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Vacation? How to Plan the Trip of a Lifetime - Part 2

By Ada Letelier, The Santiago Times, Santiago, Chile, June 29, 2008

View of a beach of Punta del Este, Uruguay, one of the most exclusive seaside resorts in Latin America, located 140 kilometers (86.8 miles) from Montevideo. (Photo: Daniel Caselli / AFP-Getty Images)

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part article.

So, what about traveling with an organized group? I have had the experience of traveling with large organized groups as well as traveling alone with my husband.

In 2007, we traveled with a small group of six for three months to Eastern Europe, planning our trip along the way. This year, we traveled to the Middle East with a group of 20 where everything was already planned out for us. No, it wasn't like the infamous 1969 movie If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, but it remains a vacation to remember for many reasons.

On the trip with family and friends, we did the requisite planning beforehand, spending any number of hours in front of the computer checking out flights, hotels, and car rental agencies. We made sure our passports were in order and obtained visas where necessary. I was the only one who had to purchase a special visa in order to get into
Turkey—I was also the only one traveling with a United States passport. There were no special vaccination requirements, and we all made sure we had proof of health insurance coverage. All of this planning paid off, and our trip was a huge success.

However, the following year, my husband and I heard about a trip to the Middle East that was being offered by Travel Security, a small boutique travel agency located in Las Condes, Chile. We went to their offices, picked up some reading material, and became convinced that this was the trip for us. We had always wanted to visit Egypt and Israel, and this trip included Jordan with its famed walled city of Petra.

The total tour package price included the services of a full-time tour guide who would accompany us from Chile and stay with us throughout the entire trip, all flights (international as well as domestic), all hotel accommodation, all meals except where stated, all entrance fees to the numerous sites we would be visiting, and—last but not least—a traveler's health insurance policy that would be in force for the duration of the trip. This trip, too, was a huge success.

While I don't recommend one way of traveling over another, I will give you my insights into some of the pros and cons of traveling in an organized group, especially for those of you who have never had the pleasure of traveling in this manner. Most people prefer traveling on their own and making it up as they go along. They will cite many reasons why they think that traveling with a group is their worst nightmare, often citing the If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium syndrome as their main reason for foregoing this type of trip. Here are my reasons why you should at least consider it.

Pros

1. The Time Factor: You don't have to spend time in advance planning your trip. Your travel agency will do all the work necessary.

This 2006 aerial photograph shows Punta del Este with its River Plate seaside (left) and its Atlantic one (right). The peninsula marks the boundary of the River Plate and the Atlantic Ocean. At left the beaches are gentle and at right they are rough. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

2. The Money Factor: You won't have the worry of making sure that you have enough money to get you through the trip since most of the major items will have been paid up-front, including tips. Your incidentals will be any sodas or alcoholic beverages you may consume with your meals or just sitting at the bar relaxing after a full day of sightseeing. And let's not forget shopping costs. After all, you simply cannot go to Italy and France and not bring back leather goods from Florence or perfume from Paris.

3. Language Barriers: This is surely a major problem for lots of travelers to foreign countries—unless you are the type who doesn't mind eating brains, thinking you had ordered a juicy steak from the menu. With an organized group, you will always be assigned a guide or host that speaks your language as well as the language of the country you are visiting. In Egypt, we had a tour guide who had lived and studied in Spain for many years. His Spanish was better than ours.

4. Meals: If the trip is advertised with "full pension" (full board), then you know that you will get three square meals a day. "Half-pension" (half-board) usually means breakfast and either lunch or dinner, but not both. For those of you who are wary of trying new foods, then this is the best option for you, especially if traveling with children who are picky eaters. Remember: if you can't find anything the kids like, hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza can be had almost any place in the world.

5. The Luggage Factor: You never have to see your luggage until it is brought to your room. Upon leaving the hotel, you just pack your suitcases and leave them outside your room for pickup the following morning. Now, this may not be a big deal for many of you, but if you suffer from back problems, like yours truly, do you really want to be pulling a heavy suitcase behind you while you go looking for a place to stay?

6. Getting to See It All: This is perhaps the main reason why so many people opt for group travel. Not everyone has three or more weeks of vacation, so one tries to do and see as much as one can in the little time that one does have. With an organized trip, every minute is taken into account, and itineraries are planned so that even if you don't get to see all of it, you surely see most of it.

7. Traveling Alone: What better way to meet new people than traveling with a group? A room for one is more costly than a double room no matter where you travel. Agencies will try to put two single travelers together in a double room in order to lower the costs for the travelers. Some travelers don't mind doing this, while others prefer the single room. With a group, you at least have this option.

Cons

1. If I had to list, in order of priority, the biggest drawbacks to traveling in an organized group, number one would be "getting to see it all." Many people come back from a vacation of this type feeling that they did too much and are exhausted from it all. They complain about having to get up early too many times to begin their day of sightseeing. On the other hand, after seeing so much, many travelers—like me—are grateful for all they saw and did, because left to their own devices, it would have been years before they ever could have done this on their own.

2. The second thing that many people complain about is the food. It is usually buffet style, and there is always plenty to choose from. The big problem is finding something you like or are familiar with. However, if there is nothing there, you always have the option of eating out. My husband and I are guilty of this, often looking at what is being offered, shaking our heads, and then wandering off to find something more to our liking. The best duck we had in China was when we got lost in downtown Shanghai. We were hungry and didn't know where to go. Someone overheard us talking and offered to help us. The young woman took us to a restaurant that she knew and told the waiter what we wanted.

Of course, sometimes after a long day of traveling or sightseeing, the only thing you want to do is have a quick bite and then crawl into bed. Knowing that there is something to eat—no matter what—can be a truly gratifying thing.

As for the other factors, who can complain about having someone else carry your luggage? Or help make you understood as you try to bargain with a local merchant in
Arabic? And, if you think that you could come up with a comparable trip for less money, go ahead and try—the Internet is at your disposal.

As for me, my next trip will be back home to New York City. There's an election going on, and I aim to be there in case my guy wins. Upon my return, my husband and
I are thinking of planning a trip to Russia and the Baltic countries. Now the only question is whether we will plan this trip ourselves or call Travel Security and see what they have to offer. Either way, we know we can't go wrong.

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