Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine November/December 2000
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Independent Group Travel

If you are an experienced independent traveler turned off by packaged tours, try independent group travel. My wife Sarah Wiley and I organize and lead trips to Europe that take advantage of the cost benefits of group travel and at the same time teach independent travel skills. As trip leaders, we arrange flights, accommodations, and major transportation connections, provide optional daily orientation walks, and prepare our group members in advance for the destination. Trip participants do their own sightseeing, discover their own restaurants, and use local transportation. They are drawn by the ease and affordability that the group structure provides; more importantly, they like the freedom to explore on their own. It’s simple:

  • Consider the independent traveler the moment you begin planning. Pick an itinerary or destination where continuous travel over long distances will not be necessary.
  • Select accommodations that are centrally located and close to public transportation.
  • Finally, if your trip includes airfare, use an airline that allows for flexible return dates.

We develop flyers and promotional material that clearly emphasize the independent nature of the trip. (We avoid using the word “tour.”) Our materials advertise “A Greek Adventure” and highlight our travel philosophy in a positive tone. The goal is to find those who are reluctant to take that first step on their own.

As the organizer, you have a considerable responsibility: study the history and contemporary culture of your destination; practice your language skills; prepare yourself in any way you can—and help your group members do the same.

If at all possible, hold orientation meetings before the trip. We usually have four, 2-hour meetings. We collect payments and review details about flights, hotels, and other arrangements, but we spend far more time on language, history, culture, and travel tips.

We provide lists of novels, specialized guidebooks, films, and other sources of information, and we encourage participants to share what they are learning. We bring in a variety of guidebooks and discuss the pros and cons and the target audience for each. Participants select the guidebooks they want. At subsequent meetings, we use guidebooks to help them prepare.

The more interactive your orientations are, the more fun, helpful, and well-attended they will be. Use role-playing scenarios to combine the practice of words, phrases, and gestures with spending local currency or using transportation.

Expect many questions, but don’t always give the answer yourself. For example, most people will want some idea of a daily budget. We ask each person to use guidebooks and come up with his or her expenses for a day.

If orientation meetings prove impractical for you or your group, try to accomplish the same goals through printed materials, email, a trip website, videotaped presentations—any way to get information to your people. Your goal is to empower them with knowledge and confidence for the moment they step off the plane.

During the trip, make sure that participants practice their travel skills immediately. On trips that begin in Paris, our first stop after hotel check-in is the nearest Metro station. During pre-trip orientations, the members of our group have already practiced finding locations on the Metro maps in their guidebooks. Participants buy their own tickets and pick the correct line, direction, and transfer points. We tag along to help, if needed.

During daily orientation walks, we stop briefly at museums, historical sights, and other points of interest. If participants return, they’ll do it because they want to—on their own and at their own pace. Over the course of the trip, attendance gradually declines as our group gains confidence. We don’t take this as a rejection of our guiding skills—on the contrary.

In addition to the morning walk, most days we schedule an optional late afternoon gathering at the hotel. At this meeting participants share their experiences and learn from each other. We are there to answer questions, if asked, and we have a library of guidebooks available for reference.

Trip Planning Resources

Airlines

Most major airlines offer group fare discounts, but only a few offer a flexible return policy. We have used Northwest and British Airlines because they offer competitive rates as well as flexible return dates. Call the airlines and ask to speak to a group sales representative.

Health and Safety Concerns

General travel health concerns are addressed at the Center for Disease Control website. For safety information about your destination go to the U.S. State Department’s page for travel advisories travel.state.gov.

Rick Steves’ Books

Several of Rick Steves’ books provide valuable information for trip leaders. We use Europe through the Back Door, a primer for independent travelers, to help plan our orientations. Europe 101 provides a good, basic historical context for European sights. If our trip is to England, France, or Italy, we encourage participants to buy Mona Winks, Rick’s fascinating guide to the major museums of Europe. Finally, Rick’s Postcards from Europe includes some funny, encouraging, and instructive memories from the author’s years as a novice trip guide. To order these books and Rick’s free travel newsletter (also very helpful), call 425-771-8303 or find some of the same information at www.ricksteves.com.