Partnering with a Local Tour Guide, One of the Best European Travel Deals
Just last week I was on an airplane, a United flight from Aguascalientes, Mexico to Houston, Texas. It was my first time flying United, and I was surprised by the small screen staring back at me from the seatback I was facing—not by the fact that it was there, but rather by the fact that I couldn’t find a way to turn it off. I had opted out of purchasing whatever entertainment package had been offered to me, and in doing so had unwittingly submitted myself to two hours or so of non-stop bombardment from advertisers. It was pretty annoying, but I get it. Tough economic times, new revenue streams… Whatever.
Based on the ads I was seeing though, you’d never guess that the world was still working to shake off the final throes of last decade’s international recession. The one commercial that really stuck with me was for a tour company offering all-inclusive European river cruises. Besides being dreadfully long and repetitive, I was shocked by the content of the commercial—not to mention the price tag!
Now I’ll admit that when I travel, I do it with my own unique perspective. I’m still young, I’m physically fit, and I’m not responsible for any kids. If (ok, let’s face it, when) any of these factors change, so might my opinion. But for now, I really can’t think of any less appealing form of travel. Think I’m crazy? Hear me out…
First of all, a caveat—I’m certainly not opposed to the all-inclusive drinks package (beer and wine included) that the commercial wisely included as a selling point for the company’s cruises. But beyond that, I’m lost. When I travel, I do it with one goal positioned above all others—to immerse myself in cultures distinctly different from my own. I strive to learn how other people live their day-to-day lives, to understand the subtle differences in how they interpret international events, and even to grasp the value systems that lead to different points of view regarding life’s biggest questions. I’m not foolish enough to think that a week or two in any given place will teach me everything I need to know about a culture only tangentially related to my own, but I know that it’s enough to give me a darn good start.
That’s why a travel option like an all-inclusive river tour seems so ridiculous to me. Sure, it’s luxurious and probably an enjoyable time, but to me it misses the point of travel completely. I don’t want to be on a boat full of fellow Americans, speaking English exclusively, eating food catered to the American palate, and only disembarking at sites pre-screened to conform to American ideas about what one ought to see and do in Europe. At that point, I may as well be enjoying a night out at home with a movie reel of European sights rolling in the background.
Maybe you think I’m exaggerating—to which I’d suggest taking a look at things from another perspective, naturally. I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker, in which American journalist Evan Osnos described his experience taking an all-inclusive group tour throughout Western Europe with a Chinese tour company. It’s a few years old now, but it’s still a captivating read for a variety of reasons. Among many fascinating anecdotes, the article points out that the small German city of Trier and a grove of willow trees on the campus of Cambridge University are among two of Europe’s most popular attractions for Chinese tourists. This might leave Americans confused, but it’s simply due to the fact that one’s culture leads him or her to value different travel experiences—Trier was the birthplace of Karl Marx, and those willow trees inspired one of China’s best-loved 20th century poems.
There’s no problem here inherently, but it does show how our travel choices are informed by our cultural outlooks. But something even more shocking from the article was this tidbit: apparently, more than half of all Chinese tourists to Europe reported eating no more than one “European-style” meal during their travel experiences. That’s right—many Chinese tourists go to Europe and eat almost exclusively at Chinese restaurants, which they then go on to complain are underwhelming compared to restaurants back home. Does this sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? Well, when you think about it, the fundamental idea isn’t all that different from an all-inclusive European river cruise. If you aren’t going to get out of your comfort zone, both in culinary terms and otherwise, then where’s the point in traveling at all?
The antidote for this sort of non-travel experience is immersive travel, and the absolute best way to do this is by partnering with a local tour guide. When I say this, I don’t mean the kind of tour guide you pay to trot out the same speeches about the most popular tourist attractions in town. What I do mean is a non-professional tour guide—perhaps a family member, a friend, or even a friendly stranger—who intimately knows a place and is ready to share that local experience with you. This is the best way to get to know a place, to understand the ideas of the people who live there, and to gain a new perspective that you can then take back and apply to aspects of your own life.
Not to mention, partnering with a local tour guide is one of the best European travel deals there is. On a continent renowned for generally costing an arm and a leg, local tour guides can provide you with knowledge of more budget-friendly but ultimately more rewarding spots that most tourists could only dream of visiting. These sorts of European travel deals are hard to come by even with modern travel tools like the internet at your disposal, and a local tour guide can mean the difference between a decent but expensive typical dinner out and an authentic, fairly-priced dining experience totally unique from anything back home.
Traveling is one of the coolest things you can do in life, but it’s unfortunately an experience that most people don’t get to enjoy very often. When you do travel, please don’t waste the opportunity. Hook up with a local tour guide any way you can and enjoy one of the best European travel deals out there—one that you won’t find spelled out for you on any website or in the pages of any guide book.
By Jim Dobrowolski
Jim Dobrowolski is an American freelance writer and translator currently based out of Aguascalientes, Mexico. In his free time he enjoys hiking, playing basketball, and sampling the many beers this world has to offer. He is the founder of the travel site crosscontinentcruising.com and his personal website can be found at jimdobrowolski.com.