Travelling with Strangers: A few words on group travel

Planning your next vacation? Trying to decide whether to go it alone or to join a tour? To help you decide if group travel is for you, I’ve cobbled together a few points from my experiences.

1. Package deals where most, if not all, meals are included make it easier to budget your money.

2. Accommodations are arranged and paid for in advance, and guides are vetted for you. This takes away some of the stress of trip planning.

3. There’s less control over where you stay and where you eat. On the up side, you can end up in some real gems you may have overlooked on your own–for me, this was All the Twos guest house in Clifden, County Galway, and The Old Inn‘s restaurant and pub in Gairloch, Scotland–but you can also end up in places whose only redeeming qualities are location and price.

4. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people. This can be a pro or a con, depending both on your outlook and the people who end up in your tour group. I’ve had the good fortune to travel with many warm, witty, cultured people whose openness and warmth have enriched my experiences with a destination. On my most recent trip, including our guides, our decidedly international band came from Scotland, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, and the United States (in addition to Canada, of course). There were teachers and dentists, writers and biochemists. There were retired professors, and several public servants. The bus ride banter and dinner chatter was as compelling as it was multilingual, and I came away from the trip with almost as much knowledge of my companions’ countries (albeit secondhand) as I did of our host country.

On the other hand, I have less fond memories of companions whose stubborn singlemindedness threatened to wrest control of the travel agenda from our guide and derail a long-hoped-for trip to, for instance, Slieve League.

5. While group tours can provide some helpful structure to your travel plans, there’s less room for spontaneity. Vacation or no, I’m always tempted to linger in bed, and schedules get me out the door and into life before it and the sights pass me by. However, in my experience, group tours rarely allow room to linger a little longer in that perfect pub discovered off the beaten path, or to explore the shops before that rest-stop town shutters for the day. With group travel, the needs of the group come before the whims of the individual.

6. Homegrown tour companies are a great way to access the local perspective. While there’s really no substitute for seeking out non- touristy pubs, caf├ęs, and galleries and chatting up residents yourself, tour operators often hire local people as guides, and there’s nothing like experiencing a host city or country as home! Local guides know the history as well as how people live now. They know the tricks of navigating cultural terrain that the guidebooks miss. The point is Trafalgar isn’t the only option out there for North Americans. As with any travel undertaking, do your homework. It will be richly rewarded!IMG_2193.JPG

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Saturday Spotlight: Extreme Ireland

Given last Sunday’s post on climbing Croagh Patrick, it seems appropriate to devote the first Saturday Spotlight to my favourite Irish tour operator, Dublin’s Extreme Ireland.

For our first trip to Ireland, A and I scheduled most of our time in Dublin, but we knew we wanted to take a couple day-trips out of the city. “When will we have another opportunity to see the Cliffs of Moher or Blarney Castle or the Hill of Tara?” we reasoned.

After several hours of research spearheaded by my master-planner husband, we settled on three tours with Extreme Ireland: one to the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren; one to the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cork; and one through the Boyne Valley with stops at the Hill of Tara, Trim Castle, Loughcrew, Drogheda, Monasterboice, and the Jumping Church.

Right off the bat, we were impressed by the variety of destinations Extreme Ireland’s tours covered, and the ease and flexibility of booking — we could buy tickets online or in person at their office — but the best was to come. While Extreme Ireland certainly can’t take credit for the country’s lush terrain and rich history, it can lay claim to expertly curated day trips and some of the most knowledgeable, engaging driver-guides you’ll ever have the pleasure to travel with.

My husband, A, is notoriously hard to impress. But I knew even he was won over when half way through our Boyne Valley tour he turned to me and said, “You know, these guys do multi-day hiking trips, too.” Very high praise indeed.

Higher still: we returned to take one of those hiking trips the following year. We wouldn’t have climbed Croagh Patrick or Diamond Hill — highlights of my life so far — without Extreme Ireland, and for the planning and expertise of their guides, I’m extremely grateful.

Saturday Spotlight

I like the structure of posting about a given topic on a given day. It makes it easier to stick to my commitment of writing here more.

With that in mind, I’m introducing a twice monthly feature to highlight the great restaurants, attractions, and tour operators I’ve encountered and loved in the course of my wanderings. Look for the first Saturday Spotlight tomorrow.