Anyone considering a trip to North Korea – and to China too, for that matter – will have plenty on their mind. You are welcome to call or email me anytime with your questions. On this page I’ll cover a wide range of things you should know.
FLIGHTS We will fly to Beijing on a major North American, European or Asian carrier, most likely with one stop and certainly not more than two. There are nonstop flights from New York to Beijing taking about 14 hours, but I avoid them for two reasons: they are much more expensive and they sell out well in advance. While there are several options available, my choice is based on a total transit time of 24 hours or less, and arrival in Beijing (which is 12 hours ahead of New York time) in the morning or early afternoon. You can expect something like this: Swiss Air, New York to Zurich, 3 hour stopover and change of aircraft, Zurich to Beijing, total time 20 hours; or Cathay Pacific, New York to Vancouver to Hong Kong, 90 minute stopover and change of aircraft, Hong Kong to Beijing, total time 21 hours. (These examples might not conform to current schedules.) The return home would follow a similar timetable.
The only way I can offer this tour at the cost I do is by purchasing discounted and restricted (nonrefundable, nontransferable) round-trip air tickets between New York and Beijing. Standard nonstop airfare, flexible and refundable, can easily cost twice as much, even in economy class, and especially in summer high season. Also, I much prefer flying out of JFK, but there is a small chance, should space be unavailable, of departing from and/or returning to Newark. My priority is to arrive in Beijing at a reasonable hour. Should we fly from Newark, I will meet up with members at either JFK or the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan, and pay for the transfer to Newark. (Note: If you are a group from outside the New York metro area, you can begin and end a tour at any major airport near your location. I will fly to meet you there.)
The flight between Beijing and Pyongyang takes about ninety minutes. Most likely, we will be flying Air China in one direction, and Air Koryo (the North Korean carrier, which has an excellent safety record) in the other.
HOTELS In Beijing we stay at the Kings Joy Hotel, a two-star hotel popular with European budget tour groups. I stayed here in 2013 and was very satisfied. It has all the amenities that one needs, and there isn’t a hotel in this city with a better location: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are within easy walking distance, great shopping is a five minute stroll away, and the traditional Hutong district is literally steps out the door. The Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang is as luxorious as it gets in North Korea; it might not be the Hilton, but it’s definitely a nice play to stay. The hotels elsewhere in the country do not have the same standard or atmosphere, but they are still clean, comfortable and adequate. The tour cost is based on double occupancy. If you are traveling alone, you will share a room with another person of the same sex. Single room supplement will be quoted on request.
GROUP SIZE Between 10 and 20 on all tours.
INSURANCE While I do not require that you take out a travel insurance policy for the duration of this trip, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND IT. It would cost you a fortune, in a dire emergency, to be airlifted to a hospital, just to give you one scenario. A comprehensive 2-week policy covering medical expenses, evacuation, cancellation and just about everything else that can go wrong, costs about $75. Most insurance companies will not cover travel in North Korea. One that does, and is endorsed by Lonely Planet, the world’s largest publisher of travel guidebooks, is World Nomads (you can select and purchase a policy from their website worldnomads.com).
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL FITNESS While this is not a difficult or rugged tour by any means, neither is it a luxury tour. It’s best described as a “down to earth, young at heart” tour. If you have traveled only in the U.S. and Europe, be aware that local conditions, especially in North Korea, will fall short of what you’re accustomed to. In other words, you can expect some minor inconveniences, so you need to have a “go with the flow” attitude and accept it as part of the adventure. For example, it’s a near certainty that there will be at least one temporary power outage in North Korea (bring a flashlight!), and in the far northeast, some stretches of road are in deplorable shape, and there may be delays while work crews repair them. Also, changing money in Chinese banks can take up to an hour, and while there are ATM machines in Beijing, not all of them work. (I will give you detailed advice on money matters when the time comes.)
Since Beijing has horrendous traffic jams, we take the express train from the airport into the city, and then the metro (subway) to Qianmen Station, which is an experience in itself (don’t worry, just follow me!). From here it’s a half-mile walk to our hotel. (If you wish, you can take a taxi, at your own expense, from either Qianmen Station, or Dongzhimen Station, which is the terminus of the airport train.) We will also be walking about a mile, through Tiananmen Square, to visit the Forbidden City. This is all flat walking at an unhurried pace, which any reasonably fit person can easily do, and the best way to get a feel for the city. Transport to the acrobat show and the Great Wall is by bus or passenger van, with pick-up and drop-off at our hotel.
On our visit to the Great Wall, we head to the section further out from Beijing known as Mutianyu, which is much less crowded and equally if not more beautiful than the Badaling section, a crushing mob scene in the summer months. Mutianyu, like Badaling, has some steep segments. Walking atop the Wall is an awesome experience, and you’ll have plenty of time to explore it at your own pace. Depending on your level of fitness, you can hike it for three miles, a few hundred yards, or anything in between.
If you have a pre-existing medical condition, you must inform me (as well as your insurance company) before booking. Emergency care is available in both countries, but it is not up to Western standards, especially in North Korea. In an emergency YPT and I will offer assistance, of course, but if you require rest or hospitalization, the tour must continue and you will be on your own.
ALL-INCLUSIVE TOUR COST The price of all tours includes: All flights originating and terminating in any major city, all taxes, transfers, tours, admissions, hotels, meals, gratuities and all visas and visa service fees. There are no hidden charges of any kind. In the event of an unforeseen, drastic hike in operating costs (such as a major devaluation of the U.S. dollar), a surcharge may be imposed, but such an event is highly unlikely. Note that deposit and payment requirements, along with terms and conditions, vary according to the nature of the tour. You will be provided with all the information you need well in advance of initial payment.
NOT INCLUDED Items of a personal nature, such as laundry and gifts. Excess baggage fees, as imposed by the airline (no need to overpack!). One beverage (beer, soft drink or bottled water) is included with all meals; extra beverages, or wine or cocktails (where available), are not. Drinks and beverages outside of meals are excluded, as is personal travel insurance. Any activities not listed in the itinerary are excluded, as are options that might be offered in North Korea, such as bowling, billiards, amusement park rides or street games. Occasionally, you will have the opportunity, in addition to regular meals, to try local specialties in North Korea (dog soup, anyone?); these are not included. Most everything mentioned here is relatively inexpensive – between $5 and $10. NOTE: At this writing it is uncertain if the annual Arirang Mass Games, which usually begin in late July and run through September, will take place. (For some reason, they were not held in 2015. Check for updated news about the Mass Games on youngpioneertours.com) If they do take place, you will not want to miss this: it’s practically worth the whole trip in itself. The admission charge, payable at time of performance, is not included in the tour cost. Depending on your choice of seating level, the charge ranges from about $80 to $200.
VISAS A visa is an official endorsement – usually in the form of a stamp or sticker applied on a blank page in your passport (or rarely, as in the case of North Korea, on a separate small piece of paper) – allowing you to visit a country. Visas are examined at the point of entry. Very few countries in the western hemisphere and in Europe require tourist visas of U.S. citizens, but most Asian countries, including China and North Korea, do require them.
I will mail you visa application forms for both countries, and they will need to be completed and returned to me, along with your passport and four passport-sized photographs, as soon as I know the tour will operate. The information they request is similar to an employment application, but the Chinese form is very detailed. I forward North Korean applications to Young Pioneer Tours’ office in China. They obtain them from the North Korean embassy in Beijing, and will distribute them at the pre-tour briefing. They do not need your passport; they just need a copy of the page with all your personal information, which I will scan and send to them.
In recent years it has become increasingly frustrating to apply for a Chinese visa as an individual; many travelers have had their applications rejected on the slightest pretext by fastidious Chinese embassy or consulate officials. For that reason I use the visa services offered by Golden Day Tours, whose staff is Chinese and who have a smooth working relationship with the Chinese UN consulate in New York, which issues visas.
Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the last day of the tour, and it must have at least two completely blank pages for a Chinese visa and entry/exit stamps. The word “visas” must be printed on each page; the last three pages in the newer U.S. passports are not acceptable.
Note that if you are a journalist – specifically, if your name appears in the database of any major news organization – North Korea will reject your visa application. They will definitely run a computer search, so if journalism is your occupation, please do not apply.
Unless there’s a red flag on your application, it’s a near certainty that both countries will issue you a tourist visa.
The cost of a double entry Chinese visa is $130, plus $60 per person for the service charge. All visa-related fees are included in the tour cost.
SAFETY Serious crimes targeting foreign tourists are very rare in China. While not a frequent occurrence, incidents of petty theft from hotel rooms and pickpocketing in crowded places have been reported. Just use common sense precautions and it’s unlikely you’ll have any problems. As for North Korea, crimes of any kind committed against foreigners are virtually unheard of. Both countries are very safe to visit.
HEALTH Both China and North Korea are fairly healthy countries. The great majority of tourists experience nothing worse than a few days of traveler’s diarrhea, and many don’t even get that. There are no exotic diseases to worry about, there are no vaccination requirements, and in my opinion vaccinations of any kind are unnecessary.
FOOD Most food you’ll eat in China is not all that different from the Chinese take-out meals we’re all familiar with. The breakfast buffet at the Kings Joy Hotel includes both Chinese and Western selections and is quite satisfying. Most meals in China are taken in the hotel restaurant, which offers a wide choice of tasty dishes. If, however, you enjoy the freedom of eating out on your own (there are several restaurants within a two or three minute walk from the Kings Joy), I will refund you my cost for any skipped meal.
In North Korea this freedom does not exist; all meals are group meals at designated restaurants. That said, most meals are a pleasant and atmospheric occasion, and the food, while not gourmet, ranges from okay to surprisingly good. Hot western breakfasts are served each morning, and there will be a variety of fish, chicken and beef dishes for lunch and dinner, along with local vegetables. Kimchi, the spicy, pickled cabbage eaten everywhere in Korea, is always on the table, and we’re sure to enjoy one or two outdoor barbecues, maybe even with the locals.
WEATHER North Korea and Beijing municipality lie roughly at the same latitude as the area between Baltimore and New York City, and seasonal temperatures are similar. During my stay, during the first two weeks of August, daytime temperatures were in the low to mid eighties, and in the mid to upper sixties at night, with two or three days of intermittent rain – about what we get here on Long Island. I need not say that no one can predict the weather, but the odds are good that it will have no effect on the enjoyment of the tour.