Last October, I went to Italy on a guided tour. This was one of my mom’s dreams, to go to Italy together with her daughters, and she got it all organized for us. I’ve never traveled like this before—the itinerary, transportation, and accommodations all planned by someone else, and everyone in the larger group a complete stranger. I think I’d do it again, but there are a few things I wish I would’ve known from the very first day of the trip. Here are my tips for traveling with a group on a guided tour (along with some of my favorite photos from Italy):
1. Get a travel guidebook of your own. That sort of sounds counterintuitive…why would you need to read and learn about a place where you’ll have someone guiding and teaching you? We had some really excellent tour guides on my trip. (I can’t think about Rome without hearing our Rome guide’s beautiful voice saying “Roma” and “andiamo!”) But when you already know some of the history,
geography, politics, art, and architecture of the places you’re going, your response to the area will be so much more complex and complete. In the places I hadn’t read about (namely, Orvietto and San Gimgiano) I felt like I didn’t know what to focus on because I didn’t know what I could do there. My experience was much richer in, say, Florence and Siena, where I’d read about the basilicas, towers, history, and famous people. Sometimes the tour guide will repeat something you’ve learned, but then you can just nod your head in your shared wisdom. Plus, a guidebook will give you some ideas for where to eat, which is handy when you don’t have an international data plan on your smart phone.
2. Take advantage of having a guide. Stick close to him/her and listen. Ask questions too. These are people who thoroughly and intimately know the cities you’re only visiting. The knowledge and details they share with you are, quite frankly, part of what you paid for. Wandering through an unknown city is much more fun when you learn about what you’re looking at, rather than only looking at it. Plus you’ll have more little tidbits to share when you get home. (And, speaking of paying for the guides…remember that you’ll need to tip them when they’re finished. I didn’t know this and I would’ve got more cash if I had.)
3. Make friends! This is the best thing about traveling with people you don’t know: you get to meet other people. I loved talking to and getting to know other people in our group. We were all pretty different in lifestyles, careers, families, and time of life. It didn’t matter because we found different things in common. If you are traveling with people you know (like I was with my mom and two sisters), it’s easy to be sort of clique-y and stick just to that group. But your experience will be much more fun if you try to make friends with everyone. Go to all of the group activities, especially the meals. Sit by someone new every time you eat as a
group, or in the bus. Ask people what they are reading or listening to. Ask to look at their pictures or what they thought about a place. I enjoyed this so much that I found myself striking up conversations with other strangers as well, like the father and daughter from Ireland who we chatted with at a restaurant in Rome. (This isn’t normally a strength of my introverted personality.) Talking to them (and listening to their accent) was one of my favorite moments.
4. Be patient with people. Everyone has different travel styles and expectations. This is not a bad thing, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Maybe you’re expecting lots of time to linger in gift stores because that’s your thing. But someone else’s thing is more time in the actual museum (or whatever). You can work around this by talking to people, letting them know what you are hoping to do, and perhaps most importantly, remembering you’re not the only one on the trip. Also remember that you can only move as quickly as the slowest person in your group. If you are a fast walker, use your extra time for lingering in the doorways of shops, admiring perspectives you’d otherwise miss, or taking pictures. If you are a slow walker, don’t feel guilty or worried about it. You’re just giving the faster people chances to get more intimate with the place you’re in.
5. Expect that you'll start to rub on each other. If you were traveling with twenty or 25 people you knew and loved, this would still be true, so when it’s people you don’t know very well? It happens. There will be someone who bugs you. That's OK, because you're likely bugging someone else. Decide not to be a victim of annoyance by doing your best to overlook the actions of someone else who is rubbing you the wrong way; assume the best about everyone. By the third day, I was acutely and painfully aware of which person I was bugging. By the fifth day I decided I didn’t care if I was bugging him because I had paid for my trip, too, and I wasn’t going to let his annoyance ruin it. The best way to deal with someone who’s bothering you? Take advantage of any and all free time. Which brings us to tip number 6.
6. Take advantage of any and all free time. This is another reason for the first tip. If you have some basic knowledge of the city, a map (already in the guidebook!), and an idea of what you want to see, you’ll be much more productive with your free time. I, for example, did not read up on Bologna before we got there, so with the free time we had, we saw the main basilica and not much else. But when we were in Rome and had an entire afternoon to ourselves, my sister Becky and I saw the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Spanish Steps, and several other landmarks. We walked next to the Tiber river; we revisited the places we’d felt rushed in before, like the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain; we found
the metro and figured out how to ride it back to our hotel. (That was one of my favorite afternoons.) We knew we wanted to do all of those things because we’d both read a guidebook or two. Don’t be afraid to let yourself get a little bit lost. You’ll discover things you love that you couldn’t find any other way, and people are friendly in Italy. Even if you’re really lost, someone will help you find your way back. (Just keep watching your watch if you have to be back at a certain time!)
7. Thoroughly understand what is happening each day. Don't assume anything! Ever since I first saw the itinerary for our trip, I was anticipating the moment we would walk through the duomo in Siena. One of my friends had told me how much she loved it, especially the interior, and I couldn’t wait to see and feel what she told me about. While we were in Siena, however, we toured the Basilica of San Domenico instead. This was a beautiful, simple church, with the head (literally) of St. Catherine enshrined in one of its naves. I enjoyed learning about it. But then we just walked right past the Siena duomo! We saw the outside but it wasn’t in the plan to go inside of it.
If I had understood the plan for the rest of the day, I would have known that I did have enough time to see the cathedral on my own if I skipped out on part of the tour. (There is no rule that says you have to stay with the group the entire time.) Sticking with the tour most of the time is probably the best idea, but if there is something you must absolutely see, and it’s not on the itinerary but there is time for you to see it on your own, I say be brave and go for it. But this can only happen if you understand what is happening each day. Ask questions!
8. Be on time. Nothing annoys group members as much as having to wait for someone. I know this for two reasons—I waited for late people, and I was late myself. Twice, in fact. The first time happened when we were walking back to the bus, but as I was with more members of the group than just myself, I wasn’t worried. (People still thought I was late.) The second time I was late really was unforgiveable. It happened when we were leaving in the morning, on one of the days we were changing hotels, and it took Becky and I longer to pack than we thought. I’m still embarrassed that it happened. Especially pay attention to the meeting time when you have free time or if you are breaking away from the group. It helps everything run more smoothly and it’s probably nice not to embarrass yourself.
9. Be open to unexpected and spontaneous experiences. One of my favorite moments happened in Rome. Becky and I were in the lobby one night, sort of late, and we noticed there was a bunch of people from our tour group hanging out in the bar. So we joined them. Again: introvert here. My heart was pounding at first, and I didn’t do an excellent job at mingling. But I managed it. And actually had fun! Another spontaneous moment happened in our hotel near Venice. A few minutes before we were supposed to meet at the bus in the morning, some of the group members ended up in the lobby together. There was a piano, and one of the members (a skilled, professional pianist) played a song for us. It was amazing and beautiful and wonderful. I have a theory that if your heart and mind are open—not too devoted to schedules or personal fears or anything else—then life will bring you these unexpected moments. Watch out for them, and then grab them when you have the chance!
10. Get the email addresses of the people in your tour group. Especially the ones you'd like to swap pictures with. I still would like to do this! If you are taking pictures, you’re far less likely to be in your pictures. But you’re probably in other people’s pictures (just like you’ll have some great photos of the other tour group members). Figure out a way to share them. The group I traveled with did not do this, but I still would like to see some of their pictures.
And, I know I wrote that this is a top ten list, but here’s a very important bonus tip:
Go to the bathroom every chance you get. Seriously. Italians must have the world's largest bladders, I don't know. But there are very few bathrooms. So prepare yourself. Keep a Euro or two in your pocket (yes, you have to pay for many of them) and whenever anyone finds a bathroom, use it. If you find a bathroom, tell everyone else about it. This doesn't seem like a tip that fits with traveling with a group, but I promise: you'll annoy people if all you talk about is how badly you have to pee. And it's hard to be social and outgoing when you’re uncomfortable like that.
Have you ever traveled with a group? What suggestions do you have?
(Read more about my moments in Italy: