Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Travel Blasphemy #2: Bus Tours Are OK

Credit: HotelClub

"Real" travel is all about exploring on our own, getting lost and laughing about it, discovering hidden nooks and crannies of a place, stepping off that much-maligned beaten path, having that memorable conversation with the old guy you encountered in the dusty corner shop who's experienced a remarkable, adventurous life, and eating a homey meal offered to you, out of the blue, by a complete stranger who invited you into her house. Right?  

All of these are wonderful parts of travel. I love them.

And. Sometimes it makes sense to take a bus tour.

"A bus tour?" You ask, aghast. "Only bourgeois peegs take bus tours! Je suis un voyageur!"

Well, I dunno about you, but I've got finite resources in time, money, the number of learning curves I want to climb per day, and tolerance for arrangement hassles. I want my satisfaction utils to exceed the expenditures of these resources.

Here are circumstances where a bus tour might make sense: 
  1. First visit to a large, sprawling city
  2. First visit to a city with many landmarks 
  3. Limited time
  4. Limited knowledge about a location (i.e., event, cultural, or architectural history)  
  5. An experience or secondary destination that is difficult to arrange on one's own
  6. Physical challenges

Credit: Euro Travel

1. First visit to a large, sprawling city

In some cities, most of the interesting sights are concentrated in a relatively small geographic area. With some exceptions, Washington, D.C. is a good example of this; Chicago is another. I can walk to most of the sights or get around via the fairly-easy public transportation systems.

But in other cities, the landmarks are dispersed throughout a large geographic area, requiring one to master local transportation systems, the hours of operation at various venues, and the distances to visit them on my own. I'm totally on top of this for some trips. Other trips, I don't want to work so hard.

A bus tour is an easy-button way to visit the sights in such cities. If I want to take a longer look at one or two of the sites, I can return on my own. 

Another advantage of the bus tour is it gives me a 3D recon of the city. As I sit in my comfortable bus seat and watch the city roll by, brain pleasantly in neutral, I can note interesting neighborhoods and venues that I  want to explore later.

2. First visit to a city with many landmarks

Not all landmarks are created equal. I know some won't keep my interest longer than 15-20 minutes, but I do want to see them. Allocating more than, say, one hour of energy (physical, mental, emotional, financial) to get to and from each of these sights = poor return on my investment.

String a number of these kinds of landmarks together, and I've got an excellent case for a bus tour. I can  consolidate the sights in half a day with a small allocation of my finite resources, freeing up more to spend on other, more fascinating things on my trip list.

3. Limited time

If I'm going to be in a city for only a day or two, a bus tour may be the only way for me to see parts of the city I don't have the time to negotiate on my own.

In Istanbul, if you've got a long-enough layover and it's at the right time, you can get a tour of the city for the cost of a visa - 20 bucks.

4. Limited knowledge

Some of us do advance research on intended destinations, reading not only travel guides, but fiction and nonfiction books about the destination, perhaps even taking up some language lessons before departure.

I wish I were more like such travelers (well, not really, but I feel I should want to be more like them), but I'm not. An advantage of a bus tour is that tour guides usually provide interesting color commentary on the city, its history, the various sights and neighborhoods the bus passes, and often a scandalous bit here and there.

5. An experience or side trip that is difficult to arrange on my own

I'm defining difficult to mean "more trouble than I care to take" or "more time than I can afford" to design a custom experience or find my own way to a desired destination.

6. Physical challenges

There are some people who love to travel, but who have physical challenges that limit their abilities to explore on their own for any length of time.

For one, it may be an endurance issue - she knows she can go strong for a couple of hours, but then must rest. Another might have eyesight issues that affect his peripheral vision or depth perceptions, making walking about difficult. A third person may have mobility issues. Bus tours can extend the travel day and expand the travel experience for those of us with physical obstacles. 

So, put on those bermuda shorts, a fanny pack, and Bing Crosby hat and get on the bus!

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