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8 Ways to Enjoy Independent Travel Within a Group

Enjoy the Convenience and Camaraderie of a Tour, While Still Having Your Own Adventure

During time away from her group, the author captured this image of three generations traveling by bike in Yangshuo,

When my friend and I first decided to go to China I was hesitant to sign up for a group tour. Having served in the Peace Corps in Africa, I was used to independent travel. The idea of following a guide from one tourist attraction to the next sounded frighteningly dull. At the same time, we had only three weeks to travel and we could neither speak nor read Chinese. So, reluctantly, I agreed to a Peregrine Adventure Tour. In every way, it was the right choice for us. Using a little ingenuity, I found I could enjoy the best of traveling with a congenial group while still retaining a sense of independence. Here is what I learned.

1. Select the right tour group. Look for a tour that advertises some free time in the schedule. Peregrine includes time for unguided-exploration, from a few hours to a half day. Greg Caras, a U.K. Trailfinders' travel consultant and member of our China tour group, said that other adventure travel companies offered similar flexibility. He recommended South and Central American specialists gadventures.com and Tucan.

2. Be willing to break away from the group. Seize opportunities to mix with local residents. On an overnight train journey from Chengdu to Xian our guide asked for volunteers to share a sleeping compartment with a university student and his mother. I was the first to volunteer. By the time we reached Xian, I had viewed Lu Jian's digital camera "slide show" of their week's holiday and shared tea and noodle soup with Rong, his mother.

3. Bring easy-to-pack resources from home as conversation pieces. Family photographs protected in a pocket-size album and postcards of your town or state are useful conversation-openers. Postcards can be left behind as small tokens of appreciation.

4. Pack a good map of the countries that you're touring, and of your home country. Maps are useful tools for talking with locals about tour routes, destinations, and home towns. On the Yangtze River tour, I talked with Ludwig Chang (named after Beethoven) from Hong Kong who grew up in Connecticut. On my map, Ludwig marked Lijiang and the neighboring villages of Dali and Zhongdian in the Yunnan Province as definite must-sees.

5. Carry a small journal. When the spoken word fails, try writing. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to communicate. It also provides a permanent record of memorable conversations. Written in my journal in their own handwriting are the names of many of the people whom I met on my trip.

6. Rise early and take a walk before breakfast. Seldom do tour groups begin their scheduled day before 9 a.m. If you are out walking by 7 a.m., you have independent travel time each morning. From the time I arrived in Hong Kong and joined of local residents for an early-morning swim in one of five outdoor pools in Kowloon Park until I left Beijing three weeks later, I was out every morning. The early riser witnesses events not evident later in the day.

One caution for solo walkers: always carry your hotel's business card. It may be your lifeline if your enthusiasm for exploration takes you to the “lost” section of town.

7. Stop, look, and listen. Walk away from the touristy sections of town and then stop. Don’t take photographs just sit or stand quietly in an out-of-the-way location. You will be surprised how quickly you meld into the fabric of the neighborhood. On my last afternoon in Beijing, I lingered in a residential alley south of Tiananmen Square. A man in rubber boots skinned rabbits. A woman watered yellow spider mums. The smell of baked sweet potatoes wafted through the air.

8. Do something that a local resident would do. Get a haircut or go for a bike ride. When your schedule includes time to shop for souvenirs, forget the shopping and try out a new activity.