Last Summer (2019), my family and I decided to meet up in New York and take a couple of days to do an East Coast tour while there.
We like to go with tour companies in places where we don’t know anyone (like Bangkok) and it just saves us a lot of hassle of figuring out and researching every place we have to go to, transportation options etc etc. I mean don’t get me wrong, we also do self-tours, but sometimes going on these tour buses is just way easier.
So anyway, in this particular trip, we decided to do a self-tour of New York and then rely on a tour for the rest of the cities around the East Coast. I asked around and I heard from several friends who have had experiences going on these “Chinese tour buses” that it was a good experience for a very good price. The hotels they stayed in were decent, no hidden charges, they went to the places that they were supposed to go to, and of course most importantly, the guide spoke decent English.
Why is it a Chinese tour bus? Mostly because these are tours that cater to the Chinese or Mandarin speaking community. The tour guides normally speak both Mandarin and English, and most of the patrons are people who are more comfortable with Mandarin.
And as a disclaimer, I don’t speak or understand Mandarin.
Checked out first other options for East Coast tours in viator and similar travel aggregator sites, and none could compare to the cheapness of what these tours can offer. So we decided to go with a company that a friend of mine already tried and took the 7 day East Coast Tour with America Asia Travel Center. (Am in no way affiliated with them, I just happened to take their tour)
At that time, they were having a promo for 3 people. We only paid up front around 1k USD and change for 3 people (so cheap!!), for hotels, transportation and the tour guide. There are a lot of other add ons if you would like to go inside museums etc, but all that is optional and you only pay if you want to go. Tips and of course food are excluded. Tips are mandatory though and will be mentioned upfront that you will have to pay a certain amount to the tour guide at the end of the tour.
For me this is a better option though because it gives you the power to choose what places you want to spend money on, and the ability to choose and buy food you actually want (versus it being pre-ordered and set for everyone). In the end, even with all these add ons, it’s still an amazing bargain.
The most important factor of this tour that I highly appreciated is that it didn’t force you to spend time needlessly in random souvenir shops.
Booking the tour
To be honest the booking process was a tad bit tedious considering I didn’t live in the US. We put a request in through the site but in the end (I can’t remember why exactly), I had to call them a couple of times to confirm. They are more responsive if you call them rather than through e-mails. I’m lucky I have a phone plan that allows me free calls to and from the US, but otherwise it would have been unfortunate to spend a lot on phone calls.
Payment was also through bank deposit. As we did not live in the US, we asked someone we know in the US to deposit the money for us to avoid all tha bank charges.
Joining the tour
The tour includes a pick up in the airport. We were already in New York at this time so it didn’t make sense to go to the airport with all our bags only to be picked up again and brought to the hotel. We decided to just go straight to the hotel on that day.
I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t super easy to make this known to the agency. They couldn’t really understand what we wanted to do and in the end I had to keep calling them a couple of times to find out what hotel we had to go to. They don’t know the hotel immediately and I think we only finally found out a day before the start of the tour so that was a bit of a hassle. (Thank you phone plan). In the end, it worked out and we were able to get to the hotel with no problems.
In the lobby, our guide was there and we could easily spot him. He had already checked in so it was just a matter of giving us our keys.
The first hotel we stayed in was a Ramada Plaza in New Jersey, near Newark airport. Decent hotel for a night’s stay. Overall the quality of the hotels was somewhere in this range (mid), normally out of city and near highways. The best one we stayed in was an APA Hotel in Woodbridge New Jersey and the worst one was at a Quality Hotel in Niagara Falls. Considering the amount we paid, and the fact that you are only in your hotel literally to sleep (and normally only for one night), I would say the hotels were quite satisafctory. We only really had one issue with the airconditioning in that Niagara Falls hotel, but nothing too problematic.
The buses that we used for the tour were quite decent and clean. They were not luxury buses by any stretch of the imagination, but they were good enough and clean enough to be comfortable for up to 5 hour long drives.
There are times when there is a set restaurant and you will have to all eat in the same place, but also there are a lot of times where you have time to go grab your lunch freely and just meet back at a certain place. We were fond of this option as we weren’t always restricted to the restaurant choices set by the tour.
The tour guide we got (Wayne) was super nice and he was tough when he needed to be tough (to keep people on time, on schedule). I think he’s one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had on this kind of tour buses. He really knows the ways of the Asian community lol.
Our fellow tour goers were mainly of Asian origin, who spoke and understood Mandarin. We didn’t make much friends but everyone was cordial and nice. There wasn’t really anyone who flouted rules or didn’t follow schedule so it was quite good.
There was a nice instance when we were at Niagara Falls, and we were returning to a certain place because we were searching for a lost jacket. An elderly couple in our bus saw us and tried to tell us that we should be heading the other way as the next attraction was there (they didn’t speak much English) and we tried to explain we were searching for something. So that was a nice interaction.
How does it work?
So like any regular tour, you have a tour guide, a tour bus, and mandatory stops. All of the sites that are paying (ex. going inside museums) are optional, so if it’s not your cup of tea, you can “skip” going in. I say skip in quotes because technically you cannot really stray away from the group. You have to go where they are going and find something else to amuse yourself with during the time allotted for the exploration of a particular site you opted out of. For example, we opted not to do the tour of Princeton, so we went with the group to Princeton, but walked around on our own during the set time that they did their tour. You just have to make sure to be back in the meeting place at the time that is set. The tour guide asks you that day to confirm if you would like to join the paying options for the day, and if you confirm then you pay upfront in cash.
You will need a lot of cash though for this.
The website of the tour agency lists it down quite well, including all the optional stuff you can go to. I’ll make a different post about the sites, but for now, this is the tour:
- New York City (where you actually are at an advantage because with the tour, there is less time in the queues)
- Washington DC
- Back to New York
Overall I would recommend this tour for people who are way too busy (or lazy) to make their own plans, and would like to do this on a small budget. In my opinion, it’s quite comprehensive as a starter, but of course it is still a tour and you are bound to go where the tour dictates you to go. A big caveat here is that you have to understand that you will hear a lot of Mandarin. The tour guide will always explain things in 2 languages (English and Mandarin), but I mean honestly, it’s a small thing for the price and quality of the tour.
In the end, you can take a couple of days at a place that interests you and explore more 🙂