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.
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.
Tour Escorts & Guides
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.
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.
Easy To Deal With
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.
Advertised vs. Delivered
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
were informed the cruise cancellation schedule was in effect even
thought they sent the non-cruise cancellation schedule with our
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.
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.
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.
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.