The activities you take part in are the most likely reason you’re embarking on your vacation in the first place. Even if you’re travelling for work, there are often opportunities to enjoy a cultural experience such as shark diving in Cape Town. A common mistake travellers sometimes make when booking travel is they assume that those activities can be booked when they’re on the ground at their destination. They assume that a tourist office or a quick Google search on their smartphone will quickly reveal the relevant options.
This method more often than not is a recipe for disaster. For one thing by the time you get off the plane you’ll be jet lagged and won’t have the mental energy to carefully research the available options. Also, the options provided by the tourist board or a Google search may not be the activities you want to see but rather the activities the operators want to sell you (many tourist offices receive a kickback from tour operators). Most importantly, many activities require carefully planning of the itinerary. For instance, last year when I was in South Africa I wanted to see the Cradle of Humankind. However, that attraction is located way outside of Johannesburg, so I had to research how to get there (rental car), how long it will take (about 1 hour), how much it will cost, opening hours, etc. Once I’ve determined all of that I found some time during my trip to South Africa to slot that in. Had I not planned that in advanced I likely wouldn’t have seen that amazing attraction!
The activities you can book come in all shapes and sizes. I’ll now discuss the categories of activities you can book from most to least expensive and why they might be appropriate.
Stroll through any major city in Europe during the summer months and you’ll see them everywhere: tour buses filled to the brim with tourists clutching cameras. One of the oldest and to still popular way of seeing the sights and sounds of a destination is through the skilled hands of a tour guide. These are operated by companies like Trafalgar and Globus Tours. These packages typically cost several thousand dollars. For instance, my family recently travelled to Madrid to go on a tour and spent around $2,700 CAD/person on the package which included activities and hotels. The flight was an extra $1,000 CAD on top.
The advantages of this are obvious: you don’t have to spend days researching the cultural activities to take since your tour’s itinerary was designed by a local expert who knows the sights and sounds to see. Being in a tour group also gives you herd immunity to the scams you’ll often see in foreign countries as the guide is aware of them and are on the lookout for them. Everything is taken care of for you from the bus that will take your group to the activities, to the admission costs of the sites you are seeing and the tour guides who can walk you through the activity you’re pursuing.
These tours typically follow a fixed multi-day schedule which can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be a blessing since you don’t have to worry about how much time you should spend seeing a given attraction, allowing you to fit the most number of activities during your trip. On the other hand, those fixed schedule limits your flexibility: you need to wake up and be at the meeting point at a certain time and if you wanted to spend more time at the attraction, too bad for you! These packaged tours can be all inclusive which include the airfare and hotel which can be great since you there's little planning needed. However, it also limits your flexibility on hotels, airlines, routings, etc. What if you wanted to stay in Europe for an extra week? Some packaged companies are more flexible than others!
There are several inherent disadvantages to this approach. First and foremost most of the packaged tours are targeted towards the casual tourist whose knowledge of the area is limited. Consequently, these tours often focus on the attractions you often think of when you visit a destination (i.e. Eiffel Tower in Paris or Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy). Since the target demographic is wide (i.e. between the ages of 9 to 85), the planned activities are often conservative. If you’re looking for true adventure or thrills like shark diving or mountain biking, you’ll be hard pressed to find a packaged tour that includes it. You'll also stick out like a sore thumb as tourists since you’re part of a tour group.
A-La Carte Tours
Another approach that is becoming increasingly popular is the concept of the a-la carte tours. Instead of hiring a tour company to operate your entire trip, you hire them on an as needed basis for the activities you want to pursue. This offers you the flexibility to schedule the activity when you want it and can be more cost effective than a fully packaged tour, especially when you’ve only got a couple of major attractions to visit. While in Salzburg, Austria, I took the Sound of Music bus tour (highly recommended) which only around €45 for a half day tour. One thing to keep in mind is that you’re still bound to a schedule for the tour on the day you requested.
There are numerous companies offering these a-la carte tours, although I’d recommend the tour operators local to that region. Your best bet for finding them is searching TripAdvisor for activities in the area. Keep in mind that TripAdvisor owns Viator, a middle man for booking a-la carte activities which may be reflected in the results. Your best bet is to book directly with the tour operator to avoid fees and provide you with better flexibility.
In many cases there are activities you can pursue at your own leisure which often just have an admission fee. A great example of this is visiting the Vatican. All you need to see this historical site is 17 Euros and you can visit the site from Monday to Saturday from 9 AM to 6 PM. Keep in mind that you’ll need to be careful budgeting your time so to ensure you have enough time to visit the attractions at a reasonable pace. Many attractions have a suggested amount of time most visitors spend at the attraction in question. TripAdvisor is your friend in finding these activities in the places you’re travelling to.
If you plan to visit several attractions at your destination you may want to consider city passes such as the London Pass or Paris Pass. These passes provide you entry to a variety of local attractions and even provide fast track access to them, allowing you to skip the lines at many attractions. For instance, the London Pass costs £69 for a 1 day pass to £184 for a 10 day pass. The pass grants you free access to attractions like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, London Zoo and many more sites.
Free & Natural Attractions
Sometimes the best things in life are free, be it a hike, stroll through Central Park or visiting a free museum open to the public. Some of these attractions also don’t have fixed hours, only being limited to the hours of sunlight in a day. While TripAdvisor can be used to find these attractions, you should know that they’re more inclined to recommend paid attractions rather than the natural beauty that can be found when you’re off the beaten path. A quick web search will reveal some specialist sites that will help you navigate around your environment (and have valuable tips!).
If you’re going outdoors be sure to plan accordingly, wear sensible clothing for the weather conditions, carry an umbrella if it’s possible it will rain, sunscreen and bug repellent if those are potential issues and be sure to bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration! A smartphone with GPS navigation or activity specific app (i.e. Komoot or Swiss Hiking App for hiking) and a map may also make sense.
As you can see there are a variety of options for pursuing enjoyable activities at the destination you’re travelling of varying price ranges and levels of commitment. Careful planning is needed to ensure that your activities line up with your travel plans. Now that we’ve developed a strategy for planning and booking your travel the next step is to actually talk about the travel process itself from leaving your home to arriving to your destination which will be discussed next week.