I’m not a fan of travel tours. Travelers are rushed through cities and countries, see only the main tourist attractions, and have little or no time to explore on their own. The valuable component that is missed on travel tours is cultural immersion. You know, those sweet times when you meet a local and discover through them the realness of a place – good and bad – or get lost down side streets and discover local haunts that reflect the quirks of the country’s people and historic sociology.
I concede that changes are afoot in terms of travel tours and that’s a good thing. The choice in types of tours is expanding to fit the huge expansion in types of travelers.
What I want to share with you is my first experience into the world of a traditional travel tour which I took to Turkey. The circumstances were this:
Conrad and I were asked by friends to accompany them on a discount tour they discovered in the Washington Post. I read over the website three times to find the small print, (that I was sure must be there), telling of additional costs such as, “Air fare not included.” To my surprise I found the list included everything – air fare, all meals, and all ground transportation.
We’ve been back two months now and all-in-all we’re really glad we went, but we made the decision to not take a tour again. Here is my evaluation – Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down:
- Özgür Arslanyilmaz, our tour guide from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism was spectacular. With our group of 34 for nine days, he supplied information sprinkled with anecdotes, history, mythology, and humor, as well as soothing nervous nellies, answering 58 million really idiotic questions with the grace of a loving father, and making sure our tours and hotels were ready for us when we arrived. No small feat, that, and I quickly developed a healthy respect for Özgür and tour guides in general. Having a constant presence of a knowledgeable guide adds greatly to the enjoyment of a place or event. Sure, Conrad and I have spent hours upon hours in museums, for instance, reading the plaques and brochures, but having that special person who conveys the story to you is a treat. Özgür was passionate as well as cute, with his accent and sometimes bungled expressions. He obviously treats his job as great theater, performing and hamming for his rapt audience.
2. We felt quite pampered. From the get-go, neither Conrad or I had to be concerned with any details – no reservations, no getting lost, no dragging ourselves into a place at midnight because we underestimated how long it would take us to arrive in a town, no fretting over a rental car bill that was unexpectedly three times what we thought it would be, no waiting in line at an attraction for hours, and no worry if the place we decided to stay was safe. For just this one time, it was a joy to embrace our inner tourist.
- We saw the glorious highlights of Turkey. A tour is efficiently planned to smash in as much as possible of the grand places.In Istanbul, we marveled at glorious ancient structures like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, as well as attractions like the spice market and Hippodrome. We heard the call to prayer five times a day which rang out from minarets sprinkled across the land. In other parts of the country we binged on ancient ruins thousands of years old that sparked our imaginations about the amazing past of human beings. We came away with a heightened appreciation for a country that held the birth of our civilization, feeling the pathos of the ages by walking among stones hewn by hand 6,000 years ago.
- While the provided food was good and amazingly plentiful, everywhere we ate was geared towards throngs of folks on tours. The dining rooms were immense places with multitudes of tourists crisscrossing back and forth through the many buffet lines. Much of the food was very pretty and nourishing, but one of the most important joys of travel to me is discovering the street food or a tiny hole-in-the-wall place with authentic regional fare where the chef comes out to chat or even gives you a tour of the place. We have had some of our best travel experiences revolve around meeting local restaurateurs. Our tour to Turkey was devoid of that.
- We barely set food on a city sidewalk. Most of our view of city and countryside was through a bus window. We ached with longing to get out and spend our next few days just wandering on foot to discover on-the-street happenings – where we knew the authentic Turkey could be found. This is my biggest complaint with travel tours – they strip away the real discovery of a place and keep you separated from locals and their lives.
- The atmosphere of our travel group was sterile. For instance, Özgür gave the local temperature forecast for the day – in Celsius – and our group of Americans asked him to convert it to Fahrenheit. (I’m happy to report that he did it once but then refused after that, saying, “You’re in Turkey.”) Another example was in the use of money. Since we were always going to places that catered to tours, the vendors accepted American Dollars, Euros, or Turkish Lire. I don’t know if “sterile” is the right term for all that, but whatever you want to call it, I didn’t like it. I travel to experience different cultures – not the same stuff I have at home. I WELCOME the challenges that come with having to figure out different currencies, languages, foods, customs, protocols, and manners. I resented our group for wanting to strip that away. (And by the way, my own unscientific survey of others in our group revealed that almost to a person, they all desired tours because they eliminate the need to learn a new currency or language.)