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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  1. Anonymous30.5.07

    I'm sorry to hear about your seemingly horrifying experience in HK/Shenzhen. I also went there with my family December 2005 and we had so memorable times, aside from it being our first time spending Christmas abroad. But yeah, it's always better to travel on your own. Good thing my sister is like you as a traveller. I remember going to Bangkok one time and there was an almost similar incident - they brought us to a couple of jewelry stores and a show at night, where we had to pay a separate entrance fee for. If not for experience's sake, I would've regretted the whole trip.

    Your post is very helpful, as I am a frequent traveller myself. Thank you.


  2. I'm sorry to hear about your experience. The first time we went to HK, we wasted half a day for the city tour which is a tourist trap. Good thing, for our next trip, I was with my friends who knows the way around so we toured on your own. Just recently, my brother went to HK and I think, they arranged the tour through their Hotel and they didn't have a problem. You are right, your travel agent must be reliable - that is why I always use the same travel agent for my travels.

  3. I wrote this post to warn people about it. These compulsory shopping tours are rampant in China. I took a day-trip package tour in Beijing to the Great Wall of China (it was cheaper than if I went on my own) and a big chunk of time was wasted on these shopping tours. I was also forced to pay an additional amount for the "optional" tour which I had opted not to take!

  4. Anonymous30.5.07

    yikes! thanks for posting this! a friend of mine also went to china on a group tour and had a similar experience. paulit-ulit daw na shopping tour at sobrang overpriced ang items. at di pa masarap ang food! sana ayusin naman nila ang tourist agencies nila!

  5. Anonymous30.5.07

    hi there! thanx for sharing this.

    i agree with your blog re vacation in HK/Shenzhen. galing din kami ng HK last April, same experience as yours. good thing na lang, we have a relative living w/in the area so instead of going to another compulsory tour on the last day, naglibot na lang kami on our own, enjoying the ferry and train ride. next time nga daw, we will travel on our own, sasamahan na lang kami ng mga realtives namin. pero over-all, we enjoyed the trip (Disneyland!).

    and yes, those plates! hahaha!

  6. Anonymous30.5.07

    hey bro. I saw that ad in the newspaper and almost booked it! unfortunately (or otherwise) I saw it too late and my sibs couldn't come anymore 'cause of school. It makes me feel better to know that I saved myself a lot of trouble. Knowing what a brat my brother can be, our trip could have ended up like a big trip to hell. I saw a HK shanghai Beijing tour as well and I wanted to book it for my family. I asked for the detailed itinerary and since I've been to those places many times before, I gotta say they couldn't have made it worse. They schedule visits to gimmick areas in the a.m.! And the beautiful shanghai skyline which looks fantastic lighted up will be visited in broad daylight! etc. I also know what you mean about the commissions that they get. I almost cried with frustration on an f1 tour that I went on years ago and they didn't take us to the track straightaway when I had garage passes! argh! I hate it! I totally advocate going the lonely planet route and planning the itinerary on your own!

  7. Anonymous30.5.07

    hi ivan! i'm so sorry to hear about the hassles you experienced in hk. it's such a shame that you didn't get to see what the real hk is all about. i've been there so many times already and i still haven't seen it all! but thanks also for sharing your "travel warnings" to the rest of us. i've seen a lot of these tour packages that seem attractive because of the super low price. however in retrospect, you would be able to save more and do more if you go on a do-it-yourself trip. well i'm sure there's always a next time for you ivan. i do hope your niece enjoyed disneyland =) btw, what hotel in macau would you recommend? i'm planning to go bungee jumping there in august =) thanks again and more power!

  8. Anonymous30.5.07

    Hi! Sorry to hear your bad experienced .I was there last year and hindi ko kinuha yung tour nila bec. of my Nclex exam.Actually pinipilit kami. Buti nlng while in the airport nag hakot as in nag hakot ng Map at visitors kit nila grabe sobrang helpful tlga! And also we purchase yung MTR card nila sa airport grabe you can use it anywhere sa tram and even sa 7eleven store convenient noh!@ if ur kinda tech person advise ko sa sham shui po kayo punta mura mababait ang nagbebenta at good quality pwede nila palitan kahit na sa philippines kana.And try the soymilk near Ramada Hotel d best.Well if ur coming back there again hope mas mag enjoy kayo!!! God bless!!!


  9. @Ish, Shanghai is indeed beautiful in the evening. But I'm also interested in the architecture at the Bund. So I went both day and night. Hehe! Sama mo naman ako sa F1 trips mo! :P

    @miss.adventures, I wish I could explore more of Hong Kong too. When I visited in 1991, I was fascinated by the Cheung Chau Bun Festival in the HK brochures. At that time, Lantau and Tsing Yi were only accessible by boats. And so were the other islands. The growth in HK is amazing! As for Macau, I stayed in a pension house during my first trip (check out the comments in my previous entry for contact info) and at the Hotel Taipa Best Western for the recent trip.

    @TinTin, it's a good thing HK offers different types of unlimited passes for foreigners on the MTR.

  10. hi, sorry to hear about your sad experience. my family is planning also for a hk/shenzhen tour soon, i hope u would not mind giving the name of this lousy travel agency. thanks and best regards !!!

  11. There are a lot which is why I don't want to single them out. In our group, each booked via a different travel agency. In fact others paid more for the same lousy tour. It has become general practice among agencies in the Philippines since many who join the HK tours are first time travelers and thus, easily fooled by these gimmicks.

  12. Anonymous31.5.07

    thanks for these helpful tips. it's best to tour hk on your own. the hkta website can help you plan your itinerary. those half day city tours are less sightseeing than waste of time compulsory stops at overpriced shopping outlets. just grab those reliable maps arriving at the airport & buy the octopus card that will take you everywhere on the mrt, trams, buses & star ferry. =)

  13. Anonymous31.5.07

    Hi Ivan!

    Maybe it's time you publish a travel guide. "Travelling in Asia!" or "Asian Adventurer".. It will probably make money. Regards

  14. Anonymous31.5.07

    Wow! Am I glad I found your blog. I have linked you up already on my site.

    Surely, this will be a great reference for travel -- anywhere on this planet.

  15. Anonymous5.6.07

    Hey Partner!

    I had the same experience when I took PAL's maiden flight to Schenzen in 2001 (I think!)! Many of those who availed of the tour wasted money on the Chinese Herbal Youth Tea (?), which was said to make one look young.

    I've learned my lesson since then!

    Where are you off to now? :-)

  16. Anonymous8.6.07

    Great thing about the internet...thanks for this blog...

    I am about to book a package for me, my brother and my mom. I want to go to Macau and Hongkong (shenzen they said is not worth the trip)...I dont know anybody there so was thinking of getting the a travel package...

    ...now I need to be more cautious in choosing the travel agency..

  17. Anonymous12.6.07

    Thanks for sharing your learnings with your readers. Traveling on your own is really much better. You are more flexible and relaxed. As you said, it is also best to work with travel agents whom you know will take care of you.

  18. Anonymous14.6.07

    i just came from HK too May 19-25 (baka nga pareho tayo nandun)
    but i didn't take the package tours

    I did it the way i do best

    disney and ngong ping 360 via MTR only was so easy

    HK$295 for disney entrance only against HK$500 for their package helped me save a lot for other stuff

    i visited the historical markers of jose rizal and agoncillo (where the philippine flag was made)

    will post my HK trip later but not soon...

  19. hi ivan!
    had the same hk tour experience as yours. a half day city tour at waterfront promenade, souvenir shop and tsl jewelry factory. other than that, i would love to go to hongkong again. i guess we had the same tour operator, what your tour guide told you is exactly the same as ours. raket! ha ha ha.

    how's beijing and shanghai? that's our next travel itenerary for the year. do you have a US tour experience in your archive?


  20. Hi Velvet, Beijing and Shanghai were great! I don't have a US experience in my archive since it's been years since I visited the US. But maybe I should come up with one.

  21. Anonymous20.6.07

    nyay! i guess these are the reasons why my aunt decided we go there and find friends from that end na lang instead of joining tour groups or packaged deals and all that. nakakainis nga naman. imbes na bakasyon eh nakasira pa. mas madami pa sana kayong napuntahan at talagang makahahanap ng mas murang bilihin.

    getting visa from shenzen (or wherever that was that crosses border to china, hina ng memory ko) was somewhat fast and easy actually. except cyempre yung paglinya.

    eway, looking forward your post on the highlights ng stay nyo dun kahit papano. :)

  22. Anonymous3.7.07

    God, it sounds too horrifying to be true! I hope it doesn\'t happen again to you or to anyone else!

  23. It's rampant. People just don't notice it since many are first-time travelers. So they wouldn't know when they are being scammed or not.

  24. Anonymous20.7.07

    mr ivan, would you know (or anybody would know) if indeed compulsory tours are compulsory and the same are forfeited in case not availed. i have read one that she did not take the compulsory tour, instead went on their way. advance thanks for the reply. and we appreciate your story as it will help anyone who would have the same travel.

  25. Anonymous12.8.07

    hi ivan...sori to hear bout ur xperience...tnx for posting this on the web kac my friends and i are planning to go on a trip next month--september(HK trip ha)>>madami nga mga travel agencies na cheap daw and byad but i dont want to have a terrifying experience like what u had...do u think it's better to just have a map instead and travel on your own? id really appreciate ur advise:) Tnx

  26. hi ivan..just this day im browsing the net because im thinking of a family tour in hongkong this december..good thing i came across your blog..it helps a lot especially for us who are first time travellers..hope u can share more of the guides in going there..

    thanks po..

  27. i've read of your experience to hk/shenzhen.. personally, i'm a tourism student.. and those acts would show irresponsibility of those agencies.. i'll add you to my blog.. i would like to read more of you're blogs.. good day..Ü

  28. Anonymous4.10.07

    thanks for your post. this made me recall a similar experience i had in shenzhen a couple of years back. we wanted so much to visit the market coz we were told that shenzhen is a lot cheaper than HK but then our guide brought us to their "rustan's" where everything was soooo expensive. we also went to a chinese herbal shop. the only good thing was that we were able to go inside splendid china. like what you said, our pics landed in souvenir plates. well, despite the exhorbitant price, i couldn't resist buying one...lolz.

  29. Hi I just want to know how much budget should I have for traveling in hong kong.My father and I are going to hong kong this november and I am so worried that I might spend my money to a non-sense trip and stock in the apartelle sleeping, since I only have limited budget. How much money should I bring in order for me to buy somehting there..?

  30. Anonymous5.12.07

    hi there! im currently planning a hk/macau/ shenzen trip in feb. im now thinking twice about the group packages.. is the package offered by pal or cebupac reliable? thanks in advance

  31. Anonymous7.1.08

    hi ivan :) i think it's so great that you can share your experiences and take time blog about it :)

    my husband and i are planning a trip to hong kong, shenzhen and macau too. is there a travel agency that you can recommend? or you think it's better to just get a separate booking for our airline and accommodation?

  32. Anonymous18.1.08

    We were victimized by those 150 HKD plate which were sold by the tour guide. Hmmm... baka pareho tayo ng tour guide? seems that the "tricks" of the tour guides in HK/Shenzhen are the same? Si "Magandang Jacky" rin ba yung tour guide na nagbenta ng plates? hehe, just asking. =)

  33. Alas, there's someone to shout out the worst trip i had:it was the so called-TRI_CITIES tour of macau-shenzen -hongkong.......twas the worst trip ever!!!
    P.s. FYI shenzen toilet is the most stinkiest with UFO's YAKS
    many of my tourmates had been
    scammed and exchanged with fake money from the hotel,plus some where pickpocketted.

  34. Anonymous14.11.08

    Hi, I could really relate to your story coz I had the same experience. I do feel the jewelry factory and the outlet shop tour is a trap and a hold-up at the same time.... Don't you think it's about time to let their gov. know this racket or scam? kawawa naman tayong maga pinoy lagi nalang nilang niloloko....

  35. Anonymous8.3.09

    hi, I was surfing the net for cheap hongkong, macau and/or shenzen trip as I planned to go there on my own. I have a penchant for travelling and I must say that I travelled almost the Philippines. I am dreaming of travelling too outside but I am scared to go to travel agencies here as I was aware of some of their scam. May you kindly proposed me of some travel agencies that are of good repute but one I can relied on for CHEAP itinerary? Moreover, May you kindly suggest to me of the best CHEAP itinerary to Hongkong, Macau & Shenzen? Please send it over at my email at mikekoy_28@yahoo.com

  36. hi! ive been visiting your blog this couple of months right now because we are planning a family trip this summer. Unfortunately our trip to HK/Beijing was canceled because a compulsory city tour in HK was added in our iterinary. Last year we avail also of HK / Shenzhen / Macau trip and it is such a disappointment. the iterinary set to us was not followed. in our schedule we have to arrived in HK Disneyland at exactly 12 noon but we already arrived there at past 3 PM (which we think, nalugi kami ron) aside from that the tour guides our busy making their commissions in Jewelry shops and selling pictures. As of now we are trying to canvass cheap packages abroad (were thinking of Malaysia or a direct flight to Beijing) do you have any suggestions? Thanks

  37. Go for Beijing. I'd pick the Forbidden City or the Great Wall anytime!

  38. Anonymous25.7.09

    your post helps me a lot.sir ivan could u please help me coz were planning to go in HK, 2 adults and a three year old girl but the problem is we don't have an idea about the budget.this will be our 1st time to go in HK pag natuloy.please give me some tips and the best but cheaper travel agency.thanx and hope u can help us!god bless!

  39. This comment has been removed by the author.

  40. reych0524.10.09

    I totally agree with your post.

    We had the same experience when my husband and I had chosen a cheaper package to Hongkong through an agency which ads we saw on the newspaper. We really regret our decision, we shouldn't have settled for less.

    That was a lesson learned.

  41. Anonymous30.3.10

    Well...as Ivan said, you get what you pay for. Going around HK is really not that difficult just always make sure to search for tips/blogs similar to Ivan's to help you decide and plan for your own itinerary. Went there last Nov - December 2008, we're a group of six and we went around on our own...all of us were first timers in HK as well. It's just sad that even with all these blogs and warnings about these so called packages published in newspapers of national circulation, many still fell prey, though im sure meron din namang ok na mga package tours.

    To Ivan, thank you for your blogs and trip advisory, you're a great help to fellow adventure seekers. May you never get tired of doing this humble yet noteworthy service thru blogging to everyone.

  42. just had the same experience and worse was the "hidden charges" we thought was already included in the tour package. plus being booked into 2 small rooms only good or 4 when we are 6 adults and 1 infant. even paid additional for the infant at the last minute. it wasnt my first time in HK and the reason why we booked for a tour is because we thought if would be better since we have a toddler with us. apparently, it was a bad idea
    we had no choice but to get another room and pay for extras. I wonder where we can complain?

  43. Anonymous31.1.11

    When travelling HK, do it by yourselves. Dont ever get a tour package (even those from reputable travel agencies) if you want to save money. Getting around HK is so easy. Upon arrival at the airport, you have so many options to go to your hotel, even getting a limousine is much cheaper than getting a package tour. MTR (subway trains) with some help from your shoes (walking aroung) can get you anywhere in HK. Better spend your money shopping than paying those tour packages.

  44. Anonymous5.2.11

    when touring other countries, my tip to all travelers...always drop by their TOURISM office located near AIRPORT exits for tips and maps..i've done that always..and it's a BIG help to us first time travelers...you can even ask for DIRECTIONS, book hotels on their recommendation and even question them on anything you wanted to know...they were always so HELPFUL...

  45. Anonymous5.2.12

    any travel agency you could recommend?

  46. Anonymous13.5.12

    are there more recent travel tips to hongkong and macau? need your advise. my family will be traveling this october... thank you

  47. Anonymous7.8.13

    is it hard to get a shenzen visa? that could be the only reason why i would consider these tours..


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