Visiting China

Parent Q&A

  • travel to China with 2 kids and a senior

    (6 replies)

    We are planning our first trip to China this summer with 2 kiddos age 5 and 9 and Grandma who is 78. Grandma still walks pretty actively and daily but pretty slowly. This has been on top of her wish list for a visit for the last 25 years. For sure the places we'd go are the Great Wall (actually walk on it if possible), Terra Cotta Soldiers. Other ideas are to see pandas in Chengdu, Yangtze River and Hong Kong. We'd spend about 2.5 - 3 weeks. Torn between multi-day guided group tours vs. getting arranging our own hotels, flights, etc and getting a private guide once we get to each city. We like the idea of a group tour as it would take care of our accommodations, meals and transportation and be pretty leisurely with the walking. Anyone have good experience with guided tours in China that didn't spend 1> hour every day taking the people to stores? Private guides? Air bnb vs. hotel? Thanks for any suggestions!

    It has been a decade since I was there, but at that point, I would not have wanted to be without a guide anywhere outside of the major tourist centers; English was not widely enough spoken and in some areas even Mandarin wasn't helpful. It was critical to have a guide who had local connections. That may have shifted in recent years, though. We used a private guide recommended by friends and that was terrific, but at the time I was traveling with several 20-somethings, so we did not have the kid or grandma constraints and were a little more flexible with transportation and lodging snafus (and there were plenty of both, even with careful research and planning). If you can find a smaller family-friendly group tour, that might be a good option. (We did periodically encounter the large buses stopping at the "tourist centers" and I would not have wanted to see China that way.) Hong Kong is much easier to navigate as an English-speaker, and has a large expat community. I'd feel confident spending time there without a guide or group (and in fact you might enjoy it more being able to schedule your own time). 

    We visited many years ago and have family ties.  I personally wouldn't consider traveling in China unless I was with someone who spoke excellent Mandarin, knew the areas we were visiting, and who is very familiar with Chinese cultural norms and bureaucracy.  China has modernized considerably but visiting there is not like visiting Europe.  I'd strongly suggest you go with a guided tour and not try to make your own arrangements, there are too many things that can go wrong, and it will probably wind up costing a lot more than you think it will.  With 2 kids and a grandmother in tow, you only have to negotiate with the tour leader, plus other tour members can make it much more enjoyable.  And yes, they'll take you to stores, but probably a private guide will, too.  Personally, I'd add a boat ride down Guilin to your itinerary, and I thought Hong Kong was like New York without the cultural amenities and local color. Enjoy!

    A complicated, multi-faceted question that deserves a conversation with a travel advisor rather than an answer typed into a little box on the BPN forum... but let me try to unpack your questions as best I can.

    1. Be aware that you'll have to apply for Visas to visit China. It's a complicated form to fill out. You'll have to plan ahead to have these in place, already knowing your dates, etc., before you apply.

    2. Do you have a budget in mind?

    This will determine whether you can afford private guides vs. being part of a tour group.

    3. Group Tour vs. Private Tour:

    A group tour costs less, as you'll be splitting the cost of transfers and tour guides among a large group, but it comes with distinct disadvantages:

    • You'll tour at the pace of the slowest member of the group (i.e., have to wait for the late stragglers to get back to the bus)
    • It's a pre-determined program. You won't be able to spend more time at a place if you like ... or leave early to spend more time elsewhere.
    • You will spend time in souvenir shops. In fact, tour guides make most of their income off commissions from such sales.

    A private tour costs more, but it has distinct advantages:

    • You will visit exactly what you want to visit. You can even change your mind and alter the itinerary in the middle of the day.
    • Your guide is there just for you, and you'll go at your own pace.
    • You can absolutely tell the guide you're not interested in souvenir shopping.

    Disadvantage: it will cost more.

    4. Procuring a private guide. I wouldn't wait "until you get to each city" as the best English-speaking guides will already have been hired.

    5. Hotels vs. AirBNB

    Don't even think about AirBNB in China, if they even exist. You'll want to be well-located in each place you visit, and you'll want western comforts.

    6. The Great Wall is an iconic attraction, and it's a thrill to walk on it. Most group tours will take you to the closest section to Beijing, and you'll be there with thousands of other tourists, especially if you go on the weekend. It will feel like a mob scene. Take a look at my blog article showing the difference —

    7. The Terracotta Warriors are a great reason to visit Xi'an ... as is the Underground Museum.

    8. I'd skip a river cruise on the Yangtze. Why? You're spending three days floating down a muddy river on a boat ... instead of spending those three days exploring. Better alternative: a morning spent on a bamboo raft on the Li River near Guilin. Gorgeous scenery —

    - Local travel agent

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Beijing for 1-3 months w young kids, no language

Oct 2011

DH has an opportunity to go work in Beijing for a spell. It's an 'open' opportunity, which, if we take it, we'd have some control over for when and for how long. So we're just starting to ponder the possibility for (maybe?) next spring or fall for (maybe?) 1-3 or more months.

What we should think about? It's really a new thought and we haven't explored anything - but wondering about school requirements (5&7ys), language/cultural barriers (we won't blend in!! very fair irish/german), ease of finding a 'home,' etc. DH would be working a lot so me, the one without an ear for music/language, would be trying to make my way around a system which I (currently) know little about. Likely my kids would pick up language quickly as it seems to be a talent, but I am slooooow with language.

Any good ex-pat communities/resources online that I should try to find? How does one go about finding/feeling at 'home' in a place without language or cultural basis for a start? intrigued but wary

Did you mean you would stay just 1 to 3 months? Because I wasn't sure why you would expect yourself or your kids to learn the language in such a short period of time, you'll be busy just trying to figure out where to buy milk in such a short period, I wouldn't put extra worry on yourself.

I've visited Beijing 2 years ago, hardly makes me an expert but I do have a lot of expat experience, setting up new homes in new countries and I would say in such a short time period, don't put so much pressure on yourself about language. I doubt your kids will learn it either. I have found the most useful phrases are 'Where is...' 'Do you have...' 'How much...?' and of course 'Thank you' and get by with that, then you play charades understanding the answer but at least you know they got the question. Always carry a card with your home address in the chinese charactors - ha ha that was one mistake I made the very first time I went to China thinking I could say Hilton Hotel and that the Taxi driver would understand.

The good thing about Beijing is that it was an Olympic city, and this means things are set up for visitors to be able to get around. I managed the subway by myself easily as things are in english too, that will make your stay much easier.

For such a short stay I would DEFINITELY use a short term relocation agency for housing and all the other stuff that may be required - otherwise you'll spend all your time doing that and I can only imagine in china it will be incredibly time consuming and stressful - you want to enjoy your time right not spend it all doing red tape stuff. You probably want a more authentic experience but honestly it's just too short of a time to set up a more integrated life there, not since you have 2 young children and a husband who will need to work. Personally I'd live in one of the expat communities and just relax for the few months. Sorry don't have any names but they have them there somewhere, and their probably cushy and nice.

Sorry don't know about Beijing expat sites, hopefully someone will have a source on that for you as those websites are often incredibly helpful! anon

I lived in Beijing 10 years ago and there was a large expat community then. I'm sure it's even larger now. There's an English language expat magazine (and apparently now a website) called the Beijinger. There are several international schools. I don't think finding an apt should be difficult and I'm sure there are real estate agents that cater to Westerners. I would think your husband's company could help you find one. As for not knowing the language, that can be difficult although I'm sure after the Olympics there are probably more people who speak English. I heard the taxi drivers were studying English, but not sure how successful that was. There is a subway system that shouldn't be hard to navigate even without Chinese. Taxis are convenient and relatively cheap by Western standards (or at least were). A friend of mine used to make laminated cards with destinations printed in English and Chinese for visitors to use with taxi drivers. If you want to study Mandarin, you should have no trouble finding someone who would tutor you. Plenty of college students would probably love to hang out with you and your family to get a chance to practice your English. You could do a language exchange. I think you could have a great time as long as you have a sense of humor and adventure. Enjoy! (feel free to email me for more info although my info is several years old) Elaine

Need Hotel in Bejing

Aug 2011

I am looking for a hotel in Bejing for me and my young child. We are leaving in a couple of weeks. I would like to find something affordable -- about $100/ night -- that offers the amenities Americans would expect to find in a U.S. hotel. 'Raffles' has been recommended to me, but I need to find something less expensive. I hope you can help. Hitting the road

In May, my family spent 10 days at Yoyo Hotel, in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing. I loved it, but I'm a budget-hotel type. Yoyo was clean and modern-looking. A twin room is roughly $50 a night. There's a one-time charge of 20 RMB to become a 'member.' The neighborhood is lively and full of foreigners. You can get western-style food, shopping, etc. within walking distance, should you want it. My room was quiet; some weren't. If noise matters, ask not to be given a room on the side of hotel that overlooks a school yard. The staff are pleasant and capable. A few times, communications were difficult because some staff don't speak fluent English (I speak no Chinese), but everything got resolved fairly quickly. I'm not sure what you consider standard in a US hotel, but a TV (all channels in Chinese), a hairdryer, shower, western-style toilet, elevator, etc. were all provided. Rooms are very small, and the shower and toilet are all part of one marble-lined room with a huge glass door. The breakfast menu made very little concession to Western tastes, apart from coffee. Right nearby is 3.3, a ritzy mall, and behind 3.3, YaXiu (or Yashow) Market, a much cheaper, livelier mall, where you can shop for clothes (haggle) and have tailoring done. The metro is a 10-12 minute walk. The neighborhood accommodates foreigners well (and is accordingly expensive)and was very much fun. There are reviews of Yoyo on Trip Advisor. Oh, and if you want to eat in YoYo's restaurant, 'Middle 8,' you must book ahead -- it's excellent and always full. Lucky, lucky you to be going to Beijing!

Express Holiday Inn has a few locations in Beijing and they are all very reasonably priced. Just Google for the website. Since it's a global chain, the accommodations are fairly standard. Vivian

You can try online travel site It is for China related travel only, and is popular among Chinese. The 5 Star hotels should fit your bill, and there are plenty. Chun

Electric power in many parts of China, including Beijing, is still predominantly produced by burning bituminous coal, producing sticky black smoke, leaving black soot on almost everything.

Our experience in Beijing has been that 'local' hotels turn typically-wimpy 'air-conditioning' OFF at about 9PM.

The only option in a 'local' hotel is to open small hotel-room windows at night. Sleeping with windows open, allowing coal smoke into our room (and our lungs) is not an option for us.

When we go to Beijing, we stay in slightly-more-expensive hotels where real and effective air-conditioning (and, therefore, air filtration) runing 24/7.

We have really enjoyed visiting Beijing (though we have often covered our faces in late April, through May, and into June, as many Chinese in Beijing do, because, in Spring, sandstorms, born on hot winds, exacerbate year-long soot), but we also need to be able to sleep and eat comfortably !

In addition to Holiday Inn Express, my friends recommend Ibis Hotel in Beijing. They have three locations and all under $50 per night. list.shtml has quite a few hotels listed in Beijing under $100 per night. You can see pictures and people's reviews. is China based travel site, similar to Tripadvisor. Vivian

Visiting Beijing in Fall - Tour Rec?

June 2011

I'm planning a trip to Beijing, China for the first time with my somewhat elderly parents, and don't know whether it'd be better to purchase one of those packaged vacations that include air + tour or to buy our plane tickets separate of a tour and to find a tour group to join when we're there. I'd rather do the latter, but don't know how to go about it. My parents are insistent that we join a tour for most of the days that we're there. They're not ones for 'exploring on our own', especially since we're only going to be there for 7 days and need to make the most out of the trip. Can anyone whose been to Beijing recommend a tour group they've joined, or a vacation package they purchased, that they felt gave them a good bang for the buck? Thanks! Tourist Trapped

I saw a great deal on for a weeks trip to Beijing. Also look through I did a 1 week trip to Beijing about 9 years ago. It came with several tours and we thought it was great. We did choose to make our own excursion to the Great Wall because we wanted more time there and didn't want to stop at the cloisonne factory on the way back. Our tour guide found us a driver. I think we had 1 day without tours and we picked up a couple of half day tours through the hotel. I would go with the tours to make things easier. Whether you purchase the tours in Beijing or you get them with your package deal you still need tours to get around. Everyone visits the same big famous sites and you will want to do the same! have fun!

I have a China facing business so I asked some of my business associates. Here are their recommendations:, there are multi-day tour packages at a reasonable price. I recommend to buy air+hotel, and join local tour for foreigners. They can find these tours in the hotel reception easily. 7days is quite enough for first time visit. I recommend to join 3-4 days tour, which may cover most of the valuable sites, then spend more time in the place they like. The traffic in Beijing is getting worse, tell your friend to be patient.

This was from a Chinese person living in US. 'Two years ago, I took my family to China for vacation. Our trip included a week in Beijing. My kids have never been to China before.

Although the ground traffic is heavily congested, Beijing has an amazing subway system that can get you pretty much anywhere you need to be for most major tourist attractions except the Great Wall. If the visitors do not speak Chinese, I think it's better to join a guided tour as it will save time and money, as well as all of the hassles for foreigners. Be aware of those handouts you will be given in the Beijing streets for tour deals that sound too good to be true. Some of them claim to cover virtually all of the attractions for an equivalent of $10. This bait-and-switch trick usually does not work for the experienced locals, but may still get the foreigners into the traps.' Vivian

When we were in Beijing, we found a fantastic tourguide, Lily Fuwa who both runs tours for large tour companies, and also does private tours at a very reasonable rate. She can arrange cars, hotels, play tickets, and ground transport for you. But what is so special about Lily is that when you work with her one on one, you get to see the city more through her eyes as opposed to big tour company eyes. She took us to restaurants where her family eats and showed us her neighborhood. She is very energetic and when she isn't with a slow moving group of 20 people, she can race around and show more sites because she can be more nimble with just one or two people to manage. We took subways at rush hour (CRAZY) and got special deals on acrobat tickets because her friend was working the ticket booth that night. Can't recommend her enough. lily_fuwa [at] is her email. Good luck. Alissa

ABCs of a stay in China with kids

Feb 2011

Beginning in April, we'll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be away from home for a few months. We think we'd like to spend the time (2-3 months) living in China. We won't have an employer to smooth the way, and are on a pretty modest budget. We also don't speak Chinese. We have lived outside the U.S., including in low-income countries, but never in Asia. We'd love to hear about your experiences in China. Any recommendations about where to settle, visas and other formalities, finding housing, transportation, insurance, healthcare, making friends, what to visit, etc. would be much appreciated. Are there any books, websites, or other resources you recommend? Our teenagers have been studying Mandarin, so advice about creating opportunities for them to build their language skills would be a bonus. Off to China, we hope!

There are quite a few expat network links on Keys to China site:

I'm Chinese living in US and I work with a lot of Americans going to China for jobs. Since you don't speak Chinese, it'd be safer to stay with bigger cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou. Shenzhen is very close to Hong Kong and has a huge expat community. There are a lot of expats living in 'second tier cities' like Chengdu, Qingdao, Suzhou, etc. and really enjoy it. These cities are only small in Chinese standard, they all have bigger population than San Francisco.

Our Man in Beijing is a good Visa agency, run by Brit, has great experience working with expats from different countries.

Pacific Prime International provides healthcare for travelers. A friend of mine traveled in Asia for over a year and highly recommends their insurance (basically it's cheap good coverage ;-)).

Popup Chinese and ChinesePod are two highly recommended podcasts with good online lessons, especially as additional practice material for someone already taking lessons.

You can find links to all these on the site I gave you. And I'm more than happy to introduce you to some of my friends and associates living in China. Vivian

Moving to Shenzhen, China with a little kid

Sept 2010

My husband's current company wants to move our family to Shenzhen, China and we're thinking about going. We have a 13 month old and I currently work full-time in a technical field. We will be having a second child in April, probably in China, if we go. This opportunity will enable me to be stay at home and be in a new culture also. I love to travel, and my husband has to fly there every couple of months anyway (which is nearly impossible with me working too). He'll be making lots more money besides having most of our living expenses paid for. I'm wondering about living there and not knowing Mandarin? Is there an expat community there to tap into? I don't want to end up isolated nor do I expect to have enough time with little ones to learn a new language fast and well. What about the health care there? Am I crazy to think about giving birth there? How hard is it to find childcare that can speak English? I'm really looking for some experiences that people have with that area in terms of an only English speaking family with little kids. I've also heard the pollution there is really bad. Thoughts/comments? -Thanks!

I visited Shenzhen last year when my husband had a conference there so I was only there for 4 days. We stayed at a big hotel in the city and the last night they drove us further out of the center for dinner in an area that seemed to be an expat enclave called Portofino. In fact I just googled Portofino Shenzhen and came across a discussion on it in an expat website.

You didn't mention if you had visited Shenzhen yet. While my husband was busy with work, I walked around the city and found it had very little charm but I think that's common considering it is only 30 years old and I was only there 4 days so take that for what it's worth. It IS polluted, it is NOT scenic on the whole. We have friends of friends who moved there 7 years ago and love it and plan to stay, they have learned the language and have brought some family members over (but they are from the Ukraine which also has harder conditions), so I was really excited to visit it. But I didn't really like it, I felt I couldn't live there - until I saw Portofino and then I thought well, maybe...

I am sure there is a big expat community, there must be and if you hook into that you'll be fine. It does not seem the type of location that you will be able to fit in with the local culture. I too live overseas and I also am an outsider in our current country but that's okay, it's still fun.

The good thing about Shenzhen is it is close to Hong Kong - now that's a city I would be really excited to move to - is that possible for you? Because that would solve your language concerns too. Anyway if Shenzhen is your base, you can do trips around asia to places you might not have visited.

I would be concerned about the pollution and just overall toxicity of stuff and food but I think you can be careful about that especially with a new baby.

Don't have advise about having a baby there. English is not common but think they must have some medical resources for english speakers.

So my thoughts are if it is a 2 year assignment - do it! It's not the greatest place but it will be fun and 2 years goes by quickly, you'll probably regret it if you don't. anon

How safe is a trip to Beijing or Tokyo?

June 2007

I really want to visit Beijing and Tokyo but I feel hesitant about traveling there (especially to Beijing) because I have an 18 month old and I also hope to be in early pregnancy during the time of travel (Jan. 2008). I am concerned about us becoming sick from the water and/or food. Does anyone have advice about what the danger level is for a toddler and/or someone who is pregnant to visit these parts of the world? Do you recommend such a trip? What precautions should I take, etc.? Thanks!

Our daughter has traveled and stayed in China 5 times now since she was an infant. We took her first time to China when she was barely 5 months old. Beijing was one of the places we stayed. We stayed in a condo in Chaoyang District and highly recommend it over other districts. Beijing is pretty safe - especially with the coming Olympics. We have been traveling to China since early 90s and Beijing has turned into quite a comso city since then. The last trip we made to Beijing was less than a year ago. I have to say in my experience Beijing is a far better place than Shanghai (for some reason it just feel like chaotic, even though when we went to Shanghai in 2003 we thought Shanghai was better than Beijing, so something has changed and we think it's the pending Olympics). The food is quite good and there are lots of high end shopping areas in Beijing.

Anyhow, it's one of those places that can earn you bragging rights still. Bring your tour books. There are high end restaurants! and lots of historical sites. Our infant (she's three years old now but was 5 months when she took the first China trip with us) reacted way better in Beijing than Shanghai. In fact after that trip we almost bought a condo in Beijing (and now we are kicking ourselves as real estate in Beijing has trippled since then). No one drinks tap water in Beijing, everyone drinks purified water from bottles. They have a yogurt drink which is delicious! It tastes like our non fat plain yogurt but more like a smoothy. I think the food there is great but don't eat at street vendors.

Anyway, our daughter has been to China 5 times now (we did buy a place but in the southern region) and Beijing was a place that definitely she had no trouble adjusting. So I would recommend Beijing over Tokyo, if anything they don't eat raw fish in Beijing. Have fun wherever you end up! Alameda Mom

I hope I can help answer part of your questions. I've never been to Toyko, but I did travel to Beijing when, like you, I was very early in my pregnancy. It was a work trip that had already been planned before I realized I was pregnant. I talked it over with my husband (a doctor), who was of the opinion that (a) Beijing's risks are about the same for a newly pregnant woman as for anyone else, and (b) at that stage of pregnancy, there is not much that a doctor (even at the fanciest U.S. hospitals) could do to save a pregnancy that is going to miscarry. (My concern was about the available health care in China.) That said, I had a wonderful trip with no problems. I tell my son now that he has already climbed the Great Wall! :)

The precautions that I took were the same as those of my fellow travelers: I wore seatbelts, I didn't drink tap water (this included boiling the water I rinsed my toothbrush in), and I didn't eat street food. I also avoided meats that weren't hot (in case of Listeria) and, of course, alcohol. The other issue is morning sickness - I was not feeling sick at that stage of the game, and it certainly helped me enjoy the trip more. I don't think there's an increased danger per se if you're naseous, but Beijing like many big cities has lots of strong ODORS! If you're throwing up all the time you might be tempted just to stay in your hotel room, which is no fun at all! You should check with your OB of course but I think early pregnancy can actually be a good time to travel.

That said, I would say that traveling with an 1-year-old is a whole different ballgame. I will leave it to others to comment on the safety issues, since I don't know much about kid life in urban Asia. But I did travel with my son to Europe when he was about 18 months. It was a family trip that I didn't plan, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I didn't want to miss out on. I ultimately was grateful for the chance to travel, but it was really, really, really hard. At that age, they appreciate absolutely nothing about what they are seeing, and experience travel as only a series of traumatizing changes and disruptions of routine and sleep. My son was cranky and unhappy almost the ENTIRE trip. Even now I don't really enjoy looking at the pictures of the trip because I remember them as, oh, that's where I had to carry him through the streets for miles and miles because he refused to sit in the stroller, or that's the restaurant where he screamed so much he threw up all over the table, and so on. Your toddler may well be less demanding or rigid than mine, but if s/he responds at all negatively to changes in routine or other trips you have taken, I would propose rethinking the timing of your trip. I LOVE to travel and am anxious to see so much more of the world, but after that trip I've decided to wait until my kids are either old enough to understand what they are seeing, or to stay at Grandma's without me! Staying home for now

[Editor]: also see Visiting Japan

Thinking about a tour with older children

Jan 2007

We are looking for suggestions about taking a tour this year to China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Yangtze, Hong Kong) with our two older children. This will be our first time. What should we do to prepare for our trip? How to find the ''right'' travel package? Recommendations on reasonably priced travel agents, what not to miss, and what to avoid, would be very welcome. Signed, China newbie

I think tour packages or cruises make a lot of sense for Americans visiting China, especially for the first time. There are lots of ways to put together a trip. You could do an entirely land-based tour package, you could combine a land package with perhaps a cruise up the Yangtze, and/or you could take part in an active vacation package that includes hiking or biking. The variables include questions such as the size of the group you'd like to be part of as well as the kinds of accommodations you would be comfortable with. There are possibilities as well at all price points. It all depends on the kind of experience you would like to have for your vacation. David

Traveling in China with a 3 yrs old

June 2006

We will be traveling to China in July with our 3 yrs old, and spend about 4 days in Beijing for work, then plan to travel around for 10 more days or so, and fly back from Shenghai. I would really appreciate any suggestions of kid friendly attractions and activities. Also, if someone has tips on how to manage food, what should we bring with us? Is it easy eanough to buy western -type food outside the big cities? can one buy milk easily? (we have a pretty picky eater - white rice would work great, but that might be just about it) . Thanks for any advice, clueless in china

I lived and worked in rural China for a year. It is hard , but rewarding travel. The distances are HUGE. I would plan to not cover that much of the country with a three year old, especially if doing it by train (bus isn't an option there). Bring plenty of entertainment and get ready for the Chinese to want to touch and hold your child along the way. Foreigners and especially children are a novelty in the country. Enjoy! cyn