Embracing your inner tourist…

… and tour away!

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Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland. Summer, 2013.

Last week we talked about how to get away from the tourist traps and other areas heavily tourist trodden area and, as promised, this week we’ll be jumping directly into that fray. From “free” to coach tours, to historic places and the sites they hold, to real life traps and how to spot the warning signs.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of tours; they are simply not my thing. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of patience for the pace they move at or the people one usually finds on them, but generally I like to wander my own way. My mother on the other had absolutely loves them. From audio tours you can pick up at any major attraction to day long tours where you seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time being told exactly what to look at at all times, she is a fan. Suffice to say I’ve been on a fair amount of tours and have learned to spot the warnings.

If you are planning on using tours on your travels researching before hand can find you great deals. You can also find tours through your lodgings or through tourist offices that can be found in most major cities. These offices will also be able to provide maps and advice on sites that are “must see attractions.”

Coach tours can be great; in fact, I don’t know that I’ve had a bad experience. Some tours can be a day (these are the ones I’ve been on) while others can be your whole trip (the closest I’ve come was a student ambassador program). When it comes to whole trip tours, all I have to point out are films like “Monte Carlo;” just be ready to move fast all the time and don’t fall behind. Day trips are easier to handle and I’ll leave the comparison at that. Coach tours can be great because they let you go further than you would be able to by your own means (quickly and accurately), have special access to specific sites, and gives you extra information you may have otherwise never learned. They also tend to cost more (sometimes even cut heavily into a budget), take up whole days, and (again) tend to be very structured, sometimes to the point where you see the “musts” rather than your wants. If you do research, it’s best to look at not just prices but reviews (taken with a grain of salt, of course) and the company the supplies the tours. After all, you want a professional if you are going to be paying, not a rundown bus and a pandering guide.

Two bus tours I would recommend are Healy’s Galway Bus Tour in Ireland and Premium Tours for Stonehenge, Lacock and Bath in England. Healy’s was a tour we didn’t research. We were given a flier through a free walking tour and decided to jump at the chance. The tour stopped at 6 different locations between Galway and The Cliffs of Moher with tons of fun commentary and history between each stop. There was time to run around and see almost all of the sights, though DunGuaire Castle was a bit of a rushed job as the only way to see it is to park the bus on the side of the road (only a bit illegal!).  The Premium Tour to Stonehenge, Lacock, and Bath was a tour that my mother had researched and planned before our trip. This tour was pricier but if you are at all interested in getting up close and personal with a sight like Stonehenge, I really recommend pushing your budget to do this. You not only get to see the whole attraction at a time of day that is visually spectacular and no one but your small bus load of people around but you also get to go into the central ring of this monument in small groups. Each stop on this tour is worth the money and the guides and drivers were phenomenal.

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DunGuaire Castle, Galway, Ireland. Summer, 2013.

If you are looking for touristy tours within city attractions or attractions you can get to easily, the majority of will have a box office where you can pay for or get information on offered tours. These can be hit or miss but I think that if they are free and you have the time you may as well try them out. If the tours bad, feign having to meet someone and walk away; mo harm done. If you do pay, compare how interested you are with the sight to the money you’re going to spend. If the cost is too steep if the tour guide or the actual place is a dud, skip it. Wander, explore, enjoy. One tour I really enjoyed on my last trip was the Trinity College Tour in Dublin which included access to the Old Library and The Book of Kells exhibit. The tour was given by students of the college (who were not only hilarious but also quiet attractive) and was only one extra pound on the fee to see the other exhibits.

Hampton Court is a creature all its own. This isn’t really a tour but if you visit this historic castle you should definitely give it an entire day. Throughout the day, you will not only be able to wander the grounds and rooms, take audio tours, and, can I mention, take a small rest (or a nap) in a giant room of wall to wall cushions/beds(!), but at various times actors portraying historical figures who once lived in the castle will be walking around interacting with guests and each other on events that were happening at the chosen time. When we visited, King Henry VIII was king, trying to divorce Katherine while Anne Boleyn threatened to run away from court. You became part of the gossip and the court. There are parts where men are taken to be part of a council while the ladies gossiped with Anne about how to get away from the castle and what to do about Henry. The history played changes each year, so if you’ve seen one story play out, you may go back to find another love story/ tragedy unfold on your next visit. This could easily be done horrendously (and I’m sure others have tried and failed) but the acting here is great, characters interesting, and easily an attraction one can visit over and over again.

Walking tours can be great fun and a great way to see a city quickly if your time is limited or you don’t know what you want to see quiet yet. In this case, there are a few different types of tours; mainly these come down to themed, paid, and free tours and each of these can be great or truly tragic. When it comes to themed tours, my best advice is to shy away from ones with costumes, mostly those who make you wear them. This is great when it’s a kids tour but when you are walking around a city in a cape, you should be aware that the stories were probably designed for kids. Checking if a tour is part of a larger company with a good reputation is always a great way to guarantee a good time. I like Sandeman’s tours personally; they are paid tours but are cheap. We did a ‘dark side’ tour with them and it was historical lore, legend, and back story of the cities darkest moments. There were no ghost stories or manufactured scare moments. When it comes to paid tours, I can say what I said about the coaches: measure your interests against the costs. You never HAVE to do a tour, so don’t worry about skipping one because it’s not worth the money.

So about those FREE TOURS: they aren’t really free. They will advertise free but the plain fact of the matter is (as the guide will probably tell you at both the beginning and the end of the tour), they are doing a job and if no one pays, they aren’t either. They call it free while it’s really pay what you can and what you think the tour is worth. If that means taking your guide for food after or paying what you can or walking away with all of your money in your pocket, it’s all up to you. The guides in these tours are usually great and really motivated (if you don’t like it, they get nothing). You get a great experience with interesting facts and stories that you can come back to later if you have further interests and you get to pick the price. Unlike free tours at specific attractions, it is harder to feign another appointment and leave part way through the tour so, unless you are willing to look a bit callous, you may be a bit stuck.

Now to the real traps: these are the places that need a huge BEWARE sign painted across their doors. These sometimes come free with passes like the London Pass we covered in an earlier post.  The London pass is great. You get a lot for it that are sights you really will appreciate. However, just because it’s there and free does not mean that you should indulge! London Bridge Experience… is one such attraction. It’s bad from the start but a kind of fun bad as you are run through time to experience London through various parts of history like the Plague and the Great Fire of London by quirky characters. Then you get to a point where anyone who if claustrophobic or easily spooked are lead away—enter a badly done fright night maze with Zero to do with London’s history and everything to do with badly done horror (a suffocating squeeze hall and maniac with chainsaw included!). So how can you tell if these are traps you are walking into? Is there a bad horror gift shop you are left waiting in before the tour? Can you accidentally walk past the door without noticing because there is no way anything legitimate would be found in this area (like inside a mall or under a dark part of a bridge)? These are bad signs. What kind of awards does it advertise? Just reading the names should give you a clue. Who is on their advertisements? Do these images fit who you are or the people you are with? These are just a few warning signs but the best chance of staying out of a tourist trap is always to pay attention and do a little research.

Traveling like a local can be great, but sometimes embracing your walking shoes and tourist title can be quite an adventure on its own, so happy travels.

Till next week,

I’m Leave on the Wind, helping you soar.

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Embracing your inner tourist…

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