The summer travel season is upon us and as one considers travel plans within the next few months or later, many seniors may wonder whether to join an escorted tour domestically or abroad, or to travel independently. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. I have done both and have been pleased with my decisions.
I tend to let my destination determine whether I opt for an escorted tour or to strike off on my own. If I am traveling in the United States, Canada or western Europe, I am more likely to decide on a city or a country, book my own airfare and hotel reservations online and then let serendipity take care of the rest of my plans. However, if I am traveling to countries where I have never visited or where English is not spoken as commonly as it is in much of Europe, I have opted to take an escorted group tour. And in all cases where I have done this — in China, Vietnam, Turkey and Morocco — I was pleased with the decision.
Let’s take a look at the two approaches to travel.
The first option is an escorted group tour.
If you haven’t been on such a tour, put aside the misconception that they are all alike. There are large European bus tours with 30 or 40 tourists that offer a lot of sightseeing in a one- to two-week period. And there are smaller, more personal tours with groups of 10 to 20 that use local flights to get guests from one city or another.
A bit of research will turn up many tour companies that provide a variety of tours in a variety of price ranges, from economy to luxury. Some travelers like the company of guests from around the world and enjoy the camaraderie. Others prefer interacting in a smaller group but still enjoy the company of others. They value having the security of a group but seek some independent traveling as well.
Escorted tours can be stress-free. I appreciate being met at the airport by a tour representative who speaks the local language, can answer any immediate questions, can direct me to the nearest ATM, takes care of the baggage and gets me safely and comfortably to my hotel. If there are problems, the escort takes care of them.
This was the case when my luggage did not make it on a flight from Beijing to Xi’an or when my traveling companion accidentally locked her passport in her checked bag. Our escort, a native of China, solved the problems for us. In Vietnam, my companion left her cellphone at a theater. Our escort called the theater; spoke to the manager, who located the phone and then wrote in Vietnamese explaining what happened; hailed us a cab; gave the drivers directions to our destination; and sent us off to the theater to retrieve the phone. In a country where we spoke the language, such a task would be complicated but not impossible. In Vietnam, the help of our escort was invaluable.
Another advantage, available through a number of tour companies, is that airfare is often included in the total price. The traveler can benefit from a discount on flights and hotels. Of course, the cheapest fares can be inconvenient at times, but one has the option to shift flights, though usually at a higher cost.
One can also book excursions ahead of time. A tourist can pretty much determine the total cost of the trip before leaving home. Tour escorts are quite knowledgeable about their countries and, in my experience, locally contracted tours guides are excellent. Tour companies can also offer guidance on acquiring visas and permits.
Signing on for an escorted tour is easy and can be done online. Company representatives are available by phone to handle specific requests or problems.
I have enjoyed the escorted tours I have taken in the past. In my years as a college professor, I have taken students on many study abroad trips. I have had to handle all sorts of problems and issues. As a tourist, it is a pleasure to leave those concerns to others.
However, there are times when I don’t want to be part of a group and desire to strike out on my own. Then I choose independent travel.
The obvious advantages are that one can choose one’s own companions and go where you want and when you want. It is freeing not to be locked into a specific activity on a certain day. Travel whims can be followed.
Going on your own may take a little more research and planning than joining an escorted group. But that effort is part of the pleasure.
Recently a good friend and I decided to take a spring trip to South America. We chose four days in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires and used an online travel site to book our flights and hotels. Obtaining a visa for Brazil was complicated and pricey, but we worked through it by using a passport/visa service. Once in Brazil and Argentina, we spent a lot of time wandering on our own, but we opted for a couple of local tours to top destinations in order to avoid lines and make sure we experienced the iconic points of interest in each city.
We liked the flexibility of traveling independently. We struck up conversations with locals and other travelers, so we didn’t lack for companionship. Fortunately, we encountered no problems, so we didn’t need the intervention of a local. Also, English is widely spoken in both countries. When we encountered Spanish- or Portuguese-only speakers, phrase books and gestures helped us be understood.
Another friend and I traveled to Croatia and Slovenia on our own. We made friends with the bartender in our Zagreb hotel, and in Ljubljana we hired a local guide to take us to the Adriatic and into Italy. It was a great opportunity to spend an entire day with a Slovenian native and learn about his life and experiences.
Whether journeying with a group or independently, travel is an exciting, enlightening and engaging experience. If you are a fan of group travel, try going it alone some time. And if you have eschewed group travel, consider being escorted on your next trip.
Dennis Stouse, chair of the Department of Communication at Jacksonville University and a writer and photographer, writes Well-Traveled, an occasional travel column for PrimeTime in The Florida Times-Union. Contact him at email@example.com.