In 2014, having taken our then-7-and-6-year-old kids to Europe a few times, we started thinking about taking them further away, perhaps to see the Great Wall of China, or other such places.
A confluence of things happened in the Fall of 2014 for us:
- My coworkers were noting how relatively inexpensive airfare to Asia was in the fall. We ended up paying a bit over $600/person to China, in range of a mid-summer coast-to-coast US ticket. This price range is still doable to parts of Asia in the fall.
- At our kids’ then-grade school, Thanksgiving week in late November was set up as somewhat of a “throw-away” week (just parent-teacher conferences on Monday & Tuesday, and Wednesday-Friday off).
- With China’s massive growth in recent decades, as well as its rich history as a culture and ancient civilization, we thought that China would be a worthwhile place in Asia to take our kids to.
- Fall (and spring) are the good weather times to visit China.
Hence, our travel imagination gears started turning.
Choosing Beijing for a week
We don’t speak Chinese (well, maybe a handful of courtesy phrases). That said, we had been to China 8 years earlier, pre-kids, and we starting thinking about how hard it might be to retrace some of our steps, albeit with kids.
For our previous 2006 pre-kids trip, we had hired a local guide+driver (at a fairly reasonable price), and during the course of that trip, realized that China was more accessible than we expected. For instance, in the city center, street signs had the English romanizations of the street names, so we weren’t completely illiterate for getting around. And if one had a book or map with both English and Chinese names of things, one could point the taxi driver to the appropriate Chinese characters, use a few mangled travel phrases, and [usually] make it to the right place. Also, we always felt fairly safe there, which can help quite a bit.
So, feeling a bit adventurous, we thought we’d try to take the kids to China on our own. To simplify things, we decided on a single city – Beijing for a week, with a single base to stay. Avoiding lots of in-country transfers can simplify things quite a bit.
Why Beijing? Beijing as the capital easily has enough to keep us busy for the week we set aside for a trip. The Great Wall of China is an easy day trip from the city.
The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, etc. are all headliner sites to recommend.
There are first-class national museums there, and pandas at the national zoo.
On the lighter side, there are tourist-oriented performances for the kids to see (think Kung-Fu and acrobatics).
There’s access to lots of local restaurants that are both tasty and a good value.
There are definitely other cities in China that we’d like to see as a family, e.g. the modernity of Shanghai, the Terracotta warriors in Xian, or (channeling our kids, but maybe not ideal for the pandas) hugging a panda in the Chengdu panda research base. But, for stopping in a single place and staying for a week, Beijing is a great option.
We did briefly look into tours/guides, but ultimately we decided to tried to mostly go independently. We didn’t really want to be on a mass bus tour, where they shepherd you between captive shopping trips and mediocre buffet food. And given that we’d limited ourselves to Beijing, where we’d been before, we decided that we felt comfortable enough without a guide (though if it were our first trip there, perhaps we’d feel more comfortable with one given the language barrier).
Making the plans
Our plane tickets were fairly reasonable for a trans-pacific flight, at a hair over $600/person, given the late November departure. We did make sure to come back on Saturday rather than Sunday, to allow the kids a day to blunt the effect of jet lag.
After booking the plane tickets, we found a relatively inexpensive AirBnB for the week, with a highly-rated host. Given that it was reasonably central and a short walk to the subway, we figured that we could easily get to other parts of the city as we needed. Our AirBnB host helped with a few things – such as getting us a driver to the Great Wall and having a driver pick us up at the airport on arrival, for a standard taxi price.
One other practicality of going to China is getting a visa. The details of this can change over time, but it did involve sending our passports to the Chinese consulate and paying a relatively steep $140/person (depends on nationality). The visas cost was almost as much as we spent on accommodations for the week, though one silver lining is that now China issues visas to US citizens valid for 10 years. Initially, Jennifer drove to the San Francisco consulate, since it’s not that far from us. In retrospect, going mid-week would have been better for lines… after a glance of the insane line, she decided to use a local well-rated-on-Yelp courier service to drop off/pick up our paperwork.
Otherwise, with the main plans set, we started doing some more research – making lists of the main things we wanted to see and do. We had some idea, but we ordered some guidebooks, and ensured that we had maps and materials with both English and Chinese on them (English for us, Chinese for locals, e.g. taxi drivers). We tried to convince ourselves that we’d be able to order food once we got there, and put in some mild efforts to learn some more Chinese travel phrases. Otherwise, we started to psych ourselves up to take our kids for their first visit to the Middle Kingdom.