China: Do-it-yourself travel

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Tourism to China is at a record level. Last year, 350,600 Americans visited—a 10 percent jump over the previous year. And this summer China is hosting the Olympic Games, leading the country to spend billions to make itself more welcoming to foreign visitors. So we decided to publish a story in Budget Travel's May issue that gives tips on how you can book your own travel to the country instead of going on a tour ("Do-It-Yourself China").

I would like to add a few thoughts about the benefits of making your own travel arrangements, especially if you want to see more than the main cities. When I was living in China eight years ago, my most memorable trips were the ones that I planned on my own through the countryside—many times with a very loose itinerary. And I'm testament that anyone can do this, given that I spoke absolutely no Chinese when I got to the country.

Travel in China has changed a lot in the past 10 years or so, too. With Western hotel chains opening up all over the country, the Chinese chains have been forced to compete, and many have improved their standards as a result. Check out Jin Jiang Hotels—the chain is an established, business-class chain.

Chinese trip-planning sites like and also offer far better deals on airfare than what you'd find on U.S.-based search engines like Expedia and Kayak. You can book internal flights on the sites from the U.S. and pay with your credit card—and the sites are in English so there's no language barrier.

Here are some other travel tips to get you started:

→ Search out unique travel destinations. This doesn't mean skip out on the traditional tourist centers of Beijing, Xi'an, or Shanghai. But try to incorporate travel to lesser-known places—you'll get a far greater sense of what the country is like.

On the way to Shanghai to Xi'an by train, for example, are two incredible cities: Kaifeng and Luoyang. Luoyang, one of China’s ancient capitals, has an amazing mountainside carved with thousands of statues of Buddha dating back 1,500 years. The Longmen Grottoes are just as impressive as Xi'an's terracotta soldiers, but nowhere near as famous.

Kaifeng is also an ancient capital of China. The city has one of the most beautiful pagodas I saw anywhere in China—the graceful Iron Pagoda, built in 1049. Kaifeng is also home to one of the oldest Jewish populations in China.

→ Pick up English-language city magazines in Shanghai and Beijing to get the most recent information on museums, galleries, restaurants, bars, music venues, sporting events—you name it. There's a thriving English-language press in both cities, mostly centered on the arts and nightlife. You can find the magazines in most Western-style restaurants or bars; a particularly thorough one is called that's. It's available in both cities.

→ Use Chinese travel agencies in the major cities—they’ll help you book air and train tickets for a nominal fee. Your hotel can help you find a good agency; we recommend Kingdom Travel in Beijing and Shanghai. The biggest agencies will have English-speaking sales assistants.

→ If you're curious about Beijing, you'll find a slide show of the newest architecture, an etiquette guide, and a video tour of one downtown neighborhood at

If you have any tips on saving money, or just getting around, post them here. I'd love to know other ways tourists are finding to travel around China!

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