Is it better to travel solo or do tour group travel in China? While each person has their own travel style and preferences, there are important factors to consider that are unique to China. Before you write off the risk of independent travel or scoff at joining a tour group (even for a day), I encourage you to read through this list of pros and cons for each in light of China’s distinct travel culture.
I remember my first visit to Xi’an’s famous Terracotta Warriors back in 2007. My wife and I had joined a travel group since we still weren’t completely comfortable traveling around on our own yet. The bus left our hostel early in the morning and drove an hour out of town.
As our vehicle came to a stop, I looked out the window expecting to see our final destination. Instead, we had pulled up to a silk factory, and our guide was telling us that we were taking a 20-minute break to understand how silk is made in China. While the exhibit was mildly interesting, it quickly became clear that this stop served one purpose only: we were brought here to shop and spend money.
We were tourists, and this was the proverbial trap.
As frustrating as these tourist traps are for most foreign travelers, it’s important to remember that they are considered normal for Chinese tourists. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s expected when you are part of a Chinese tour group. Most Chinese tourists love these shopping detours!
While you may be predisposed to tour groups or independent travel in China (a.k.a. “backpacking”) based on your own experience or budget, take a moment to understand the benefits of both. You might find that a mix of the two is the perfect recipe for your own China travel experience.
Benefits of Tour Group Travel in China
Travel groups give you an opportunity to enjoy both the destination and the journey.
Based on my personal experience, I’d say that most people I know join a tour group for one of two reasons:
- They want somebody to take care of the itinerary and logistics for them;
- They’re unsure whether they can handle the language, transport, and culture on their own.
TRUTH: China is not solo-travel friendly. At least not in comparison to places like Europe or Southeast Asia. You need to have a strong sense of adventure and the flexibility to make mistakes when you travel alone.
Travel groups in China give you an opportunity to enjoy both the destination and the journey instead of focusing on how to get there, what you’ll eat, what time everything closes, etc. You won’t need to speak a lick of Mandarin Chinese (although learning a small bit of Chinese is still helpful), and you won’t have to research the history of each place you visit on your own.
The good news is that there are different kinds of tour groups you can join and a number of excellent travel agencies in China. There are informal groups you can sign up for at a hostel and others you can book months prior to your arrival. There are food tours, walking tours, history tours, and adventure tours.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers to soak in the sights without the worry of logistics, you’re obviously fit for a group tour. Even if you’re like me and you appreciate the adventure of exploring on your own, there’s a lot of historical and cultural context that a tour group can provide.
Example Group Tours that would appeal to Solo Travelers
To help you understand what I mean when I talk about tour groups in China that would work even for solo travelers, consider the following examples:
- History Tours: You can walk for hours aimlessly through the Forbidden City, one of the many great places to visit in Beijing. And if all you want is to simply check that off your list of places you’ve seen, that’s great. However, for a few extra dollars you could also join a Beijing walking tour with a historian who can tell stories that will bring the halls of this palace to life for you.
- Walking Tours: Part of what makes each city special is not always the tourist destinations. Taking a walk through the back alleys and older districts can give you a greater depth of understanding for a place. That’s where something like Jenny’s Shanghai Tours comes in. Small groups with personal guides take you through the fascinating parts of Shanghai that most tourists never get to see, and they provide history and context along the way.
- Food Tours: It’s one thing to just randomly pick items off a menu at a restaurant, but what if you could have a day tour with a food guide? While traveling around Sichuan, an example of this would be taking a day with Chengdu Food Tours in Chengdu. They’ll take you to the best local restaurants (you probably won’t see any other foreign tourists there) and help you try foods you normally wouldn’t have known about. It’s awesome!
These are just a few examples, but there are many more. My personal travel philosophy is to do what I call “tour locally”, which means using local agencies and locals people to show me around a particular place.
If you’re interested to learn who I use, you can check out my list of recommended China travel agencies and companies.
Benefits of Solo Travel in China
Keep in mind: China is not solo travel-friendly…yet.
On the other end of the travel spectrum, you might be what are commonly referred to as “the backpackers”. These people are often on a tighter budget or they love exploring on their own. Of course, it could also be a mix of both.
As mentioned earlier, China is not solo travel-friendly. Throughout my travels, I’ve run into countless frustrations that don’t seem to happen elsewhere in the world. This has been everything from police checkpoints to China tourist scams and language barriers to public transportation nightmares.
I remember taking a public sleeper bus with my wife to the ancient city of Pingyao. We left Xi’an earlier in the day and were scheduled to arrive sometime late that night. We were awakened at 2am by the bus attendant who motioned us to get off the bus. In a daze, we grabbed our belongings and stepped off the bus. Before we could get our bearings, the bus drove off leaving us alone on the side of the highway.
What the…?! Where were we? How are we supposed to get to our hostel in Pingyao?
Personally, I love the stories these solo travel frustrations create. It’s part of what makes the whole journey an adventure! In the end, we hitched a ride on a passing scooter to go into town and finally found our hostel. It was about 3:30am before we finally fell asleep.
Perhaps this story excites you, or maybe it terrifies you. Not everybody has the same enthusiasm for solo travel and that’s okay. The benefits of solo travel are the opportunity to avoid massive China crowds to see a more authentic side of China. It’s the ability to order great Chinese food from a small hole-in-the-wall or play a game of Chinese chess with old men in the street.
Even if you’re part of a tour group, see if there are free times or other opportunities to explore beyond the bubble they’ve created for you. More often than not, you’ll be rewarded for your effort.
Conclusion | Solo vs Tour Group Travel in China
During my travels around China this past decade, I’ve done my fair share of both solo travel and tour group travel in China. Each has had frustrating moments. Each has created lasting memories.
The bottom line I want to stress here is that solo travel and group travel in China are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s entirely possible to be a backpacker who joins the occasional tour group in China and it’s entirely possible to be part of a tour group while also wandering off the beaten path from time to time.
In fact, it’s not just possible…it’s something I encourage you to try.
As I always tell people, keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit and you’ll do great in China. And to add in a bit of self-promotion here, I also recommend that people also grab a copy of my book Travel to China | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go.
The book goes into great detail about this subject of tour vs independent travel as well as much, much more related to your upcoming China journey. I guarantee it will help you as you plan your trip to China!
Have you done solo travel or tour group travel in China before? What was your personal experience? Leave a comment below…I’d love to hear your story!