Sunday, April 13, 2008

BEST OF: Tour de chance

Imagine joining a group of strangers traipsing around on a shared vacation, seeing sights, having adventures, being taught new things.

Imagine us running rapidly in the other direction.

It’s called a tour, and for decades, we’ve avoided them like the plague. I'd protest that we’re too self-reliant, too stubbornly autonomous. We like to go our own way, make our own decisions, do our own thing at our own time.

On a tour, most of those choices are premade for you, about your room, your schedule, your activities, your menu and even the people with whom you sit and dine.

“Go, go,” our friends had told us. “Trust us. You’ll have a wonderful time.”

Finally, feisty as I am, I had to admit there was a lure in having somebody else making the decisions once in a while. I was willing to give up my tour-director hat, just for a little while. So, recently, we gave in and dipped our travel toes into the world of shared vacations.

Now as newbies, we weren't brave enough to sign up for a two-week group jaunt to Zimbabwe. We started small, with a close-to-home tour that began on a Sunday night and ended on a Tuesday morning.

Know what? We really did enjoy it. But we did our homework before we went, and that helped a lot.

Here are some things we did pre-tour, and one I shouldn’t have:

· We made sure that we were staying in a hotel we’d have chosen on our own. After you arrive is not the time to discover your hotel is a flea-trap in a red-light district. Fortunately, ours wasn’t.

· Ask dumb-sounding questions, such as “Do you have good water pressure there?” Why ask that, especially at a small hotel? Because on tour, everybody’s on the same schedule, which means most of them will hit the showers at the same time. It’s a bummer to bathe at 6 a.m. with cold water coming out of the showerhead drop by drop.

· Make sure the schedule matches yours. If you sleep till 10 every morning, and the group breakfast is served at 7, you’re going to be miserable.

· The itinerary also should allow you some down time. We had three walking tours in a row, one at 9 a.m., one at 10:30 a.m. and another after lunch. But we had a long sit-down meal, and time to rest before the beach barbecue that night. Even so, our tootsies would have appreciated a longer break.

· Conversely, if you have the chance, switch between types of activities. If you’re sitting on your duff being lectured in the morning, then go for a kayak tour or ping-pong competition in the afternoon. Otherwise, your scheduled evening stroll on the boardwalk may turn into a hobble.

· Make sure the prices you’re paying are, indeed, less than you’d pay if you were setting up the same activities on your own.

· Probably, you’ll be barraged with food. If you’re lucky, as we were, it will be marvelous. But it’s still different than your normal fare. So go easy. Don’t take that third skewer of shrimp or second piece of pie, even if it is included in the cost. Your tummy will thank you.

· And, for heaven’s sake, don’t do as I did and change purses right before the trip. It was plumb mortifying to hold up the line as I rummaged around for my pass in the 17 pockets that purse had suddenly sprouted. I must have looked like an aging bimbo as I smiled (aka grimaced) and apologized over and over.

So, go, go. Enjoy some group travel. If you plan ahead, it can work out to be more fun than you’d have had alone or as a couple. Trust us.

This column ran Sept. 18, 2003 in The Cambrian. And while we've only taken one other shared tour since then, we remain impressed with the concept.

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