It's likely you've seen Norwegian Cruise Line's latest commercial proclaiming the difference between it and other cruise lines that "tell you when to relax, when to play and when to eat." Well, cruise lines aren't the only ones going "freestyle"—over the past two years, tour operators also have substantially loosened up their itineraries.
In a special report released this past year on the 30th anniversary of the movie, If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, which poked fun at multiday, multicity tours, the United States Tour Operators Association found that in 2006, 80 percent of tours concentrated on a specific area or region, when 30 years ago, 80 percent of tours were multicountry itineraries. This is a simple example of supply meeting demand, as the trend continues to show travelers' desire to have more control over their trips, which means that you have more options when deciding on how to spend your next vacation.
Such a task can be daunting on your own, but when working with an experienced travel agent, your options are endless. All you have to do is dream it up, and your agent will make it happen. Looking for a custom combination tour of the Grand Canyon by kayak and helicopter? Your agent can find it. Want to take a cooking class in Tuscany? No problem! Dreaming of spending seven days in Singapore followed by four days in Bali? Wish granted. Hoping to take a trip to Machu Picchu in the next few months or spend a night in felt tents at Three Camel Lodge? Sure thing! Your agent is your genie—all you have to do is ask.
Building a customized tour can be particularly effective if you wish to visit unfamiliar territory within the U.S., where not many pre-packaged tours are run. Your agent can help you set up a customized tour of Savannah, America's most haunted city, or take you on a cross-country tour of classic baseball parks, criss-crossing from the famed Fenway Park in Boston to the relatively new AT&T Park in San Francisco near the bay.
Having It Your Way
By doing what you want to do on vacation, you'll create a more fulfilling experience than you could get from any pre-planned itinerary. If you don't want to—or don't have the time to—customize an entire vacation, you can opt to customize part of your escorted tour. Working with this past year's USTOA report, Home-Based Travel Agent found that the amount of free time on escorted tours now totals an estimated 30 percent.
As tour operators build more and more leisure time into their itineraries, you can work with your agent to book optional excursions available through the tour company or ask your agent to recommend an outside guide who will take you where you want to go.
Customizing an escorted tour brings you the best of both worlds. Striking out on your own on a packaged vacation makes the trip unique to your tastes, providing you with an experience that no other person on the trip will be able to tell the folks at home about. What's more, because you still participate in activities with the group, you can easily make friends, instead of potentially feeling like an isolated traveler who is wandering a foreign country.
Setting up a guide before you travel can help to ease any hesitancy you might have about breaking free from the herd, whether it's because of language barriers or not being familiar with the area. Your travel agent likely has a tour guide in your chosen destination who he or she has worked with for years, if not decades—this should provide you with a sense of security. And remember, even though you're not being escorted around town with a group of tourists—all with different levels of knowledge regarding the chosen area—with your tour guide in tow, you're still in capable hands.
Customizing your vacation is an engaging experience and not one many people think to take on, given how overwhelming it can be. However, the task will result in a unique journey that you can brag about to your friends. If you choose to work with a seasoned travel agent, your experience will be easier than expected. Traveler, meet your genie.