Do you really need a tour in China?

China was my first destination on my travels a few years ago. I was not an experienced traveler at all and I found China to be very simple and straight forward enough to not need a tour guide.

Many of my friends at home that have never been to China think it’s a crazy destination to go to. They always ask me the same questions. “How do you get around not knowing the language? How do you know where to go?” and so many more.

So do you need a tour in China in order to experience the country? I think it depends on what you want whether you really need a tour guide or not. For most people, I don’t think they need one.

How Long Will You Be In China?

It’s a massive country and there’s a lot to see and do. You might not realize it now until you get there but there really is. Getting from one city to the next takes awhile too.

If you only have a month, you can see most of the major tourist cities with a few days in each one.

If you’re only going to be doing a week and want to squeeze in as much as possible, all you really need is to book flights for each of the cities you want to go to. The airlines in China are some of the best I’ve flown anywhere in the world. Really great customer service and of course everything from the airport to the announcements are translated into english.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an China
Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an China

How To Get Around China

It’s so incredibly easy to get around in China. If you’re on a short trip, like I said earlier, look into flying. Domestic flights are affordable.

If you’ve got a lot of time and want to save cash, take the train. It’s organized and easy to book and navigate. Hotels and hostels can arrange the trip for you. It’s definitely a different experience compared to flying.

See: Simple Tips for Train Travel in China

Do You Need To Know Chinese?

No! And if you clearly look like a foreigner, no one expects you to. Hostels and hotels have the entire thing setup for you.

Most of the good hostels and hotels I’ve stayed at in China explain what there is to do in their city upon check-in. I’ve always been handed a map, a card with their location written in chinese, and a list of attractions. They know you’re going to ask what there is to do and to save time, they usually give this to you right away. Since chances are you don’t speak chinese, the map gives you locations on where to eat, where the attractions are, and what to look for. They make it too easy for travelers!

See: An Introduction To Spoken Chinese (Mandarin)

Chinese Characters

Eating Out

The only issues you’ll come across in China is eating out locally but if you go prepared, it’s not really a problem. Very few people speak english outside of the tourist attractions. Most of the menus do not include translations or pictures.

I usually asked for recommendations at the hostel for local food. I would ask them to write down the names of the dishes so I could hand them the piece of paper and order that way. By the end of my first month in China, I had a complete list of foods, phrases, and numbers. It came in handy many times.

If you eat at TGIF, Hard Rock Cafe, and McDonalds then you won’t have a problem since most of these places have students that speak english. But you’ll be missing out a HUGE part of the chinese culture. Chinese food in my opinion is some of the best food in the world. Avoid the chains and eat at local restaurants.

Don’t be nervous to just walk in a random restaurant either. It’s not an inconvenience to them at all if neither of you speak each others language. There’s no reason to be scared. What’s the worst that could possibly happen? I found that the chinese were always super excited to have me at their restaurant because I was a foreigner.

See: 10 Foods You Must Eat In China and Three Delicious Foods from China (Hao Chi 好吃)

Hotpot in Chengdu, China
Hotpot in Chengdu, China 

When You Might Want A Tour Guide

If you’re in the Forbidden City or the Terracotta Warriors and you’re a history nut, then you might want to check out the tourist information desk at the attractions or find out if your hostel or hotel can arrange a tour for you. There’s usually an english speaking tour guide at every major attraction. It’s better if you book ahead of time at your hotel or hostel as it’s probably more reputable than the street tour guides that might not be as qualified.

Part of the experience is just walking around the city. You don’t need a tour to do this. Walk around and take in all the sights, smells, and atmosphere around you. Sometimes there’s so much going on at once.

Little girl playing chinese chess
Little girl playing chinese chess

I don’t think it’s necessary to take a tour that goes to several cities in China. If you’re not pleased with the company or guide, you’re stuck with them for your entire trip. Day tours within a city or at specific attractions is all you need if you really want to take a tour.

I think families might benefit more from the tours in China than a backpacker would due it being so organized. For families, I think it’s better to organize flights and longer stays at each city than jumping from place to place. It’s still China and the cities are hectic sometimes. The tour companies can only be so organized. Family friendly cities include Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Chengdu with 4 days in each place is comfortable.

For the average backpacker, you definitely do NOT need a tour. Once you get there, you’ll realize how silly you were for ever thinking you needed one.

See: 40 Reasons to Backpack China

Did you take a tour around China? How was your experience and do you think it’s necessary?

Little boy running through the streets of the Xi'an muslim quarter
Little boy running through the streets of the Xi’an muslim quarter

Michael Tieso

Michael Tieso travels around the world writing, photographing, and filming his adventures. He is the Editor-in-chief of Art of Adventuring.

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