My first upcoming trip to China

I have the opportunity to take my very first trip to China shortly. China is a place that I’ve always wanted to visit. My wife and I will be flying Delta. I was able to use Skymiles to book an award ticket for her to match my itinerary, including a business class seat for her over the water. It reminds me of a post I wrote back in February 2011, talking about the dilemma of who should get the upgrade. In fact, while I was out of commission with my broken wrists, Wandering Aramean and the Frequent Miler did guest posts on their opinions about the debate. View from the Wing weighed in as did Deals We Like and CNN eventually did a piece about it quoting both Gary and Deals We Like. I’m happy to have her fly up front. I’ve flown so much economy that 12 hours flights no longer phase me as long as I can get an exit row aisle seat.

Whenever I travel to a new country, I usually research interesting places to visit and eat online, get there, and just start exploring. China seems to be a bit more daunting to just go exploring due to the language barrier. I have downloaded the clever “Me No Speak” China app that has illustrations with Chinese and English letters underneath broken into categories such as food, travel, accommodations, etc.

Me No Speak




We will have three extra days in Beijing and so my question is – based on your experience in China, given the language barriers is a tour group necessary and if so, do you have any that you recommend?


  1. Have a great time! I was just in Beijing two weeks ago and it was muggy, hot, and humid! Are you there for only 3 days to avoid the tourist visa? Though they hosted the Olympics five years ago, most of the people there don’t speak English, with the exception of the hospitality industry. Good luck!!! My advice is to do a group tour your first day to bring you to the major sights and then spend the next day to stroll around at your leisure (i.e. go to Temple of Heaven park in the morning to see locals exercise/dance, etc.)

  2. I would definitely recommend a guide or a group. You are unlikely to find people speaking english outside your hotel, and even inside it they may have to send for the english speaker to talk to you.

    Also, you cannot read signs. For example you won’t know which bathroom to go in.

    Not being able to read listen or speak can be quite a hindrance when you are there for a short time with the intention to enjoy yourself.

    YMMV 🙂

  3. Be careful with that app. I’d only focus on the main ingredient if you don’t understand Chinese. The example you showed is chicken in fish “flavored” sauce. Yu is fish, Xiang is flavor and Ji is chicken. So if you see the last character Ji鸡 then you will get something from the chicken. Could be feet, intestines, egg, or just plain old breast meat. Have fun!
    Pork = zhu 猪
    chicken = ji 鸡
    beef = 牛

  4. I tour group is not required, unless you are really trying to save money. A private guide and driver will make all the difference in the world. If you want to squeeze the most out of your three days, hire your guide for the first day or so. They can help you hit the harder to get to places outside the city (Great Wall, Summer Palace, etc.) Spend your last day touring yourself in the Forbidden City and surrounding area. Don’t be afraid to use the subway. Consider it part of the experience. Language will not be an issue as long as you map out your way ahead and take the name of your hotel in Chinese on a card with you.

    Have a fantastic trip.

  5. I did a family of 5 China tour (3 kids) last summer and it was great. I booked everything myself (award tickets and hotels). We stayed Hilton Beijing and was upgraded to the Exec tower and all 5 of us had free daily breakfast worth at least $30 (smoked salmon, order to cook meals, multi-ethnic cuisine etc.). The service was better than anything i received in in the Western nations. Everybody is so polite and ready to please. In Beijing, I hired a private car for about $120/day for the entire day (all inclusive)! He took us to Great Wall, Shopping malls and brought us back to Hotel at night.
    Then we went to the Tiannamen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace using their underground metro and Bus. Didn’t encounter any issues except lot of people everywhere. We used our wonderful Android Traslator apps and it workd like Magic for us including ordering food at expensive Chinese restaurants (Shark fin soup at $100/bowl) next to Forbidden City.
    Then we took a overnight train to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and Temples/Pagodas.
    Couple of things: You need to carry water and toilet paper since it is of short supply there.

    We also did a Acrobatic show that was probably better than any las vegas show including the stunts by the Cirque-do-soleil..

    We had a great time will remember forever (I wish we could go to Shanghai and other exotic locations within China).
    So, my advice,
    Get the Android Translator.
    Rent a car for the day to goto places.
    Carry cash, water and toilet paper.

    Then you will be fine…

  6. I agree with Joey, I found Beijing to be more difficult than other places if you don’t know Chinese. Shanghai (and definitely Hong Kong) is much easier for English speakers.

    I did the forbidden city for a whole day without a tour guide (just the audio guides they provide), but it would probably be more interesting to go with a group to get more in depth information (and ask questions).

    The main thing you need to get used to is pushing and jockeying for position. They do it a lot and will assume they can just push their way past you in lines or when trying to view something.

    Have you considered learning a small set of Chinese characters for the trip? Do you plan on returning? I am interesting in finding out what frequent travelers think about with regards to reading and writing Chinese…

  7. @Chris Butler – I haven’t considered learning a small set of characters, but probably should. It probably comes from spending so much time in Russia, I just started ignoring everything as it felt hopeless with a different alphabet.

  8. Hi there! We were in Beijing in May. We stayed at the DoubleTree, which isn’t exactly central, but was practially a steal (expecially considering the free breakfast). I had the same concerns about a tour group and I am now SO glad that we braved the city on our own! It’s not as daunting as you think – you just have to prepare a bit more. We took the buses and the subway pretty much everywhere. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese. I followed our route on a map each time and we were also brought quickly and safely to our desination. The bus is definitely an adventure, but also lots of fun! And it costs just 10 cents… Most signs and menus have now been translated into English and the police and some other workers are usually willing to try and help you find your way. If you’re into group tours, by all means, book a guide. But it’s definitely not necessary. (Btw – private guides I’ve heard are very nice, but don’t really give you much insight into the history of the country. I’d save the money and go have amazing Peking duck at DaDong!)

  9. Hire a private guide. The one we used was great and reasonably priced. And you’ll get a much more intimate perspective. If you go to The Great Wall, go to Mutiyanu.

  10. I just completed my post grad at Peking Uni, and am now back in Sydney, but do feel free to send me an email for any tips (not just PEK either), would be happy to help out (I speak Chinese too if that helps!)

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