The other day I asked my friend Arthur Tauck, the dean of escorted tour operators, the question he has no doubt heard thousands of times: What is your favorite destination?
“Wherever the sun shines and you’re traveling with new friends,” he said.
Bang! His answer struck me and resonated like a tenpenny nail hit with a greasy ball peen hammer. Arthur has a talent for seeing through to the essence of things, and this gets down to one of the central paradoxes of group travel.
The same thing that makes many people think group travel is not for them turns out to be one of the main attractions for those who have experienced it: traveling with other people.
Tour operator guest lists are full of people who once shunned group travel but later became devotees, returning over and over to travel with the same tour operator to one destination after another. Many will tell you that traveling with other people, making new friends and learning from their experiences and observations is as great an attraction as the destinations themselves.
Many people who go on tours are at an age where they are losing friends faster than they are making new ones. For them group travel provides a priceless opportunity to make new friends.
It almost seems there’s an impermeable membrane between those who have experienced a group tour and those who have not. The uninitiated often assume they wouldn’t want to be “herded around with a bunch of strangers.” They don’t realize that those strangers may well turn out to be friends you haven’t met yet.
I know. I have crossed that line myself.
Crossing the Line
Like many Americans I have always cherished the ideal of the lone individual, the frontiersman homesteading on the prairie, the staunch individualist who stands apart from the crowd and marches to a different drummer. I identified with Groucho Marx saying: “I would never want to belong to any group that would have me as a member.”
I still love these ideals, but they no longer prevent me from enjoying group travel. Before I had experienced it myself, I thought that traveling with groups was probably like “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium.” If I did see a group following someone with an umbrella, it was easy to assume that it was a shallow way to experience travel.
And it could be. But I have found that today’s best tour operators provide an experience that is far beyond those old preconceptions. Touring provides a quality of experience you could not attain by yourself.
There are many reasons for that, but a big part it is just the opportunity to enjoy the company of other people.
The Most Natural Thing
Traveling in groups is the most natural thing in the world. Human beings have been doing it since the dawn of time.
Before the invention of agriculture human beings were hunter gatherers who traveled in groups. The American frontier was traversed in wagon trains. Humans have always lived and traveled in groups. And it continues to the present day, though in different forms.
Humans are arguably the most social animals on earth. I believe it is our capacity to share knowledge and combine our efforts that has produced our greatest achievements and made us the most successful species on earth.
Tribal behaviors are hard-wired into us and express themselves whenever we find ourselves part of a group with a shared objective, whether it’s a PTA group, a classroom or a traveling caravan. We all know instinctively how to function as part of a group. That may be our greatest strength.
I started with the idea that “I’m too much of an individual to want to travel with a group.” Now I think it was really just a cover for my shyness to think that I didn’t want to “give up my independence” and become part of a group. But once I experienced traveling with a group, I saw the other side.
Ever since that transition I have loved it, and enjoyed it over and over. It has certainly not compromised my integrity as an individual. I still enjoy my experiences of doing things on my own too. These things are not in conflict.
My First Tour
I remember when I made the transition. I had been persuaded to try an escorted tour in Europe, so off I went and I found myself at the airport where the group was supposed to gather. When I caught sight of my group I was seized with anxiety. I felt so out of place.
It was a bank club and they all knew each other already. They were all decades older than me, a generation or two beyond me. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me.
It crossed my mind to hop on a plane and go home, pretending I had missed my plane. But that was just a momentary flash, a childish cowardly impulse. So I gathered my resolve and presented myself to the group of strangers.
Surprisingly, when I joined them I found that being an outsider was not a problem at all. On the contrary they seemed more interested in me because I was new. They were curious and asked me questions. They were compassionate. These strangers seemed to care about me and want me to feel welcome.
Almost instantly my alienation fell away. I was surrounded by friendly people. The divisions fell away. The age difference became irrelevant. They were not “old people,” just people like me who had been around a little longer.
Within a couple of days it seemed we had known each other for years. By the time the trip was over we were really sad to part.
Since then I’ve been on many group tours and I’ve seen a similar dynamic play out over and over. At first you encounter a bunch of strangers, and feel shy. But right away people start to connect, to find common interests. That is part of why they are there.
After a day or so you are behaving like a family, a traveling troupe. People have found complementary roles within the group, just as in a family. I find that people on tour are remarkably kind to others.
After all, this is not just a random group of people. Every one of them made many of the same decisions you made when you chose where to go, when to go, what tour operator to travel with and what kind of tour. You have many parallels with these people right off the bat. With those common interests as a starting point you can begin to enjoy your diversity, the different frames of reference that you all bring to the subjects at hand. You learn from your fellow travelers often as much as you learn from your guides from the destination.
I have also learned that people of all ages have much to share and learn from each other. The segregation of people by age is artificial. Humankind has always lived in groups that include all ages. All ages have important roles in the human family.
Sometimes you may remain friends long after the trip. With Facebook and email maintaining contact is easier than ever. Sometimes people travel together again, or visit each other at their homes. But even if the time on the trip is your only time together, it can be very meaningful. The moments you enjoyed together will always be a part of you.
Of course you are not going to hit it off with everyone. There will be some you really click with, others not so much. Though with a little effort you may be surprised about how you may touch someone who at first seemed out of reach.
I must confess, however, there is one thing that I still don’t like about traveling with groups.
I hate goodbyes.
So at this juncture, I will just bid you farewell.
For a short time, hopefully.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell