We began by watching the price of flights on several airlines. Because we would be traveling as a family, assuring we found a good price was our first priority. My husband then confirmed he would be able to get time off from work before booking the flights. Fortunately, we purchased tickets about 10 months in advance, so this provided us plenty of time to take care of the other logistical things that go along with international travel.
We had previously traveled to Scandinavia, so we already had valid passports in hand. However, my passport was to expire in July of this year. It was thereby necessary for me to renew. To do so, I downloaded the renewal application (Form DS-82), had new passport photos taken at Costco (only $7.99 per person), and submitted the application. It took a few weeks to process, so I highly recommend to do this well in advance to avoid paying unnecessary rush fees.
For China, I looked over the packages offered by several tour companies and we all sat down and made a list of the sights we wanted to see and the activities we most wanted to experience. I then compiled a list using the sample tour packages as a guideline for the number of days we would spend in each area. I then shared this list with Shawn, our Mandarin language instructor and his wife for feedback. They offered a few suggested changes (another night here, fewer nights here, etc.) and gave us tips of what foods we should try in each city, what sights were not to be missed, and how best to travel about the city. If you do not have the fortune to have a knowledgeable person to look over your itinerary, I would suggest using one of the tour companies that plan the trip on your behalf. You'll find companies that specialize in itineraries for adventurous souls, families, small groups, and large. It all depends upon what you are looking for and desire in your holiday.
During this process, I like to keep my notes organized in a word processing program. Prior to our departure, I will print this document and keep it alongside our passports, tickets, and other important papers. Things we need to remember to do upon arrival are highlighted in red and the activities and sights we don't want to miss are listed for quick reference.
We will have three weeks in China and hope to take in as much as possible. The cities we plan to tour are Beijing, Pingyao, Xi'an, Chengdu, Shanghai, Yangshuo, and Hong Kong. In the larger cities, we have a few days so may be able to also enjoy a few day excursions to smaller cities nearby.
4. Lodging Reservations
Making the necessary reservations, in my opinion, is the most dreaded and time consuming step of the entire process. Seeking out accommodations in each city (assuring the location is convenient to walk to dining establishments, popular tourist sites, and/or public transportation), checking for availability, and ultimately making a reservation (often requiring a deposit) takes a lot of time. I highly recommend dividing this into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, tackle reservations for one city each week.
5. In Country Transportation .. by Train or by Air ?
We enjoy traveling by train because it allows us to take in as much of the countryside as possible. In China, it is not possible to make train reservations in advance from the states. This is our only cause for concern - if you haven't seen the movie, Last Train Home, I highly suggest it as it provides a good visual of the complications that arise when traveling during a busy holiday. In an effort to avoid crowds, we purposely chose to travel prior to the Mid-Autumn Festival in September. Shawn also recommended that upon checking in to our hotel, we ask the concierge or hotel clerk to obtain outbound train tickets on our behalf for our departure. Most hotels that cater to foreign travelers can do so.
6. Tourist Visa
Most visitors to China will require a tourist visa ($140 per person) which will allow them to travel freely in most parts of China as tourists or to visit or accompany Chinese family members. You can come to the Chinese Embassies, Consulates and other Chinese diplomatic missions to submit an application in person; if you can't come personally, you can entrust someone else, a travel agency or a visa agency to act on your behalf. Application requirements include: Applicant's passport must have at least 6 months remaining validity and available blank pages; one truly completed Visa Application Form, copies of the roundtrip airline ticket and hotel reservation, and a recent passport-size color photo with white background stuck on the application form. The tourist visa is valid for 90 days after issue so it is wise to obtain the visa just a few weeks prior to your scheduled departure. We are fortunate to live within a few hours of a consulate and will thereby be making a day trip later this summer.
Vaccinations are not required for entry into China. However, it is wise to have some vaccinations. Please refer to the cdc website for current restrictions and recommendations: www.cdc.gov/travel
8. Build EnthusiasmAs our anticipation builds, I have enjoyed adding pins to my Pinterest board, China Bound. I also follow the city of Chengdu on Facebook and have discovered many clever marketing videos, including 90 seconds to Love the City of Chengdu. Of course, Jiejie really enjoyed this one, Maersk in Chengdu. As we prepare for our trip, we have also enjoyed many cultural and language lessons, many of which I have described here. For example, Do You Know Your Chinese Cities?
9. What to Pack
As Classical Unschoolers (the style in which we approach our education), we are learning all the time and take advantage of teachable moments. While traveling, we don't bring along curriculum. Not only is it too much to pack .. but we would likely ignore it. Therefore, one of the things we always bring along is a blank journal in which we document our daily activities.
10. Enjoy the Moment
Take lots of pictures. Try new and unusual foods. Do what the locals do. Sit back and take it all in.