Author: April F.
Date of Trip: September 2007
Travel is nothing new to my husband and me. We have crisscrossed the United States visiting states from Maine to California to Hawaii to Florida. I had only traveled outside the US once, however, when we spent a week in Paris. My husband, on the other hand, had lived in France for a year as a child and had visited much of Europe during that period. In all of our travels we had never used a travel agent. Being independent and self sufficient people we booked our own flights, reserved cars when needed, made hotel reservations on our own and planned our itineraries. It was therefore totally out of character when I informed my husband that I wanted to travel to Europe and try a guided tour.
My reasons for wanting to use a guided tour were varied. In numerous trips to the US National Parks, I had most enjoyed the guided walks with the naturalists. The explanations they gave of the flora and fauna and natural occurrences in the parks made the experience richer and more entertaining, not to mention more informative. I hoped that a guided tour would offer the same richness and pleasure of learning about the things that I was seeing and the places that I was visiting.
I also imagined that the language barrier would be less problematic if traveling with a tour group. As my foreign language skills are not too well honed, this was an issue that was of some concern to me.
I also expected that moving from place to place would be far easier with a tour. I was hesitant to rent a car in a foreign country and attempt to find my own way, or alternatively, spend a great deal of time and effort negotiating public transportation.
Lastly, I had hoped that being in the company of various people would enrich the travel experience and add a measure of entertainment.
On the other hand, I had serious doubts as to whether we would find the level of control over our daily activities to be overwhelming and stifling. I feared that the “follow the leader” mentality would be more than we could handle. Having always set our own itinerary and done what we wanted, when we wanted, this was going to be quite a change.
I also wondered whether being with the same people, day after day, would become draining. After all, there was no guarantee that I would like my fellow travelers. We all know that some people can become tiring, cantankerous and just plain unpleasant.
So, given all these pros and cons, we set out to find the perfect vacation. We settled on a trip to Italy and then began researching the various tour companies that offered such a trip. We looked at Perillo tours, Globus, Trafalgar and several others. We looked at itineraries, hotels that they provided, what kind of food they fed you, the places they took you, and what was included in the price. We eventually settled on the “perfect trip” and sat down at the computer to book our travel. This was in May and the trip was to be sometime in the month of September, which we were told was one of the best months to visit Italy, as it is not too hot, but still warm enough to enjoy the outdoors. We discovered that all of the trips to Italy for the month of September were already booked. We were too late.
After a disappointing few days, my husband suggested Switzerland as an alternative. He had located an eight day trip through Globus tours that made a circuit of Switzerland visiting the cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Lugano, Zermatt, and Bern and also passed through Lichtenstein and parts of northern Italy. This time, we very quickly reviewed the hotels, locations visited, etc and agreed that this trip looked wonderful. We booked our tour online and made our own air reservations, thus preserving some vestige of our independence.
After that we relinquished our control to the tour company. They told us how big our suitcase could be and how much it could weigh. They mailed us carry on bags to use, so the carry on would fit conveniently on the bus. They sent us name tags to wear. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I began attempting to teach myself German, French and Italian because all of these languages are spoken in various parts of Switzerland. I barely managed to learn to count to ten in the three languages. Somehow, I knew intuitively that counting to ten to the local residents, would not quite satisfy any level of communication.
Finally the day arrived and we flew to Zurich. We had been told that we needed to find the airport shuttle to our first hotel on our own. However, as soon as we claimed our luggage and began to move toward the exit of the airport, we came across a lady holding aloft a “Globus” sign. I approached her and told her we were with a Globus tour and that we were looking for a shuttle to the hotel. She asked my name, checked it off on her list, and told me that she had my shuttle waiting for me at the exit. That was the last time for the entire week that I had to try to maneuver on my own in a foreign country. She told me her name was Valeria and for the rest of the week, she became my escort, my teacher, my entertainer and my friend. The official start of the tour did not begin until 6PM, and it was only 10AM. Valeria took us to the hotel, got us checked in (she convinced the hotel desk to find a room for us, even though it was not yet check in time), and then gave us directions and suggestions for touring Zurich on our own.
That evening we met the rest of our travelers. People had warned me that only “old” people took guided tours. My husband and I are in our mid 50’s and do not consider ourselves to be too “old”. There were 44 people in our group. There were two ladies from Australia (mid 30’s), a half dozen people from Canada, and the rest of us were Americans. There were people from New York, Texas, North Carolina and several other states. The ages ranged from 30’s to 70’s and even included one family traveling with their 12 year old twins (they were the only children on the trip).
Our journey had begun. Not to bore you with minute by minute details, I will tell you that every morning Valeria arranged for a wake up call to our room at 6:30AM. Luggage was to be outside the door at 7AM. Breakfast was generally at 7AM and we were on the bus by 8AM. Our particular itinerary had us in a different hotel each day, except for the last two nights that were spent in Lucerne. Every morning there was a breakfast buffet in the hotels, and most evenings dinner in the hotel was also included.
I had brought reading material with me for the “down” time on the bus. I did not realize that the tour guide would be filling our ears and our heads with information in an almost constant stream. She told us about the geography, the history, the economics, the societal structure and anything else that we asked her about. She knew where every bathroom in Switzerland was located, and which ones required money and which ones were free. She knew where we should order the pie and where the ice cream was good. I never got to do any of the reading that I had brought with me. After the first day, if the tour guide stopped talking most people on the bus took the opportunity to close their eyes and rest. By the third day, my head was swimming with all of the things that I had seen and learned.
The scenery was magnificent, the cities were interesting and the schedule was hectic. We were up and down mountains, through valleys, passing from areas where they spoke German to places that were totally Italian and then it was as though we were in the French countryside. I had to keep reminding myself where we were. Every time we stopped for an activity, it was perfectly orchestrated. The horse drawn carriages to the Roseg glacier were waiting for us when we arrived. The private tour guide for Chillon castle was also waiting when we arrived. When we took the boat rides on Lake Lucerne and to the island Isola Bella during our pass through Italy, the boats were ready and waiting for us. We pulled into Bern and our private guide for Bern was there and ready to teach us and show us the best of that beautiful city. There was no need to stand on lines, waiting to buy tickets, or wait for connections, or hassle over entry fees. All arrangements were made for us and everything was done efficiently. When we stopped to visit an attraction, we were told how much time we had, what time to meet back and where to meet. I rarely felt that I hadn’t enough time to see and experience the attractions. I know that I could never have experienced the quantity of places and locations, if I had tried to plan the trip and negotiate the travel arrangements on my own.
I also quickly learned that our tour guide knew Europe like the back of her hand. She knew what the best places to see were, and what should be bypassed because it was not as good as some other places. I learned that I could trust her instincts and she would show me the best time possible. Most of our fellow travelers were pleasant and enjoyable. We chatted and shared stories and entertained one another. We found it comforting to be walking through a strange city in a foreign country and stumble upon someone who you “knew”. You could direct them to the great cafe you had just discovered or find out where they found the good shopping. The biggest surprise for me, however, was that we made true friends on our trip. We bonded with another couple who were similar in age and background to us. In talking to them, we discovered that I had grown up within two miles of them and all four of us (both husbands and wives) had all graduated from the same college within a four year time frame. Here were people whose lives overlapped ours so closely, and we had to come to Switzerland to meet them.
My husband and I agreed that this was probably the best vacation that we have ever had. We were able to relax and let someone else worry about timing and traffic and entry fees and schedules. My goal before I left for this trip was to “be a sponge”. I wanted to sit back and take it all in and my goal was accomplished better than I ever imagined. We are now in the process of planning the trip to Italy that I didn’t get to do. We are doing another guided tour with Globus. This time, I will be anticipating all the wonderful things, without worrying about the potential negatives.