During my 6-week extended summer vacation, we took our kids on a 3-week trip to China.
China is very different from what you read about in the western media. You really have to visit the country and speak to the locals to get a sense of what China is about. Even if you begin to understand the country, China today will not be the same China in 1, 5 or 10 years from now. The rapid pace of change in China is both astonishing and frightening. Even locals may not recognize streets or buildings a year later, because of the pace of change.
The population of China is 1.4 billion people. My kids really couldn’t comprehend this number, so I had to break it down for them. The city of Shanghai’s population is around 25 million compared to the entire country of Canada’s population of 34 million. China has over 160 cities with more than 1 million residents. Compare that to the 10 cities in the United States with more than 1 million residents and to only 3 cities in Canada.
Needless to say, along with China’s thousands of years of history, the trip was an eye-opening experience for our kids, who are accustomed to GTA (Greater Toronto Area) suburbia.
Over the years, I have learned many useful travel tips from other bloggers. I figure I’d pay it forward with some travel tips I have gathered from my recent trip. Selfishly, I also did this to reminisce about our trip, even though it was only 1 month ago. 🙂
Here are my 10 tips:
Which Cities to Visit?
When you look at the different types of tours in China, you will notice most of them will start off in Beijing and end up in Shanghai. In between are a vast array of cities to choose from. China is a big country with lots of interesting places to visit, therefore, you have to be selective with the limited time you have. We settled on a popular travel tour route for families with kids:
Beijing —- Xi’an —- Chengdu —- Shanghai
The following is a “barebones list” of the major tourist attractions you should see in this multi-city tour. There are just too many tourist attractions to list.
Beijing: Great Wall of China (see below), Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City
Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors, Old City Wall, Bell or Drum Tower
Chengdu: Research Center of Giant Panda Breeding Center
Shanghai: The Bund, Shanghai Tower, visit a nearby “water village”
If you like Disneyland, there is a Shanghai Disneyland that opened in 2016, but I would not recommend going there. From the reviews I read, it’s way too crowded. Even more crowded than the California or Orlando parks. Besides, do you really want to travel half-way around the world just to go to another Disneyland? We wanted our kids to experience a different culture than back home, so no Disney for us.
When to travel?
I would recommend around 2 weeks for a trip to China. The airplane travel time is 13.5 hours from Toronto to Beijing and you will likely need a few days after arrival to acclimatize to the jet-lag.
Most families would probably travel to China in the summer to coincide with kids’ summer holidays. For the typical tourist cities in China, it is HOT in summer. Like sauna HOT.
There is a drop in temperature after the first week of August, so if feasible, try to go in August when it is a bit cooler, which is when we traveled. You will still sweat throughout the day and may need to change your shirt every so often, but instead of facing temperatures of 40 plus-degree Celsius, you will “only” be faced with temperatures in the low to mid 30’s.
When we were planning our trip, we had contemplated traveling in July, but after speaking with people familiar with China, they all responded with “Are you crazy?”
Tip: For a summer trip, try to travel in August, rather than July.
Use Ebates for Cash Back
This tip is not specific for traveling to China, but I have found this useful for any online travel bookings (or online purchases).
Ebates is free to join (I have no financial relationship to disclose). This website pays you cash back every time you shop online via their website, ranging from 1-8%
I will often log on to ebates then click on the link to send me to Expedia to book my flights or hotels. For this particular trip to China, I booked our hotel stays via ebates/Expedia and received 5% cash back. This is on top of my 2% cash back with my credit card. Therefore, I received 7 % cash back from my hotel bookings. Not bad.
While on the topic of hotels, I would recommend booking hotels in China, rather than using Airbnb, VRBO or Homeaway. When we travel in North America, we often stay at vacation rentals through these websites. However, I found the China marketplace for vacation rentals by owners to be somewhat in its infancy when compared to North America’s. Maybe in a year or so, it will catch up.
I did not want any surprises when it came to our lodgings, therefore we stuck with well-known hotels.
Since we were traveling through multiple cities in a foreign country for 3-weeks, we wanted to stay in comfort and convenience. Therefore, we chose 5-star apartment style hotels within the city, with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, and in-suite laundry.
Spending more time with my kids was the main reason why I took an extended vacation, but as much as I love my kids, sleeping side by side with them in a small hotel room for 3 weeks is not my idea of a relaxing vacation trip.
Travel accommodations are one area where we have no qualms with loosening our purse strings. 5-star hotels range in prices from $250-425 (CAD)/night depending on the city.
Do I worry about spoiling our kids with these types of accommodations? Sometimes. But I think they are old enough now to appreciate that I work hard for our money, and they (hopefully) know this is a treat. Also, they know we can have as much fun as a family sleeping in a tent (although I don’t know how much longer my aging body can take camping) as staying in a 5-star hotel. Luxury is nice when you are on a long trip.
One bonus to staying at these luxury hotels is they have fantastic indoor swimming pools. After a day of touring in the HOT summer weather, it was a refreshing treat to cool off in a pool.
Tip: Hotels in China requiring a swimming cap, therefore, don’t forget to pack one before you leave
Is your child 1.3 meters (4.2 ft)?
All the tourist attractions and the domestic trains/airplanes use the cut-off of 1.3 m (sometimes 1.4 m) to qualify as a child ticket. If your child is shorter than 1.3 m then you will be able to purchase child tickets, which can save you a fair amount of money.
Use a Private Tour-Guide and Driver
We used a China-based private tour agency to arrange our trip. We opted for a private tour rather than a group tour because we wanted to customize our tour to our preferences and schedule.
Group tours are the most economical, but their itineraries are packed every day. No time for “slow-travel”.
Also, all of the group tours require “enforced shopping” time (2 hours or so), in which the tour agency gets a kick-back for bringing their tour group to these tourist shopping areas. No thanks! We did not want to waste our time with that.
By having your own private tour guide and driver, you can tour at your own pace. Also, things can be modified along the way if the kids get tired, sick or hungry. Your schedule is not dictated by a group tour.
How much does this convenience cost?
For an example, In Beijing, it will cost approximately $460 for a family of 4 for an 8-hour day with a private tour guide and driver (with a minivan), which includes attraction tickets, lunch, parking, highway tolls.
It’s difficult to compare prices between group vs private tours since private tours are customizable. However, I found that the overall difference between the two was not that significant. The extra money was definitely worth the convenience and control of our travel schedule.
I would recommend against renting a car and driving in China. Traffic is chaotic. Interestingly, accidents don’t seem to occur more frequently than you think they should.
As a pedestrian, beware of the electric scooters, which are everywhere (mainly delivery guys). They are silent but fast-moving vehicles. The only thing you’ll hear is their horns as they zip by you.
If the guided-tour is too expensive for you, then I would recommend hiring a private driver for the day to travel to tourist attractions like the Great Wall (1.5-2 hrs from Beijing downtown). A private driver will cost approximately $180 for an 8 hour day.
When we customized our 3-week trip with the private tour agency, we scheduled “rest days” in between travel or touring days.
Traveling to a foreign country is obviously exciting, but touring can get tiring, especially for the kids.
We wanted to avoid travel fatigue and we also wanted to “slow-travel” on these rest days by ourselves in the immediate surrounding area. For our trip, approximately 8 days were dedicated to touring with a private guide while the remaining 12 days were for us to “slow-travel” around the cities on our own.
Traveling between major cities in China is super convenient with their high-speed trains. They have an ambitious plan to connect the entire country with high-speed trains. Wow!
With the high-speed train, it takes approximately 4.5 hrs between Beijing to Xi’an (1074 km) and 3 to 4.5 hrs from Xi’an to Chengdu (743 km). Talk about fast.
On the high-speed trains, there is a choice of “first-class” or “second-class” seats. Yup, designated as “second-class”, not “economy” (they should probably change this).
Beijing to Xi’an first-class tickets cost $176 (CAD) per person vs. $114 (CAD) per person. Instead of a configuration of “2 seats-aisle-2 seats” in each row for first-class, in second-class, the configuration is “3 seats-aisle-2 seats”. Other than a bit larger seat, everything else is the same. In my opinion, it’s not worth the extra $62 (CAD) per person, especially since kids don’t really need a large seat.
Tip: Save some money and let the kids be amongst the “second-class” citizens….it’ll build character 🙂
You will see QR codes everywhere in China. If you live in the Vancouver or Toronto area, these QR codes have started to pop up in stores and restaurants. What are they for?
Wechat (Tencent) or Alipay (Alibaba).
These 2 “internet” goliaths are in an epic battle to be THE “internet” company for China. Kind of like how FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple Netflix, Google) are battling it out in North America.
I had heard of Alibaba’s name here and there, but never knew what it was all about until I read a book written by the former VP of Alibaba, Erison Porter, titled “Alibaba’s World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business”
If you don’t have time to read the book, then try checking out this documentary based on the book called “Crocodile in the Yangtze” (link to full film on YouTube). This film is a fascinating look at the making of Alibaba and how much the internet has changed China.
Currently, the majority of Chinese use Wechat, which is a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app, all wrapped into one app.
Everyone, from the homeless person or street vendor to the upscale restaurant or shopping mall use phones for payments. Nobody uses cash anymore. Even credit cards are not that ubiquitous.
At a restaurant, you can use Wechat to put yourself on the waiting list by scanning the QR code at the front desk, check out the menu and order on your phone, and then pay at your table by scanning the QR code at your table. Everything on your phone.
Unfortunately, in order to use Wechat mobile pay, you need to link it to a Chinese bank account, therefore, it is only available for locals. Foreigners are out of luck. You have to use cash.
Paying for cash while everyone was using Wechat or Alipay made me feel totally obsolete there.
Tip: There are no taxes or gratuities. The price on the bill at the restaurant is as is. Nothing to add.
Great Wall of China – Mutianyu
There are 2 main sections of the Great Wall that you can visit near Beijing. Badaling and Mutianyu. Both sections are well-preserved with breathtaking scenery and are accessible with cable cars and chair lifts (hope you’re not afraid of heights). The Great Wall is one of those places where pictures don’t do it justice. You need to see it in person to really appreciate its magnificence.
I recommend the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall for families with kids. Why?
- Fewer tourists. Badaling section is more popular amongst the local Chinese tourists because of its connection with the late Chairman Mao’s quote referring to his climb at Badaling: “A man who has never been to the Great Wall shall not be considered as a hero”
- You get to experience a thrilling toboggan ride back down!!!
Below is a YouTube video I found that captures the toboggan ride well. My wife is terrified of any rollercoaster-type ride, but even she had an amazing time going down. My kids had a blast! 1 of their highlights of the trip.
Tip: Have your kids go first, so that nobody rear-ends them by accident. There are also double-seat toboggans if you want to ride with your child
There you have it. My 10 travel tips to China for families. I would’ve kept going on and on, but this post is already long enough.
Do you have any travel tips for when you travel?