I recently re-examined one of my long-held beliefs: People who travel in groups -- specifically escorted tours -- are less interesting than those who roam as independent travelers.
I have always divided the world neatly into two groups: travelers and tourists. Travelers figure out where the locals eat in Rome; tourists tell people they've "seen Santorini" when all they did was step off a cruise ship into the waiting arms of a souvenir vendor. It comes down to whether you visit an exotic locale out of a thirst for adventure and self-discovery or travel with the goal of staying within your comfort zone -- which results in meals taken at the McDonald's in Beijing.
Me? I like to think I'm a traveler. Or at least I used to be. I spent the year after college roaming through Europe and the Middle East armed just with a waterproof map and the student traveler's bible, Frommer's "Europe on $5 a Day." My trip's direction was shaped by the people I met along the way. I spent a month traveling around Israel with two nursing students who I met on my first day at the Western Wall. In Turkey, I became fast friends with an Israeli reservist and together we marveled at the Aya Sophia. A South African woman from the townships convinced me to go there, and a bearded philosophy major from London had just about convinced me that my trip would be incomplete if it didn't include India, but my money ran out before I got there.
As I aged and my career became more structured, vacation days grew more precious. Suddenly it mattered if I had hotel reservations when I arrived in a foreign city because I didn't want to waste a half-day scouting hotels. And it mattered whether the flight landed in the morning or evening because I didn't want jetlag eating into my trip. Lost was some of the spontaneity and with it the difficulties that always accompany unplanned travel. But I never lost sight of the fact that overcoming those difficulties is part of what made traveling so much fun.
Still, my traveling continued to be more planned. Throw a couple of kids into the equation and every detail of every trip became arranged in advance. Did I really want a hotel in Amsterdam's Red Light district and the questions that would invariably follow from my children? Was a four-hour train ride through the Alps going to be boring for two little ones with no appreciation for breathtaking scenery and thus, in turn, maddening for me?
I quickly learned the value of staying in one place -- with a kitchen -- and unpacking just once per trip. With a base of operations, day trips were possible. But moving a family of four is not that dissimilar from a four-star general moving troops. It required a master plan, a timetable, the assignment of tasks and many, many high-stress moments.
At one point, with multi-generations in tow, taking a cruise was clearly the best option -- something the traveler in me rebelled against on principle. I drew my line in the sand when it came to the cruise tours. I was not going to walk around the Vatican following a man holding up a sign with a cruise ship logo on it when we certainly could tour Rome on our own. I refused to be part of the group tour of Ephesus knowing there was bound to be at least one loud-mouth in the group -- isn't there always? -- who would hog the guide's attention, peppering him with questions designed to show off the hog's own knowledge.
Along the way, I've gone on a few group tours -- primarily in places where the government required it (the former Soviet Union) or where necessity dictated (our two adoption trips to China). I hated the parts where I had to spend dinners talking to people I never would have otherwise dined with. And I always resented having to wait for the pokey tour members who took their sweet time to snap one last photo or deliberate their souvenir purchases.
Now, I no longer take cruises or go on group tours. My children are old enough that I'm counting the number of years before they will prefer to travel on their own and I want every vacation as a family to count. I want to show them the world and hope the idea of self-exploration through travel whets their appetite for more. I want them to embrace what is different, not be afraid of it.
But I do wonder what's ahead for me. Even as a fit and healthy traveler, I admit that traveling as I did as a student holds little appeal. Boomers are already reshaping the travel industry, experts say. According to the Global Travel Industry News, we still want new experiences that are off the beaten track. We might not want to go hang-gliding anymore, and you can probably expect to see business at ski resorts fall off as our knees do the same, but the gist of things remains: We will want to travel, explore and have new adventures.
What nobody is predicting is whether we will want to do it in a group -- where someone is always there to lift our suitcase, drive us around foreign cities at night or translate what we want into Arabic or Japanese for us. There may come a time when all that sounds more appealing, but can we please all agree to not stop at McDonald's in Beijing?