The specifics of how to plan a trip to China can stump even the most experienced of international travelers. Amidst the challenges posed by the many China ‘unknowns’, you might even wonder where to start with making arrangements.
While asking friends and family who’ve been there, done that can be helpful, sometimes, it can create even more confusion. One person’s negative experience can taint your perception and leave you unnecessarily concerned about planning your travel arrangements. It might even make you apprehensive about how to manage once you’re on the ground.
If you’ve scoured Google for every tip and trick on how to plan a trip to China, you’ve probably discovered much of what’s written comes from lifestyle bloggers. Sure, you’ll find some helpful information, but many of these bloggers have planned and prepared for just a single trip to China.
Over a decade of researching, designing and planning holidays to China means we know a thing or two about how to create beautiful travel memories for customers, so in the spirit of transparency, we’re sharing our insider knowledge about how to plan a trip to China when you have no idea where to start.
Let’s do this!
How to plan a trip to China: Start with destinations
If this is your first trip to China, your biggest hurdle will be narrowing down your list of must-see destinations.
Covering a landmass that is larger than either Australia or the USA, this won’t be an easy task, so it’s essential you pull out a map before you get too far into your planning.
A quick scan and you’ll soon see that favourite destinations like Beijing, Shanghai, and Lhasa aren’t exactly within easy reach of each other (they’re actually three corners of a very large triangle across the country!). So knowing how to make plans for your China trip means understanding travel distances and the potential limitations imposed by geography, available transport, and accessibility.
Fortunately, we’ve got you covered with our list of recommended destinations for first time China trippers. Plan to visit Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Chengdu, and Shanghai, however if your schedule doesn’t allow, stick with the Golden Triangle - Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.
Explore these recommendations from our CEO for anyone planning their first trip to China.
Making plans for a China holiday: Getting there and getting around
The destinations at which you start and finish your trip will be dictated to some extent by the city you fly into.
Beijing and Guangzhou are the main international arrival hubs, but they’re not the only ones, so you may want to consider how to get the best deal to save money on flights, keeping in mind you may need to book in country flights or train travel.
Booking international flights yourself, rather than relying on a travel agency, means more holiday spending dollars in your pocket. Be sure to access these flights directly from an airline’s website instead of third party booking platforms. You might even be lucky enough to find a great seasonal promotion or offer.
Another point to keep in mind is that international flights with a stopover are less expensive than direct flights. If you don’t mind the longer travel time - or you want to take advantage of the opportunity to visit another destination, this is a great way to see more of the world. US travelers flying from Los Angeles to Beijing could stop in Tokyo for a couple of days. Similarly, if you’re on route from Shanghai to LA, why not consider two days in Osaka? Breaking up your travel this way just makes sense, and with leisure travel plans seriously curtailed, we envisage travelers will look for ways to maximise their vacations when borders reopen.
Choosing an China travel company: How to know what’s best
When it comes to choosing an in-country China travel company, the decision-making process can become very confusing, very quickly.
As tourism has boomed over the past decade, we’ve seen astronomical growth in China-based travel companies. It has become highly competitive, which is great for western travelers. It means you can pick and choose a provider according to your values.
As travelers ourselves, we always look for companies that tailor the experience to what the customer really wants; not what they think the customer wants. It’s on this point that many China travel agencies miss the mark. For example, companies offering commission-based shopping don’t realise that the majority of western travelers seek a real experience of China, not a shopping expedition. The opportunity to meet and connect with locals and their culture has far more value to them than visiting an overpriced retail outlet selling wares of questionable authenticity.
Another important tip: if you can, avoid making price your number one buying decision. Because there is such a vast difference between the good, the average, and everything in between, it pays to spend time doing your research.
Ask questions like what hotel chains do they use and where are they located? A quality hotel located in a premium city location means less time lost on unnecessary travel to and from sights. China’s big cities are notorious for their traffic, which seems to be on a perpetual peak hour. It’s not uncommon to be delayed a least an hour because of busy roads.
Choose wisely when traveling with a guide
Tour guides can make or break your experience, so it doesn’t hurt to investigate the quality of guides used by the company. This is easily done by checking out online reviews.
Experience tells us that a China travel agency with quality guides is worth its weight. With their ability to share deep local knowledge, an appreciation for service, and a sense of humour, for many customers, a wonderful guide adds to your bank of travel memories. Often, the connection made with local China guides is the best opportunity for customers to connect with a local and really understand a little more about Chinese culture.
We understand how pivotal a guide is to our customers’ travel experience and it’s why we’ve continued to invest in attracting and retaining the best guides.
Planning your China trip: Deciding the best time to travel
The challenge with deciding the best time for a trip to China is coming up with a simple answer. This is because there are so many things to consider: Seasons, destinations and highlights on your bucket list, personal interests (are you fascinated by history, but not a fan of big cities?), how much time you have, and of course, your budget.
As a general rule, there is no one best time to go to China, however the most common advice from those who know is to plan your travel for April, May, September and October. Why? Well, these are the most enjoyable from a weather and season perspective.
Spring falls in April and May (and March), making these months ideal times to visit China. Equally appealing for seasonal travel are September and October, when it is Fall in the northern hemisphere. As the months that land either side of the super busy, crowded Summer, planning your holiday to align with these times will make for comfortable travel weather. It also means avoiding the bitter cold of winter, which is a feature of high traffic destinations like Beijing or Tibet or bypassing the searing heat of places like Turpan or even Shanghai with its more humid climate.
If the weather doesn’t bother you, traveling in the off-season means there are smaller crowds of domestic and foreign travelers, which in itself can make for a more enjoyable time.
Getting organized: Visas and money
China is a country where a visa is required for most international travelers, however don’t be overwhelmed by the application process. If you’ve booked a tour, your travel agency can help by providing the items required for your application.
You will need an invitation letter and the details relating to destinations, as well as how long and where you’re staying. Photos and the completed application form are also required. Whether you’re traveling as part of a small group, private, or custom China tour package, be prepared to do a little legwork to meet all the China visa requirements.
The best way is to connect with your local China Embassy, Consulate, or Visa Application Center to understand where the application process fits in terms of timing for your travel arrangements. If in doubt, ask for help from your travel agency. They can advise of any changes which may affect your application or travel.
Small group, private or custom tour? Which should you choose?
There is nothing worse than embarking on the holiday you’ve been planning for months only to discover you are herded about like sheep in a large group by your trusty guide.
Apart from the opportunity to connect with a friendly, knowledgeable local, small group, private or custom tours are simply a much more enjoyable way to experience China.
Our small group tour numbers are capped at 12 people, while our private and custom tours are even smaller, accommodating only you and your family or friends. A small group tour is an ideal choice if you’re happy to hit the road with other like-minded travelers. Go for a private or custom tour if you’d prefer extra flexibility. This applies especially to custom tours where you can create your own adventure.
Read any review from western travelers who’ve chosen one of these options and you’ll see why they’re so popular. And if you’re stuck for suggestions, here are our CEO’s top recommendations for first time travelers to China.
|Recommended tour||Destinations||Why take the tour|
|8 Days Golden Ring of China||Beijing, Xian, Shanghai||A perfect snapshot of China’s most iconic highlights in a manageable week long itinerary|
|11 Days Beauty of China||Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Shanghai||City bustle, China’s iconic historical landmarks, and natural beauty|
|11 Days Odyssey of Yangtze||Beijing, Xian, Yangtze River, Shanghai||The famous Golden Triangle of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai with the bonus of a Yangtze cruise|
A final word on planning your China trip
There are many resources for finessing the details of your trip to China, however one of the best you’ll find is a competent, caring travel consultant. With experience and knowledge of what works best down to the last detail, you can feel confident that by working together you’ll experience China as the kind of place you always imagined it would be.
Experienced international traveler, but finding it hard to get the details right for the ideal trip to China? Relax! We can help. Explore our library of articles about all things China travel, or simply get in touch to discover what’s really possible when you plan and design a tour with people who truly care about your experience. We welcome online enquiries via direct contact and with responses delivered within 24 hours, we’re sure we can help create your next beautiful travel memory.