Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel Planning: Guided Tours

It's less than T minus one month before our trip to Europe! Planning is now in the phase of working out all the nitty-gritty little details of our daily itineraries. When I first started planning our trip, guided tours were the last thing on my mind; Will's first trip to Europe can be characterized by constant herding on and off tour buses, flash photography, and eating exclusively in Chinese restaurants all over Europe (though the tour group did manage to visit more countries in 3 weeks than I've ever stepped foot in my entire life, so mission accomplished I guess).

I made it my goal to plan a very different experience for our trip to Europe together (and my very first!), steering clear of the impersonal and cursory itinerary of tour groups. I envisioned self-guided leisurely strolls through the beautiful and historic neighborhoods of Paris, exploring the markets and local life, wandering the lush garden and parks of Copenhagen, and getting lost in the winding canals of Venice.

But then I began to realize that in a foreign, unfamiliar city where we don't speak the language, "getting lost" was a real possibility and probably not as romantic as it seems (especially in the summer heat). So I began researching guided tours and as I delved deeper, I found that there are actually many unique tours that are far from the depthless and formulaic experience I had deemed them to be. In fact, the best local guides often have insider tips, local secrets, and entertaining stories to tell along the tour, making even the most crowded and popular attractions feel less touristy and more charming.

Guided tours come in many different flavors: "free" tips-only local tour guides, photography tours, bike tours (if we have the time, I would love to try this in either Paris or Copenhagen; both are fantastic cities to see by bike from what I hear), boat tours, food tours, wine tours, etc. I think the key to booking a fun and memorable tour is to keep in mind the characteristic virtues of a particular city and as well as your personal interests. Don't take a bike tour if you hate biking or a boat tour if you get sea sick; if you aren't intensely interested in art history, an 8-hour guided tour of the Louvre may bore you to tears.

So far, we plan to take a "free" walking tour of Montmartre with a local guide in Paris, a guided castle tour (so we can explore the scenic countryside areas that are unreached by the city metro) and boat canal tour in Copenhagen, and a walking tour with gondola ride in Venice (also considering the "Secret Itineraries Tour" for Doge's Palace; we probably won't be able to truly appreciate all of the history behind  this landmark without a guide).

I also found that tours can actually save us both time (of getting lost and some tour groups have front-of-the-line privileges at popular attractions) and money (in Venice a gondola ride booked in advance with a tour is much cheaper than negotiating the price on-the-spot). At the very least, you will always have someone to ask where the bathrooms are (super important, to me at least!)


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