Travel Trend: Semi-Independent Touring

by Tom Reed
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Story filed January 25, 2014

Winter in Cleveland sometimes seems as if it’s never going to end. But it will someday, and if you’re planning a European vacation this year it’s time to get cracking.

There are so many choices to make it can be overwhelming. Let’s focus on one decision. Should you travel independently or book an escorted tour? With an escorted tour, someone else does most of the planning. You simply show up, knowing you’ll have a place to stay and tour guides to show you the sights. You’ll have some free time, but mostly you’ll stay with your group. If you choose the independent route, you’ll have to make your own flight and hotel reservations and plan your own internal travel within the country you’re visiting.

But it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. There is a middle ground, and it’s the one that appeals to me. I’m talking about Europe, based on my own experience of the past couple of years. It might be a different story for more exotic locations. I wanted to plan my own itinerary, without having to worry about hotel reservations and internal travel in a strange country.

My wife and I wanted to go to Spain, and use that country’s excellent high-speed rail network to travel between Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid. We booked a package through AAA with General Tours, Inc. They booked hotels in all three cities and provided train tickets and transportation between our hotels and train stations and airports. Also included were a couple of half-day sightseeing tours, and a package containing what is called a Madrid Card and a Barcelona Card. These provided free or discounted admission to several attractions, and free rides on buses and subways. Both Madrid and Barcelona have excellent subway systems, which they call the Metro. Other than the two sightseeing tours, we were on our own. We saw the sights we wanted to see, ate in restaurants of our choice, and did what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it.

The previous year, we used the same approach on a trip to England, this time with a company called Trafalgar. The experience was about the same, except for the language barrier in Spain.

Here are some tips to make your trip more enjoyable:

Learn a little of the language. Even a few words from a phrasebook are better than nothing. Although I tried to brush up my high school Spanish, I was not prepared to carry on a conversation in that language, but I found enough English-speaking people to get by. The Spanish phrase I used most often was “Habla Usted Ingles?” (“Do you speak English?”)

Do your homework. If you’re going to plan an itinerary, you’ll need to decide what you want to see. This can be a general overview or more specific, depending on your own preferences. We got very specific when planning a visit to the Prado, Madrid’s world-famous art museum. Using a website as a guide, we made a list of the paintings we wanted to see and where they were located. Most major museums provide English-language audio guides, which are well worth the cost. Advance planning enabled us to see a bullfight a few hours after our arrival in Madrid. We looked up the schedule on the Internet, and even located the nearest Metro stop.

Leave time for the unexpected. You’ll undoubtedly run across places of interest you couldn’t have planned for.

The Internet offers so much information about Europe that the only problem is knowing where to begin. Now is the time to begin research, so you can fully enjoy your trip in spring, summer, or fall.

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