Would you go so low to go on a group tour?
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
632Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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Next, marriage, mortgage . . . death.
This former classmate had been on a Contiki tour - something like 18 countries in 23 days. Or was it 23 countries in 18 days?
From his stories, it seemed to involve travelling long distances on a bus to places you may or may not have heard of. The fellow travellers were all in the same boat - Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and even some South Africans. The main objective of the tour was to tick off each place and drink their beer. And possibly shag everyone else on the bus (an unlikely dream).
So what was his take on his sample trip to the other side of the world? "Done Europe. Got that out of my system."
I don't wish to 'dis tours. In fact one bit of travel writing advice I came across was:
don't be afraid to go on a tour.
Why? For starters, it can save time and hassle and money. Package tourist often enjoy a holiday at quite a discount to what FIT travelers cobble together.
Not always though. Some tour companies charge high daily fees which are out of proportion to how much they pay local guides and how much a night's accommodation costs. For example in this part of Asia, you would be lucky to get a tour in a small group with an outfit like Intrepid for less than $80 a day. This is a little steep, when accommodation costs start at a few dollars, and transport is similar. Food - you can each for under $1 a meal.
But to show that I am not prejudiced against tours, any company that wants to offer me a round-the-world trip will not be turned down.
The Sun-Herald ran an interesting story this week trying to dispel the myths about going on tour with others.
For the status-conscious traveller there is a certain vanity attached to being called a traveller and not a tourist. As Evelyn Waugh wrote: "The tourist is always the other chap."
The trouble is, whether you arrive by dugout canoe or air-conditioned tour bus, sleep in a mud hut or a nice hotel room, you're still an outsider and by definition a tourist.
It is best to accept that when you visit a foreign place you'll never be more than a stranger in a strange land - no matter how many mud huts you sleep in - and that in many instances those on the group tour are doing it better than you.
Since 1855 when Thomas Cook escorted his first group on a lap of Europe, myths and misconceptions have surrounded group tours. Some "travellers" think of them as nothing more than large, amorphous groups, chugging across the country with an "If it's Tuesday, it must be Paris" mentality.
But times have changed. Today, the group-tour customer has evolved into a different kind of animal; one who demands more freedom of choice, more physical activity and more adventure. As a group tour enthusiast, I'm going to bust some common myths that may be stopping you from getting the best out of your journeys.
MYTH 1: GROUP TOURS ARE EXPENSIVE
Wanderlust, the most demanding of all impulses, is an expensive habit and as such, addicts must be careful with their pennies - because as every vagabond knows, a penny saved is a penny towards the next trip.
Group tours can work out cheaper than flying solo, particularly if you compare an all-inclusive tour to a self-drive holiday. On top of the initial cost of the hire car and the exorbitant price of fuel, there are also road tolls and overnight parking fees plus the chance of fines and other mishaps.
On a recent driving holiday through Portugal it cost me EUR49 (NZ$108) to travel along a tiny section of a tollway because I had taken the wrong lane and didn't have a ticket. The big advantage of going on a tour is that unexpected expenses such as these operate under the SOP principle - Someone Else's Problem.
Group tours are particularly good value when travelling to remote regions and also for singles. Sue Badyari, chief executive of World Expeditions, says that 52 per cent of its customers are single travellers and by sharing with others, they can avoid the single person supplement.
Jane Meggitt, music teacher and serial traveller with World Expeditions, says the all-inclusive, up-front cost of the tours helps her to budget. She also values the experience, expertise and knowledge of local customs, particularly when she has limited time.
"In my job I work hard and long hours, so it suits me to have someone else make all of the plans and do the hard work," she says. "That way it's a real holiday."
Over the past 15 years, Meggitt has been on numerous walking trips with World Expeditions to remote places such as the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Peru, Bolivia and the Himalayas and is now planning to trek across the high passes of Bhutan.
Meggitt has been married for 40 years but, since her husband doesn't like walking and camping, she has found in World Expeditions the perfect travel buddy.
MYTH 2: YOU CAN'T HAVE AN AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE
Sometimes I travel under my own steam, sometimes I join a tour and sometimes I have a boot in each camp.
Either way, the fastest route to an authentic travel experience is to hang out with someone who knows the place. A friend (with a spare bedroom) works well, failing that, you can't go past a good, local guide - and that's where group tours excel.
On a Trafalgar tour of Croatia I was fortunate to have a wonderful, Croatian born-and-bred tour leader, Nevin. As we travelled from Dubrovnik, through Bosnia, then on to Split and Zagreb, we spent many days discussing, debating and yes, even arguing about the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.
If I were on my own, armed only with my guidebook and my ignorance, I doubt whether my experience would have been as transforming.
MYTH 3: YOU CAN'T INTERACT WITH LOCALS
Travel really is about the people you meet, not the places you visit. Choose a tour that has two or more nights in each place and you'll have plenty of time to mix it up with the locals.
Travel is not a spectator sport, so try some local activities - hire a mountain bike, go for a swim or a kayak or watch a game of football. If you just stick to the shops and markets, the only people you'll meet will be after your money and you'll end up feeling like a walking ATM.
In some countries it makes good sense to start off independently, particularly in the big cities, and then continue on with a group tour. This works well when you need to cover vast distances or want to get off the beaten track.
Sally Hammond, travel writer and author of Playing Chopsticks, has travelled extensively throughout China independently and with Helen Wong's Tours. Hammond says it is equally possible to meet locals while on a group tour, particularly once you get out into the countryside.
"It all depends on how much you want to interact," she says. "Though it's usually up to you to take the initiative, locals are often very curious about strangers and may approach you to help them with their English."
MYTH 4: THERE'S NO OPPORTUNITY TO EXPLORE ON YOUR OWN
Good tour companies recognise that some of the best travel experiences happen when you leave things to chance. Jen Bird, co-ordinator for Kimberley Wild Expeditions, has travelled the world and understands the importance of free time when travelling.
"Time for independent exploration and reflection is essential in anyone's travelling experience," she says.
On tours to Cape Leveque, travellers are given the opportunity to tailor their own experience to their particular interests, whether it's snorkelling, walking, fishing or kayaking.
"Even if it is only for a few hours, people need the time to explore and relax as they please," she says.
Peregrine Adventures operates small group tours with a maximum of 15 travellers. This means it can be flexible and modify activities to suit the group but the framework is still in place and the small details are taken care of.
"Peregrine travellers enjoy flexibility but still like to have the itinerary fairly set," says Jane Reed, Peregrine's marketing manager.
Philip Norman, an education manager at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, recently combined two Peregrine tours of South America with two weeks of independent travel.
"The tours were so personal and so friendly, just like family," Norman says. "Because of that and the flexibility it felt like 'our' tour, rather than someone else's."