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Want to Tour the US for Less? Head to Chinatown.

Want to Tour the US for Less? Head to Chinatown.

Bargain hunters don’t only go to Chinatown for knock off designer handbags, they also look there to find the best prices on bus tours of America. Travelers in east and west coast US cities have come to love the “Chinatown Bus” for their no-frills service and rock bottom prices. However, the bargains do not stop there. If you want to find the cheapest way to see the most popular tourist attractions in the US, try a Chinatown tour operator.

Just as Chinatown bus service began by catering to the recent immigrant community, for years these tour operators have targeting their tours only to the Chinese speaking community. However, more recently they have been discovered by the broader market and are increasingly popular for visitors to the US and residents alike.

Sayaka Singh who lives in New York said that any time she has family visiting from India they inevitably want to take a trip to Niagara Falls. She discovered several Chinatown tour companies online and has since sent many family members to the Falls with them. She said, “You can’t beat it, for less than a hundred dollars they get transportation in a nice motorcoach, hotel accommodations, a tour of the Falls area, and several other stops along the way. They loved it.” Several of her relatives then booked a tour to Washington DC.

What to expect

These are definitely budget tours, but the value they deliver is truly unbeatable. Hotels are usually 2-star level but they tend to be national chains and are quite adequate. Plan on something equivalent to a Travelodge, however many times the hotel quality is higher. Hotels are commonly not situated in the downtown core of the city or right near an attraction.

In a style typical of tours throughout Asia, the tour itinerary is usually quite full. The pace of these tours is very rapid. You will see as many attractions as possible but will not stay at any one attraction for very long. This can be frustrating for people who like to linger or have time to explore. It is perfect for travelers who want to see a lot in a short period of time.

People from all over the world go on these tours and it is impossible to predict the demographic makeup of a group. However, do not expect an “all-American” crowd. You should expect multilingual tour guide and many non-English speakers on the tour. Many people cite the mix of people as their favorite aspect of the tours (“I felt like I was part of a UN delegation, it was great!”). The tour guide will not give an in-depth narrated tour and will speak in both Chinese and English. The tour guide will also arrange for the group to stop for meals. This is usually simple fare such as a rest stop food court or a Chinese restaurant.

How do they do it?

$99 for a 3-day tour from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon; $85 for a 2-day tour from NYC to Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—it is hard to fathom how they can offer such low fares.

These companies run very streamlined operations and work on slim margins. The key to their model is that the tour buses are full. They tend to operate tours only to the most popular destinations (ie. Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Niagara Falls, Washington DC), and they sometimes cancel a tour if not enough people book it. Often these tour companies use charter buses and therefore do not have the expense of maintaining and operating a fleet of buses, something that may not really be their area of expertise.

Since the tour companies run tours on a regular schedule, they are able to negotiate very good room rates with hotels. Therefore they can still offer low rates even during a busy time of year. They also save money by paying their tour guides very little. Customers are expected to tip the tour guides and this really their main source of compensation.

What exactly is included?

All tours include hotel, tour guide and transportation. Most include entrance fees to any national parks when applicable. Some also include admission to attractions. Read the tour details carefully or inquire before you book if you are not sure. Optional tours can add to the cost of your tour and you should budget accordingly. Usually the tour guide will organize the optional tours for the group and you will pay the guide directly.

How do I find these tours?

Almost any city that has a sizable Asian population will most likely have a tour operator specializing in multi-day budget tours. New York, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Los Angeles have dozens of tour operators. Most likely they will not advertise in the same places that traditional tour companies do. Your best bet is to look online.

These tours are a terrific option for travelers who want to see some of America’s most popular sights but do not have a lot of time and want a great value. For far less than you would pay if you went on your own, you can sit back and have someone else make all the arrangements for you. As an added bonus you will also get to experience a great diversity of cultures along the way.