St. Olaf Alumni & Family Travel programs offer you group support along with opportunities to use your free time in independent ways. With a little pre-departure planning, you can enhance your Study Travel experience and set yourself up for more enjoyable adventures. Here’s what to expect in terms of St. Olaf’s role and your responsibilities.
First, What to Expect from Group Travel
Adapted from the Condé Nast Traveler magazine, October 2007 issue.
For each program, Travel staff may conduct hundreds of transactions, such as buying tickets, planning meals, and arranging for special access. If minutiae make your head spin, you’ll love that most of your responsibility is just showing up. “Group travel is well suited for people who enjoy just going and the element of surprise,” says Brian Harrington, a veteran of the travel industry. You’re putting choices about what to include in any given day in the hands of someone else, and will need to use your free time to pursue other interests you may have.
Package travel can save you 10 to 40 percent over going solo, according to the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). That’s because we build relationships. Rooms at the Hotel Claude Bernard in Paris’ Latin Quarter, for example, costs us less than if you booked it on your own. However, we’re choosing the hotels and restaurants for you and they may have fewer stars than you might normally choose for yourself, or be smaller and have fewer amenities than you would typically seek out. Participants consistently tell us that program fees are a good value.
Our programs are based, however loosely, on special interests. So chances are you’ll have plenty to talk about with your travel mates. In fact, it’s not uncommon for lifelong friendships to develop on a program. Keep in mind that you may also end up sharing time and space with a high-maintenance type.
The Role of Program Leaders
If what you’re hoping for is a personal concierge or one-on-one tour guide, you’ll be disappointed. Travel leaders are responsible for the educational content and leadership of the entire group, and cannot spend time on individual itineraries and requests. Some programs have a tour manager or national guide who travels with the group from start to finish, and some do not. Remember that this person – like the program leader – is present to enhance the overall group experience and is not along to make personal free-time reservations for each participant.
You’ve dreamed of seeing the Taj Mahal since you were a tyke, but maybe two hours isn’t going to cut it for you. “Depending on the tour, the biggest compromise can be keeping up with the schedule,” says USTOA president Bob Whitley. If you’d prefer to lollygag at certain sites, build in time post-trip to double back to your favorite spots. In the same vein, there may be many days that start earlier than you’re used to; with group travel there’s less time for lingering over morning coffee. Likewise, group meals are social experiences and will take longer than you may anticipate. We deliberately include some group meals to spend time together, but we also deliberately leave some meals on your own. Group meals are going to provide more food than you would normally eat at home. They’re often three courses, with a larger entrée than you might make for a typical dinner for yourself every night. It also takes more time to get through these meals; be prepared to embrace the social aspect of breaking bread together.
Physical requirements are clearly posted for each program and participants must reflect on their own ability to partake in the program. We are not allowed to screen passengers for physical ability or to require a doctor’s note for participation. If one participant seems to slow down the group, leaders must devote their time to nurturing the entire group.
And Now, How to be an Independent Group Traveler
One of St. Olaf Travel’s core values is the deliberate carving out of free time in each custom-designed itinerary. We encourage you during free time to see sights that interest you, reflect on what you are learning, and to decompress. Time to process new ideas is integral to grasping the accuracy and implications of those ideas. Simply savoring the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of another culture can deepen your learning experience. Unlike individual travel, there’s no adjusting the itinerary if a particular day has worn you out. You’ll need to be proactive about using your free time to rest, because the following days will continue as planned.
So what can you do to get the most from your free time?
Locate resources to orient yourself to your destination prior to arrival.
As we mention in the Resource List, we strongly recommend obtaining maps and a guide book. Get a feel for the lay of the land and the locations of major markers. Before departure we will share the name and address of each hotel. We suggest locating the hotel on a map and the closest subway stop. A guide book will go a long way in answering many of your general questions about what things to do and where to eat when you’re not with the group. It will also typically provide a few words and phrases in the local language, sometimes a tip on pronunciation, and other useful things such as tipping guidelines, how best to obtain money, and at least rudimentary maps.
Consider, prior to departure, two or three things you might want to do or see.
Locate these activities on your map, note the subway stops, and opening times. Consider on which day these activities might best fit, given the site’s location relative to group activities, or the amount of time you want to spend at the site. As Rick Steves says, “It’s the classic paradox of good travel: structure rewards a traveler with freedom, and ‘winging it’ becomes a ball-and-chain of too many decisions, too little information … and precious little time to relax.”
Plan to break from the group once in a while.
Experiences shared with like-minded individuals (like your fellow travelers) can often be more meaningful and help you work through new feelings and attitudes. Doing your own thing can be equally rewarding. On your own you may have the chance for more intimate encounters. Also, when you disengage from the group and do your own thing, you have the chance to share something new with your fellow travelers – and they with you – the next time you meet up. For example, I recall an afternoon spent with Carol and Marladene in Paris, searching out the bar where Princess Diana had a drink before her tragic car crash – an excursion Carol knew she wanted to make before she even left home. We had a minor adventure involving a surly door man and purloined napkins to share with the group at the next morning’s seminar.
Research on your own the logistics that are important to you.
We’ll arm you with a lot of information so that you can do your own research. For example, hotel names and web sites will be listed in itineraries as we get closer to departure so that you can go online to find out whether the hotel offers amenities such as hair dryers or laundry service. As mentioned above, you can find everything you need online or in your guide book in terms of the kind of electrical socket your destination uses, what the monetary unit is, what the tipping guidelines are in a particular country, and much more.
Other Tips for a good experience
- St. Olaf Travel programs are about learning and exploring, encountering new cultures and reflecting on our own. This means that not all experiences during the program may be 100% pleasant ones. Even the more uncomfortable experiences can be positive, in the end. We encourage you to reflect on all your experiences, to share what you’re feeling with other group members, and to keep an open mind.
- Set an example for other participants with your own behavior. Do your best to contribute to a positive environment.
- Interact with other participants to foster understanding. When we reflect on and discuss what we are learning and seeing, it often helps us better absorb the information and handle uncomfortable situations.
- Ditch your preconceived notions and go in with no expectations. Despite some of our most exhaustive preparations, travel can be nothing if not full of surprises.
- When a meal is “on your own,” consider replacing at least one restaurant meal with a visit to the local grocery store. Not only is the shopping experience fun and eye-opening, you can sample many more new foods for a lot less money.
- Don’t let your dietary needs prohibit you. We can accommodate nearly every need, from vegan and vegetarian to gluten free and a variety of allergies (including to onions, which are in nearly everything, right Sue?)
- Do let your friends and family back home know your plans. Share the itinerary and hotel contact information. Meanwhile, we’ll register the entire group with the U.S. State Department so that they know how to contact you in case of emergency in your destination.
- Do stop and simply take in your surroundings. By all means, take pictures and capture those memories! But be sure to stop and savor the moment in person, too, rather than always see everything from behind a screen.
Go back to Resources or go on to read an article about the merits of group travel from two self-proclaimed independent travelers.