Tuesday, November 27, 2018

TravelZoo $399 China trip review

This is the TL:DR summary of the $399 trip to China we booked through TravelZoo. If you want the full daily breakdown, go here. (Link will be live when the article goes up.)

It's November of 2018. I want to say we booked this trip last February. Someone at work told me about a crazy good deal on a website called TravelZoo.com. It was a $399 per person, including flights, to China. It was a limited time offer that would take place in the off-season, stayed in all 4-star hotels, and would have an English-speaking guide the whole way. We could book for either February, too soon, or November, which was just far off enough to not seem real. It looked too good to be legitimate but, after some research, we went ahead and booked it.

It didn't take long for us to find out the $399 price tag actually was a little too good to be true. There was a $100 gratuity for the bus driver and tour guides that wasn't included in the initial price. There was also a fee for the visa and an optional fee for the courier service to hand-deliver your visa application to the Chinese embassy for processing. All in all, it amounted to around $786 per person for the barebones tour plus the excursions we pre-booked, including flights, all breakfasts, most lunches, and lodging. So yeah, it was still a really good deal.

Each day of the itinerary had at least one excursion option and frequently had more than that. The prices ranged from $35 to $79 per event and went up to multi-day extensions costing a lot more. We decided to pre-book the Forbidden City and Tiananmen square option and the Great Wall of China climb. We ended up signing up for more while we were there and I'm glad we did. If you don't book the excursion, you end up sitting on the tour bus for endless hours while everyone else goes off and does stuff. But, then again, there were times we would rather have just sat on the bus. We were able to bargain a little discount for a few excursions once we were there and ended up doing a few more things than we pre-booked. You can check out the full report to see everything we did. 

There were some problems with the booking company Nexus Holidays. Communication with them was spotty at best. Since there were five of us together, they decided to save us money by putting us on a group visa, which did save us around $400, but led to some sketchy moments in the airport. They had emailed us the visa the night before we left and it somehow ended up in a spam folder. The tour group had only told us to show up at the airport and it would be fine. So we showed up for our flight and they wouldn't give us a boarding pass without the visa we didn't know we had. The airline counter staff was very patient and helpful, but poor communication with the booking agent was something that we heard several others on the tour complain about as well.

Speaking of the airline, the flights and hotels for this trip were very good to excellent throughout. Hainan airlines was top notch with roomy seats even in economy. Every seat had a screen in the headrest that played music, games, movies and other distractions that helped eat up the long flight from Seattle to Beijing, the shorter flight from Beijing to Shanghai, and the long flight back home. The meals were good too.

Hainan Airlines 787 Dreamliner

The hotel accommodations were pretty outstanding too, not that you'll be spending much time there. Our first hotel room in Beijing had a hot tub in every room. It was billed as a warm springs hotel, but was actually scalding hot with no real temperature controls other than time and entropy. Didn't matter though, in three days we used the tub around 15 minutes. They get you up early and don't let you back to the hotel until it's been a long enough day that all you want to do is crash out and get some sleep before the next early start. Jet lag doesn't help. All of the rooms were clean and well appointed. Of particular note was the Merchant Marco hotel in Hangzhou. The shower set up in our rooms was awesome. Breakfast each day was included with the hotel and was pretty consistently prepared if somewhat inconsistently labeled. A few of the mistranslations were hilarious. We had salad sauce, butterhead, stair vegetables and thousands of pages of bean curd. It was all pretty tasty though. Except for the coffee. The less said about the coffee, the better.

Chunhuiyuan Hot Spring Holiday Resort

Our actual tour was about half bus ride. Can't be helped really, China is huge and they probably didn't take tour routing into account when they arranged all the palaces 700 years ago. In Beijing we saw the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City (and Tiananmen Square), and we took a rickshaw ride through a neighborhood to a local family home. They also had us walk around the old Olympic facility for some reason. I would have skipped the Olympic facility (Bird's Nest and water cube) if that had been an option. We didn't do the optional Golden Mask show or the Peking duck lunch (we have pet ducks, it seemed a little traiterous). Those who went on those parts seemed to have good opinions of them.

China is a communist country, but apparently capitalism is catching on. On of the local tour guides spent some of the bus ride explaining how capitalism is flourishing in the areas where it is allowed and we got to experience plenty of that on the tour. Every day except the first had at least one, and sometimes two, stops at a special shopping experience. In Beijing we went to a jade factory, a cloisonne enamel pottery factory, a street market, and an herbal medicine center. In the southern part of our trip (Shanghai, Souzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou) we went to a pearl factory, a silk factory, an embroidery museum, a tea farm, and another jade store. We spent a lot of time trapped in rooms with high-pressure sales people attempting to sell us their wares. I was waiting for the time-share pitches to start. From my somewhat uneducated perspective, the deals offered at these places appeared to be pretty good when compared to what you could get back in the U.S., but were not as good as the deals you could get at the places where locals shopped which we somehow never had time to get to.

Amazing green jade horse

The goods were generally of pretty high quality and at a reasonable price for what you were getting. If shopping is your thing, this tour will provide you with more than enough opportunity to shop and haggle forever.

The southern part of the tour followed the same form as the northern part with better air quality and somewhat more modern amenities. Yes, the air in Beijing was polluted enough that we bought filter masks. Our sore throats and lungs started improving the same day we bought them. We visited a museum, walked along the Shanghai waterfront marveling at the architecture and light show put on by the city, and visited the set of some Chinese television show I know nothing about. IT turns out that the itinerary is really a bit of a suggestion. We didn't see things in the order listed on the itinerary and some things were changed for reasons that weren't really explained to us.

Oh yeah, and don't drink the water. There is no potable water at the tap in China. You will be on bottled water rations the entire time. But, it was easy to stay within the amount of water they supplied so no real worries there. It's important to stay hydrated with all the walking you are going to do, but most people weren't eager to spend any more time in the bathroom than necessarry though. The toilet facilities were frequently of the trench variety, AKA the squatty potty. Yeah, it's essentially a trench in the ground you squat over. Toilet paper and something to dry your hands with after you wash them are all in pretty short supply as well. They even have a rating system about what style of toilets are present and the like. It's a thing.

Overall it was an incredible experience. Once we added on the optional tours and shopping, the price was well over what is listed on the brochure, but it still seemed to be a solid value. We brought our two boys with us and the chance to show them a totally foreign culture was priceless. The tour was family friendly. It was also valuable to us adults for the same reason. There is nothing that makes me appreciate the place where I live so much as seeing the rest of the world and trying their coffee. Oh yeah, and not having to wear a filter mask. There's no place like home. In the end, it was a great idea to book the tour. I don't think it would have been a meaningful experience had we tried to do it on our own. The language, culture and government were too different from out own and we would have floundered. Even if we were to do a second visit, I would strongly consider another guided tour. But we would be much more capable now if we decided to try it alone. Happy travels.