¨I’d rather go by bus.¨
Traditional Group Tours and Cruises
Myths About Group Tours and Cruises
I am amazed at how often I meet people who travel independently who believe that group tours and cruises are not for them. They have mistaken ideas of cruises and tours that keep them from even considering experiences that they would probably love.
These independent travelers imagine that most group tours and cruises:
- Are made mainly of seniors;
- Contain tourists who complain that things do not function like their home country;
- Travel around in large buses (40 to 60 people) or cruises (with 4000 to 5000 travelers onboard);
- Overwhelm their destinations with their presence;
- Spend an incredibly short time-usually just enough time to take a photo- in one place;
- Listen to guides who spout a long list of dreary facts, robotically delivered;
- Spend hours on a bus to get to the next destination without anything to do on see aboard the bus or cruise ship;
- Stay in non-descript international chain hotels or cruise cabins;
- Eat at restaurants and attend events that are bland, cliched, and do not reflect their destination.
I never considered traditional group travel experiences as a wrong way to travel, However, I harbored some of the prejudices against group travel enumerated above. These prejudices led me to believe that volunteering and learning vacations were the only way you could authentically experience another country.
Benefits of Group Tours and Cruises
Then I did some research and found that the myths noted about group tours and cruises were no longer valid. With so much travel information and options a mouse click away, tour companies and cruise ships have had to change by:
- Providing diverse activities and marketing to clients of different ages and backgrounds;
- Offering tours to all sized groups, including some small groups;
- Becoming more involved in the real lives and cultures of people in their destination; and
- Offering itineraries that visit fewer sights for more extended periods, with less travel between destinations than previously.
My Experiences with Group Tours and Cruises
I have seen the results of these changes with my own eyes. Since 2011, I have been on over fifty group tours and cruises (most one to three weeks long) and spent nearly 2.2 years engaged in these programs. Each tour company, cruise, and other group travel experience has a different personality and focus. Every experience exceeded my expectations.
The following is a list of my experiences on these tours that have defied the traditional stereotypes listed above:
- Most of my fellow tourists were well-educated, intelligent, and open to new cultures and adventures. Tours and cruises indeed tend to have more people over the age of fifty than the population in general. However, they also have a more extensive range of age groups and cultural backgrounds than the stereotypes suggest. (Interestingly, they also have an unusually high percentage of participants who were, or are, teachers);
- The guides are exceptionally patient, knowledgeable, and hard-working. They are experts at presenting relevant, detailed information about their destinations in a captivating and meaningful manner. Most are eager to answers questions and to engage in an in-depth conversation about many topics, even if the subject is controversial. The guides are also very personable and care about the well-being of the tourists;
- On most tours, I have stayed in many small, locally owned hotels and some charming and unique upper-end lodgings as well. Besides, the meals often feature tasty, authentic local dishes and ingredients;
- Tours are available for hundreds of different interests and perspectives. (Note: In the past, I was able to find several websites and books that listed and discussed these types of tours. Unfortunately, these resources seem harder to find. Please let me if you have any suggestions);
- Most tours allow considerable free time to explore a destination on your own. As a rule, you have one day free for every three or five days spent on the tour. You will also have one meal a day without the group. Some tour companies like Overseas Adventure Tours, offer optional additional tours at reasonable costs during some of the free time.
Beenfits of Group Tours
- Tours are available for a wide range of group sizes. I was on an Intrepid Tour of Turkey with only three other people; a Marina in Mexico tour in 2017 to San Luis Potosi, Mexico with six other people; a Global Exchange Reality Tour of Haiti with eight participants in 2014. (Some companies like Overseas Adventure and Intrepid Tours limit their tours to twenty or so participants);
- Some tours visit a lot of places for short times while others explore one destination in depth. I have been on, and enjoyed, Caravan Tours in the Canadian Maritimes and Central America, which feature large buses (with 40-50 participants) visiting a new place every day. On the other hand, many of Road Scholar tours I have taken have spent five or more days all in the same place;
- Many, if not, most tours have integrated many one-of-a-kind and culturally immersive experiences. Road Scholar tours include, for example, talks by professors and non-profit organization representatives, exclusive musical presentations with local artists, and visits to many unexpected places. (I have visited a coop market and organic farm in Vermont and farm in the middle of Detroit). Overseas Adventure and Intrepid Travel make an impressive effort to integrate local experiences into their activities through meals in locals’ homes and farms, market visits, trips on local buses, etc.;
- Some of my favorite tours feature a specific theme or interest. These tours allow participants to see aspects of life in a destination that would be hard to experience otherwise. On a Seasons of My Heart food tour, for example, I visited very humble homes in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, where locals cooked dishes with local ingredients. I also enjoyed some of the best meals of my life and was inspired by the story of the founder of the business, Susana Trilling. While on Global Exchange’s reality tours to Haiti and the US-Mexican border, I had a chance to talk to local non-profit leaders, students, and government officials about the politics, economics, and daily life of these countries.
Benefits of Cruises
I like cruise ships because I:
- Enjoy the variety of entertainment onboard
- Love relaxing with a book while gazing at the ocean.
- Relish trying the variety of food and dining options aboard.
- Have met some fascinating people by choosing to dine at different tables throughout the cruise. (Most cruises now offer ¨free time¨ dining which allows you to change tables every night).
Cruises are the best way to get an overview tour of destinations that are hard to reach by other means of transport. For example, it costs almost as much money to travel between ports featured on Patagonian cruises by plane as the cost of the entire cruise.
Besides, many times, you can get a good feel for these regions by visiting a lot of ports (especially if these ports are on small islands) for a day each. (I don’t get a good feel for a big city, country, or region on a cruise).
I do not, however, like traveling to a lot of large cities on a cruise ship. Spending one day in Rome, for example, is frustrating. There is so much to do and so many people at the main sights. I feel like a kid in front of a candy store who can’t go inside.
However, cruises are a good way to get a feel for a small islands and rural areas. Holland America is the best cruise ship for discovering a bit about your destination. The ships are small (1000-2000 people). And, they integrate their destination into their voyages through academic lectures, local entertainment, and offering local specialties on their menus. Holland America also usually has a well educated (though somewhat older) clientele.
Semester at Sea
The best trip I ever took was what I call a ¨pseudo¨ cruise: Semester at Sea. Semester at Sea provides undergraduate college students the chance to visit many different countries while taking classes for credit aboard a cruise ship.
Every semester (usually three to four months) Semester at Sea allows somewhere between 20 and 50 adults (also called ¨lifelong learners¨) to travel with the students as paid passengers. While the food and entertainment are lower quality than on a traditional cruise ship, Semester at Sea is a remarkable experience. I have never attended so many fascinating lectures, classes, and excursions. I also developed several close friendships and learned a lot about myself.
Issues with Cruises
Cruises do, however, sometimes overwhelm some sights. When I visited Saint Mark’s Plaza in Venice on the same day as four large cruise ships in 2016, I was a bit scared to be crushed by the crowds of tourists. That said, there are several easy ways to avoid this situation on these cruises, including:
- Scheduling tours to places outside of the port city. My favorite trips are either day-long visits that explore a particular island or region (perhaps my best day tour was around the island of Corsica) or a theme. (I have had particularly good luck with food-related tours);
- Avoiding visiting places that are incredibly well-known, like Saint Mark’s Square in Venice or the Vatican; and
- Considering avoiding Mediterranean cruises unless you are willing to go to little-known places. The main sights will be overwhelmed by visitors when cruise ships are in port. (Remember most of the ports were built centuries ago and are not well suited to a big group). Fortunately, however, almost all ports are close to some fascinating lesser-known places. (For example, one of my favorite cruise tours was to Hadrian palace and Tivoli gardens outside of Rome).