What are the best China tour operators? I get emails from people all the time asking for my recommendations and I’ve finally decided to compile my answer into a regularly-updated article. When it comes to travel, I prefer to support local China travel agencies instead of massive travel companies, and you’ll see this reflected in this list. Enjoy!
When it comes to tour operators, I have a personal motto that I follow when traveling:
Travel globally; tour locally.
What this means is that while I love to visit new places all over the globe, I prefer to give my business to local tour operators instead of massive, state-owned China travel agencies. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, if I’m going to pay for a tour, I want my money to have the greatest impact on the local economy. This isn’t always the case whenever the branch offices of a large travel agency send half their earnings back to the headquarters in another part of the country.
Second, and more importantly, I believe that a local tour operator (both Chinese and foreign) is usually going to provide you with a more authentic experience. They know where the best restaurants are. They can often set up a home visit or a food tour. They do more than just bus you to the next tourist destination.
What I’d like to do here is provide you with a list of recommended China travel agencies that can serve you whether you’re doing a cross-country, multi-city tour or you just want to find a day-trip in whatever city you’ll be visiting.
Table of Contents
Scroll down to read more or use these links above to jump to city-specific travel agencies that I think are worth using.
Note: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which means that I may be compensated if you choose to use any of these China travel agencies.
The following travel agencies in China are full-service companies that offer a range of tour packages that cover all different parts of the country. In most cases, these companies arrange everything for you: transportation, tour guide, restaurants, entrance fees, etc.
Everybody I know who has joined a Wendy Wu Tour has thoroughly enjoyed their trip.
Their full-service China tours are broken up into various categories including destination (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu) and tour style (i.e. group, active, tailormade, river cruises, etc.).
Just looking at their available tour packages is a great place to get inspiration for your own itinerary. The only thing worth mentioning here is that strangely they only serve travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.
Use the link above to explore exclusive discounts available to TravelChinaCheaper readers.
What I’ve loved about Windhorse Tours is how easy they make it to choose exactly how you would like to experience China.
Is there a specific part of China you’d like to see? A specific theme? (culture, festival, photography?) A certain number of days?
Windhorse has been around for more than a decade and their main office location in Chengdu allows them to provide even better tours for those in central, western or southern China.
For those of you travelers from the USA, Canada, and the rest of Europe, China Highlights offers a number of great China tour packages that you’ll find interesting.
Some people use ChinaHighlights for the sole purpose of pre-purchasing China train tickets online, but they offer some amazing tour packages, including one that gives you a close encounter with a panda!
Whether you decide to use one of their tours, book a flight or book a train through them, it’s worth seeing what China Highlights has to offer on their website.
This next group of China tour operators is either region- or city-specific, meaning that they offer tour exclusively for one region or city.
Personally, these are my favorite kind of companies because they’re small, personal and they have a deep knowledge of their specific area.
For those spending any significant amount of time in China’s capital, not only are there some great places to visit in Beijing, there are also some unique ways to visit them.
Check out three of my favorite Beijing tour operators.
You can walk through the Forbidden City…or you can have an historian and excellent storyteller like Jeremiah Jenne help you visualize the history of the place.
Jeremiah and his team present Chinese history in such an entertaining way. They offer scheduled tours at all the major Beijing destinations as well as private and custom tours.
Is exploring the rough terrain of ancient Great Wall ruins while hiking and sweating your idea of a fun time? If so, you’re really going to love Beijing Hikers.
They offer affordable hikes almost every day of the week that take you to parts of the Great Wall and other beautiful areas around Beijing. Make sure you’re in good enough shape!
Anybody can walk or hike around Beijing, but very few people get the privilege of taking an old motorcycle sidecar through the streets and alleyways of old Beijing.
While I’ve never done this myself, I’ve heard from quite a few people that it’s an enjoyable way to explore Beijing with a friend (the bikes hold 1 driver and 2 passengers).
Shanghai is another massive Chinese city that offers more to see than you could dare to experience in a year, so make sure you set your expectations appropriately.
You’re only going to have time to hit the highlights, so it’s only a matter of how you want to do it.
Jenny’s Shanghai tours is a perfect option for those travelers who would prefer to take their time walking through the old streets of Shanghai and hearing the history and culture behind each place from a local.
Tours include an English-speaking guide who can give you the history and flavor behind each location, in addition to helping you find the best local places to eat around Shanghai.
China Cycling Tours offers some great bike tours in and around Shanghai. This includes tours around the city, mountain biking outside the city and even day trips that will take you from Shanghai to Suzhou to cycle.
Shanghai Insiders is a unique China tour operator that delivers bespoke sidecar (motorcycle) and jeep tours of Shanghai. This is a great option for group travel to explore unique parts of Shanghai you can’t see on a bike.
As one of the oldest cities in China (and one of it’s former capitals), Xi’an is probably one of the most popular tourist destinations outside of Beijing and Shanghai. Once you’ve had a chance to walk the city wall or visit the Terracotta Warriors, you’ll quickly understand why.
Here are three recommended local China travel agencies that can give you an intimate look at this historic area.
Urban Adventures Xian offers a number of great options to explore in and around the city (and there’s plenty to see!).
They try to offer a more personal and intimate kind of tour that includes bike tours around the Terracotta Warriors or Lishan, walking history tours within the city and even a Chinese cooking class if that’s something that interests you.
As the name suggests, Xian Private Tours offers customized private tours in addition to popular one-day and multi-day trips around Xi’an. Additionally, you can use them to rent a car and drive for the area, which is nice.
With more than 15 years of experience in Xi’an, this local agency offers more than the typical Xi’an tour. They have food tours, Muslim quarter tours, “local experience” tours, night tours and they also help arrange car rentals.
Chengdu is a place that is best known as the home to China’s lovable pandas, and while that’s definitely something you need to experience, there is also a lot more to do around Sichuan. Here are a few of my recommended tours to consider in Chengdu.
And make sure you scroll down to my recommended food tours in China to see some excellent Chengdu options (since Sichuan food is so popular around the world).
Getting to feed and hug a panda is probably one of the most unique China experiences you can have, and Chengdu is the place to do it. There are many Chengdu Panda Bases where you can pay to “volunteer” (it costs ~US$100) and then take a picture with a panda (additional US$150 donation). The volunteer experience is worth the money.
Local Chengdu Tours definitely offers day trips to a panda base and even a volunteer program, but they also offer history and culture tours, food tours hiking tours (that they call “Side Trips”) and multi-day city tours that will show you every aspect of the Sichuan culture and history of Chengdu. This city is certainly worth a few days on your itinerary!
The beautiful scenery of Yunnan and Guangxi is unmatched in all of China. More than likely, you’ve seen pictures of these two provinces without realizing it – they are that iconic.
The best part about these locations is that in addition to stunning scenery, they also boast a variety of ethnic groups worth visiting.
Here are a few of the best China tour operators who can show you around southern China.
Explore Beyond is a bespoke tour company that operates tours in Wuyuan, Guilin, Guizhou and Yunnan.
Unlike other travel agencies, they offer private, all-inclusive tours hosted by what they call a “personal Explorer” who drives, guides, hosts and facilitates your experience.
Your guide will be a resident foreigner and Chinese who have both lived or worked abroad long-term. This is an excellent way to really experience southern China!
If you’re up for it, I highly recommend you try to bike around Yunnan. It’s a province whose beauty lends itself to amazing bike tours. Join one of their groups for a guided tour or rent a bike to use on your own.
How about this: instead of the typical tourist photo of the amazing Guilin River, you jump in a helicopter or a river boat to get a more unique view. Pretty cool, huh!? That’s what Guilin Li River Tours offers.
It would be a crime to forget about the wilds of western China. Each of the four provinces (Xinjiang, Tibet, Gansu & Qinghai) are unique in their own right and offer memorable experience for those who are willing to take the time.
And that’s the thing: getting out to west China is time-intensive. The area is so large that you’ll be spending quite a bit of time on transportation. It’s worth it, though!
For travel to Xinjiang, you’ll want to use a Uyghur-run travel agency. The Uyghur are the majority people group here and the family that runs Old Road Tours are some of the best in the business.
GoToTibet provides various private tours and small group tours at affordable prices. They offer not only regular tour itineraries, but also trekking, cycling & motorbike tours in Tibet.
Gansu and Qinghai may not be on the top of your “must-see” list…but it should be. Aside from gorgeous scenery, these places allow you to experience Tibetan culture without going to Tibet.
Finally, I’d like to touch on another growing segment of travel in the country – China food tours.
As recently as just five years ago, very few food tours existed. Now, they’re everywhere. Here are the three companies I recommend you connect with if you find joy in trying local food you had no idea you would love.
Lost Plate is a larger company that operates not only in China, but also Cambodia and even the United States.
They offer food tours around Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Xi’an, so you’ll want to check out what they have to offer if you’ll be visiting any of these cities.
And trust me – a food tour is one of those experiences you won’t regret trying!
Sichuan food is famous all across China and the world, and nobody knows it better than Chengdu Food Tours. They’ll bring you to the restaurants where the locals eat and allow you to try a number of different dishes. Great day tour!
Similar to Lost Plate, UnTour operates in multiple cities across China, including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong. The promise to give you the experience of “eating like a local” and there’s no doubt you’ll love it!
As you can tell, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to using a China travel agency. There are plenty more options to choose from, obviously, but these are the tour operators I recommend personally.
Even if you’re a solo traveler, it’s worth taking a look at many of the day trips that are available. There are some things you just can’t see (or don’t know to see) on your own, which is one of the advantages of tour groups vs solo travel in China.
If you’ve had experience with other China tour operators and you think it was amazing, connect with me and let me know!
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