I feel for all of you who are just now doing their research and planning! I was right there with you last year and in the end, wished I had known just how well we would be taken care of so I could rest easier. These tours are professional. Maybe some have details that others don't. I had to go with one that fit our schedule and our budget, which was Sun. I did not know you could vary from the planned itinerary though, but if I had, I still would not have changed a thing or I would have made myself crazy trying to plan it. We had someone in our group who could not physically do all the activites so Sun had them with fewer stops and on the more active days, chose tours that were easier.
Here's what I wish I had known -
Paid more attention to how to communicate from China - I still don't know about snap chats, skype, getting sims cards there, etc. In some ways though that was a relief. I needed to focus on what was in front of me and not my phone.
If you have an android get ready - your phone, internet will work in wi-fi, but you can't dowload apps because the play store is google based. My brilliant daughters had everyone else download some app so they could talk remotely but never realized that I would be unable to do it after we got to China, so I communicated via them to everyone at home.
I don't consider myself a picky eater, but I got seriously hungry sometimes, but only because I was focused on getting my daughters the foods they loved and missed so terribly from "home", so the night we went to the duck parts deli and any night where everything was very spicy, I didn't find much that I could eat! So maybe I am picky and I should have tried it, but without me eating any they had more, which they loved! I tried McDonalds one night and remembered why I don't eat there even here and at KFC they rarely had chicken! They had their "burgers" but they were out of chicken. I think I remember that one of those two restaurants got in trouble not long after that for serving meat of unknown origins so it was just as well. Please don't bash me for not trying the food. I get sick to my stomach easily and did not want to throw any kinks in the trip.
I would have packed less cotton t-shirts. Those took forever to dry! I probably had us pack too lightly but having hurt my back just before we left, I had to be really careful about what I could carry, but wish I had packed more underwear. There is none in China if you are more than a size 0! OK, slight exaggeration, but I got tired of hand washing! And the laundry costs were way more than I remember from 6 years before. I bought a couple of lightweight dresses from old navy that were ready to go by the next morning. They were probably a poly something blend, very lightweight, cheap, and easy to throw on and go. I also would have made sure I had a pair of shorts the day we rode bikes so as not to embarrass my children quite so much, but it makes for a great story now that the only thing I had to wear was a shorter skirt!
One really important thing - buy it when you see it! You expect to find the exact same things everywhere but we did not. Jade was scarce in Nanchang. I never saw some incredible kites like those I saw at Xi'an. And the street market at Yangshuo was the only place I saw musical instruments.
There is no perfect age to take your kids. Part of my consideration is that I am older (later 50's) and I adopted my kids when they were older (6 and 11). They are both now 17. I had originally told them we would go when they were 14 but realized that would be a dreadful mistake for the daughter adopted at 11 in case she thought I was taking her back. She had not been here long enough to believe that her life truly was permanently in our family and she was well aware of the significance of turning 14 in the orphanage.
We chose not to visit the SWI, neither had fond memories or people they wanted to reconnect with. They were old enough when adopted to still have "fresh" memories of that life. Jeff in this group shared his tour guide from Nanchang, Sissi, who was marvelous. The cost was high in my budget, but she took care of so much before and after that she was well worth it.
OK, this is a lot longer than I meant for it to be, but we want to share how amazing she was. Both daughters had long term stays in foster families. Sissi found those foster families, who had moved often, fielded one of their endless calls concerning our arrival, hired a van that allowed us to transport the entire foster families to a restaurant for lunch each day. The last night there she took us home, had a traditional tea ceremony, then cooked us dinner.
The most incredible part of our time in Nanchang was that she helped us find the "finding" spot for one daughter. The street name had changed since 1998, but she knew where to find it. From there we tracked down the police officer who had actually found her. I will never be the same. He says he did not remember it as there were so many during that time. But we were interviewed for a news story and just the whole thing was incredible. I don't share many details from it as it is way too personal for her, but i have my pictures and my memory and for the first time in this long post, I am at a loss for words on the impact this made.
Just be ready for anything, be open to everything, take more money than you expect to need, and love every minute of it.