Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Travel Talk: In Defense of Organized Tours
So, this morning, I jumped on to #ttot (which stands for "Travel Talk On Twitter") - a chance for travel enthusiasts to chat and discuss a short set of questions on Twitter once a week. The theme was "tourist vs. traveller" and one of the questions was along the lines of, "What would you say to a tourist, if you were a traveller, and vice versa?" Someone scoffed, "I'd tell tourists that there's more to travelling than organized tours!"
I chuckled along to myself.
But then I got annoyed.
Before there was Expedia, before there was Tripadvisor or Kayak or Agoda or Hotel.com, before there was Mr. & Mrs. Smith or i-escapes.com or Voyage Prive ... there were phone books. And travel agents (these both still exist, I'm totally aware).
If we wanted to go on vacation, my mom would sit down with a pen and a thick pad of paper, make several phone calls, and write things down like, "$354 round trip, 7 nights". I'd be playing in the other room and hear her murmuring on the phone, beginning questions with, "Okay, and what if ...? Could you tell me one more time ...?" Then, off we'd go - to tour the East Coast, the Canadian Rockies ... on a bus. With a group. Of thirty-something other Chinese tourists.
Yes, I was one of them.
I scoff at the Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but I was one of them. Right down to the umbrella-wielding tour guide, the group lunches (at Chinese restaurants, of course), the multiple translations (Mandarin and Cantonese - sometimes even three, if Japanese tourists were in our group), and dirty looks from other, non-Chinese tourists.
Yes, I was the recipient (aged 9) of the charming comment, "Here come the chinks," at a McDonald's in New York (uttered, ironically - or not so ironically? - by a black woman), as we all piled out of the bus for an early morning breakfast.
Humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed - didn't even begin to describe how I felt.
I hated the bus tours. I hated getting up at 6:30 in the morning, racing to the bus, dozing off for miles of uncomfortable travel, listening to explanations in Mandarin, Cantonese twice over, being told where to go, when to eat, or where to stand. Most of all, I was so embarrassed.
But without the resources to plan a trip that we have today, it was difficult for my parents (and really, my mom) to organize a self-run trip. Sure, you'll tell me in the comments that you're a product of the 70s or 80s (or earlier) and your parents took you to an amazing trip to Switzerland when you and your brother were just aged three and four, and that you have fond memories of eating cheese sandwiches on the Swiss Alps and losing your favorite donkey keychain souvenir when a passerby knocked it out of your hand - sure. You'll tell me that.
But looking back, I really feel for my parents. They were inexperienced travellers. They were worldly, sophisticated, and had a thirst to travel and explore, but organized trips were so much easier - less stressful, especially with two small children. Letting someone plan your schedule, take care of your food, accommodation and transportation? It was a compromise - and a good one, at that.
Even I get anxious about trip-planning now. I've been shortlisted for the "Travel" category of the UK Blog Awards, but I am one of the most anxious travellers you'll ever meet.
There, I said it.
I hate planning trips. I love exploring new places and I love to travel (and I wouldn't trade the freedom of traveling on your own terms for anything), but the logistics of it all makes me breathe into a paper bag. The real travel pro? John.
Cool-as-a-cucumber, he's used to showering in first class lounges in another time zone upon arriving from a business red eye flight and giving back-to-back presentations within an hour or so of said shower. John is the ultimate travel pro (I actually joke that he's a robot). He never freaks out and is always up for adventure, but he also makes rational, measured decisions.
Want to know what our holiday planning is like? John sits in front of the computer in the kitchen, looking up flights, dates, and searching hotels, while I whirl around him like a dervish, pretending it isn't really happening, offering to look up some Tripadvisor reviews here and there, and saying things like, "That airline totally crashed in 1998. That airline is sooooo sketchy". Go ahead, withdraw my shortlist nomination.
But back to the organized tours.
When I visited the Louvre five years ago, a group of elderly Chinese tourists were, indeed, crowded around - you guessed it - the Mona Lisa. The tour guide patiently began explaining the history of the piece in Mandarin, then Cantonese, speaking into a microphone clipped to her shirt. The group pressed their audio guides to their ears.
A couple lingered on after they had moved on to the next painting, wanting to get a picture. "Move closer, move closer!" the woman said to her husband in Cantonese, waving her hand impatiently at him. I watched from a distance, amused. "Closer! How can I get you in the shot if you're not close enough?" she snapped. Her obedient husband shuffled sightly to the left. He reminded me so much of my deceased grandpa (and the woman, of my grandma), that I smiled. After the picture had been taken, they shuffled off to join the others, and I gazed after them.
And then I thought, so what? So what if an organized tour is how you prefer to travel? At least it get you out and about and exploring the world. At least you haven't let your anxiety or uncertainty or shyness or inexperience (or age!) stop you.
Today, there are smaller, "backdoor" or "off-the-beaten-path" travel groups led by travel experts such as Seattle-native, Rick Steves (whom my parents are very fond of, naturally). These groups seek to give curious travellers (who might not take the plunge of travelling on their own accord) the chance to experience a different culture or travel destination "like the locals do", providing a more authentic experience than en masse bus tour groups do while offering the security of a loose schedule and accompanying local guide.
So, seriously. Next time you pass a group of French, Italian, Spanish, or even Chinese tourists? Try not to judge. It may be their only opportunity to travel - and the only way they know how. (Okay, you can judge a little bit at white socks and sandals, or umbrellas when it's sunny out, or the inability to queue, or ...)