TM Grand Circle TravelGrand Circle Travel

Anne and I, for the most part, do not normally take escorted tours when we travel. We prefer to "go it alone" and make all the arrangements ourselves. That way we set our own pace, making decisions on the spur of the moment based on what's important at the time. But, when traveling to a country, like China, where language is a major barrier it's important to take an organized and escorted tour. Researching available tours you find many companies offering similar tours at varying prices. Obviously there's a difference between them because the prices are different, but sometimes it's hard to distinguish what the difference is. For this trip my sister and her husband had selected a tour (I forget who the provider was), and Anne and I had selected the tour offered by Grand Circle Travel (GCT). The prices and itinerary were similar so it was a matter of choosing which one was the better value for the money spent. The Internet proved invaluable in helping us decide which tour to select. Anne and I favored the GCT because it included a visit to Guilin, home of the famed limestone peaks along the Li River, which the other tour did not include, but the real clincher was that GCT's selected hotels were superior to the other tour. It's important to do your homework before signing up for any tour and this page is our way of helping you do that homework. Below follows a critique of GCT to let you know about the experience we had with the company should you consider booking a tour with them in the future.

A+ Hotel Accommodations

For this tour GCT's hotels were rated Superior and 1st Class and they proved to be exactly that. The accommodations were similar to what you would find hotels here in the United States. Most were equipped with satellite TV which, at the time, was important to keep abreast of what was going on in the world. (We left just following the invasion of Afghanistan and in the middle of the Anthrax attacks.) Most offered several restaurants offering both eastern and western foods. The rooms were comfortable, spacious and appointed with all the amenities one expects when traveling to a finer hotel.

A+ Tour Escorts & Guides GCT did a topnotch job in providing tour escorts and guides. We were met in Beijing by our escort, Lai Shih Mei Wha, who accompanied us the entire time we were in China. She was a wonderful and knowledgeable escort who was capable of taking care of all the problems that arose. And, more importantly, she was capable of keeping the interest of the group and promoting a friendly atmosphere amongst all the travelers and those we interacted with. In addition to Mei, our escort, GCT also provided a local guide for each city we visited. In their respective city they handled the local arrangements and tours. A local guide was provided in every city even when (in my opinion) it might not have been necessary. For example, we flew to Wuhan, boarded a bus at the airport for the trip to a restaurant for dinner, and then went directly to the boat for the Yangtze cruise. We spent absolutely no time in Wuhan at all, but they had a local guide providing commentary when we were on the bus.

A+ Tour Buses Anyone who's ever taken an escorted tour knows the importance of comfort while traveling. You spend a lot of time riding in buses from one tourist attraction to another and you need to be comfortable doing so. The companies that GCT engaged provided new tour buses that were spacious and comfortable.

A+ Easy To Deal With GCT, for the most part, was very easy to deal with. Making the original booking was fast and simple. GCT directed us to a passport/visa service that made getting the necessary visa to enter China a simple and painless experience (also very quick). Receiving our original air reservations we requested a change and they readily accommodated our request.

A- Advertised vs. Delivered For the most part GCT delivered exactly what they advertised in their initial brochure. A few things could have been a bit better described in the brochure, however, they didn't really misrepresent what they were promising. My biggest disappointment in this regard had to do with their description of the excursion up the DaNing River (the Lesser Three Gorges). They described the trip as being on a sampan. In my mind a sampan is a small boat that holds five or six people and is powered by men pushing poles against the bottom of the water. Not at all the case. These were motorized sampans that held 30 people. In reality it was the only way to cover the ground we covered and allow us to really see the Lesser Three Gorges. Had it been by man-powered sampans we'd have never seen the Lesser Three Gorges. I just believe they could have done a little better job describing it to us.

C Crisis Communications

We booked this trip in late January with a scheduled departure date of October 23, 2001. Through the spring and summer all was proceeding according to plan, and our excitement level was on the rise as the date approached. That is, until September 11th happened.

What a terrible day!?! One I'm sure I won't forget and, I suspect, no one will. Surprisingly, the first two weeks following the 11th the last thing on our minds was the trip. We had the occasional thought wondering if GCT might cancel, but we didn't bother to contact them and inquire. Our primary concerns then was just what happened and the devastating effects it had on the world at large. It probably took us those two weeks just to absorb the tragedy and come to the realization that it really did happen. To this day I still have trouble believing those two magnificent towers collapsed the way they did. Living in close proximity to the city and seeing those towers frequently, as we did, it's unimaginable to me how they could have collapsed.

When we finally contacted GCT about the trip we were informed the trip would depart as scheduled and would not be canceled no matter what. We got mixed stories from them as to cancellations and cancellation fees that might apply should we decide to cancel. As it turned out, when we booked we were given a cancellation schedule for non-cruise trips. While our tour was mostly land there was a 5-day cruise of the Yangtze included, so GCT was now trying to change the rules telling us a different, more costly, cancellation schedule.

What we learned is that GCT's primary concern is money. Canceling the tour wasn't a consideration for them because they'd lose the revenue. By continuing the tour making reluctant travelers cancel, they stood to gain payment of the cancellation fees, which, I'm sure, was better than not getting any revenue at all. They did what they could to allay our fears. They indicated additional measures would be taken to insure our safety, but they couldn't provide specifics as to what and how. When we questioned them on specific issues the responses we got were not encouraging, for example:

  1. When we contacted GCT with questions we each got different answers to the same or similar questions. No one seemed to really know what was going on or they just weren't letting on.
  2. When questioned what GCT would do if something happened, like what followed September 11th when all flights were grounded, we were informed that they would do something for us. We were later informed that they wouldn't do anything and that it would be the responsibility of the airline we were booked with to assist us in returning home.
  3. We were informed the cruise cancellation schedule was in effect even thought they sent the non-cruise cancellation schedule with our booking package.

Those last few weeks before the scheduled departure we followed a day-by-day wait-and-see approach. With each passing day we'd see what happened and try to make the decision as to go or not go. It was an unusual time and a very trying time, but in the end, despite the vague and worrisome responses we got from GCT we decided to go.

GCT, as the tour provider, was responsible for making all of the flight arrangements. When we first received the flight schedule we were booked leaving from JFK International Airport on United Airlines through San Francisco. While we had no objections to the flights we did object to leaving from JFK when Newark International was at our back door. A quick phone call to GCT and a request to change the departure airport to Newark led to a completely new flight itinerary, and a better one at that. This time Northwest Airlines was the carrier and we were booked Newark to Detroit then nonstop to Beijing. This routing cut several hours off the layover and flight times and was much better than the first. I have to admit, though, Northwest has never been a favored airline of mine. I have to many memories of flying Northwest between Newark and Detroit.

Now that the trip is behind us and I'm assigning grades for service, I'd give Northwest relatively good grades for the service they provided. It's difficult to compare the service to previous long-haul trips like these as Anne and I most often fly first or business class and this trip it was purely coach. (We fly first or business because most of our trips are freebies from the frequent flyer programs, not because I'm paying the price!) Unfortunately you can't compare flying coach on any airline to flying first or business class. The service and quality of meals is so much better in first and business class that there is just no comparison. I guess the bottom line question is ... based on what happened on this trip's flights, would I fly Northwest again? And the answer is yes.

All of our flights departed on time. The service was good on all flights but not spectacular. Their 747's were fairly roomy and somewhat comfortable compared to other airlines that I've flown. The food, however, could definitely use some improvement, but that's true of any airline you fly. Security seemed to be good on all flights and thorough inspections were commonplace.

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Welcome to our China 2001 Photo Album
Planning and Getting there: Grand Circle Tours and Northwest Airlines
Beijing : Arriving in Beijing | Tiananmen Square | The Imperial (Forbidden) Palace (1) | The Imperial Palace (2) | The Nine Sons of the Dragon
The Imperial Palace Garden | The Summer Palace | Summer Palace (2) | Summer Palace (3) | Summer Palace (4) | Local Beijing Market
Local Beijing Market (2) | Hutong | Bell Tower | Hutong Family, Dinner and the Opera | Cloisonné Factory | Ming Tombs | Ming Tombs (2)
Great Wall of China at Ba Da Ling | Temple of Heaven
Shanghai : Arriving Shanghai | Yuyuan Garden | Yuyuan Garden (2) | The Temple of the Jade Buddha | The Bund | Day Excursion to Suzhou
Silk Process | The Administrator's Garden of Suzhou | Shanghai Museum of Art
Cruising the Yangtze River : Yangtze Cruise, Day 1 | Yangtze Cruise, Day 2 | The Xiling and Wu Gorge | The Lesser Three Gorges
The Lesser Three Gorges (2) | The Qutang Gorge | Wanxian | The Last Day of Cruising | Regal China Cruise Lines
Chongqing : Chongqing
Xi'an : Xi'an and Emperor Qin's Terracotta Warriors | Emperor's Qin's Terracotta Warriors (2) | Great Wild Goose Pagoda and Xi'an City Wall
Quilin : The Limestone Peaks of the Li River | The Limestone Peaks of the Li River (2) | Guilin and the Childrens Park | Children's Park (2) and Reed Flute Cave
The Hotels: Hotels, rail and air travel in China
Hong Kong : Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay and Aberdeen Fishing Village | Hong Kong at Sunset | Hong Kong Bird & Flower Market
| New Territories Fishing Village | Hong Kong Farewell Dinner
Bangkok : Jim Thompson House and Golden Buddha | The Flower Market | The Food Vendors | Grand Palace | Mystical Figures | Brightly Painted Masks on Mystical Figures
Golden Mystical Figures | Buildings of the Grand Palace | Lunching at the Shangri La Hotel | Loy Nava Rice Barge Cruise | Ayutthaya, Ancient Capital of Siam
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol and the Reclining Buddha | Bang Pa In, The Summer Palace |

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