One thing I'm planning for some more exotic destinations is to sign on for a package tour or two (as I mentioned here). There are a lot of companies out there who offer small group "adventure travel" tours, and my impression is that these are not your standard ABC* kinds of affairs (*Another Bloody Castle). They seem to cater to more independent travelers - people who want to see the big sites, but also want to have a bit more "authentic" travel experience, maybe getting off the beaten path onto a slightly-less-beaten path.
There are a lot of companies out there with very similar offerings, and they all put out enticing colour brochures brimming with elephant rides and jungle cruises and panda bear sanctuaries and cooking classes and all manner of other off-beat and interesting ways to see the world. Tours range from 3 days to 146 or more (the long trips usually string together a bunch of shorter itineraries). Locations range from Antarctica to St. Petersburg, but they all have a few things in common:
- They all advertise small groups - usually around 10-12, rarely more than 20.
- They offer a few levels of travel: more expensive/comfy/private, cheaper/rougher/camp-and-cook-for-yourself, and somewhere in between. I think I'm an in-between. Or maybe cheap 'n' rough.
- They mostly all ding you for a "local payment" in US dollars, on top of the cost of the tour. Most also charge a single supplement if you're traveling alone and want a single-occupancy room. (I suspect my traveling life will be plagued by "single supplements". Curses!) Some include admission fees to the sites in the package, many don't. Some get you to throw in to a "kitty" for group food costs.
- Transport in usually by local bus or train, with more exotic modes thrown in to spice things up (donkey, camel, elephant, ferry, felucca etc...). Some have custom-designed vehicles that you live and travel in (see below).
- You're on your own for most meals, though breakfast is often included. Or, with tours of the cheap 'n' rough camping type, you end up cooking meals as a group.
- Despite hitting a lot of sites they claim you still get free time to do your own exploring.
This kind of travel is appealing to me for a few reasons. First, I think that sometimes it will be nice to have the minutiae of travel taken care of for me - no worrying about finding a place to sleep when I hit a new town, and no stressing over how to get from point A to point B. Second, I'm doing this whole trip on my own, so I think it would be nice to have a built-in social group sometimes. Finally, there are some places on my list that are going to be more challenging than others (Africa, India, China...), and I think being on an organized tour for at least part of the time will help me get the lay of the land so I can be a bit more comfortable about striking off on my own once the tour is complete.
So far I've got shiny brochures from at least six different companies: GAP Adventures, Imaginative Traveller, Gecko's Grassroots Adventures, Tucan Travel, Dragoman and Intrepid. The big problem seems to be choosing between them. Tucan comes highly recommended for South America, and they have fancy customized yellow buses that look pretty comfy. Dragoman also have custom vehicles - Mercedes Benz trucks, and specialize in the cheap 'n' rough style I mentioned above. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much to choose between. I'd be grateful for comments from anyone with experience in this kind of travel, especially if you can comment on any of these particular companies.
Here are some of the locations/tours I'm considering. These are all with Imaginative Traveller, but every company offers something very similar in each of these areas:
The Jordan and Egypt Adventure
The big problem right now is that I'm spoiled for choice - even if I were restricted to just one or two companies, the number of different tours available from each of them is staggering. The Imaginative Traveller brochure alone is 243 pages long! And when you consider the other companies, to, well, how can I possibly weigh the merits of the IT Rajasthan Explorer tour with the GAP Rajasthan Adventure and the Gecko Rajasthan at a Glance? It's all a bit overwhelming at this point, like so much else about this whole adventure. Overwhelming, but also pretty exciting.