Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Traveling Alone, Part Deux

About a year ago, I wrote a post about traveling alone. One option I didn’t discuss in much detail is taking an organized tour. At the time, I did not have any experience with this type of travel. A couple of months ago, I started getting buggy to go somewhere. I’m seven months pregnant, now, so my normal thoughts of SCUBA diving and skiing aren’t a possibility. Morocco has been on my list since I met a woman who was in the Peace Corps there, so I decided to look into it. Taking a tour made sense to me at this stage because, although Morocco is ranked well above the US in healthcare performance, I decided having a local advocate who spoke Arabic and French might be useful if I actually needed something.

I selected a 13 day Morocco Explorer trip through Peregrine Adventures. When I was in Zimbabwe in 2006, I met a travel agent, Tom Gehrels who works for Adventure Center based in Toronto, Canada. Tom has been in 97 countries, so he has good recommendations for travel adventures. He’s also very familiar with the tour companies with which they do business, so I knew I would get good suggestions based on what I shared with him about my interests, energy level, and physical limitations. I appreciate working with a professional who “practices what they preach”, so to speak! When I decided I would prefer not to handle the logistics on my own, I called him, explained my situation and asked for some ideas. After a few email exchanges, I selected the Peregrine trip because of the timing and budget, the accommodation of my inability to ride a camel for an hour in the desert, and the length of the trip -which seemed like it would allow enough time to really see the country.

I enjoyed a number of things about traveling like this. It was relaxing knowing that everything on the trip was scheduled and booked and I didn’t need to worry about any of the logistics. We went places I would not have gone, if I had planned the trip on my own (although we missed one place - that could’ve been added as an extension, we just decided against it). We were taken to some places to shop (I never felt pressured to buy and the guides do not get kickbacks) and I appreciated that the places we went were endorsed by the tour company so the products offered were good quality and fairly priced. If the Berber rug I bought hadn’t shown up, I would have had recourse. I learned things about the culture that I probably wouldn’t have learned planning my own itinerary. For example, the current King Mohammed VI changed many of the laws regarding women’s social and civic equality and there was opportunity to discuss that and how it has changed life with several Moroccans. I was also made aware of some of the challenges women still face in Morocco.

There are also tradeoffs traveling this way, too. Tours can be fast paced and sometimes you are in a new location every night. We had three nights in Fes and two in Marrakech. Overall, I didn’t mind moving around once I figured out how to keep my bags organized. Frequent relocation means that you won’t be doing much hanging around soaking up the sights, especially if there isn’t much free time built into the itinerary. Most of the restaurants were chosen for us. If you like to comb TripAdvisor looking for what other travelers like, that might be a bummer. In this case, I enjoyed the opportunity to have Berber pizza and eat in the home of a guide in Sefrou, which I would not have been able to do on my own. We were very fortunate and had a group of seven who really hit it off. If the group had been larger or there had been difficult personalities on the tour, it would’ve been more challenging.

I was not alone on this trip, but surprisingly, or possibly not, there were THREE single women in our group of seven, even though it was not a women’s trip. They ranged in age from 34 to 60 and came from New Zealand, the UK, and the US. The woman from the UK had more than a few of these trips under her belt. As a single woman, I think this type of trip is ideal, particularly if it’s your first foray into traveling alone. You will likely be connected with the group at the airport when you arrive and will be dropped off there at the end. There will be others with whom to socialize and someone to answer any questions or help address any issues you encounter.

For myself, I imagine I will be doing other trips like this at some point. While reading up on this tour, I learned that some of these companies offer similar tours for families. I mentioned that to our guide in Morocco and he was very complimentary and said they usually limit the amount of driving and search out activities that will entertain and engage children. Given my little man will likely be an only child, this seems like a great way for him to travel with other kids and maybe even make a friend overseas!

Here are a few things I recommend, if you are thinking about taking a trip like this:

·        Take note of the maximum number of travelers; We had seven on a trip that could’ve been 16; Our group collectively agreed that more than 10 or 12 would’ve been way too many

·        Look over the itinerary closely – how often are you moving around? If the trip is more than eight days, being in one hotel for a couple of nights here and there might make things a bit more relaxed

·        Inquire about the demographics of the expected group from the travel agency or tour provider - Is it usually all or mostly women? Are they in an age range that will support the level of activity you would like?

·        Find out if the comfort level is going to be to your liking – do you want posh hotels or a local experience?

·        What physical limitations and interests do you have? Using Tom has twice helped me identify a travel experience that was well matched to what I could and wanted to do and resulted in a travel experience with a like-minded group

·        What is your budget? Is there a single supplement? You may have an option to share a room with another single traveler. Take time to consider how that person’s habits and sleep schedule might affect your own.

Tom has a few additional things to consider:

  • Environmental sustainability record of the tour operator – Adventure Center offers ways for you to offset your carbon footprint
  • Are the tour leaders local or Westerners (locals being the preferred as they are much better informed about the local culture)
  • Start and end place of the tour - is it easy to get to from the nearest airport?; Are transfers included or can you book them as add-ons?; Think about that especially in relation to when you are arriving at the destination (late at night - book a transfer!)
  • What are the local attitudes towards women? (this can be a sensitive issue, sometimes on the verge of politically incorrect, but perhaps something you may want to address)
  • Dress code – for example in Muslim countries it’s often suggested and sometimes required that you cover your knees and shoulders, at least.

Happy Travels!
~Christine Zellers, LBDC CEO


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