Monday, August 15, 2011

Traveling with Tours

When I was nineteen I spent six weeks studying in Norway for the summer. It was empowering to jump on an airplane by myself, get to a hotel, spend a day wandering through a foreign city, and then getting started with the official program. I had visited Norway with my parents when I was twelve, my mom taking us around her home country and introducing us to our family abroad. I fell in love with the country, and I still consider it my home away from home. At the end of our study program they offered a tour of the country, so we toured around for two weeks, getting a better feel for other parts of the beautiful countryside. I have no idea what tour company we traveled through, but I discovered it was a good way to see things quickly and effectively, when given a limited amount of time. In addition, it offered a home stay when we were in Kristiansand, a town in the South, which was really interesting. I stayed with a family for a couple of days and jumped into their lives. Traveling solo would not allow for this type of experience.

Right after college I backpacked around Europe for seven weeks with friends. We did the whole trip without having any reservations ahead of time except for our Eurail passes. It was a great trip, and I left feeling like I could go anywhere on a whim, and I could discover things spontaneously. However, when I convinced a colleague to go to England for a month, she had never traveled outside of the U.S., so she was uncomfortable flying by the seat of her pants. To ease her fears, we booked a tour for the first two weeks and then rented a car for the second two weeks. We met a lot of cool people on our tour, saw a whirlwind of England, Scotland, and Wales, and were sad to leave. Our two weeks in the car proved to be a really fun time as well, but I again saw the benefit of traveling through a tour.

My trip to England inspired me to go back, so the following summer I spent six weeks doing graduate work at Oxford. After I finished, I flew to Spain and took a week long tour, seeing a few highlights. Since I was alone, the tour offered me an instant group of friends and social opportunities that I otherwise might have struggled to have. Again, when it came to traveling through New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand, my friend Jodi and I thought it was a good idea to take tours since we had a limited amount of time and wanted to see a vast amount of each country. The other benefit are the many activities that these tours offered, so we could spare the time and worry of finding them on our own. We had a tremendous time in each country, and each tour company offered positives and negatives.

I took two tours through Contiki (Great Britain and Spain), two tours through Connections (New Zealand and Australia), and the tour through Thailand through Intrepid. I booked all of them through STA Travel. Contiki and Connections were very similar. They tended to have a younger crowd (Contiki has an age restriction of 18-35) and both offer a huge menu of activities as you go, so it is easy to add expenses to your trip. You are responsible for some meals, but each trip discloses how many meals are included. What is unknown is how much each activity will cost. The trip itinerary will disclose options, but many have an additional fee. The nice thing about all three is that there is independence once you arrive in a city. If you don't want to go with the group, you are free to go wherever you want. Contiki and Connections tend to be large, with about 30-40 people, enough to fill a coach bus. Intrepid has a limit of twelve people, which is why it has become my favorite tour company. All of the tours were English speaking tours. Most people on the Contiki and Connections tours tended to be from Australia and the United States, with a few Europeans. Intrepid is an Australian company, so we were the only Americans on the Thai tour. There were a few people from England, a Kiwi, and Australians. The great thing about Intrepid is that they take a lot of local transportation, and stay in locally owned hotels. Contiki and Connections tended to stay in large hotels, and we had our own private bus. I don't regret any of the tours I took, and I highly recommend them for people that want to experience fast paced travel.

All of the pictures were taken on my tours.
1) Jodi and I riding a camel in the outback, Australia. I envisioned myself riding a camel in the glorious outback. Instead, I had to ride with Jodi, wear a helmet, with our camels tied together going extremely slow in a big circle. It was still fun, but not quite the romantic vision I had hoped for!
2) Sunrise at Uluru. A beautiful sight, but there were several coach buses parked and I remember fighting for a good spot with a view.
3) Group shot at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. Our tour guide looked exactly like Antonio Banderas, which was fun.
4) Jodi and I in a Thai Buddhist Temple near Chiang Mai. Loved Thailand!

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