Many independent travelers, despite the best intentions of steering clear, often succumb to the allure of a guided day tour. At times, a short tour just seems right when faced with the enormity of the Vatican, the inconvenience of stumbling between wineries in Argentina, or the labyrinth of streets in Hanoi.
If we’re lucky, we learn some unique information and connect with the guide, making the day that much more engaging and memorable. If we’re not, and find ourselves cattle prodded from one contrived tourist place to the next, we vow wholeheartedly, “Never again!”
But given the great expense, time, and physical effort it takes to travel the globe on our own, why shouldn’t we have a tour the way we want it? Is it possible to let a guide comfortably navigate us around a complex city and still have room for spontaneity and offbeat experiences?
Well, it absolutely is. The trick is to negotiate your itinerary ahead of time. Now, obviously these suggestions will not work if you’re on a double-decker sized tour bus with 50 other people; they are meant for small groups, preferably your own family and friends, or just you.
The great thing about travel these days, however, is that private tours are easy to arrange through the Internet, your hotel, or even that tour company on the corner. In addition, many dedicated groups exist out there from university students in Hong Kong to starving artists in Paris.
Having endured my share of wretched tours all over the world from Africa to Central America, I have learned that there are several potential disappointing features that you can circumvent ahead of time.
Avoid “Feeding Trough” Meals
One of the true excitements of travel is food. Many of us enjoy trying new flavors and spices, sampling the local specialties, and even stumbling upon a fantastic hole-in-the-wall.
Yet, rarely on an organized tour are you served a meal that is in any way standout. In most cases, the food is a watered-down western dish, and the restaurants resemble feeding troughs, where busloads of people are brought in and shuffled out.
Now I’m not saying that every meal has to blow it out of the water, but in lots of countries, it’s easy to get fresh, delicious meals. So why would you accept a substandard one when there’s a fabulous place right next door?
Ask the tour guide to recommend a favorite restaurant, or choose one with a line out the door. My tip is to organize your time so that you end up at mealtime near a public square with lots of local dining options.
Skip Souvenir Factory Tourist Traps
Many tours build into the itinerary a stop at a silk factory, potter’s guild, or cloisonnÃ© warehouse, where prices are outrageous and the guide may receive some kind of commission.
Often these stops are convenient for using a functioning restroom, taking a break, or getting a drink. But do you really want to be eating up your time looking at things to buy?
My recommendation is to take those stops out of the schedule or be clear about only spending a short time there.
Make Sure There’s Enough Time for the “Good Stuff”
On a recent trip to China, I was in awe of the Summer Palace. I really could have spent a considerable amount of time there, given its historical significance and intricate beauty.
So, why did we rush away from the splendor to be driven an hour and a half away to an unknown drab gray underground tomb? Well, because drab gray underground tomb was on the itinerary.
In no way am I knocking off-the-beaten-track sites. Most of the time, I prefer them. The point is that the Summer Palace deserved more attention than it was given, a fairly common occurrence when it comes to moving people from one destination to the next. It’s very important, therefore, to review the schedule closely and adjust it to fit your interests and expectations.
Say “No” to Padded Itineraries
In addition to mismanaging time, many tour companies plump the itinerary with sites that are in essence “freebies.” In this way, they do not actually pay an entrance fee, but you are still charged for it. This includes many bridges, public monuments, and parks.
On the schedule, your day looks full and promising, and you think you are getting your money’s worth; in actuality, those sites may hold little real significance. With a little research, you may be able to negotiate a fairer price without them on the schedule.
Of course, on a tour, you do pay for transportation, a guide, a driver, and convenience, but it doesn’t hurt to have a general idea of admission costs too. Remember, the goal is to see what you really want and not fill the time with empty excursions.
Get Through to Surly Tour Guides
Have you ever had a tour guide with major attitude? You know the kind that rambles off information a mile a minute, does not engage with the group, and seems bored?
In fact, being a tour guide is often a taxing job for little pay, and many times they are tired of the same routine. I find it really helps to simply ask questions that enable the guide to speak off the script. In this way, you can gain a local person’s perspective outside what a history book might say, or perhaps hear a family story of an event. Moreover, although I do advocate breaking the Guide-Tourist barrier by asking polite personal questions, I don’t recommend heated political discussions.
In some cases, your friendliness may result in a separate invitation to a cool unknown spot or a long-distance pen pal. Either way, the key is connecting, rather than just being on the receiving end of a mass of facts and dates.
Negotiate Your Way to a Fair Price
So now that you know the common traps, how do you negotiate for the tour you want?
First, to avoid inflated prices, find out how much things generally cost. This is easy – look in guidebooks, read travel sites, and talk to other travelers. My personal favorite trick is to simply ask that local person working at the front desk of my hotel, “So how much should a taxi cost to X?” Sure, sometimes you get the “tourist” price, but more often than not, you get an honest answer.
When talking to the tour agency, ask for a deduction on any meals or excursions that you’re not interested in and factor in reasonable transportation. An easy way to start the dialogue is simply by saying, “I don’t want to see the underground tomb and I want to choose my own restaurant, so can I do the tour without them?” From there, you can often name your own price, and after a little back and forth, reach an agreement.
Finally, it also helps to smile, keep a good attitude, and remember that in some places, no matter how much you try, you just won’t be able to work a deal.
all photos by Mary Richardson and may not be used without permission