Originally posted on Caixin Global
The end of the year is nearing, and before that, the great migration of Golden Week. If you are like me, you bought flights months ago for your winter, if not also summer, travel. Now you can no longer delay planning what to do with your kids once you land. Having done this a few times — and many more times for my clients — here is my hard-learned advice for traveling China with your family.
1. Don’t try to cover all of China in one trip
A typical family itinerary includes Beijing for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, Xi’an for the Terracotta Army, Chengdu for the pandas, and Shanghai for Disney. Don’t do this if you know you can afford another trip to China later on. Yes, these are all important cities with classic sites, but in the summer all these locations are hot, hot, hot — nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s miserable enough just to walk straight through the Forbidden City, a mere kilometer walk. But with all the side visits inside the palace, that walk can stretch into four hours under the sun. You are guaranteed a whiny child — who will possibly turn into a thirty-pound weight for you to carry — in no time. When visiting all these classic sights day after day, your China trip can turn into drudgery for everyone involved in no time. The best thing to do is to visit one major city like Beijing, and then fly off to Yunnan or Tibet to spend the second half of the trip cooling off, where temperatures are likely to be closer to 25 degrees Celsius during the day.
Image by Chastagner Thierry via Unsplash
2. Don’t wait until July or August to travel
China’s school year generally finishes in mid-July, a full month after schools in the US. Take advantage of this window and go to China in mid- or late-June, and leave China by mid-July. Most Chinese students only get to travel in the summer as well, so train tickets, plane tickets, and even entrance tickets to sights like the Forbidden City can sell out quickly. If you can, go to China early rather than late. Then plan to send your kids to summer camps later in July and August.
3. Don’t cover too many sights in one day
I have three kids: one 16-year-old boy and two girls aged 13 and 10. The 16-year-old is on a completely different schedule, so I often take my two girls to travel together. Anytime we go anywhere, they ask me to promise one thing beforehand: Not to do too many touristy things. When we were in Rome, we agreed to do one two- to three-hour tour every day, but after that, be free to roam. It was the best decision, as we took the touring part as a daily lesson in history or art, and dedicated the rest of our time to vacationing. Even in China, where we lived for many years, I am ashamed to say that we haven’t visited that many must-see sights.
Image by Ray Rui via Unsplash
So on this trip, we will visit the Temple of Heaven, and maybe the Forbidden City – but that’s it. In our free time, I will install WeChat on their phones and link their WeChat Pay to my bank card, so that they can walk around the neighborhood and buy ice cream or chips with their phones. I will also install a bike-sharing app so that we can all ride bikes around to shop or to go to the movies.
This is the new China I want them to experience, the one that’s modern and changing fast. While my Apple Pay is often refused in the US, you can walk around China for an entire two weeks with just a phone. WeChat Pay requires the app to be tied to a Chinese bank account, but it’s worth the trouble to open an account at a local bank in Beijing, even if it’s just for 10 days. The formerly cash-only society is now completely cashless, and that’s what I want my kids to be exposed to – not just the touristy sites.
4. Don’t ban social media
If I could ban Instagram and Snapchat from my kids’ phones, I would. But in China, I install a VPN to help them stay on their favorite platforms. A few things won’t work in China: Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. As for Facebook and Twitter, my kids couldn’t care less – those are old-fashioned anyway. But Instagram and Snapchat are their lifelines to friends at home. The grim prospect of losing touch dampens their enthusiasm for China, so I promise them a VPN to sweeten the deal. A VPN is an app you can download to your phone that helps you access sites that are unavailable in China, and they cost around $15 a month (although if you’re in China for a shorter trip, most apps have a free trial period). It sounds complicated, but once it’s installed, it’s fairly simple to use. I want to encourage my girls to post and share what surprises them or what entertains them in China. This way, they tend to be more observant of their surroundings.
5. Don’t be frugal
Every time I return to China, I am amazed by what a bargain Chinese luxury hotels are. In New York, $250 will get me a room at the Residence Inn in Jersey City. But in China, I can stay at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Shanghai for the same price, where there is a nice pool to splash around in to cool off.
Image by Rosewood Beijing
There is a Chinese saying that goes: “Be frugal at home, but spend generously on the road.” I abide by this completely. When at home, and you have a nice kitchen and fresh produce from the farmers’ market, there is no need to eat out unless it’s a special occasion. But when you’re on the road, spending a few nights at a luxurious hotel with amazing breakfast buffet, and a gorgeous pool, your kids will love their China trip. It costs a little more, but the experience is worth a lot more. So why not?
Mei Zhang is the founder of WildChina and author of Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham, out via Penguin Books. Follow Mei’s travels on Instagram at @wildchinamei.