Earlier this month I experienced my first-ever guided vacation. My travel style has always leaned towards flashpacker (that's a nice way to say 'a modern day backpacker who don't sleep in dorms'), so I had little-to-few expectations of what coach travel even entailed. The prospect of travelling internationally without making one iota of effort to plan the logistics was completely foreign to me. I liked it...a lot.
Turn to the internet and you'll find a lot of chatter about independent versus guided travel. Each style has their own merits and there are circumstances and destinations which are better suited to each. Since returning from my eight day trip with Trafalgar to northern Spain, I want to add my two cents to the conversation. The bottom line is, there is no right or wrong way to travel; there are only personal preferences. (Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.) Based on my experience, here are eight pervasive myths about guided travel that I've found to be absolute hogwash.
Myth 1: stops are only made at impersonal restaurants able to accommodate an entire coach full of people
This couldn't be further from reality. In general, most restaurants can seat over 100 people; Trafalgar trips average 40-45 guests, while some max out at 26. Our group totaled 27 and I never felt as if our size dictated our dining experiences.
In Satiago de Compostela we devoured tapas deep in the heart of the pedestrian old town. I mention this in particular because the restaurant is impossible for the coach to reach. (This fact alone negates the myth.) In Madrid we enjoyed our farewell dinner at Café Gijón. The iconic restaurant dates back to 1888 and we were serenaded by a trio of spirited guitarists.
I'll be honest, pre-trip, my perception of lunch breaks were sandwiches to-go. After all, we'd be travelling by coach. I've never been so happy to be mistaken. Even during the days we travelled between cities, our lunch stops were chosen with care. We enjoyed incredible jamon (akin to prosciutto) and local Cabrales (blue cheese) at the foot of Covadonga. South of Zamora we were delighted by chef-foraged mushroom and potato stew in a rustic farmhouse style restaurant. Did I mention there was wine? Delicious Spanish wine.
Admire the handsome restaurant pictured above. Does this look like it was chosen on the basis of capacity? No. When it came to dining, there was nothing impersonal about any of our experiences.
Note: the only, repeat only, circumstance in which we stopped at a location that accommodated the size of group was for washroom breaks.
Myth 2: you don't get to meet locals
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The first local we met? Our travel director, Javier. I'll never forget the hospitality he extended us. Javier was enthusiastic, patient and warm, with a wicked sense of humor. He answered our unending inquiries and took the time to call restaurants so he could translate the menu for us in advance. He helped us snap pictures, cracked jokes and even demonstrated a lovely singing voice. Javier was an unparalleled ambassador for his country and I truly felt he cared whether we were enjoying Spain.
How many times have you been invited to dinner with locals? We were! In Oviedo we met Marta at the Sidra Castanon brewery. In Spanish-accented English, Marta asked us to imagine ourselves as apples. We followed her from the manufacturing floor through to a room containing tall steel silos. She demonstrated the traditional (and elaborate) way Asturians pour the cider and then offered us a sample. (In case you were wondering, it's not what I expected but tasty nonetheless.) We were then treated to a gorgeous tapas spread in the tap room. Beverage refills were do-it-yourself, straight from the vat! This meal was a Be My Guest dining experience, unique to Trafalgar and a feature of most trips they offer.
Lastly, in Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca and Toledo our city walks were led by Local Specialists. These were knowledgeable residents, passionate about their cities. They showed us hidden courtyards, secret features of bas-reliefs, and aroused our interest with intriguing histories of squares and churches.
What's more, we met locals during our free time too. We learned to salsa dancing in the disco, chatted with shop proprietors and with students in city squares. I promise, your experience is guaranteed to be as social (or anti-social) as you make it.
Myth 3: guided travel is generic
Sure, trip itineraries are often built around iconic sites: the Vatican in Rome, the Palace of Versailles near Paris and the Acropolis in Athens. However, I would argue that many people who explore these famous buildings are the ones doing so generically. They queue up at admission, rent an audio guide, walk about and snap some pictures while trying to avoid bumping into other tourists.
The simple truth (that independent travellers may not want to hear) is that guided travel can offer wholly unique experiences. The type of experiences that individuals can't even get on their own. Did you know that in Rome, some Trafalgar guests get to enjoy the Vatican's Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public and other operators? Trust me, I've toured it on my own. My memory of the masterpiece is also one of how busy and loud the Chapel was. Lucky Trafalgar guests will also get a peek at the original, double-helix Bramante Staircase. It's not typically open to the public. Click here to find out how you can climb the Papal staircase.
Myth 4: I can get the same experience on my own
"Why spend money on things I can plan myself?"
I think about the times I've planned trips on my own. I think about the time spent seeking out accommodation, both in advance and in person. (It's funny what a hotel can do with photography, lighting and Photoshop!) I remember looking up public bus schedules in Rome; I recall that one night we didn't know the metro was indefinitely closed for maintenance after 7 p.m. We took a cab back to our hotel...after a strategic detour made by our taxi driver. I also remember fussing over train reservations and sitting on my luggage in an aisle of an overbooked Italian train.
Where time is money and stress, I see a lot of value in letting an experienced operator take the reins. How efficient and stress free it is to step out of the hotel lobby and into a coach. (PS - it is temperature controlled, has an electronic recharge station and wifi. And unlike that Italian train, everyone gets a seat, all the time!)
Moreover, a lot of travellers (like my dear parents) want to travel wide and far, but find planning local logistics completely daunting. There are even places I have reservations about. I've travelled Beijing and Southeast Asia on my own and am dying to get to Egypt. Despite my travel 'credentials', it's one place I'm resolute in exploring via a guided vacation. If travel logistics are intimidating you, leaning on the experts is a fantastic option.
Myth 5: you don't get off the beaten track
A beautiful thing happens during coach travel: stops at hidden treasures.
Think about the last time you hosted family from out of town. Maybe you took them to your favourite restaurant or an incredible viewpoint overlooking the city. They're obscure gems that only a local would know about.
This is the premise of Trafalgar's hidden treasures. Not only are they places that I would have never found on my own, most travellers would reason they'd be too hard to access anyway. That's the beauty of travelling by coach. If you're travelling Europe by rail or river cruise you simply can't make a half hour detour. It's for this reason that getting off the beaten track can actually be easier and more frequent on a guided vacation.
Myth 6: you don't get any time to explore on your own
If you're feeling this way, then you want to reconsider the trip style. Look for an itinerary that makes long enough stops in the cities you prioritize. A good thing to scrutinize is how many nights are spent in a single destination. Two nights or more will give you a greater depth of experience than a single night.
Because my guided trip was so efficient (after all I didn't spend time waiting around for public buses or bumbling with train schedules) I felt I had an adequate amount of free time. Plus, I loved that our evening meals didn't drag on. It meant that I could hit the old town centres with other night owl travellers. Need further proof? We had enough free time for Josh to get tattooed. (A Spanish bull - check it out here.) See, there's plenty of time for everyone to explore their own interests.
Just so you know: Trafalgar's At Leisure trip style is comprised of two-to-seven night stays in each city. It's purposefully crafted to allow for personal exploration and down time.
Myth 7: you eat what you're told to
No! Wrong. Your vacation is not a regimen.
Sure, there were a few nights where we sat down to a set meal. However, at the trip outset we were asked to provide our food preferences. The rest of the time, the menu was our playground. I don't speak a lick of Spanish, a thought that only crossed my mind once I boarded the plane to Madrid. But as quickly as it came, it dissolved. Why? Because I knew Javier (well technically we hadn't met yet) would be able to navigate me through the language barrier. In fact, if I had travelled on my own I would have struggled with ordering food. If I had been staring down a foreign menu I probably would have selected dishes that looked familiar. Javier patiently explained the regional specialties to us and which dishes were the most popular.
Bonus: 2 truths about guided travel
It's lazy (and I LOVED it)
1. Don't schlep a single piece of luggage. I never struggled or sweat under the weight of a pack. There was no awkward juggling of carry-ons, suitcases and day packs. The moment I checked in to the first hotel through the duration of the trip it was all taken care of. We would arrive at a new city and room keys were distributed. Within the time it took to brew a coffee in my room, my bag appeared via porter. In the morning I simply left my bag for the porter to fetch. While we ate breakfast they were whisked from the room to the coach. Pure bliss!
2. Just pack your bags and go, literally. It's all simply effortless. Step one: pick a trip and pay for it. Step two: obtain some local currency in advance. Step three: make sure your passport is valid. Step four: pack your bags. Step five: get on the plane. Step six: enjoy the trip. Memories for life, the end. (Well, repeat step one of course!)
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