This summer, I escorted two Rick Steves’ My Way Tours–it’s a new kind of tour, geared towards independent travelers who want the freedom to customize their own itinerary but don’t want the hassle of figuring out how to get from point A to point B or where they’re going to stay. I escort the group from city to city (with the help of a terrific charter bus driver), manage the hotel logistics, orient the tour members to each destination, and keep office hours to advise them on local sights, transportation, dining, and events so they can use their time smartly and enhance their own travel experiences.
At our first meeting, I encourage my new travel partners to embrace their independent spirit by making this trip their own, doing the things they’ve always wanted to do, and doing it with gusto. I also remind them that choosing to travel independently within a group setting means we’re respectful of each other’s time (i.e. be on time for bus departure to new city), we look out for one another (i.e. Buddy Checks so no one gets left behind), and we have the added benefit and value–in true Rick Steves fashion–of sharing experiences (i.e. splitting the cost of a taxi, hiking with fellow travelers, getting a group rate on concert tickets)…if they so choose. While traveling is often about seeing great sites, enjoying local cuisine, or engaging with the local culture, it’s equally important to make new friends with whom you can share those travel discoveries.
In the hopes that they’ll want to get to know one another better, I offer two BYO-snacks-and-bevies Happy Hour and a “Last Supper”. With individuals, couples, and families all joining these tours (first-timers and decades-long travel enthusiasts alike), it’s hard to know how this mix will intermix and how much they’ll want to participate, but both my groups were fabulous. They took advantage of bus time to share plans and to learn about each other. Many decided to hang out at certain sites. And those who opted for truly independent schedules during the day loved recounting their adventures to their new travel friends over a good local dinner.
By the time we got to our first Happy Hour (at the Viktualienmart Biergarten in Munich, four days into the tour), everyone wanted to hang out together. Experiencing that kind of conviviality with enthusiastic new friends in a setting where it’s all about conviviality, we really felt like we were a part of the local scene. Clinking the ever-flowing steins of weisbier and radler that paired delightfully with our wurst and braetzel, our group stayed at the beer garden well into the night, and all agreed: this is good traveling.
Our second Happy Hour worked its way from the front porch of our Cinque Terre hotel to the sandy shores of the Monterosso beach. Beach towels transformed into picnic tables and were covered with tasty treats like olives, pecorino cheese, mushroom tapenade, crostini, chocolate, hazelnut wafers, vino and birra. The sounds of subtle waves accompanied our symphony of conversation, laughter, and the snapping of camera shutters. As the sun descended into the warm Ligurian Sea, we all wished for one more day here.
Finally saying goodbye to one another at our “Last Supper” was bittersweet. While ready to return to the reality of life back home, people nonetheless lingered at the dinner table well after the last plate had been cleared, reliving memories of the tour, and taking “just one more picture”. After having traveled together for two weeks, we had learned a lot about each other, shared in one another’s discovery of Europe, and made some lasting friendships. For me, that’s one of the best travel souvenirs you could hope for.