I first learned about Groupon Getaways sometime in 2015. I was a rookie traveler and really liked how so much of the trip was arranged for me. However, these trips are for new travelers and experienced travelers alike! There are drawbacks if traveling solo (that solo supplement), but they are a great way to travel with a buddy!
The information below is specifically about my nine-day group trip to China in 2019. I bought it on Groupon Getaways as part of their air-Inclusive deals. The company we toured with was Rewards Travel.
A group trip to China can be a great way to see this country for the first time!
Before you buy: Before purchasing any group trip to China, or anywhere, read the fine print and spend some time checking the reviews of the tour company that will be conducting your trip. Read the reviews carefully, but also keep in mind that people love to complain. If you are buying a trip for nine nights and it’s $599, you have to expect some compromises. That being said look in the middle; this might give you a better idea of what to expect, the highs, and the lows.
Options: When purchasing a prepackaged group trip, you start by picking your travel dates and city of departure (from a list offered). You will not schedule your flights; they will be pre-arranged. You will receive your flight information a month or two before you leave. One thing to note: If the trip says nine days, check the fine print for how many nights you will be in your destination of choice. For many of these trips you will be flying for long periods of time, and that is counted as part of your “days.” My China trip was nine NIGHTS, but I was gone for 11 days. Account for that when thinking about pet/housesitting costs and PTO you will need to take if employed. Your departure time and arrival time are out of your control. You may end up getting to your destination late on your first day, which can affect how much time you have to do things on day one.
Why is it so cheap? Our discount group trip to China was $599 (base cost), and several of our tour destinations were actually shopping excursions. Our first tour was to a “jade factory.” I love jade and was so excited about this. I was disappointed to find out it was really just a big government-run store. They gave us a little tour and talked about jade, its history and significance, and then we were released into a big store with very aggressive salespeople. This was also true of the silk factory, pearl farm and tea plantation. Most of the people on my trip spent quite a bit of money at each location. This makes sense — I imagine (but I have not verified) that the tours are government-subsidized to bring Western tourists into the country, and they make that money back by what is purchased in the government-run stores. It provides jobs and almost guaranteed tourism dollars. Most days we had one of these tours in the morning and ate lunch somewhere in the building, then the afternoon was centered around historic locations. For me, it was worth it to tolerate the “shopping” portion in exchange for the incredible deal I got on the trip.
Pace: The pace of a group tour can be aggressive. On our nine-day trip, we visited five cities. This included an in-country flight (Beijing to Shanghai) as well as multiple bus rides of one to four hours. Despite this, I’m still glad I went this route. I got to see a lot in a short amount of time and having a tour guide on the bus provided us with a lot of information about the country and culture that I would not have gotten on my own. It also made it easy to navigate a country where English is not widely spoken outside of the major cities. The tour we booked left us time to explore on our own, mostly in the afternoon or evenings if we didn’t choose one of their add-on options. I really enjoyed walking around, even just to the mall! It was fascinating and allowed us to mingle with citizens. On one of the days, we chose to take a taxi to the 798 Arts District in Beijing. This cluster of former military factories now houses outdoor sculptures, art galleries, cafes, tea shops, and fashion and art boutiques. It was a nice break from our tour group.
Be brave: Venture out on your own! While there are a lot of activities to take advantage of on a group tour, don’t be afraid to go out on your own, even in a country like China where there can be a language barrier. I made sure I had the locations pulled up on my Google map in Chinese to show the cab driver when we headed out in Bejing. I also got a business card from the hotel lobby with the hotel address (in Chinese) to give to the cab driver for our return back to the hotel. This was so helpful! Google Translate works fairly well for communicating phrases or words, and you can also use the camera feature to translate menus and signs. You can also download key phrases you might need, so even if you are offline, you have that info. Even with my phone and all of the translation, there were times the language barrier was an obstacle, but people were kind and we tried really hard to greet people with a friendly Ni Hao. (Hello!)
Money: I would consider downloading Alipay and adding that to your digital wallet before you go. In the cities, Alipay pay is widely used. I did use cash a lot but make sure that the bills you get are new and crisp. If they are old or folded a lot of places will not take them. Most of the hotels we stayed at had an exchange desk, but I honestly have no idea if the rate was any good. You can also use ATMs; they are everywhere. But keep in mind that ATM fees can be brutal. Using a credit card like Capital One Venture or the Chase Sapphire Card by Chase Bank will at least save you foreign transaction fees. I use a conversion app called Global Convert, which makes it so much easier to do money conversion rates when making purchases or haggling over pricing. Expect to haggle in many stores for the best pricing.
Safety: I will say this in every blog, but practice the same personal safety that you would at home when you travel. I personally felt very safe in China. We wandered around at night several times and even went to a local club with some of our tour mates. There is generally a lot of security in the cities we went to. If you are going out at night, go with a friend if you can. Ask at the front desk of your hotel or hostel if there are places in the area to avoid. Be smart about what info you share with strangers. We have more safety tips in our Staying Safe when Traveling Solo blog. Traveling with a group was nice in that we made friends to go out with!
Food and drink: Every group tour is different, but ours included breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner. I am a really picky eater, and I don’t eat any fish or seafood so I was pretty worried about food in China. I was able to eat vegetarian most of the trip. Every hotel we stayed in had a spectacular breakfast, and I loaded up early in the morning. When we weren’t eating with our tour group we ate local food as much as possible. Generally, the food was fantastic and really inexpensive. If you get outside of touristy areas a bit, the food will be more authentic and less expensive — this is a universal truth.
Phone stuff: On this trip I paid my phone carrier (Verizon at that time) for the luxury of their service in China at $10 a day ($90 total). However, if I were to go again I would get a prepaid sim card. You can order them online before you go and activate them when you get there. There are some tips and tricks to that; this is a helpful piece on Chinese Sim Cards. If you aren’t already using a VPN, then you must get one before you travel to China if you want to access literally anything you normally use: social media, Google, etc. All are blocked in China. I use Nord VPN. If you aren’t sure why you should have a VPN check out our piece on them.
Packing: I have a whole packing list for China, but these are the main things I would make sure you have. Toilet paper is hit or miss in China, so keep cleansing wipes (for the restroom), the biodegradable kind, in your bag at all times. After Covid-19 we probably all carry hand sanitizer anyway but I didn’t take any on my trip and often wished I had. I took vitamins including elderberry gummies, Vitamin C and Emergen-C. The air quality in many places is terrible, and I do think taking vitamins helped keep me from getting sick. I did not take a mask but again, after Covid, I can’t imagine traveling without one. People in China regularly wear masks. It’s a population-dense country and wearing a mask helps keep germs from spreading.
Water: Do not drink the water in China. Don’t even brush your teeth with tap water. You have a few options: You can exclusively use bottled water as it is readily available. I personally try to use as little plastic as possible so I used the boil-and-go method often. All of our hotels had water kettles (but check prior, not all hotels do). I’d boil a pot of water, let it cool, and fill my Mira water bottle. I also took a Lifestraw water bottle, which will filter out bacteria.
Long-haul flight tips: Julianne has a great piece on staying comfortable on long-haul flights. But here are three quick tips:
Stay hydrated. My flight was Chicago, USA, to Beijing, which was 16 hours of direct flight time. I filled my water bottle and also bought a giant bottle of water and drank it all. Getting up and walking around is essential, and when you drink that much water it forces you to get up and use the restroom.
Moisturize: I took a few face wipes in a baggie in my purse to wash my face, and used my Skin Food moisturizer to keep my face moisturized on the dry plane.
Two words: compression socks. They help with swelling and reduce the potential complications of long-haul flights. I like Comrad Socks.
Hotels: Most of our hotels were spectacular, but one was rough around the edges. Your tour operator will give you the names of your hotels before you go and you can use the reviews to level-set your expectations. Everyone has their own tolerance for different scenarios.
Make friends! Our group consisted of 40 people who all flew out of the same airport (in our case, O’Hare). There were eight of us from my hometown and I am still connected to them on social media and see them out and about in my town because, of course, we like the same things! Tours can be a great way to meet other travelers and make lifelong friends.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about my group trip to China. I learned a lot about China and I hope to travel back again someday!