Two summers ago, a friend and I embarked on our first solo trip at only seventeen years old. While most teens would have started off slow with a weekend getaway, we took the plunge and flew over fifteen hours to Beijing, China.
Did my mom cry at the airport? Absolutely. After I had begged her relentlessly and raised $3,000 through GoFundMe, it’s not like she could have said no. At the same time, she was comforted by the fact that my friend and I would be safe on a monitored youth tour.
Looking back, I wish that I hadn’t paid the extra cash to be herded from place to place on big tour buses with people I did not know. When we found out that our tour guide had planned out our entire trip, we all had blank faces, and crickets started to chirp. It felt like kindergarten where each and every moment of our day had been written out on an unchangeable schedule.
Although I have my reservations about youth tour groups, I can also see how they provided some sort security for my first trip without my parents.
If you’re considering going on a trip but are unsure whether or not to book it with a tour, here are some pros and cons to consider.
PRO: Safe and Supervised
Like I mentioned, the main reason I chose to take the tour route for my first overseas adventure was for the security. When I stopped off of my plane and inhaled my first breath of smoggy Beijing air, I was almost immediately led onto a tour bus and driven to our imposing, gated hotel. From that point, everything I did was under the watchful eyes of experienced guides and friendly escorts who ensured that we couldn’t get lost or scammed in the cities we visited.
Instead of worrying about directions or reputable lodgings, I was able to concentrate on taking the best photos and trying some yummy food. I still dream about the blended ‘mango drink’ I paid mad yuan (local currency) for in the bustling market streets of Hangzhou. I also hesitantly tried a stick of unidentifiable grilled meat that was being sold by a vendor; it left me convinced that I would immediately get food poisoning and die. But guess what –– I survived!
I’m glad that I had this extra layer of safety because being a young woman in an unfamiliar place was scarier than I thought it would be. As a first-time traveler, I didn’t know what to expect from a foreign country, so it calmed my nerves to have a set of adults nearby.
CON: Bus Boredom and “Holding It”
With the promise of safety, however, comes a certain level of boredom on guided tours. Instead of roaming the streets of a city and finding new experiences around every corner, a lot of my time was spent sitting on our tour bus going to the next destination. We teens had a short attention span, and we quickly got sick of belting along to Bohemian Rhapsody — the only song that all of us knew.
The funniest experience I had was during one exceptionally long commute. In true bus-ride fashion, my friend realized that she desperately had to pee. She complained for the whole hour-long bus trip back to our hotel. While her legs were tangled, and her face was scrunched, I made fun of her for refusing to use the squat toilet back at the Great Wall of China.
Besides having to pee on the bus, being some of the oldest people on the trip definitely didn’t add something positive to the experience. Free time wasn’t an option in a tour group that had travelers as young as twelve or thirteen. While I understood that it was important to be safe, I still felt restless at times when I knew I could be exploring. Ugh! Let me live.
There were some brief moments when I could sneak off and get a glimpse of freedom away from the group. I was better than I should have been at bargaining despite the language barrier, and this quickly became one of my favorite activities.
EXPERT BARGAINING TIP: It turns out that looking frustrated and starting to walk away will almost always cut the price of a t-shirt or necklace in half!
Another escape was a pharmacy chain called Watson’s where none of the other students wanted to go, but my friend and I could spend hours in. The store’s bags of chips and packaged sandwiches were godsends for my stomach while it adjusted to the greasy, spicy new dishes.
PRO: Guides Who Save Your Life
It was great to know that if I had any questions about the language, food, or culture in China, I could just ask Terry; he was one of the many friendly guides on my tour. He was a local citizen and loved telling us stories about his childhood and experiences in China.
One thing that was cool to learn about is how names work for people in China who interact with English speakers. In Terry’s case, he explained to us how his language teacher gave him his “English name” when he first started studying.
A lot of the times these names are supposed to mimic the sound of a person’s real Chinese name or copy a popular or famous Western name. I would never have known this part of Chinese tourism culture if I hadn’t spoken with my guide.
I also learned a lot of useful phrases from Terry, like how to say “boo xie xie” (no thank you). This was always used when market vendors would chase us through the street after we’d turned down their inflated prices.
Without the help of guides like Terry, I probably would have been scammed within hours of stepping off the plane at Beijing Airport. Thanks to Terry, I learned not to trust strangers who asked you to help them practice English. Apparently, scammers often find a way to make you pay extreme amounts of money for a cup of coffee at their friends café if you follow them. I would have fallen for this right away — I can never say “no” to a cup of coffee!
CON: The Paparazzi Complex
As a light-skinned girl with dirty blonde hair and green eyes, it was already hard for me to be incognito in China. Now, imagine 30 European and American teenagers walking down the street shouting in English and being led by a tour guide with a giant flag.
When you take part in a tour group, you are automatically discounted as a clueless tourist. You will be charged “foreigner” prices and looked at with side eyes for being too rowdy.
The weirdest thing I experienced was when locals would take photos of our group all of the time. I don’t really blame them; we looked pretty outrageous. Not only were we a group of mostly non-Asian people, which is fairly rare even in big cities like Beijing, but our clothing and demeanor screamed tourists! We were told to wear these branded backpacks and bulky lanyards that made us look like a cult.
By the end of the trip, I had learned to accept the attention from locals and the phones pointed in our direction. My favorite trick was to pull out my own phone and start taking photos of the “paparazzi” in return. Surprisingly, most people found it hilarious and it removed the awkwardness of being stared at.
One memory that always makes me laugh is when I was walking the Great Wall of China with some newfound friends, and we passed a woman with her phone out; her phone was pointed in our direction! Another girl, who may have gotten too used to the cameras in our faces, asked her loudly, “Oh, you want a picture together?”
We all laughed when the woman looked confused and explained that no, she was taking a photo of the Great Wall. Evidently, our egos inflated so much that we expected to be more attention-grabbing than one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
PRO: Convenience and Exclusive Events
Having your entire trip planned out by someone else removes a lot of the work from traveling. All I had to do in the morning during my trip was roll out of bed, liberally apply sunscreen, and meet my group in the hotel lobby. From there, my every action was dictated to me. This allowed me to relax and fully enjoy the experience—everything was a fun surprise.
Some hidden restaurants or exclusive performances, like the circus show we saw on one of our last nights, are only available for group bookings. I would never have found them if I’d been traveling solo.
Having a schedule also gave me a lot of anticipation, because I knew in advance where we would be going. I knew that our group would be visiting a popular “hot pot” restaurant where the eaters cook their own food in a pot of rich boiling broth; my mouth watered for the days leading up to the dinner.
My meal tasted even better after the suspense of waiting!
CON: Rigidity and Missed Opportunities
The downside to having your trip planned is the lack of spontaneity and independence given to you. Most guided tours have a pretty strict schedule that everyone is supposed to follow, and straying from the schedule is a big no-no. Youth trips are especially controlling because the organizers are liable if a minor gets lost or hurt under their supervision.
In the rare moments where we walked from the bus to our destination, it was a major let-down to pass all these exciting restaurants, shops, and gardens without being able to check them out more.
The lack of diverse food options was probably my biggest disappointment. Although we were given the chance to try new dishes like Peking duck and hot pot, many of our dinners were served in our hotel dining room. These dinners were always the same — white rice, meat in sauce, and oil-soaked vegetables. The dishes were served on spinning glass plates in the center of the table by the end of our tour. The thought of white rice began to make me shake.
I remember realizing that our hotel was within walking distance of the famous “poo restaurant” in Beijing, where everything is served in tiny fake toilet bowls (Google it, it’s hilarious). I was so disappointed because I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere that wasn’t on the itinerary. So long, “House of Poo Poo”.
PRO: Meeting Lifelong Friends
I made so many lifelong friends from around the world on my guided tour of China. Two years later, I still know people from England, Australia, Panama, Switzerland, and Russia who I probably would have never met if I had gone to China alone. We were immediately close and goofed off whenever we got the chance (embarrassing photo included above for evidence).
These connections have allowed me not only to make new friends but to learn about the culture of a country without even visiting it. Each nationality comes with its own quirks and phrases that your new friends can teach you.
As a Canadian, I was definitely put under a microscope and had to explain, “yes, Canadians really do eat ketchup chips and put maple syrup on everything.” This comment made it even funnier when I came down to breakfast with a small novelty container of maple syrup that I had brought as part of the trip’s “cultural exchange” activity. My friends watched in horror as I poured syrup all over my eggs, fruit, and sausage from the breakfast buffet. What can I say — some stereotypes about Canadians are true!
CON: Missing Local Connections
If I’m being completely honest, I can count on one hand the number of meaningful conversations I had with locals in the ten days that I spent in China. My tour group allowed me to view everything as an outsider without truly immersing myself in the culture. It felt like I was watching a movie of what was happening around me. Unfortunately in this “movie,” I could only observe and didn’t interact with my surroundings. It wasn’t how I expected my trip to go at all, and it definitely created a feeling of isolation. I never knew that it was possible to feel isolated in crowded cities.
I may have been in China, but none of the new friends I made were from there. I would have loved to make some local friends who could have taught me more about their home country. By the end of my trip, I still only knew three phrases in Mandarin, which was pretty disappointing. I didn’t even know how to ask “where is the bathroom?”… which everyone knows is the first thing you should learn in a new language!
Overall, I don’t necessarily regret choosing to go on a guided tour overseas, but I wouldn’t do it again. My trip really taught me that the best way to experience a new place is by fully living there or experiencing it with the freedom to roam around.
Getting outside of your comfort zone and opening yourself up to a little anxiety and uncertainty can make an experience even more meaningful. Plus, you won’t miss out on any zany experiences like I did. I still fantasize about that poop-themed restaurant and the hilarious meal I could have had there.
Tegwyn is currently living that #brokestudentlife, but she’s finding ways to travel despite the empty wallet. She likes overpriced groceries, tiny tattoos, and soy cappuccinos, and hates Canadian winters, slow walkers, and staying up past midnight. Stay updated with Tegwyn on Instagram.
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