In early 2009 I submitted a paper to an aerospace conference in Daejeon, S. Korea to take place in October 2009. Once it was accepted, I decided that since my company was going to send me to east Asia, I may as well take advantage of it and spend a couple weeks in China as a tourist. I was locked in to whatever my company gave me for the flight from Houston to Seoul, and from there I was on my own. For budgetary reasons it was better for me to see Shanghai, then Beijing, then Hong Kong, before going back to Seoul.
For flights between cities, I looked at the major fare aggregator sites based in the US (like Orbitz and Travelocity) as well as some Chinese sites (in particular, english.ctrip.com and www.elong.net) which gave me some better prices for routes not on the US sites. I eventually had a travel agent look at some itineraries and he found a couple routes that were even better. (Out of 4 legs, 2 were from the travel agent and 2 were from either ctrip or elong.) I ended up flying Delta from Houston to Atlanta, Korean Air to Seoul, Asiana to Shanghai, Hainan to Beijing, Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then to Seoul, then Korean and Delta back to Houston.
Some airport notes: Shanghai PVG is their international airport, SHA is their domestic one. Hong Kong is considered an international flight, so make that the first or last stop on a multi-city journey, otherwise you'll need a multi-entrance visa to get into China twice. You'll need a visa to get into China but you don't need one for a short visit to Hong Kong. And if you're in Hong Kong, Macau is a separate international destination with its own passport and customs controls.
I tried to look at hotels that were around $100 per night, and found locations and ratings via TripAdvisor. Then I booked the hotel at whichever website (Orbitz, direct, hotels.com, etc.) had the cheapest rate. I got better rates via the web than my travel agent was able to find.
My style of solo independent travel is more seat-of-the-pants, winging-it. I went through the guidebooks and marked off things that sounded interesting (sights, restaurants, shopping, etc.) and prioritized them and grouped them roughly geographically. I'll make a list of things to do that day, with everything else on the "to do/Plan B" list. Depending on time or location, things may be added to or drop off the day's itinerary. Sometimes that means I do things in the wrong order from what I should have done, or I miss something. Of the three cities, I only took a bus tour of Hong Kong. Even in retrospect, I don't think I missed out by not doing it in Shanghai or Beijing, but because of how densely packed Hong Kong is, the tour was a good idea.
I got some very helpful suggestions from a couple of friends who had been there before, and who helped mark up my maps with places to go and things to do, and I tried to take those into account when building my itineraries. Guidebooks are great but it helps when you can speak to someone who's been there.
I liked all three cities, but I happened to rank them in the reverse order of visiting: I liked Hong Kong the best and Shanghai the least of the three (though I didn't dislike Shanghai). HK was both modern and old Chinese, but vibrant and up all night; Beijing had the "holy shit!" moments like the Olympic Stadium and the Great Wall and gorgeous weather, but suffered from traffic and security issues related to National Day when I was there; and Shanghai was cloudy and rainy and under a lot of construction. I'm sure Shanghai will be better once the Expo is over and the crowds leave.
Some general thoughts and tips:
· I think the only word of Chinese I learned was how to say "Thank you", which is roughly "xiexie" or "sheh-sheh". Most people would smile and nod in appreciation when I said it, whether I was speaking English or Chinese to them. In fact, when I said it, many would respond "thank you" in English to me.
· I was able to get by with speaking no Chinese. I knew that in the cities I visited many people do speak some English, and I counted on their knowing my language to make myself understood. However, if I did find someone who did not speak English, it was my problem, not theirs. I would thank them politely, dip my head, and move on.
· That said, most people understand hand gestures, like miming "can I take your picture?" or "I'll have one of these and two of those please". Once, in Shanghai, I was waiting for a cab near a woman who was likewise waiting for a cab, and we were both getting frustrated that the cabs kept passing us. We looked at each other and shrugged like "I don't know what's going on here", then smiled at each other for making the same gesture.
· Pretty much everyone I met was hugely friendly, I don't think I had a bad experience with the locals (not counting one particular shop in Hong Kong). One man in Beijing helped me carry my luggage down two flights of stairs and made sure I got on the correct metro, for example.
· Always have a card or something with the hotel's name and address in Chinese to show your cab driver. If you go somewhere from the hotel, ask the front desk to write it out for you.
· The metro in all three cities is wonderfully easy to use. They've got English transliterations and announcements in both English and Chinese. Very cheap, too, no more than a couple bucks for a ride.
· Also, the maps of the Metro stations are oriented to where you're located, not "north = up". That tripped me up too many times when I started walking the wrong way out of the station – if you want to go west, make sure to match up the street names and the compass indicator before you leave.