It’s practically Travel Tuesday around here! I wrote several posts this week about my travels through Romania last August. I really enjoyed Romania, and now is a great time to experience the Eastern European countries of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary since you have the ease of travel from being in the EU, but the cheaper prices since they use their own currencies still (HUF, RON, & BGN) instead of the Euro. I loved Romania for the history, meeting local Romanians and the opportunities to get outside. Customer service is a relatively new concept in Eastern Europe this doesn’t mean that you’ll be treated badly, just that you have to adjust your expectations. Romania is just about the polar opposite from Thailand, the land of smiles. And while smiles are universal, you might just have to work harder in order to receive one. I kind of enjoyed that aspect, it seemed genuine. From chatting with people in more rural areas, it seems like a different country than being in the capital city, although this is always true, it seems as if many Romanians still view Bucharest as a part of Communism and the city that most of their youth have migrated to for work. But those workers in turn spend their vacations out of the city, and they seem to have such an optimism when they talk about rural Romania.
Adventures in Romania:
If Romania is on your list of places to visit, try finding a cheap flight to Paris or London and then take a local carrier (Blue Air) into Bucharest for about 45 euros or go overland by train.
Next up, Bulgaria! [Shakes head as "Yes!"]
Tours. There’s a word that gets sneers from backpackers around the world. I never considered going on a tour vacation until I started planning for my around the world trip last year. Traveling as a group always conjured up images of bus loads of senior citizens, having to follow someone waving a flag or wearing matching yellow hats. However, there a few companies out there that offer small group adventure travel on a budget. Over the last year I’ve went on a half dozen “organized” trips. So here’s a breakdown of what I liked and disliked about traveling with G Adventures (formerly GAP Adventures) and Intrepid Travel.
Pros of Traveling With a Group:
- Built-in travel companions who are starting/ending the same place. One of the fun parts of traveling solo is meeting new people and traveling together, but sometimes–lets face it–you meet really cool people who just came from where you’re going etc. It’s a total crapshoot on meeting people in hostels. Sometimes you meet someone the first day that you click with, other times you’ll be somewhere a week, and you don’t always find people who want to go the same places. Organized trips like GAP are great for this aspect. First, a lot of the people who travel on these trips are either young professionals, like myself, who like to mix it up with small group adventure travel or really interesting older couples, who you would rarely meet at a hostel and are truly unique individuals. You’ll often find like-minded travelers as well, so you can skip the “Oh, uhhh I don’t really like to read, except for magazines” conversations. Typical Intrepid/GAP travelers like to have a good time, but not so good of a time that they wake up at noon and drag their butts to the bus station having missed out on experiencing anything other than the local bar. It also changes the group dynamic to have a mix of ages. After the hostelling “scene” it’s a nice break.
- Safety. As a solo female travel, safety is definitely high on my priority list. Although I use some common sense for things like dressing more conservatively, not wandering around at night alone, always knowing how to get back to my hotel etc; mixing it up with small group adventure travel is like a vacation from your vacation. It’s great to not have to think about things as much. I did a three week Morocco trip through Intrepid Travel and then stayed on in Marrakech for several days afterward. The difference of being in a group vs solo was HUGE! Having blond hair and blue eyes is going to make you stand out in many countries around the world, but when you’re alone, you get talked to way more (sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing), and followed and in some places — it can be less than relaxing, especially if you’re planning on traveling within the country. A city break is so much different than arriving alone into town on a 11pm train.
- Get off the beaten track. This is one of my main reasons for joining up with an adventure travel company. I wanted to go to Eastern Europe and not just take the train from Budapest to Bucharest to Sofia. When you want to get out of the cities, without recruiting a fellow traveler, small group adventure travel on a budget is brilliant. I really don’t see myself hiking around in the mountains of Bulgaria alone or taking the overnight train to Istanbul solo. Although I love seeing new cities, give me a week and I’ll be headed back out into nature. Getting out into rural areas and the outdoors gives you a different perspective on countries and people.
- Budget Options. When you typically think of group travel, you think of seniors piling off of a coach and lining up for the bathrooms or cruise ship goers who pay 20 times the price to take a bus somewhere a public bus already goes. What’s great about GAP and Intrepid is that they have different pricing and comfort levels. Basic is like bottom of the line accommodations (but still nicer than a lot of hostels), Original is a step up with more included items and they even have Comfort trips, for the very hard to please. I love how when I’m on a GAP trip we’re traveling just how I would if I was solo by taking the public buses, cheap trains and accommodation etc.
- Sustainable travel has become somewhat of a buzzword recently, but GAP and Intrepid are big on helping the local communities and supporting local business. Sometimes when you stay at hostels it feels like you’re just getting recommendations for a lot of expat businesses, relying on the Lonely Planet guidebook, and occasionally stumbling upon something truly unique all by yourself. I really enjoyed the local aspect of my trips. Whether it’s hiking with a local guide and having tea with a Berber family in Morocco, a home-stay in rural Romania or meeting people who grew up during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s experiences you would rarely happen up on your own. It doesn’t feel forced either, because most of these people are genuinely interested in sharing with you what’s going on in their lives, so it’s not all Hallmark momenty, but definitely a good time. Helps you think about humanity instead of just hitting the beach and the bar.
- I only have to share this room with one other person? Not 24? I even lucked out and got my own room once! Let’s face it, hosteling for months at a time can get really old: locking up your bag, carrying your toiletries to the shower, hopping around on one foot trying to change in the showers, being assigned to a smelly 12 bed dorm and being the only female, exchanging your ‘travel intro’ a gazillion times. I loved the break from hosteling and having my own room.
- It’s like your own personal Amazing Race and Survivor combined. I guess this could be a con, but who hasn’t thought it would be fun to be on the Amazing Race? I find it quite good fun to watch a group dynamic. Although all of my trips have been fairly drama free, there have always been a few hilarious “OMG” moments. ;)
- Do what you want. As I’ve said, it’s your holiday, so you can do as much or as little as you like. I’m one of those people who needs space and solo time, so some days I would wake up early and go wander around town, other days I would hang out with a few people from my group.
- Discounts. Did someone say discounts? You know when you’re standing in line to buy tickets for something and you see the prices for groups vs solo and wish you could wrangle up a group of 10 and cash in on that discount? Group trips often include a few big attractions, like the Aya Sophia in Istanbul for my Turkey trip.
- Diversity. We travel to see new things and experience new cultures and meet new people. You’ll meet all kinds of people on your trips. You’ll usually find more Canadians on GAP trips since they’re a Canadian company and likewise with Intrepid and Australians. On my trips there have always been a few Americans, Brits, Kiwis, or Germans too.
- No planning required. As mentioned, it’s like taking a vacation from your vacation. Although I love planning and logistics, sometimes lining up transport and hostels and figuring out schedules can be frustrating. This is especially true in countries where everything is on “when it gets here” time. For example, when the road was closed due to flooding in Morocco and we had to backtrack several hours I wasn’t too bugged. If I’d been alone I would have been second guessing the driver’s motives and wondering where I was going to stay.
Cons of Traveling With a Group:
- You don’t get to pick your roommate (unless you’re traveling with them). On one trip I was the only single girl so I got my own room. As luck would have it, on another trip there were 4 of girls in our late 20′s and 30′s and 1 lady in her 60′s. I’m by no means an ageist, but it happens that none of us really hit it off with this lady, so we took turns rotating rooms. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but there was a lot of internal rolling of the eyes on my part.
- You don’t get to pick your tour guide. My guide in China was a nightmare. She was unprofessional, unorganized and even talked about how much work it was and how she didn’t make enough money. I ended up having a great time on my trip, but it was in spite of her.
- Tours cost more. Generally, organized tours cost more than if you were to do it solo. However, if you watch the last minute sale sections of G Adventures and Intrepid, you can get 20 – 25% off a “last minute departure” trip. When I was in Romania, I bought a sale Intrepid trip leaving out of Istanbul for 3 weeks later, because I knew I would be going to Istanbul. I also saved money by calling with my Skype phone to a local Intrepid office in Melbourne and paying in Australian Dollars which saved me a few hundred dollars, since they were charging more in USD and the 3% exchange rate fee on my credit card was well worth it.
- Watch those extras. When you’re traveling with a group, sometimes you can get caught up in “group think” about activities and restaurants. When you’re on your own, it’s easier to say “No, that’s not something I’m interested in.” However, when you’re with a group and you’re the only person who doesn’t want to do something you can feel like “UGGGH!” But it’s your vacation so speak up. Many times other people are just going along to be agreeable. Since I was on a budget, this was never really a problem for me (and I’m super frugal to start with). Several times everyone was going to an expensive restaurant for dinner and I just wasn’t up for dropping $20 on a meal and just wanted grab some street food. So I would just said, “Hey, I think I’m just going to grab something quick and cheap for dinner, so don’t worry about waiting around for me” and most of the time there were others who felt the same way and voilà I still had dinner companions. It just takes one to be the first to speak up!
- Set itineraries. Sometimes you arrive in a new town and find it charming and perfect and you want to stay for a week, while other times you arrive and want to leave on the next train. When you’re on a tour, it’s not a hop on hop off bus, so you can’t really change up your itinerary unless you want to pay for your hotel and transport and leave the group. So that part can be frustrating on occasion, but really it just makes you want to go back to some places someday. They get a lot of feedback on what people like and dislike about the trip, so the time is usually allotted quite well.
- Nobody expects the wild card. Not only do you not get to pick your roommate, but you might just have a nutter on your trip. These things do happen, rarely, but they do.
- Optional Activities. It all depends on the tour leader, but I had one that was quite pushy on doing certain add-on activities, which made me wonder what their motivation was, maybe a kickback. Most leaders also get a free dinner, when they join the group at restaurants. I don’t like dining in groups of 8-12 anyway, so I had more fun splitting up into smaller groups with a few people that I really clicked with. Also, I was quite vocal on what my budget was. If the tour leader mentioned a “really good restaurant” I would do a little research on my own by asking what the price range was or even stopping by to check it out. Splitting dinner bills is another thing I was careful with, because often times everyone will say, well let’s just divide it by 6 and it will all even out. Call me cheap, but I’ve always said “No thanks,” and explained that it will never “even out” for me since I’m a vegetarian, don’t order starters, and didn’t have 5 beers. It’s fine to get slighted every once in a while when you go out back home, but when you’re on the road for a year, this can really add up. Thankfully, everyone has always been extremely cool about this!
Bottom line: Would I recommend a GAP Adventure or Intrepid Travel trip? That depends. How’s that for an MBA answer? ;) But it really does depend on several things: who you are, where you’re going, your travel style, how much time you have, if you’re traveling with someone, etc.
- If you’re traveling solo and female I would check out any of their cheap trips to parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
- If you’re traveling solo (male or female), I would recommend GAP for some third-world countries like Morocco and Cambodia. It gives you the chance to really experience the countries at a deeper level, especially if you’re limited on time.
- If you’re going to Eastern Europe and you’re traveling as a couple I would say do it on your own. Some of the rural areas are pretty spendy solo, but 2 – 4 people to split costs would be ideal.
- If you’re going to Paris or Berlin or Barcelona definitely skip the GAP trip. My first visit to Europe was in 2006, I was admittedly a little nervous along with my excitement, but going on a trip would have been a waste. Most European cities are more fun to experience solo or as a pair. Unless you get a smokin’ deal or are doing something really specific like a culinary trip or something, I’d say go it on your own.
- If you’re traveling with a friend, you might enjoy a group trip more than if you’re traveling as a couple. I would suggest couples try out a short (4 – 8 days) trip and then do a week or so on your own.
- If you have two weeks vacation time and you want to see the highlights of an unpredictable (read 3rd world) country, then I’d recommend a GAP trip.
- If you think Muslims are terrorists or that traveling is dangerous, I would encourage you to reevaluate your bias, check out some crime statistics, “simmer down” and book a trip to Morocco.
- Do the math. I have a travel spreadsheet that I use to calculate the trip price + local payment + food + activities/shopping = total price / days = Price per day. Now, if this price per day is less than you could do solo, go for it. For example: I found a 3 week Intrepid trip to Morocco on sale for $580 + 475 local payment. It included a camel trek in the Sahara, some guided hikes and a few breakfasts. So excluding food and shopping, that’s $50/day. Lonely Planet says you can get by on $40 if you’re really slumming it. So going with Intrepid in this instance was a no brainer! It would have been difficult to find all the transport and lodging for less than that as a solo traveler.
I hope you’ve found this travel info useful. While I’ve only traveled with G Adventures and Intrepid Travel (and yes, they used to be sister companies), I’ve met people who’ve traveled with Gecko, Exodus, and Dragoman, but after a quick price check, I think I’ll stick to G Adventures and Intrepid.
Any thoughts on group travel? Do share!
My first experience traveling abroad was to France in 2006 (when I officially got the travel bug). Since then, I’ve wanted to go back and see more of Europe. However, with the euro and dollar exchange rate at $1.60 this summer, I decided to stick to the outer edges of the EU that don’t use the euro yet. By starting in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, I didn’t have to cringe every time I made a purchase, but still had the convenience of being in the EU. Turkey was my next stop, and while not quite Europe, it was an amazing introduction to the Middle East. By the time I got to Greece in September the USD was on the rise and I didn’t feel guilty with every gyro and second gelato purchase of the day. So I rounded out my second visit to the European continent by ending in Spain. I’d still like to see more of Europe (I probably always will). And I still haven’t been to Italy! Or Germany! Or Sweden! Or…
Our train left Bucharest at noon, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Bulgaria in the afternoon and arrived in Veliko Tarnovo around 6pm. Although the trip was long and hot, with six people to a cabin, it was nice to have a breeze from the window. We listened to music, read, chatted, snacked and played celebrity head. It was interesting being the only North American, as our views of celebrities are vastly different than the Aussies. For example, I listed Michelle Obama and Smokey the Bear, which were practically voted out as being unfair after no one knew who they were. We’ll have to give them a few months on Michelle Obama, but I think Smokey the Bear is out of luck.
Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria and was one of the strongest fortifications in the middle ages. The town consists of three main hills with a large canyon and river in the middle. There’s a massive statue of the Four Horseman out in the canyon area, which my room looks out over. It’s kind of ominous. After dinner tonight, we went in to town to a local club for cheap cocktails. It was very Eastern European slick, and a great place to people watch. And for $2 mojitos, who am I to complain. So far Bulgaria is incredibly budget friendly. The farther south we get, the cheaper things are.
Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet so it’s more difficult navigating than in Romania, since all the signs are in cyrillic. It reminds me of trying to read signs in China! Although, it’s a little easier, since many of the letters are similar. I’ll be carrying around my Cyrillic alphabet paper this week.
We took the morning train to Bucharest and walked from the station to our hotel. It was already noon, so we took the metro to the “Champs-Elysées” of Bucharest and to see the People’s Palace – Romania’s Parliment building and also the second largest buidling in the world, after our very own Pentagon.
Bucharest is not my kind of city. It seems rather soulless and eerily quiet. Perhaps it’s the history. If I had a week here, I’m sure I’d find all kinds of things to keep me busy and great little places to prove me wrong, but for now I’m quite glad to only be spending 24 hours in the city. I’m itching to get back outside already.
Did I mention that I’m quite taken with the Olympic Games this year? I’ve been watching the games every chance I get, thankfully they’re playing the Olympics in most little shops and restaurants, and the few channels on TV in my room are tuned to the Olympics, although I have no idea what’s being said. I can hear the announcer in English and then it’s immediately covered by the Romanian translation, so I only catch a few words! They’re also only airing regional participants, so I’ve seen a lot of Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Russia competing. Bring on the shot put, hammer throwing, weightlifting, and kayaking!