Friday, September 23, 2011

Group Travel: Oh, the Frustration

People. It’s the reason I fell in love with travel, and the reason I ‘m “on the move.” I’ve met some of the most fascinating, diverse people travelling. The girl from Liverpool who befriended me even though I was homesick and antisocial. The Kiwi guy who taught me to drink. The Indonesian women with the best relationship advice ever. Each and every one of these people left me slightly changed, and I think I’m a better person for it. 

So last weekend, I jumped at an opportunity to see Scotland’s West coast with a group of 13 international students. If people make travelling worthwhile, than what could be better than travelling with a great big group of people?

Well, a lot of things.

I had fun travelling with my new friends. However, I felt that we missed out on a lot of important Western Scottish experiences because of the nature of big groups:

The more people, the harder it becomes to organize. Trying to see a foreign country on limited time can leave even one person’s head spinning. Trying to get 14 people in 3 rental cars to 10 to 15 attractions in 3 days, well, it’s practically impossible. Our group got split up less than 15 minutes on the road.   Everyone was torn between trying to see the sights and trying to find one another. Our car missed out on Rob Roy's grave, feeding highland cows, and hiking Glencoe, trying to find the others.
After lots of confusion, our car went off on our own.

Everyone has different travel values. Some people like to spend their travel time drinking beers and socializing with locals. Others like to see sites of historical significance and learn about local traditions. Many people like to spend time outdoors, getting their feet dirty and taking inspiring photos. None of these styles are better than the others. However, none of these styles are compatible with the others. My travel group spent a lot of time debating which sites were most worth our time and money. This was not only a waste of sightseeing time, but created negative vibes in a great group of friends.

Big groups are conspicuous. When a crowd of loud young people walks into a restaurant, hostel, or attraction, they tend to get treated very differently than a few people. This worked in our favour in some places; for instance, a charming woman at the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre offered us a huge group discount. In other places however, I could feel eyes rolling as soon as we walked in the door. Service people simply don’t want to deal with a mass of hungry students (and I can’t honestly blame them!). If I had travelled alone, I may have had the chance to interact with these people and gotten a more authentic taste of local culture.

These issues aside, I would never label travelling in a large group as “bad.” Groups offer a sense of camaraderie and a great energy. But I now realize that group trips are a different experience than going solo.  If I travel in a group again, I’m going to keep several things in mind:

It’s essential to plan ahead. If I could change one thing about last weekend, I would have held a meeting days before we left to talk about the trip. This would’ve allowed us to sketch out a rough itinerary, decide what we needed to pack, and simply get an idea of what everyone else expected from the weekend. A pre-departure meeting would have also given us a chance to discuss money matters; because we never decided how we’d pay for car rentals, petrol, and groceries, we’re still working out how much everybody owes one another!

Scale down the itineraries. Big groups move more slowly than solo travelers- there’s no getting around it.  By trying to see everything on the West coast of Scotland, our group only set ourselves up for disappointment. Selecting a few attractions and spending quality time at them can be just as rewarding.

Keep an open mind. If you’re going to travel with a group, you must accept that there will be some level of confusion. Just go with the flow; on a group trip, time with friends is as important as sightseeing. Even when things go wrong (and they almost always do), you still come back with happy memories- or at least a good story.

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