Once upon a time when the internet did not exist, holidaymakers would visit a travel agent to arrange their travel plans or book packaged tours. All that changed when the internet made it possible for travelers to book their trips directly, cutting travel agents out as middlemen, and resulting in the declining popularity of packaged tours.
Is it necessarily true that packaged tours are more expensive than independent travel though? Well, not always.
Packaged tours can in fact work out a lot cheaper than independent travel. I find this especially true for tours to China, particularly when you're within the first 10 people to book a "Shopping Tour" with a travel agent during a travel fair or off-peak season. Travel agents usually need at least 10 participants to start a group tour, and they offer very attractive early bird specials to the first 10.
"Shopping Tours" are essentially tour packages which are subsidised by sponsors who want tourists to spend time and money at their shops. When you sign up for a "Shopping Tour", the travel agent will whip out a contract for you to sign to ensure that you know that there'll be x number of shops you've to visit during your tour, and that you agree to spend at y amount of time at each shop. It's a contractual obligation to spend time at the shop, but not to buy anything.
Our trip to Beijing was a Shopping Tour. The 8D6N packaged holiday by Dynasty Travel covered all the major sights in Beijing, Tianjin and Gubei Water Town. We flew by Singapore Airlines, stayed in top-notched hotels, and had all our meals included (except for one dinner). We had an extremely knowledgeable tour guide accompanying us throughout, and the tour included all our admission tickets to attractions, even to an acrobatic show and Zhang Yimou's highly acclaimed Golden Mask Dynasty production. All that was for S$849.00 per person on a twin-share basis, inclusive of tax and gratuities to the guide and driver.
It was unbelievable value, considering that a return Singapore-Beijing flight by Singapore Airlines alone would easily cost in excess of S$400! If we less off S$400.00 for the flight from the amount we paid, we'd be left with S$449.00 to plan for 6 nights of accommodation, meals, land tours and transfers, etc. over 8 days. An absolute impossibility for any independent traveller, with no access to bulk discounts and business sponsorship.
As our flight was due to depart Changi Airport Terminal 3 in the morning, Dynasty Travel provided us with complimentary passes to SATS Premier Lounge for breakfast. Mini pancakes, roti prata, dim sum etc. were all available for our picking. Brunch was served on board the flight.
Ahead of our trip, some relatives warned us that meals in packaged tours for China were of a low standard with hardly any meat and plenty of vegetables only. That wasn't true for trips by Dynasty Travel. Buffet breakfast at the hotel was provided each morning. Lunches and dinners were sumptuous multi-course Chinese meals overflowing with seafood, poultry, pork and vegetables. Beer and soda were always provided as well.
The hotels we stayed at in Beijing were further away from the city centre. Initially, we were concerned about being far from the heart of the action. However, after going on the trip, we realised that each day was so packed with activities that by the time we got to the hotels, we only really wanted to stay within the comfort of the hotels anyway. The hotels provided exuded luxury and had excellent facilities, Tianjin and Gubei Water Town included.
Time spent at each of the attraction was ample, and we did not have to rush through any of them just to get to a mandatory shopping stop.
There were 6 compulsory shopping stops in all - selling jade, tea, silk, pearl, Chinese medicine and detoxifying herbs.
The most persistent was the jade shop. The sales pitch started out being very subtle, just sharing information about picking jade, then got progressively persistent with them shutting doors to keep us within an enclosed space, and finally ended with the manager hurling insults at us when we didn't want to commit to a purchase. It wasn't pleasant, but was still an unforgettable experience which we laughed about for months afterwards.
The sales tactic at the Chinese medicine hall, Tong Ren Tang, was to send in distinguished looking TCM practitioners to listen to our pulse then convince each of us (children included) that we had some serious ailment which required their prescribed medicine to solve.
The most enjoyable stop was at the Chinese sports academy. They claim to be the official physiotherapists or tuina specialists for China's competitors at the Olympics. Whatever it was, they provided us with an hour-long relaxing foot reflexology session. Towards the end of the session, they sent in the chief specialist to try to sell us some herbs for detox. When we explained that we had already spent a whole bunch of money at Tong Ren Tang to cure our ailments, they quietly left us alone.
Some travellers dislike such Shopping Tours and would rather fork out the extra cash to do away with the mandatory shopping stops. I, on the other hand, found them to be rather interesting, on top of being incredible cost-savers. The positive experience coaxed us into signing up for a second one.
Our trip to Guilin & Yangshuo was also a Shopping Tour. It was a 8D7N packaged tour from ASA Holidays. We flew by Silk Air this time, stayed in good hotels, and had all but 2 meals included. Admission tickets were all provided for, including to Zhang Yimou's production in Yangshou called "Impression - Liu Sanjie". Our tour guide was young, energetic and eager to please. We paid an unbeatable S$574.50 nett per person on a twin-share basis.
Ordinarily, Silk Air does not fly to Guilin. In fact, there are usually no direct flights from Singapore to Guilin. ASA Holidays had specially chartered the flight. A quick check of the cost of taking a non-direct flight from Singapore to Guilin shows that it actually exceeds the total cost of our tour! So, the value of this trip was indeed unrivaled.
Only a quarter of the plane carried Singaporeans, the rest were Chinese travellers returning to Guilin after a visit to Singapore. After the in-flight meal was distributed by the crew, the Chinese travellers starting raising their hands and yelling at the crew for second helpings of bread rolls, mains and beverages. It was hilariously chaotic, and the harassed crew tried their best to appease them.
The hotels were not as luxurious as the ones on our first trip, but they were certainly more than acceptable, considering that Guanxi is a less developed province. We even stayed at Sheraton Guilin on our last 2 nights.
Food, on the whole, was excellent, with beer and soft drinks provided as well. There was also more than sufficient time to visit each attraction.
Similar to the first tour, there were 6 mandatory shopping stops - selling bamboo products, tea, jade, latex mattress toppers, Chinese medicine and Tibetan herbs.
What stood out was again the jade shop. The strong-arm modus operandi was identical to the jade shop in Beijing, so it was deja vu for us. However, what differed was some of the members in this tour group staged a walk-out before the manager was done with his spiel, resulting in a commotion of sorts and our tour guide pulling a long face at us!
We didn't have a difficult time at the rest of the shops. The bamboo products shop sold bath towels, kitchen towels, socks, etc. at a very reasonable price. We were more than happy to make our purchases without any pushing. The Chinese medical hall was Bao Shu Tang, which sold dermatological cream which I use all the time anyway. With some persuasion, we bought the mattress toppers from the latex store. They were not cheap, but were of comparable value to what have in Singapore. We sleep like babies on these toppers now and no longer wake up with a backache like I used to.
All things considered, Shopping Tours coupled with early bird promos really do present exceptional value to travellers, and should be seized with both hands.