Dine with a family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Crew an America’s Cup yacht in Australia. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Not the kind of experiences you’d expect on an escorted tour—or guided vacation, as group trips are often called. Times have changed.
“We had lunch on a family farm in Ireland,” says Gloria Mauch. She and her husband, Martin, both retired utility workers in Southern California, took a Trafalgar At Leisure trip.
“We sat in the old house and listened to the husband and wife tell stories about their lives on the farm,” adds Martin.
Offering this kind of interaction with locals is a major trend, according to Michelle Baran at Travel Weekly, an industry publication. “Travelers are becoming more savvy,” she says. “Operators know they can’t just put on a canned cultural performance.”
There was nothing canned about Ping Chen and Denise Ho’s visit to India with Connections by Abercrombie & Kent. “In Delhi, we stopped at a school serving underprivileged children,” says Ping, a California–based programmer. “The older children were getting an education in IT. We talked with the teacher, and the kids were extremely friendly and seemed happy to see us.”
Operators are gearing tours to today’s travelers. Trafalgar’s At Leisure vacations are typically slower-paced than the company’s traditional tours. Abercrombie & Kent’s Connections provides in-depth cultural experiences. And Tauck’s Tauck Bridges caters to families, a growing guided-vacation audience.
So, how do you find the right tour? “It’s an overwhelming marketplace,” says Baran. “Travel agents can help customers figure out which companies are best for them.”
Ping also stresses the importance of tour guides. “The guides took us to the Taj Mahal at sunrise,” says Ping. “The Taj Mahal started glowing orange. To see it light up right in front of you is amazing.”
Photo (top): Connor Yap