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Tales of a Terrible Tour

Nightmare tour of China leads to guidance on picking a tour company.

[Editor's Note: Regent Tours contacted me and offered a rebuttal. To read a very different view of this same trip, please click here.]

[Editor's Note: The whole idea of traveling with a tour is to trade the freedom to do your own exploring for the convenience of having it all taken care of. But even a super-experienced traveler like travel journalist Madelyn Miller, who accompanied her mother on this trip to China, can get burned sometimes. Me? I'd rather plan my own trip and let the hassles be of my own choosing.]

Your impressions of a country are very much influenced by your tour leader—they are your information source, your focal point and probably your first contact in the country you are visiting.

So on a recent tour of China organized by Regent Tours, I felt very sorry for the 38 participants who paid for a luxury tour and got something below bargain basement quality and service.

I had been to China before and fell in love with the country and people--so I was eager to return. I had stayed at Shangri-la Hotels and experienced China hospitality at its best. The food was wonderful, the culture enticing and the people seemed eager to share their culture.

Maybe the problem with my Regent Tour was that they only had one guide, Ying, for nearly forty people. And his English could have been better. His best credential seemed to be that he was the brother of the tour company owner. (So who are you supposed to complain to if there is a problem?)

Ying seemed overwhelmed with handling over 30 senior citizens. He did not seem sympathetic to their need for bathroom breaks or a rest after long walks in the heat. Each day he started the tour with a "prayer" for serenity and suggested you accept what you get in life. To me it seemed like a statement that no complaints would be tolerated; you needed to put up and shut up.

On the first day, after leaving the bus to go to Tiennamen Square, we walked several blocks before Ying asked if anyone wanted to go to a bathroom. Many people did, so he directed them back to a bathroom where thevy were charged three dollars US for the privilege. A few tour participants were smart enough to "negotiate" down to a dollar for the potty privilege. But wouldn't it have been gracious of the tour leader to walk them back and negotiate a group price?

The Regent tour supposedly used 5 star hotels yet only two of them were even listed in the five guidebooks I checked.

At these "five star hotels," you could not get more than one clean towel a day without begging the hotel. At the King Wing Hot Spring Hotel in Beijing it took four calls to housekeeping and the manager to get a second clean towel for a second shower after a hot day of touring. "Tomorrow" they said. And "you have towels." It was true. We had towels. But they were wet and dirty.

Later, a local person explained to me that the signs in the lobby of each hotel with five stars did not mean that was their international rating. It merely meant they were a member of a professional organization much like a chamber of commerce.

All the meals were supposedly included the Regent Tours China tour. Yet, after the orientation, suddenly dinners in Hong Kong were not included.

And one day we had a "picnic" at the Summer Palace in Beijing. Nice idea, great concept. But the picnic for 38 included one loaf of unsliced bread, crackers, bananas, lychee fruit, 12 cookies, and some fish sausage which almost no one except the guide ate. He claimed he had also bought yogurt and chicken sausages, but he left them in his car. (Perhaps if he had an assistant, they could have retrieved them or bought more.)

One night we begged him to change the schedule so we would be able to climb the Great Wall in the morning when it was cooler. He reassured our entire table of 8 that he would do so. Yet when we got back on the bus, he had reverted to "his" original schedule.

Each day, we hoped to return to the hotel to shower and relax before dinner. Yet Ying always decided to go directly on to dinner. Everyone was hot, tired, and sweaty. Maybe this sounds like too democratic a suggestion, but maybe we could have voted to see if the group would rather return to the hotel to rest before dinner or not.

Actually, the most interesting thing I discovered on this trip was what it must be like to live in a Communist country where all information is controlled by a central source. Our guide would tell us plans were changed because the government wanted to use a certain hall and we had to come another day. Why did the government only give him 24 hours notice? Does this happen to other tourists? And how could we check? He claimed we could not go to the Great Wall in the morning because the road only went one way and then we would miss the Cloisonné Factory (which I call a guide store).

Ying did excel at finding what I call "guide stores," overpriced outlets that obviously paid him a commission. He took us to these "factories" first thing in the morning and never rushed us. In fact, our very first stop the very first morning was at a pearl factory where my eager group spent several thousand dollars. He must have been thrilled, as he added in some more factories to our schedule.

We were ushered into such a factory at least once a day. By the second pearl factory, the group was ready to rebel, and many resisted even going in.

When a few tour members began to buy things from vendors, Ying gave a stern lecture on the street vendors and how they cheat you. He warned us against buying from them. I could understand his concern. The vendor prices were unbelievably cheap—as cheap as everyone had hoped and dreamed they would be. One tour member bought 30 silk ties for $5 total.

At the airport, as we left Beijing, Ying passed out a map to each group member. Why, I wondered, had he waited until we left? His parting words were that transfers would be taken care of in each city. But that did not happen.

Our transfers involved mostly senior citizens, some with canes, bad backs and knee replacements claiming their luggage and then lugging it downstairs, across airports and then on a few blocks to the bus in the parking lot. Why couldn't the bus at least come to us? Or why didn't a team of baggage handlers handle the baggage as promised? We noticed the baggage of other tour groups pulled and neatly gathered for transport to their hotels.

And once we got to our hotels there were often long waits for them to unpack the bus and deliver the bags to the rooms. We once waited over six hours, and had another dinner in sweaty, dirty clothes.

The service and amenities actually seemed to decrease as the trip progressed. In the brochures it said that all beverages (water, beer and soft drinks) were included. But by our second city, they began charging if you had more than one glass of water. We were also promised water on all the buses but as we left Shanghi they were out of water, and when we arrived in Guilon they still had not provided water. A total of seven hours without water available. Tough for people who already had upset stomachs and were a little dehydrated.

Meals were another issue for most people. The meals were boringly repetitive, as if someone had merely sent the same menu on to each restaurant. And although the brochure said we would eat in local restaurants the tourists did not usually go to, each restaurant had large parking lots for tour buses, and people seemed to enter in groups with tour badges on.

Having dined at some of the best restaurants in China, I know how wonderful the food can be. And I am sorry that my fellow travelers did not have this experience.

It is hard to believe that it was statistically possible to have had almost the exact same meal twice a day for so many days. In Guillon, where we stayed for only two days, we ate at the same restaurant twice in 36 hours.

The meals and restaurants might have been chosen based on cost. We had lots of bones and very little protein in our meals. Sometimes we had potatoes in a casserole, French fries (is this native Chinese food?) and another potato dish.

One day, six out of eight people at my lunch table had brought food from breakfast wrapped in napkins to lunch. The hotels started charging extra for breakfast boxes so people could take food with them. Even though people claimed to be hungry at meals, they did not eat much of the food served from the lazy Susans that revolved in the center of each table.

In Hong Kong, a culinary capital, they took us to the same restaurant twice in a short two-day trip. What could there be that make it so good except the price?

To me, that was an ominous sign. I skipped both those meals.The cheaper late night flight to Hong Kong that we were booked on was delayed and we arrived at 2AM. The only thing open besides our hotel was the sex shop across the street. But by that time all anyone could think of was a cold shower.

But the absolute worst thing that happened was one hot, sweaty afternoon when several older people decided not to climb into the cave in Guillon. Five people were locked in the bus with the air-conditioning turned off and could not get the driver's attention. No air, no bathroom and no way out for 90 minutes. Imagine if someone had a heatstroke, turista, or worse?

WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU SEND YOUR CHECK IN TO A TOUR COMPANY

  • Find out what hotels will be used. Check out the hotels in a guidebook.
  • Ask to talk to people who have done the tour recently. Ideally get a list.
  • Try to get a firm schedule. If the tour company waffles, that is a clue.
  • Find out how many tour leaders will be assisting the number of people on your group.
  • If you are traveling with a group coordinated by an organization, find out who actually experienced the tour and ask them a few questions.
  • If your leader has not been there, double-check everything yourself.
  • Ask for an 800 number or alternate contact to notify if you have a problem while on the tour.

    BOOK TO READ BEFORE YOU GO ON A TOUR

  • Bags Out At Seven: A Tale of Too Many Cities by Robert Globerman (Highbridge Press, $16.95 list price)

    Madelyn Miller is executive editor of travellady.com. She takes about 30 trips a year and contributes to numerous publications including Meeting Professional, www.mycookbook.com, e-hospitality.com and appears on KDFW_TV, the Dallas Fox Affiliate as "the travellady" China is one of her favorite destinations and she hopes other people have better experiences than those offered by Regent Tours.

    [Editor's Note: Regent Tours contacted me and offered a rebuttal. To read a very different view of this same trip, please click here.]

    Tip from forexfraud.com: Make sure to travel with enough of the country's native currency. You'll never know when you'll need it. Forexfraud is a resource on legitimate forex trading software regulated by the NFA and CFTC.


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