goodbye, as our tour officially ends.  Some guests transfer to the airport for your return flight home.

(Buffet Breakfast)

Last day of Trafalgar itinerary.

Begin extra day in Hong Kong.

Hotel: Sheraton Hong Kong

 

Monday May 26 (Day 21/Extra day) Hong Kong; Travel day

Check out of Sheraton Hotel.

Transfer to airport via Uniworld Beijing arrangements.

Travel home

Getting There

Our trip started with a 10 ½ hour flight from Portland to Tokyo, and then 4 hour flight to Beijing.  We flew on Northwest Airlines, and it went much faster than I Northwest airplane in Tokyoanticipated.  The Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 had individual video screens for every coach seat, so we were able to watch a number of movies at our leisure, which helped pass the time.  Although we didn’t have to go through immigrations or customs in Tokyo's Narita airport (because we were in transit), we still had to go through security.  I had to throw away a bottle of water I had purchased in the U.S. (after passing through U.S. security).

Once in Beijing (Beijing Capital International Airport), we passed through immigrations, claimed our luggage, and cleared customs without any problems.  The airport signage had enough English (as we were to later find in most other China airports and hotels in areas frequented by tourists, thanks in big part to the 2008 Olympics), so there were really no problems in finding our way.  As soon as we exited customs, we saw a man holding a red Uniworld sign as stated in our paperwork.  What was not expected was to be met by the tour director himself! We had expected a simple shuttle service, and were prepared for difficulties and ready to get a taxi if needed, especially since it was 10:30 at night.  The director (his English name was Michael) had already checked us into the hotel, so he gave us our keys on the bus, and informed us of the next day’s schedule.

After a 30-minute drive to the hotel, we went right to our room, our luggage arrived within a few minutes, and we went to bed, setting our alarm for 6:30am. Incidentally, we always bring our own wind-up travel alarm, and also set an alarm on our cell phone; we learned long ago not to rely on hotel alarm clock/radios, nor on requested wake-up calls.

At our continental breakfast in the hotel, we had fun playing the "Who's In Our Tour Group" game, since the group had not yet met together.  After breakfast, we met in the hotel lobby, had informal introductions, and the tour began!

The Daily Routine

The daily routine would quickly become familiar.  The day would begin with a good continental breakfast in the hotel.  After breakfast, the tour group would all meet in the hotel lobby at the specified time.  A head count was done by Tour Director Michael, and when everyone was there, we would all walk out to the bus as a group.  If people brought larger carry-ons for the day that didn’t fit in the overhead shelf (which is smaller than airline overhead bins), they could be stowed in the outside luggage storage area of the bus, which was kept locked during the day’s journey but accessible on request.

Once everyone was on the bus, the Tour Director and/or the Local Guide would walk down the bus aisle and count people to make sure everyone was there.  If they were, he would tell the bus driver, and we would promptly take off.  While in route to the first stop, Michael would give us a briefing on the day’s schedule, and then turn the microphone over to the local guide.

Uniworld Tour Director (Michael) in ChinaUniworld Local Guide (Jimmy) in China

Although Michael was our Tour Director, we had a different local guide for each city we were in.  This is required by Chinese laws.  The local guide would meet us at the airport upon arrival, and was with us the entire time until we departed again at the airport.  The local guides would always stand up in the front of the bus, facing back, and spoke into a microphone as they talked to us.  They are energetic, knowledgeable, provide colorful narration, discuss culture, teach about the history, get our group tickets at the various attractions, have many anecdotes, and are clearly very proud of their locale.  They all encourage questions, and were usually quite open in their answers.  The local guides live in that city, usually having grown up there.  Since our Tour Director was from Beijing, he was also our local guide for that portion of the tour.  Any time we were off the bus and walking, especially in crowded areas, the local guide would be holding up the red Uniworld sign so we could easily see and follow them. Without exception, the local guides were all excellent.  We would all give the local guide a tip when he/she saw us off at the airport; usually $2 – $3 per day per person.

China dinner showAfter the day’s tour, we would usually be returned to our hotel with about an hour to freshen up before dinner.  Tour Director Michael would give us the dinner/evening schedule on the way.  Some evenings we would get back on the bus to go to a local restaurant, or a dinner show; other evenings we would eat at the hotel.  On hotel meal nights, we would sometimes eat as a group; when there was a buffet-style dinner, we were free to eat at our leisure.

On evenings before flying to a new city, our Tour Director Michael would tell us the time to set our suitcases outside our hotel room door the next morning so the porters could take them down to our awaiting bus.  This was usually 60 minutes before we were to depart the hotel. Some people would set out their luggage and then have breakfast. We were always a little nervous about doing this, and always stayed in the room until we heard the porters (plus we are early-birds, and like to eat earlier to beat the crowds at breakfast). The porters were prompt the entire trip, and no one in our group had any problems with this morning luggage transfer routine.  The Tour Director also helped by giving each of us a green Uniworld luggage ID tag, and a red ribbon.  Attaching both of these to each suitcase made it easy to identify a bag as part of the Uniworld group.

On those evenings, we were also instructed on our other morning task, which was to check ourselves out of the hotel, even though we had been checked in as a group.  This was to settle any incidental room charges (extra water, mini bar items, room service, etc). We were asked to check out at least 30 minutes prior to our departure, because the hotel would not allow our bags to be loaded onto the bus until they confirmed that all charges had been settled.  The system worked well, and we had prompt morning departures the entire trip.  When we got onto the bus with our carry-on bags, Michael would ask us again if we remembered all our belongings, especially items in the safe, and particularly our passports.

On flights between cities within China, the airlines actually require you to have locks on your luggage (just the opposite of U.S. regulations).  We knew this ahead of time and brought our own, but the Tour Director had a supply of them to loan to the other travelers who didn’t know this.  Also surprising to some people was a new China regulation that passengers could take NO liquids or gels on their carry-on (unlike in the U.S. where you could have up to 3 ounces).  Usually this wasn’t a problem, as we would just pack them safely into our checked bags, and get them out upon arrival in the new city if immediately needed.  There was also a rule that limited carry-on bags to 5kg, which is about 11 pounds.  It's easy to go over this weight restriction, and we were careful to abide by it.  But we never saw it enforced on any of our five intra-country flights. There is also a size restriction of 20cm x 40cm x 55cm. This was tightly enforced at a couple of airports (passengers were made to check any carry-ons over this size), and obviously ignored at others.  Checked bags were limited to 20kg (about 44 pounds).  This was a worry for some people, especially as they bought more souvenirs, but we never found it to be a problem.  We had read that traveling as a group, they weigh all the luggage and calculate the average weight, rather than singling out one overweight item. The flights from city to city were all comfortable, taking less than 1 ½ hours.

At the airports, we would give our passports to the Tour Director or Local Guide, who would take care of checking us all in while we stood aside.  This was very nice, as the check-in lines seemed a bit slow and sometimes chaotic.  After checking us in, they would return and give us our passports as well as giving us our boarding passes.  We would then go through the airport security screening, which was similar to any other airport.  They didn’t require shoes to be removed, but had very sensitive metal detectors, so many passengers were being hand-wanded.  Again, NO amount of liquids or gels were allowed. Once through security, we double-checked an airline departure gate reader board to make sure there weren’t any last-minute gate changes.  Then we preceded to our gate, and waited for our flight to board.  Some flight announcements were very clear; but on others we had to be particularly alert to make sure we knew when our flight was boarding (watching our Tour Director, watching others in our group, asking other non-Asian passengers). Of course our checked luggage was taken care of; we never touched it from leaving the hotel until arriving in the new city.  The lunches served in-flight were mediocre; we passed on most of them. This was fine since our Tour Director arranged a full lunch right at the airport on the days that flight times were at lunch.

Upon arrival at each airport, we would claim our luggage from the airport carousel, and set them together right there as a group.  That way Michael could count the suitcases, and he would immediately know that everyone’s baggage arrived.  They would take care of it from there; they would magically appear in our hotel room when we checked in after our day’s events. 

At each airport, our own private bus and driver would be awaiting, which would be ours for the entire stay.  The buses were all full-sized tour buses.  A few were very new; a few were a bit older but in good shape.  They were always clean inside, and although we didn’t have much rain, the windows seemed to be washed regularly.  Only one had a bathroom on board, but they encouraged us not to use it.  This was fine, because the bus rides were never very long the entire tour.  And on a couple of the longer ones, they would make a rest stop.

People could sit on the bus anywhere they wanted during the entire tour.  Some tours (including the other Trafalgar Tours I have taken) have a seating rotation system, so everyone has an opportunity to sit near the front.  On this China tour, however, it didn’t really matter, because the bus time was relatively short, and not meant primarily for sightseeing.  It was merely to get you from Point A to Point B.

One very nice amenity was water on the bus.  Each bus driver would have a case of bottled water, and sold it to us at 2 bottles for $1US, or 3 bottles for 15 Yuan.  This saved us from having to find grocery or convenience stores, or pay expensive hotel charges for their bottled water.

Our local bus drivers were all very good.  They all helped to keep us on schedule.  They never got lost, and made navigating down narrow roads look easy.  They managed to find drop-off spots close to the attraction entry to minimize our walking.  As soon as they knew we were returning to the bus, they would turn on the engine and air conditioner to get the bus cooling down.  They did a good job of keeping the inside temperature comfortable, with our help of letting them know whether it was too hot or too cool.  Most people tipped the local drivers $1 - $2 per day per person when we got off the bus at the airport on departure days.

On the first day of our tour, the Tour Director Michael gave us all Uniworld name Uniworld identification badgebadges, and had us write our name on it.  The badge went into a plastic cover, which we wore around our neck on a comfortable ribbon.  This badge served three functions:  1) It helped everyone else in the group learn everyone’s names; 2) It helped the tour director, local guides, and bus driver identify people who are a part of our group, since many areas were very crowded with other tour groups; and 3) It had Tour Director Michael’s cell phone number written on the back of it, in case anyone got separated from the group (which happened one time, and having the phone number avoided a potentially big headache).

Our last stop of the itinerary tour was Hong Kong.  Our Tour Director Michael could not accompany us there, because he didn’t have any more visa privileges left.  So he saw us off at the Guilin airport after giving us departure instructions (we had to turn in our departure paper that we filled out when we arrived in China), and designating a man in our group as honorary/temporary director for a couple of hours.   This is when we give our Tour Director Michael a tip for his top-notch service.  The general tipping recommendations for Tour Director seemed to be $3 - $5 per person per day.  We tipped him two $100 bills (U.S.) for both of us.  Slightly on the high side according to the guidelines we read, but well-deserved for all he did for us.

We were met by another local guide in Hong Kong.  We were concerned about this, because Michael had been such a fantastic organizer, but the Hong Kong guide was also very good, and helped us with our final days.  People in the group were departing Hong Kong on different days, and the Hong Kong guide handed out written details for each couple, indicating our day of departure, airline and flight number, and what time our airport transfer would pick us up at the hotel.  The guide also offered great recommendations for various local restaurant and sight-seeing requests.

The Yangtze River Cruise

The 4-night 5-day cruise on Victoria Anna was very nice.  It was a great way to break up a 20-day tour.  Take a look at the daily bulletins to get an idea of activities during these five days.

Returning Home

We had an early morning flight, and the guide advised us to settle our hotel bill the night before, because the hotel often only has one person working the desk that early, and so check-outs can be slow.  We did this, but the desk staff instructed us to still check out in the morning, which meant still standing in line to turn in our key and make sure they knew we were out of the room. In the morning, there was almost no line, so we were checked out with no delay. On the day of departure, we were responsible for getting our own luggage to the lobby for the first time in the trip.  Our guide instructed us to simply phone the bellhop when we were ready to have it taken down (like you would at any hotel), but we chose to take it down ourselves.  We went to the pick-up area as instructed, and about 10 minutes before our shuttle pick-up time we were met by a local man.  We didn’t know we would be met by anyone other than the shuttle, and this man’s English wasn’t all that good, so we didn’t really know what his purpose was.  I think it was someone arranged by Uniworld, to help those travelers who might have needed a little more guidance or assistance than we did, which was a very reassuring touch.

Just like our flights to China from the U.S., our return flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Portland were uneventful, and seemed to go faster than we anticipated.  The transfer in Tokyo was easy; we followed the In Transit designations, so didn’t have to go through customs.  We did have to go through security again though.

Our jet lag was worse upon returning home than it was when we got to China.  It seems to confirm what other travelers have experienced – that traveling west to east is more disruptive than east to west.  We found that it took almost a full week before our sleep routine was back to normal.  Usually our jet lag doesn’t last quite that long, but we were told that since this was a 3-week trip, our body’s circadian rhythm was more set to China time than if we were gone a shorter 1- or 2-week period.

Books

I strongly recommend doing some reading before your trip.  If you do, you will see the country and its people in an entirely different light during your tour.  The two that I recommend are River Town by Peter Hessler, and Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  These were both also recommended by many others in our group, and also by one of our local guides (this surprised us as she had lived through the Cultural Revolution, and openly shared her experiences of it, and said the books present an accurate portrayal).

Another excellent book is China - Culture Smart!. This book gives great insight into China culture, customs and etiquette. It will help travelers understand their surroundings. By following local etiquette, travelers will fit in better, and be better received by the local people.

There are lots of books and maps available at each destination, detailing what you are seeing at that particular location.  They were popular souvenirs, mainly because of the high-quality photography in them.

Money

I looked at numerous internet sites to learn about how to deal with currency in China, and found the advice to often be conflicting.  So we exchanged $800 U.S. dollars for Chinese yuan at an airport Travelex Currency Exchange (not a very good exchange rate) while on another trip.  Although we could have gotten a better rate by waiting and finding a bank in China to exchange, we simply didn’t want to have that chore hanging over us.  We also brought U.S. currency – a number of $100’s, and an assortment of $1’s, $5’s, and $10’s.  We also brought Visa credit card, and our bank ATM debit card as back-up.

We found U.S. currency to be accepted at all the hotels, cruise ship, shopping stops (silk factory, embroidery factory, jade factory, cloisonné factory, etc), and was acceptable for all tips.  Smaller U.S. currencies were also accepted by peddlers and street vendors.  We were actually surprised at how widely accepted the U.S. dollar was.

Credit cards were accepted at all our hotels, museums, gift shops, and factories.  But they are not universally accepted at restaurants (or stores), so ask before you order.  If you anticipate using your credit card in China, be sure to call your card’s issuing bank and let them know when and where you will be traveling.  Otherwise the foreign transaction might trigger a fraud alert, and they can completely freeze your card until it is resolved.

All of our hotels would exchange currency, so it was easy to just give them a $100 bill, and get Yuan for incidentals for a couple of days.  But, they would often give you only larger Yuan bills, where smaller bills would be more versatile.  It is very convenient to exchange money at the hotels.  Although the exchange rate at hotels was better than the Travelex, it was not as good as you get in ATMs.

Our Tour Director warned us about counterfeit money.  Apparently it is around, and given as change when unsuspecting tourists pay with larger bills.  Or they give you change in similar-looking bills from other Asian countries that have a very low value.  It is more prevalent with street peddlers and vendors. 

We wish we would have brought more U.S. $1 bills.  There were peddlers everywhere that sold souvenirs for a dollar or two, and when you are bartering with them (sometimes on the run), it is much quicker to think in dollars than Yuan.  Dollars were good for baggage handler tips, and buying bottled water from our bus driver.

We did pass a number of ATM machines on our normal day schedule without even having to look for them, but never needed to try them.

We actually managed to make the entire trip using our Visa credit card only once.  Although I know it would have been fairly safe, we just felt a lot better by not using credit cards in China, and using cash instead.  But, we travel a lot, and simply don’t buy many souvenirs.

We wore a money belt at all times, carrying our cash and passports with us. We occasionally locked these in the room safe, but still felt more secure by actually taking them with us at all times. We also used safety pins to pin the belt at the latch, so if the plastic latch broke or came undone, the money belt would not unknowingly fall off.  We like the washable silk ones that have a moisture-proof inner lining, and two zippered compartments.

We have found that Traveler’s Checks were good in years past, but nowadays are actually not recommended.  They can be inconvenient, difficult to cash, and many places simply won’t take them.  U.S. cash, credit cards, and ATM's should cover most situations.  Many travel experts consider Traveler's Checks obsolete.

Another option available is to order your foreign currency and have it delivered to your home before you leave.  There are a number of sources that do this, including banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and probably others), AAA, and Travelex.  I checked the rates, and they all seem comparable to what you would get at the hotel cashiers.  Better than the airport kiosks.  Definitely not as good as ATMs.  But it might be a convenient way to get some starter money to have on hand before you go.

Pre-Paid Cards are yet another option.  They are available at AAA, and some banks and stores.  Although they seem appealing at first, further analysis reveals that they are a very poor value, and best avoided.  They are loaded with many hidden fees and costs, and you lose a lot of money with them.

Here are some websites that discuss various forms of travel money:

Tipping and Gratuities

We paid tips with both U.S. and Chinese currency.  We used these 2008 Trafalgar/Uniworld guidelines:

Tour manager/director:  $3-5/person/day
Local guide: $1-3/person/day
Local drivers: $1-2 /person/day
Hotel porters: $1/person on check-in and check-out
Shore excursions: $0.50/person for local guides and boatmen

The Tour Director requested $16 (we gave $20) from every person so he could cover the behind-the-scenes tips to baggage handlers we don’t directly see.  This includes those carrying bags from hotel to lobby, lobby to bus, bus to hotel lobby, bus to airline, airline to bus, and bus to hotel.

Tipping for the Victoria Cruise portion was somewhat different.  Tips for the 150-crew members are pooled and shared.  There is a Tip Box at the Front Desk.  Most passengers also gave a separate tip directly to both the Cruise Director and the River Guide. Some guests also directly tipped their dinner table waitstaff at dinner the last night. Victoria Cruises 2008 guidelines:

Ship crew: $8-10/person/day (goes into their general tip fund)
Cruise Ship Manager; River Guide: $3/person/day

Extra Expenses

Not included in the tour price:

There were only two optional excursions offered, which was a bit of a contrast to other Trafalgar Tours I have taken.  But this was fine with everyone, as our itinerary was very full and really needed nothing added. One of the optional excursions (Guilin evening city tour) didn't even happen because almost nobody in the group wanted to take it.

Purchases and Shopping

For high-quality purchases, we had the opportunity to buy at the various factories/museums/shops we toured.  These were reputable shops, and did not carry counterfeit or cheap quality goods.  It was safe to use credit cards in these places.  During the course of the tour, we made separate stops at places that specialized in these items: cloisonné, silk embroidery and clothing, silk carpets, calligraphy, tea, jade carvings, pearls.  Most offered to ship the purchases home for you.  They would guarantee the purchases, and give you receipts.  Usually they have set prices, and don’t barter.  Some offer a discount to people in tour groups.

Some people in our group didn't like to stop at these stores that obviously cater to tour groups.  Others were quite pleased with each and every one of them.  There are often rumors that the tour agencies and/or tour directors get kick-backs from any sales made when their groups purchase items in these stores.  The prices are high, but the selections are usually excellent and they are very convenient.

The cheaper souvenirs were available everywhere.  All of the tourist destinations had vendor booths and peddlers.  They ask an inflated price, and try to get as much money out of you can.  By bargaining with them, you can get the price down dramatically; sometimes as much as 10 – 20% of their first price. Some in our group felt sorry for them, and paid a higher price.  But we were reminded that these peddlers are making a profit on all the sales, even at low prices.  They can be very persistent. By telling them your low price, and walking away, they will follow you.  Often they will come down to your price right as you are getting back into the bus. They all will take U.S. dollars.

The cruise ship also has a variety of souvenirs.  We found them to be extremely expensive, and did not see anything unique and that couldn't be purchased at other places for less.

Water

The Tour Guide advised us not to drink any water out of hotel sinks.  This was confirmed by signs with the same advisory in most hotel bathrooms.

All our hotels provided one bottle of water per person per day.  This was never enough, so we always bought extra from our bus driver or a local store and brought it to the room.  We even used bottled water for rinsing our toothbrushes and our mouths. We have heard too many stories of people getting sick in Asia, and chose to error on the side of caution rather than take any chances.  We even avoided getting water in our mouths when taking showers.

Only one person in our group got sick during the tour, and that was only on days 1 and 2; we suspected it was something he caught on his trip over to China.

Food

This is not a gourmet food tour.  We were in China for 3 weeks, and were served lots of Chinese food.  And the Chinese food is very different from Chinese food in the U.S.  Those who weren’t particularly fond of the Chinese food on the tour quickly learned to make the breakfast a main meal of the day!

Chinese buffet lazy susan meal

Our tour itinerary said that buffet breakfasts were included on most mornings.  We didn't have high expectations, as often this means a minimal Continental Breakfast, or a limited selection buffet.  We were pleasantly surprised by the variety and selection of foods on our first morning.  We would find this to be true for every single breakfast on our trip.  They were all convenient buffet breakfasts at the hotel in which we were staying, and all offered a large variety of Western and Asian dishes, fruits, breads, and juices.  We could always go to the buffet breakfasts at a time of our choosing. All we needed to do was tell the hostess that we were with Uniworld.

For most lunches, the routine was to be seated at three or four round tables, with a large glass Lazy Susan in the center.  As soon as we were all seated, the servers promptly started bringing out food dishes and pouring beverages.  Usually lunch included water and a choice of beer, tea, Coke, or Sprite.  Plenty of tea refills. One glass of beer or soda is free; more will cost extra.  Coffee was sometimes available, but not everywhere.

Some of the food dishes were easy to identify, but many were unguessable just by looking.  Some looked fairly normal to our Western eyes, while others were obviously nothing we would ever come across at home.  A few adventurous people in our group tried everything.  Most people ate a variety of things.  A couple of people found very little that they wanted to eat.  There was always food left over at each table.  Fruit, usually watermelon, was brought out at the end.

Dinners were quite varied.  Some were dinner shows (Beijing Opera, Tang Dynasty Cultural Show, Shanghai Acrobats); others were at the hotel, and some nights we would bus to a restaurant (Peking Duck Feast).

Forks were always available, as were chopsticks.  Some people never touched a chopstick; others used chopsticks for most meals the entire trip.

Food on the 5-day Victoria Cruise portion was typical of a cruise ship.  Perhaps not quite the quality of a mega-cruise ship, but still excellent.  Buffet breakfasts. Good dinners (still served Lazy Susan style).  Attentive, personal service.  People who were a little nervous about eating certain foods on the rest of the trip were more comfortable with the food on the cruise.

We brought a couple dozen PowerBar protein snack bars from home.  This was valuable on days when we needed quick nourishment in the middle of a tour, especially on days when the lunches weren't very appealing to us.

Don't count on buying any familiar snack foods there.  We went into a number of markets and grocery stores to buy water (all bottled brands tasted fine).  We saw an abundance of Chinese snack foods, but we didn't have any idea what they were.  The only U.S. ones we recognized were M&M's and Pringles, plus some European chocolates.  Plenty of Coke; some sugar-free Coke; no Pepsi.

Laundry

Laundry service in China is a bargain compared to many other countries.  There were a couple of opportunities to send out laundry.  Since it took a full day, it had to be done when we stayed more than one night in the same place.  The best price we found was actually on the Yangtze River Cruise (on the Victoria Anna).  We had it done at two of the hotels also, which was convenient, but slightly more expensive.  We even sent out some of our socks and underwear to be laundered, which we have never done before because of the usually high cost.

Having relatively inexpensive laundry service allows travelers to pack lighter.  No need for as many changes of clothing.  More room for souvenirs.

We also brought a stretchable laundry cord and small bottle of soap.  We bring wickable quick-drying undergarments, and wash them in the sink.  Exofficio is one brand we have had good luck with.

Packing

Most people tend to overpack rather than underpack.  Remember, you're traveling; it's okay to wear the same outfits over and over.

Bring one or two of those little travel packs of Kleenex, or a small roll of toilet paper.  Many public bathrooms in China do not supply toilet paper; you have to bring your own.

Here's a printable packing list, although it isn't specific for this tour.

Clothing

The only occasion to dress up was the Captain's Welcome Dinner on the Victoria Anna Yangtze River Cruise. Some men wore suit and tie, others wore just sports coat, still others just put on a tie. All were appropriate. Women wore nice outfits; a number of them wore dresses, but not typical cruise-ship-fancy dresses. Everyone on the boat was on a long China tour, and seemed to realize that bringing fancy outfits just for one night wasn't very practical.

Dress for the entire land-based portion was casual. Even for the dinner shows, anything except jeans or shorts would be fine.

During the day, there was a little of everything. Shorts were not worn much by people in our group, although we did see them being worn by a few other tourists at the attractions. Same with t-shirts.

Bring comfortable shoes.  There is a lot of walking.  If they are new, make sure you thoroughly break them in before the trip.  Bring Band-Aid in case you get blisters.  Pick shoes for comfort rather than style.

Hats are helpful for sun protection.  If you don't have a favorite one to bring, you will find them available to buy inexpensively almost everywhere you go, and will make a good souvenir.

Local style:  The older (over 30 years old or so) locals tended to dress more conservatively than the upcoming younger generation.  The older wore dresses, long pants, and had shoulders covered.  Shorts, bare shoulders, and jeans were generally only seen in the younger generation.  Surprisingly, sunglasses were not common.

Visa

China requires a visa for entry.  We used the service recommended by Uniworld -  ZVS (Zierer Visa Service).  They had good instructions and documentation, and were helpful when I called them in person with questions.

Phones

We brought our cell phones, and they both worked fine.  I have an Apple iPhone; my wife had her Motorola; we both have AT&T service.  They both automatically found and connected into the network as soon as we powered on the phones in China.  We were able to receive and make calls, and coverage was impressive, even on much of the Yangtze River Cruise.  We brought our phones primarily for emergency use; in case we got separated from the group, we could call our Tour Director.  Or if we got separated from each other, we could call each other.  We usually kept the ringers silenced, however, so it would not disturb the others in our group.

With some cell phone carriers, you have to call them to activate international roaming before you leave for your vacation.

If your phone connects to the internet, be careful.  Data costs are extremely high once you are away from home ($0.0195/kb with AT&T in May 2008).  It is easy to run up hundreds of dollars on your phone bill with minimal web and email use.  With my iPhone, I turned off Data Roaming except for a minute here and there to check emails.  I also turned off the email's AutoCheck feature. International text messages are fairly expensive also ($0.50 per message with AT&T; $1.30 with picture or video).

Cameras

A number of people in our group were looking for more film, additional digital memory cards, or extra batteries before the end of the trip.  There are lots of beautiful things to photograph.  Buy a new battery so it will hold a good long charge (old rechargeable batteries tend to run out faster).  Bring more memory cards than you think you will need.

Electricity

Bring plug adapters.  Many, but not all, rooms have outlets that will accept U.S. type plugs.  But check the label on anything that you bring that is plugged in to see if it operates on only 110v or if it is safe for higher 220v also.  If 110 only, you might need a converter in addition to the plug adapter.

Physical Activity

This is not a tour for people who aren't in good physical condition. There is a lot of walking and climbing up steps (especially at the Great Wall).  People who get winded easily or need to take frequent rest stops when walking moderate distances or climbing inclines would have difficulty with a few of the excursions. You don't need to be in the condition of a mountain climber or cyclist, but be realistic with any limitations you personally might have.

China does not have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities act) access standards that we have grown accustomed to in the U.S.  Don't expect curb cuts (or even sidewalks), ramps, hand rails.  People depending on wheelchairs, scooters, or walkers would not be able to participate in the majority of the activities.

We had a couple of travelers who walked unassisted, but requested wheelchair assistance where available.  Although it was frequently a very bumpy wheelchair ride, it was somehow accomplished. Our tour director would call ahead of time to arrange this; the traveler was expected to give the wheelchair pusher a tip.

We had one traveler who simply could not do any long walking or climbing of many stairs.  She had to either stay on the bus or sit on a bench (sometimes for hours), or stay behind at the hotel.  We were surprised she even signed up for this trip.

The first third of the tour is very fast-paced and active.  The river cruise in the second week was a much more relaxed pace, and was a welcomed break. The pace during the final third of the tour is in between...not too fast, not too slow.

Safety

It took a few days to feel safe, particularly when walking around on our own.  I think this was because it took a while to get comfortable with being stared at.  People in China like to stare, and they stare a lot.  It is not a rude stare, but one of simple curiosity.  They just like to watch the rest of the world, and are fascinated by foreigners.  And we clearly stand out, having blonde hair, light skin, and tall stature.  On more than one occasion, a local would approach us to practice their English, or to have their picture taken with us.

China has a very low crime rate, but petty crime (pickpockets, theft of passports, purses, wallets, phones, cameras, jewelry, computers) is on the increase in the tourist areas.  As with any travel, just use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and take appropriate precautions.

Never follow anyone who tries to get you to go with them, either to "help them with their English" or to sell you something at a low price.  Get used to shaking your head "no".  Or pretend you don't understand, and simply ignore people you don't want to deal with.  China has a lot of international tourists, and the Chinese are used to having people not understand what they are saying.

Don't drink the tap water.  Don't eat food from street vendors.  Wash your hands frequently.  Bring a travel size alcohol-based hand sanitizer; use it before meals.

Those of you who travel frequently know that it is easy to forget the name of the hotel you are staying in on any particular day.  When you get to your hotel room, look for something with your hotel name and address on it.  Put this into your wallet or purse.  If you ever get lost, you can show this to a taxi driver, or another hotel concierge, and they will help you get back. 

Weather

The weather can vary greatly, depending on what time of year you go.  We went in May, and it was mostly sunny, hot and humid.  We were glad we went in May. We thought that any later, and the weather could have been almost unbearably hot and humid.

Luckily we prepared for a variety of weather, as that is what we got.  Only a few rain showers, but we had our umbrella ready.  We dressed in layers, as there were some chilly mornings and evenings, but some very hot humid days.  A hat helped keep the sunshine out of eyes.

Our last two Hong Kong days were the hottest.  It actually kept us from doing some of the outdoor things we wanted to do on our own.  But, I don't tolerate the heat as well as some people.

We only had a couple of days with rain, and never heavy.  A couple of evenings were a bit chilly. Bring a small travel umbrella.  Bring a lightweight water-repellent coat.

Rain in China isn't all bad.  It can cool down hot weather.  And it can bring clear skies to otherwise smog-filled scenery.

Flexibility

On the first day of our tour, the Tour Director gave us an overview of our upcoming 3 weeks.  He said that there is one word of advice that can make the difference between someone enjoying a foreign vacation, and being miserable.  Flexibility.  We needed to remember that we are in a foreign country, with foreign customs and ways.  We will be eating foreign food, and surrounded by a foreign language.  If we are flexible and able to adapt and embrace these differences, we are more likely to enjoy our experience than those who are inflexible and intolerant.  As the tour progressed, we saw how this rang true.  Those in the group who were obviously not as flexible were the ones who complained.  It was disheartening to realize that they were going home with a very different experience than the rest of the group who appreciated the differences from what we were used to.

Hotels

Every single hotel we stayed at was plenty adequate.  And a couple of them were much better than we expected.

Great Wall Sheraton Hotel Beijing
Sofitel Xian on Renmin Square
Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou
Regal International East Asia Hotel
Marriott Hotel Chongqing
Sheraton Guilin Hotel
Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers

Trafalgar vs Uniworld

We booked our Trafalgar Tour through a travel agent after choosing it from a Trafalgar brochure. When our documents arrived, we realized that some of it referred to Trafalgar, and some referred to Uniworld.  It turns out that both are owned by The Travel Corp, out of Bermuda.  Once in China, we quickly learned to put Trafalgar out of our mind, as everything was referred to as Uniworld.

Compare both the Trafalgar and the Uniworld websites. They will get you the identical tour, and have similar information, but each contains a few unique subtle details.

Here's a link to Trafalgar's China Cruises and Tours page.

On the Uniworld site, you can download the Cruise Companion Booklet, which is also mailed as part of your tour documents. It is a 68-page booklet that contains all the details and small print about the tour.

Who decides on the tour details?

Our Tour Director Michael explained to us that Uniworld determines almost all of the itinerary.  They determine which hotels will be used, where meals will be eaten, which attractions at each destination will be visited, which intra-China flights will be taken, which museums and factories will be visited, etc.  The Tour Director (who is an employee of Uniworld, not subcontracted by them) is responsible for the logistics, and keeping the tour organized.  He said one of the few areas that Uniworld gives him some latitude is in choosing the local guides at each destination.  He was proud that he had attained such high quality guides for us; the entire group agreed, and applauded him on this.

In Summary

We would absolutely recommend this Trafalgar Uniworld China Tour!  It was extremely well organized, utilized highly skilled guides, visited a huge variety of sites and attractions, and was worth every bit it cost.  On many vacations, by the end you are ready to go home.  But even at the close of this 3-week vacation, we were sorry to see it end, and could have continued longer.  Uniworld Trafalgar helped us create an unforgettable vacation!

These signs were a good summary of the changing attitude that we discovered in China.
Sign: "Success in English, Success in Life"
China sign: "One World, One Dream"

 


Photos taken on our tour (each opens a gallery in a new tab):

There is an award-winning documentary called "Up the Yangtze" that we enjoyed watching after our trip.  I wish we had seen it before we went, but it was probably even more meaningful watching it afterwards.  It is available on Netflix.

 

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