How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Organized Tour

By Clark Norton
August 11, 2014

After a few days’ driving around Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, viewing wildlife in our little rental car, it was time to end our self-drive safari. My wife and I had yet to see a lion – one of our primary goals -- but we had checked out of our lodge and were headed for the northern exit, allowing three hours to make it out of the park by 7 p.m., when the gates were due to close.

We figured that would be plenty of time -- but what we hadn’t counted on were delays caused by stubborn herds of buffalo blocking the roads, which, not incidentally, were unpaved and rutted with potholes. (The park, by the way, is about the size of New Jersey.)

As 7 p.m. approached, the sun dimmed and we remained miles from the exit, we began to contemplate what it might mean to spend the night in our rental car in a huge wildlife park with no lodges in sight.

Would a herd of elephants trample us under feet? Would a snarling pack of hyenas find our tires a good midnight snack?

And of course there was always the prospect of wandering off to a “bathroom” of bushes in the middle of the night and finally encountering that elusive lion, ready to pounce.

Having second and third thoughts

As luck and a heavy foot on the gas pedal would have it, we did make it out of the park just as the gates were closing, but it got me to thinking: why didn’t we just join an organized guided safari? Leave the driving to someone who knew the roads and distances.

Not have to worry about our car breaking down or getting locked in the park miles from nowhere with herds of elephants and buffalo about. Not to mention having a guide who actually knows where to find lions. (We finally did see a lion – in the Nairobi Zoo.)

While you may not have had the stress of worrying about being devoured by lions, if you’ve traveled internationally on your own you’ve no doubt had some similar “lion-like” experiences -- even if metaphorical.

Sometimes the hassles inherent in do-it-yourself travel can overwhelm the very reasons we travel in the first place -- and tip the balance of an adventure away from fun towards what seems more like hard work.

Since that time, along with my independent travel, I’ve learned to love the benefits of going on well-organized, well-planned guided tours. Here are some of my favorite experiences on such tours:

In Togo, West Africa, I was able to attend voodoo ceremonies where women danced in trances, their eyeballs seeming to disappear into their eyelids; sit in on a gathering in a steamy tribal council room on the shores of Lake Togo, where the local king held court; and visited a remote village where the elaborate mud houses were topped with castle-like turrets and housed domesticated animals on the lower floor.

In the Amazon rainforest, I swam with piranhas, ate coconut-flavored grubs snatched fresh out of palm trees, and took night hikes in total darkness through the rainforests. (Yes, I realize that not everyone would find these to be major selling points, but without guides I trusted, I never would have had any of these, shall we say, memorable, experiences.)

In Micronesia, I took my first scuba lesson in the deep waters of the western Pacific off the island of Kosrae, where I was introduced to a new underwater world of tropical fish and other creatures that would otherwise have been visible to me only at aquariums.

Cruising through the remote Marquesas, part of French Polynesia, I hiked across an entire island – five miles straight up, five miles straight down, or so it seemed – in the company of a guide who assured me I could make it (actually, I had no choice, since our ship had already moved from the starting point to the ending point – it helps to have an incentive.)

In the Philippines, I met the former first lady Imelda Marcos – notorious for her 3,000-strong collection of shoes -- as she was heading into a restaurant and our group was heading out, all because our guide recognized her and decided to introduce us. Yes, the moment proved a little awkward when she caught me staring at her shoes, but without the guide there, I would have walked right past her.

In the mountains of British Columbia, I had my first experience with technical mountain climbing and rappelling off the side of a mountain onto a glacier, then being picked up by helicopter and whisked to a mountain lodge for which there was no other transportation. Again, without an experienced guide present, I can say with assurance that this would never have happened.

In Patagonia, my expedition-style cruise ship was able to land on Cape Horn at the tip of South America, where a lone Chilean sentry manned an outpost accompanied only by his wife and baby daughter.

Ours was the first ship able to land there in two months due to high winds and storms, and I’ve never been so warmly greeted in my life as by this lonely young couple (we bought souvenirs galore.)

Not all experiences on organized tours and small-ship cruises are this dramatic, of course, nor would I necessarily wish them to be. As a baby boomer, I now appreciate some quieter moments on trips than the constant adrenaline-pumping exploits of my youth.

And as a travel writer, I’ve gone from specializing in adventure to family travel to baby boomer travel stories over the years, so I’ve modified my focus somewhat: to include more broadly defined adventurous activities -- I don’t have to go bungee jumping to get a thrill out of an exotic location -- cushioned with comforts that didn’t used to matter that much to me.

Here are some of my recent “quieter” highlights on organized tours:

On a visit to several central European countries, our group was treated to a private opera performance at a palace in Vienna where Mozart once composed.

On a recent Mississippi River cruise, our guides introduced us to small Louisiana towns and impressive ante-bellum plantations that we would not otherwise have known existed.

In Fiji, our guided group visited a school where the kids were just plain delighted to meet us and curious about our lives back in the U.S.

On a week-long guided walking tour in Ireland, I simply marveled at the scenery I would never have had time to appreciate on a quick drive-through.

Here are some of the qualities I now most appreciate about organized tours:

You can see and do more. Left to my own devices, I’ve had a number of wonderful travel experiences – and made a good many mistakes as well (such as the time I took a train in India that was traveling in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go -- and almost missed seeing the Taj Mahal).

Since mistakes are drastically reduced on well-run organized tours, you have more time to enjoy what you really came to see.

You can minimize stress. In the hands of an experienced outfitter or tour operator, you really don’t have to worry about much more than “Is my camera working?” and “What will I wear to dinner?”

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but most guided trips take the hassle out of dealing with all the often-annoying bureaucratic red tape, ticket-purchasing and itinerary-planning that traveling otherwise entails, both before and during your journey.

You have nearly endless choices of tour types. Todays’ best guided tours offer more authentic experiences and make exotic locals more accessible to everyone. Gone are the days when guided tours were synonymous only with quick on-and-off bus tours. They can be as adventurous, creative, educational, and fulfilling as you choose.

Travelers are visiting archaeological sites led by experts in ancient cultures, taking cycling tours through Greece and France and river boat tours through Germany and Vietnam, learning to cook in Italy or Spain, riding camels in Morocco, trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru, discovering the unique wildlife of the Galapagos and Madagascar, photographing penguins in Antarctica, river rafting in Nepal…the list is almost endless.

Socializing adds flavor to your travels. On an organized trip, you’re always with other folks -- some probably your fellow countrymen and women, others perhaps from other lands --  and I’ve made many good friends because of it.

In many cases I’ve also had the chance to meet and get to know more of the locals in the places I’ve visited, be they arranged encounters at schools or in people’s homes -- or the guides who lead the trips, who are often fascinating characters in their own right.  

These are some of the reasons we’re excited to bring you the best selection of guided trips and travel packages at Stride, where we take seriously our goal of matching you with the guided tours, safaris, river cruises and small-ship cruises that are right for you – wherever in the world you may want to go or how you want to see it.

My particular goal at the moment is to return to Africa and see some lions – outside a zoo, that is -- and I’ll be picking a guided safari to make sure I accomplish exactly that.

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