This is the first time we have used a other custom trip planning service. Overall we were pleased with the final result and we are sure that we could not have had the same experience on our own. Our travel company, and in particular our tour operator, did a fantastic job planning our itinerary and being accommodating with some issues we had along the way. We had considered doing a group tour with another company, but we just could not find the right tour that fit our interests. Our China tour operator made all the difference, really taking our feedback into account and continuously tuning our itinerary until we were happy with both the content and pricing. In the end we got a very personal experience for a price that is similar to a nicer group tour.
It is important to note that our tour operator pulled together our trip very quickly. We were on a trip around the world when we booked this trip and already had our Chinese visa and flight to China. We were coordinating with here, while we were in Japan and requested a proposal only about 3 weeks before starting our trip! Given the time constraint she did very well in getting everything organized!
The biggest highlights on our trip were our time in Tibet, our cruise on the Yangtze River, the food in Beijing and Szechuan, our hike of the Great Wall and of course the Pandas in Chengdu.
Our hike on the Great Wall was truly memorable. We had a fantastic guide who was very experienced. We hiked two different sections of the Wall in two days. It was the perfect combination of nature, physical activity and history. He ensured that we had a solid understanding of the Great Wall on the way there, by handing out FAQs, showing us pictures and maps. During our hike he did a great job highlighting key parts. Unexpectedly he took pictures of us during the whole hike and gave them to us on a USB stick at the very end. Truly a memorable experience!
Tibet is an amazing region of China and we were very lucky with our guide and our driver. Our guide did a wonderful job explaining Tibetan Buddhism to us and sharing Tibetan culture in a way that we just would never have gotten on a regular group tour. We also fulfilled my wife's lifelong dream to hike to Mt Everest base camp, which while not very long, was still taxing on us due to the altitude. Even though we struggled a bit with the altitude, we really enjoyed the stunning landscape of the Himalayas.
After Tibet we went on a multi-day river cruise on the Yangtze. This was the exact opposite of Tibet, in that it was a much more slower and relaxing pace, but perfectly placed after our physical challenge in Tibet. To our surprise we were upgraded to an even nicer cruise ship, as the original booked ship had technical problems with the air conditioning. The cruise ship was great, and had the right mix of information, tours (both included and optional) and entertainment. Our favorite was that every room had their own balcony, were we spent lots of time and watched the landscape go by.
Overall the guides did a good job introducing us to local food, particular our guides in Beijing (Richard) and Chengdu (Lisa) made sure we got a great sampling of local flavors. We love spicy food, so we were in heaven in Chengdu!
We had a lot of back and forth with our tour operator at the beginning to plan the trip. Some of that could have been avoided, if I would have taken a bit more time in filling out the zicasso "in-take form". However it probably would have been most useful to have a 30 min phone call early on. In the end we still got the perfect itinerary, but a call probably could have clarified things more easily.
Another thing I'd do differently is to really demand experienced guides and guides with strong English skills. We had a bit of a mixed bag in that regard. Our best guides were in Tibet and the Great Wall hike. Our worst guides were in Xian.
Furthermore, I would also take the time to look up all hotels on booking.com/ TripAdvisor before committing to them. We fully trusted our tour operator in that department and while we were quite satisfied for the most part, we did have an issue with our first hotel in Beijing. In fairness our tour operator immediately rectified this after my feedback, but it could have been avoided if I'd done a bit of research myself.
Most everything went flawless, but we had an issue with our pick-up from the Chengdu airport. Somehow our flight numbers got mixed up and upon arrival no one was expecting us with a sign. Eventually we managed to get in touch with our guide through the kindness of a random stranger, but at that point we had already left the airport on our own. I would encourage to either have a functioning SIM card in your phone or buy a phone booth calling card (IC card).
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