Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau: making the right choices for your trip

I just came from a family trip to Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau. We took my niece to Hong Kong Disneyland for her birthday and tried to find the cheapest package not realizing its hidden costs and problems. There were thus many forgettable experiences. Here are the top 10 things to remember to help you pick the right package tour to these Chinese cities:

1. You get what you pay for
If it's too cheap, be wary since these tour organizers will definitely make money from you some other way. You'll find out how as you read on. We wanted to save but the hassle and hidden costs were not worth the savings. Trust me!

2. Go for the tried and tested travel agencies
Although I've seen tried and tested travel agencies advertising in newspapers, many others could be in the category of fly-by-night. Don't be fooled by the rates they publish since there are more hidden charges. Our tour was a little over US$150 in the newspapers but ended up close to US$350 when all the costs were added in. It's best that you get recognized names or ask referrals from friends before booking.

3. Low-fare carriers are book and buy
Another modus operandi of travel agencies is delaying the release of the ticket. For Tiger Air, Air Asia and Cebu Pacific, these airlines are book and buy. So if your travel agency says it can't release the tickets as soon as you pay, that's bullshit! We were set to leave on the 18th, but a few days before, the agency said they were not able to book our tickets reasoning out that the organizer in Hong Kong canceled that date. So we ended up leaving a week later.

4. Make sure you have travel tax receipts
If you pay your travel tax through the agency, make sure they give you a Philippine government receipt amounting to PHP1,620 per person. We paid for the travel tax through the agency but they didn't give us a receipt. So when questioned about it, they could not answer. We therefore demanded that they return the money to us. You could easily pay the travel tax at Terminal 3 or DMIA. So to be safe, just pay it there.

5. Ask for a detailed itinerary
Travel agencies usually have standard itineraries which they fax. Details are scarce: half-day city tour, shopping tour in the morning, free time in the afternoon but no approximate times. Don't be content with that. Make sure to get more details. Will we get to go around on our own? What sights will we visit? What hotel will we be staying in? If the agency can't give you more details, find another one.

6. Watch out for "shopping tours"
These shopping tours are often compulsory and a waste of time. In a good tour package, there should be no compulsory items in it. The reason why some tour packages are cheap is because of these compulsory tours. These are traps for tourists. Instead of seeing the sights, the group is brought to select outlets such as jewelry stores, souvenir stores in office buildings, and other shops. The organizer or tour guide usually earns commissions from the purchases of the group which is why they can afford to make the tour package cheap. In really bad tours, you don't have a choice but to buy since they will not take you to any other place to buy souvenirs where you could choose stores or bargain for items.

If there are compulsory shopping tours, find another agency, since in the end, you'll end up seeing nothing. You should be given an option to choose not to join the shopping tour and meet up with the group at a designated place and time.

We wasted half a day in Hong Kong because of the shopping tour. The only attraction we saw was Victoria Harbour. And it was just a ten-minute stopover so they could take our photos. They say it's for the China group visa which was bullshit since they could easily scan our passport photos. Later in the morning, our photos appeared on souvenir plates which they tried to sell to us at outrageously high prices - HK$150 for a medium plate!

Our guide also said the Hong Kong Disneyland tickets were still on the way but I'm sure they were with her already. If I had my way, I would have gotten the Disneyland tickets from the guide, taken my family to Kowloon or Hong Kong Island for some quality sightseeing first, or slept a bit more and gone straight to Disneyland in time for the 10 a.m. opening, meeting the group at 6:30 p.m. for our trip to Shenzhen.

In Shenzhen, it was worse. We literally saw nothing except the jade and pearl outlet stores. We had 10 minutes for photos at the entrance of Windows of the World, obviously so they could put them on plates again.

7. Watch out for "free time" or "optional tours"
This was really bad. In the faxed itinerary, it said our afternoon in Shenzhen was free time. But lo and behold, our tour guide, knowing Filipinos can be easily fooled by the word shopping, tells us that there was an optional tour to the Divisoria of Shezhen in the afternoon, and that we had to pay RMB100 per head since it was far and they had to do overtime. The other option was she could take us straight to Macau. She almost got the group to say yes but when others like myself said no knowing that it was all free time in Macau, she reasoned out that we will arrive in Macau at 1:30 p.m. and had to wait for the Macau guide to arrive at 7 p.m. So the "optional" tour wasn't optional at all.

When we demanded she call the Macau guide to come earlier, she said they had other appointments. Yeah right! She then made another offer, RMB80 includes lunch and free time to shop at a mall. We were all tired and said yes. But on hindsight, I should have forced the issue that we be taken to place where we could pick where to eat.

The Shenzhen leg was very forgettable since the guide didn't care less whether we enjoyed or not. She was after the amount of money she could earn from the group. When we thought it was all over, we were roused from our sleep in Zhuhai City thinking we were about to go down the bus to enter Immigration. But then, the guide says, there was one last stop, a Chinese medicine store!

Prices were as always, exorbitantly high! They tried to invite my family to a VIP room for "consultation" but we refused. Others who went in were being pressured to buy. The answers from the consultations of the "professors" were so generic. And the medicine they recommended were from a select list of products. So I sensed it was a scam.

8. Selling on the bus
I already mentioned the souvenir plates and the "optional" tours which aren't optional at all. But there could be more such as souvenir items. The guides are blatant when they say it's for them or the bus drivers. First they will start by saying that the drivers are paid low and to help ends meet, they have to sell souvenir items such as key chains on the bus. They add to their appeal to pity that to show your appreciation to the driver, you could buy from them. Our guide went as far as saying no tawad (bargaining) since the price was already good. Talk about sales talk! And you had no choice since you had no other opportunity to buy key chains for pasalubong.

9. Each city has a different tour organizer
The bad part about this is that the guide in one city plays dumb that they do not know the plans of the other guide. So you are left clueless as to where you will stay, what you will do, etc. in the next city. This doesn't give you enough time to detect their modus operandi if any. You would later realize that they know each other and are constantly in contact.

10. Border crossings and group visas
If you think border crossings are made convenient in these package tours, think again. From Hong Kong to Shenzen, we had to change buses three times with all our luggage! We got off our Hong Kong bus and boarded a shuttle to Hong Kong Immigration. After that, we board another bus which took us to China Immigration. We waited for over for an hour for our Shenzhen guide to arrive since she had our group visas.

Then it was a long walk to the Shenzhen bus. We even had to cross the street via a pedestrian overpass. Aside from our luggage being heavy, we had my five-year old niece and 84-year old grandmother with us. I had to push her wheelchair up the pedestrian overpass. And we had to walk her down the other side! Our guide could have made it more convenient by asking the bus to pick us up in front of the exit.

If you are entering on a group visa to China, your passport will not be stamped when you enter and when you exit. In other words, there's no proof on your passport that you entered China. You will also have to enter as a group and leave as a group which means, you're stuck!

It was a good thing it was all free time in Macau. And the hotel accommodations were great! So the tour ended on a happy note. But I hope this experience of mine helps you pick the right tour package for you or at least prepare for it. I personally hate tour groups since you have to deal with different personalities. If someone is late for example, the whole group waits. My parents know better now and we'll travel on our own next time, which is my kind of travel. I'll talk about our trip highlights in my next post.

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