I'll do a trip log for our China trip, just like I always do. But I'm finding that China is much more difficult to navigate than our typical destinations, and it's harder to find the information I need to do it effectively -- especially with kids. (I'm guessing that much of the information I need is out there... in Chinese.) So I'll do some shorter posts covering some of the details, and link to those from my all-up trip log.
The first step to planning any trip to China is getting a visa. They are a royal pain to obtain! For starters, they're ridiculously expensive. A normal tourist visa costs $140! That's more than a US passport! And while a passport is good for 5 years (for kids) or 10 years (for adults), a Chinese visa is good for only a single entry. You can get a multiple-entry visa for the same price, but even then, it's only good for a few months. What a rip-off!
Also, you cannot mail in a visa application, or get your passport with your visa mailed back to you. If you're lucky enough to live in one of the five US cities with a Chinese consular general, this isn't a problem. Houston is one of those cities, and we briefly considered driving down to get our visas done, but it would have been a full-day expedition (it's about a four hour drive from Dallas, one way). Then, we would have had to either pay even more for same-day service, or plan on repeating the journey a few days later to pick up the visas.
Instead, we decided to use a visa service. A quick web search for "cheap Chinese visa service" turned up a link to Chinese Visa Express. It's a little scary mailing your passport off to some random place, just weeks before you're supposed to leave the country. So I called beforehand to ask a question about the application, and was encouraged when someone picked up the phone immediately and helped me with my question. At least I knew I could get ahold of a human being if my passports disappeared!
This service worked out well for our family because they will send up to five passports back under the same return shipping fee, rather than charging a flat rate per passport. So "all" we had to pay (on top of the actual visa fee) was a $16.95 service fee + $4.95 processing fee per passport, plus a single return shipping fee of $23.95, for a total of just under $90 for the kids and me. Not too bad, considering my husband's visa service cost nearly $100 -- thankfully, paid for by his work, since this was a business trip for him.
The actual visa application process wasn't too hard. Chinese Visa Express provides a link to download the application forms (in PDF format) from their website. You have to fill out the form on your computer and then print it -- you cannot print it and fill it in by hand. You also need to provide a recent passport-size picture. As I mentioned previously, I used ePassportPhoto to do this easily and cheaply.
Even though we were doing all this over the Christmas holiday, the passports were returned very promptly, about 1.5 weeks later. This was for their regular service. They do offer various levels of expedited service if you need your visa back faster.
I would definitely recommend Chinese Visa Express if you need to get a Chinese visa.