Have you ever been on a tour and felt like it’s just not working for you? Maybe there’s something missing? Or the connection just isn’t there?
What do you do?
When I consider this question, I’m reminded of a conversation with a passenger on a tour we took recently. The conversation with Miranda (I changed her name) went roughly like this:
“I don’t really feel like I’m engaging with [this place] on this tour. I don’t feel like I’ve done [this place],” she said with a look of disappointment. Clearly, Miranda wasn’t getting the depth of engagement she wanted from the trip.
“So what would you like to change?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded. “It would be great if maybe we visited a local market or somewhere where we can talk with more local people.”
“Funny you mention that,” I said. “It’s not on the itinerary, but we just heard about a weekly market tomorrow morning that's a short walk. Come with us.”
She never came with us, she never visited the market. And this was one of several opportunities she missed that would have tuned her into the sort of experience she claimed she wanted.
It’s our experience that tours are often subject to the implicit assumption: everything is taken care of, so you should sit back and passively check off the elements of your itinerary as they’re delivered to you.
Not so. If you really wish to make the most of any travel experience, whether you travel independently or in a group, you must take ultimate responsibility for your own satisfaction. Sure, once you’ve booked a group tour, there are certain elements that are out of your hands — the guide, itinerary, and fellow passengers. Beyond that, however, it’s up to you to take control within those constraints. (Note: We've already discussed the various reasons why people choose to take small group tours here.)
“Ugh, Dan. You mean I pay this money for someone else to organize my holiday and it’s still up to me?”
Kind of. During the last few years, as independent travelers who’ve also taken small group tours to places like Iran, Ethiopia and Japan, we’ve discovered that the value we derived from the experience was due in one part to the organization of the tour, and another part to how proactive and engaged we were. If you want to have a great vacation, you must make an effort. You must invest a piece of yourself — to engage and participate in the tour and be a part of the experience. After all, you are ultimate arbiter of your own holiday happiness.
“OK, you’re making a great argument, Dan. But how do I do actually this?“
So glad you asked. Here are ten pieces of practical, actionable advice you can implement straight away to make the most of any organized tour. The upshot: consider the tour itinerary as a foundation, a basis for you to create ad hoc experiences in the in-between space.
1) Proactively communicate your specific interests to your guide.
Fact: it’s impossible for your guide to read your mind and to know everything about you and your interests. When it comes to travel, passivity does not pay. This goes for independent travel and tours alike.
If you have a specific interest – ancient history, sports, local foods, markets, weaving, ceramics, music, whatever – share that interest with your guide at the beginning of your tour. Then ask your guide nicely if he can direct you to places, experiences or people that will help you learn more about your interest.
This may sound obvious, but we’re surprised by how often it does not happen.
A couple things to keep in mind when applying this approach. Understand that you are a guest – a guest in a place that is likely the guide’s home. It’s best to express your interest in the form of questions, rather than in the form of demands. If you come at your guide combatively with an “I paid for this” attitude, forget it. Instead, show your interest and humble curiosity to provide your guide with a platform to share more of his knowledge of his home country and culture with you.
Finally, understand that other people's needs are at work, too. The trick: make your desires known in a good-hearted way, and position it to see if the experiences you seek may also meet the interests of others on your tour. If they don’t, then try to schedule these experiences during your free time.
We’re reminded of: We told our guide on the first day of our Ethiopia tour about our deep interest in learning about Ethiopian food. Over the course of the week he took us to a rural village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, organized an impromptu cooking course at a lodge, introduced us to restaurant owners who explained their cuisine to us, and found food markets along the way that were not on the itinerary. This not only added to our experience, but to that of our fellow passengers and our guide.
2) Perform your own research.
The first time we saw a person on a tour with a guidebook we thought it a bit odd. I mean, you’re paying for the tour and a guide who is a local expert so why bother?
We soon saw the light.
The more research you perform on the place you are visiting – by reading a guidebook, asking friends, doing internet research – the better prepared you’ll be to ask informed questions and go off-itinerary for a bit, either by yourself or with your group. At the very least, this research can help source new restaurants or cafes to explore outside of your hotel (see #6 below).
We’re reminded of: During our visit to Iran, our questions — prompted by advice from an Iranian-American friend — led to an unscheduled visit to the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the town of Hamadan. Our thirty-minute visit there was not only interesting for the tombs, including of the fabled Jewish Queen Esther, but for our meeting with the Iranian rabbi caretaker who told us about the lives of the Jewish community (surprising!) still living in town.
3) Ask questions, channel your curiosity.
Unleash your curiosity and leverage your tour guide as the resource he is — or should be — to learn as much as you can about the place you are visiting. This will not only benefit your understanding of the local context and history, but it will also jump-start your guide’s energy and direct his knowledge and explanations more to your interests.
This is especially important to break what I call “tour monotony” where it’s clear that the guide is giving an explanation on auto-pilot. This can get boring for everyone very quickly, the guide included. Asking questions changes the pace and energy and often surfaces stories that you'll take home and remember forever.
We’re reminded of: During our tour to Antarctica we passed a pod of killer whales. Audrey took a bunch of photos and later approached the cetacean expert (i.e., whale and dolphin specialist) with her photos to ask more information about the whales and their behaviors. He was excited — because he was always excited by passengers’ interest in wildlife — but this time he was really excited. It turns out that we’d come across a previously unidentified sub-species called Type D Orcas, and Audrey's photos were just the proof he needed. The photo later appeared in a scientific journal.
4) Take advantage of your free time.
Many tours incorporate free time into the itinerary — either entirely free days or chunks of time before or after scheduled visits to sites. Be sure to use these bits of free time deliberately to go off on your own and explore – perhaps to a café, market, or new street you haven’t walked down. Most often, it’s the ad hoc, unexpected experiences that not only provide real, authentic culture and context, but leave us with the “you wouldn’t believe what happened to us…!” stories that we tell our friends back home.
We’re reminded of: During our Japan tour, we visited the Nishiki market in Kyoto on a free afternoon. We took one of the people on our tour with us, walked through a market flush with local students and sought out freshly-made takoyaki (octopus balls!) from one of the food stalls. It was a simple yet resonant experience. The traveler who came with us told us it was one of her best memories from an already memorable trip to Japan.
5) Realize that you don’t have to do everything.
This is one that I struggle with. When I’m on a tour, I often feel compelled to do everything that’s offered. But sometimes the best decision is to strategically skip an optional activity or do something different so long as my choice doesn’t disrupt the group or their schedule.
We’re reminded of: While in Uganda, most of the group went off on all-day optional tour in the Lake Bunyonyi area. The itinerary sounded a bit hurried to us, and we were at the point where we needed a break. We woke up late, took a walk up the mountain and enjoyed a beautiful plate of crayfish curry at a restaurant with an incredible view. Rather than packing our heads with even more experiences, we needed a sprinkling of reflection. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.
6) Get outside the hotel.
As tempting as it is to stay in your hotel — it’s easy and close — push yourself to get outside to take care of basic necessities like eating, drinking and shopping. And use those journeys to find local restaurants, cafes, bars or shops. This approach forces you to engage with more local people, thereby expanding the nature of your impressions and experiences in a place.
These outings will also allow you to spread your tourism dollars to different businesses and families. Family-run businesses – particularly if you interact with the people that run them – will often provide you with a sense of connection and a handful of stories to take back home.
We’re reminded of: Finding small restaurants and street food stalls in Bali that were much cheaper and served tastier food than the shiny restaurants at the hotel. It took more effort to get out and find these places, but we were rewarded for it with beautiful local food and conversations off the most heavily traveled bits of the tourist trail.
7) Experience the beginning of the day.
Sleep is a precious thing, and it is especially important while traveling. But as much as a good lie-in helps sometimes, so does waking up early. In fact, it's almost always always worth the effort.
Many towns and villages around the world come to life in the early hours of the morning as vendors carry their goods to market. Morning is also a great time to see children going to school and watch the day unfold as cafes and restaurants set up for the day. This time is often less stressful for everyone, so you are more likely to have friendly, focused interactions. For example, you’re more likely to get an answer to your question of a vendor when they are just getting set up than when they are in full swing dealing with a handful of customers.
After getting your fill of activity, you can return to the hotel for breakfast or a coffee to meet the group for the rest of the day.
We’re reminded of: Going to the weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda before breakfast. Within a short walk from our campsite we found the market and saw dugout wooden boats transporting sacks of charcoal, fish, bananas, and vegetables from other islands in the lake and even from neighboring Rwanda. Nothing like sensory overload to kick off the day.
8) Extend your time in the country.
A tour is a great way to introduce you to a destination. It can allow you to get your bearings, find your feet, and build confidence traveling around a new country with a different language and culture. Spending some extra time after your tour allows you to explore cities or regions more deeply than might have been allowed by your tour itinerary. Alternatively, you can further explore new areas of the country.
We’re reminded of: Spending an extra week in Iran to see the lesser-visited northwestern part of the country and to take a 60-hour train to Istanbul. As American citizens we were required to have a guide with us, but we were able to ad hoc visit towns where we had Iranian friends and see sites like the Armenian monastery of St. Stephanos and the ancient Tabriz covered market and carpet bazaar.
9) Understand that alone time is OK.
The concept of a tour may make some introverts cringe and wish to crawl into a hole. So much people time! Even if you are extroverted like Audrey, you may still find yourself feeling something similar as your holiday progresses.
Understand that you don’t have to spend all your time with the group; be sure to take care of your needs, including the need to reflect. Don’t feel bad about getting dinner on your own or going solo for your free time or tuning out when the bus is moving. It’s your holiday, after all.
Having said that, you may want to let others know that you are not shunning them, but instead are taking some time to yourself to refresh. Reasonable people will understand and most will nod in approval. In fact, some may realize they need a bit of that themselves.
We’re reminded of: One evening on the safari portion of our Tanzania tour, I left the group early for some quiet time to reflect, take notes and read a book while the rest gathered around the campfire. After all, Audrey and I had only recently summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and had just finished an afternoon of tracking cheetahs. This is a lot to recuperate from and to process. The following morning, I rejoined the group refreshed and rested, and all the better for it.
10) Don’t let negative thoughts simmer to a boil.
Stuff happens. If something bothers you, tell your guide in private. Have an open conversation. His job is to try and make the trip as enjoyable as possible for everyone, within limits. It may be that he can’t solve the problem immediately, but at least he can begin to address the issue. Be sure to also give feedback to your tour provider after the tour is over so they can address issues on future trips.
What you shouldn’t do: Keep it bottled up inside so you’re outwardly angry (yet no one understands exactly why), complain publicly, particularly to everyone on the tour except your guide. There’s nothing that ruins a trip — yours and others — like shared misery.
We’re reminded of: Our tour in New Zealand was (at the time) a very new tour, so there were some inconsistencies between the accommodation description from travel agents and the reality on the tour. The tour leader couldn't change where we were staying, but once he was aware of the concerns, he addressed them as best as he could. And, the trip was pretty remarkable.
The bonus nugget of travel wisdom: Even when we’ve paid for an experience and someone else is responsible for facilitating it, we and our actions help form the bridge to our own travel satisfaction.
The bad news: It takes effort.
The good news: That effort is often rewarded.