Friday, March 14, 2014

Moorish Spain to Morocco - Group Tours

I'm completely addicted.   To travel, that is.
With nothing on the calendar this month, I'm going a bit stir crazy.
It's one of those periods that we all experience, a time of transition, blah, blah, blah.

I passed my Life in the UK test (yay!) and we have an appointment with Immigration next week.
Hopefully, I'll have my Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK soon.  Fingers crossed.
A few other things are also in the works and should all work out soon.

 Then we can start adding a few more trips to the calendar.
 Patience is not one of my best virtues and I'm chompin' at the bit.
I must go to ALL the places!

Recently I came across a post by Nomadic Matt called
It really struck a chord. You gotta love a good rant.  Especially one you agree with completely.

Being a fan of cruising, I deal with this often.  (You really should just try it.)
But we travel all sorts of ways.  We cruise, we wing it, we plan, we drive, we fly, we take trains.
As long as we're going, we're happy.

Get this...we even take guided tours!
Gasp.  I know, right?  "And you call yourself a traveler."

There is definitely a trade off when you book a guided tour,
but just maybe it's a trade off in your favor.  Let's discuss, shall we?

Pro and Cons of Group Tours
Let's get the Cons out of the way.
  •  Loss of Control, spontaneity and flexibility.  Uhm, yeah.  Hard to argue with that.  You certainly do lose a bit of those things when you are on a tight schedule and are responsible to a group of people. 
  • Not getting what you expected or would have selected on your own. The group has a reservation for dinner but you just want to stop at this food truck.  Did anyone even look at this hotel on TripAdvisor?   Why are we taking the 4am train for crying out loud? 
  • People.  You mean I have to spend 11 days listening to this know-it-all, blowhard?  If I have to hear one more crack about Americans.  Could everyone just please stop talking... and breathing?
  • Herd Mentality.  You've all seen them.  Groups of people following the lady with the red umbrella.  Not a chance in hell of blending in and becoming one with your surroundings.  Your main goal is to just keep up. 

So, those are some pretty serious Cons, aren't they?  Let's see if the Pros can outweigh them.

  • Money Savings.  Group bookings are usually much cheaper than if you were to book everything by yourself.
  • Convenience.  What could be more convenient?  All of the logistics are planned out for you.  Just show up and enjoy the ride.  
  • Access.  Reputable tour companies have relationships and connections that get you better access.  Early entry before opening hours.  Behind the scenes tours.  Special experiences.
  • Troubleshooting.  If things go wrong, you have someone on your side to take care of the problem.  They've likely dealt with this exact issue and have a ready solution.  They want you to have a wonderful time. 
  • People.  Okay, people aren't all that bad.  Sometimes, they're pretty awesome.  You might just make some lifelong friends.  And you have someone to talk to when your spouse has put in their earplugs and checked out for a few hours.
  • Safety.  There is no denying there is safety in numbers.  Not to mention the tour company has your safety as their number one priority. 

I'd say those are some pretty solid Pros.
Which is why when we were planning our trip to Morocco we booked a guided tour.  

Matt has traveled with Explore! half a dozen times now.
I was a bit skeptical but wanted to give it a try, since it's something that he really enjoys.
We took their 11 day Moorish Spain to Marrakesh Tour in April of last year
with three days in Spain and eight in Morocco.

Explore has been around since 1981 and offers over 450 small group adventures in 120 countries.
Going through their tour catalog is better than the Sears catalog at Christmas.
They offer walking, trekking, cycling, family, wildlife adventure tours and more,
all at various levels of Style, Comfort, Type and Pace. 

So, how did this tour stand up to those Pros and Cons listed above.

We all know that I have control issues.  So, there were times that I didn't want to go along with the group.  Sometimes I just gritted my teeth and went along, usually happy afterwards that I did.  There were also times, when Matt and I made a command decision and turned left when everyone else was going right.  We were always sure that when we did so, it didn't affect the schedule in any way.  But, sometimes it just had to be done. 

The itinerary was very full and a bit like drinking out of a water hose.  I've already written 18 posts about our trip and there are about 8 more planned.  It was overwhelming.  But, looking back, we were able to do so much that we never would have done had we been on our own.  

We don't obsess too much about safety when we travel, but we always try to be informed and careful.  I felt completely safe throughout our time in Morocco.  In addition to our tour leader, we had local guides wherever we went.  We were led through the Medinas by people who lived there.  We met some wonderful people who were happy to safely show us around their home turf.

Explore offers four Comfort Levels on their tours: Basic, Simple, Standard and Comfort.  This tour was at the Standard level.  Our rooms were okay.  Clean, safe and relatively comfortable.  I did write over and over in my notes "Towels sucked", so that was an issue.  One regret I have is that we didn't stay in a Riad (traditional Moroccan house).  It definitely would have added to our experience of Morocco.  Here are some photos from the various hotels.   You can see some were nicer than others.

With a tour group, obviously the biggest factor is your travel mates.  Our Tour Leader Dee was wonderful.  She is a traveling, yogi, tour guide superstar.  Anyone who can get 16 adults through 11 days of train travel without once losing their cool, is pretty special.  We're friends on Facebook now and I'm sure we'll meet up with her again someday.

We were with a group of mostly Brits that ranged in ages up to their seventies. But, let me tell you, they were experienced travelers, fit, active and ready to go.  I was one of the youngest in the group and struggled to keep up with them some days. They were a great group (with the exception of the know-it-all I eluded to earlier. But he gave us some great stories.)   Compared to other tours Matt has done, it was an older group.  I'm sure that each tour is different depending on when, where and how long the trip will be. 

No matter how flexible and friendly people are, traveling with a group is a challenge.  I often always felt very conspicuous.  A group of 17 white people dressed so obviously as tourists traipsing through the Medina with their cameras clicking must be a very jarring sight.  

I'm also a classic introvert, so being around people all day is draining.  There were times when I would put on my sunglasses and listen to my iPod just to get a moment's peace.  I'll admit that I struggled with this, but because of my personality not because of those around me.  Matt, on the other hand, is an extrovert and thrives on the social interactions.  Some of his closest friends are people he's met on an Explore tour. 

So what's my verdict?  Will I go on another guided tour? 

If you'd have asked me the day we got home, I probably would have said "No."
But, just look at everything that we experienced...

Top Five Reasons to Visit Spain
Ronda, City of my Dreams 
A Moment in Ronda
Museo de Ronda
Church of Santa Maria
Plaza de Toros de Ronda 
The White Villages of Spain 
 Speechless in Morocco
Fes, Morocco
Time Traveling in Morocco
Made in Morocco
Cats of Morocco
Roman Ruins of Volubilis
Rabat, Morocco
"Rabat.  She is a pretty city."
The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
First Impressions of Marrakesh

(with more still coming.)

Now that I've had time to process everything, the answer is absolutely "Yes!"
In fact, we already have our next one picked out.

Matt has traveled all over the world, but this travel thing is still new to me.
Morocco is the most exotic and different (from-what-I-know) place that I've been to so far.

It was a definite challenge but I'm so proud of myself for doing it and getting so much out of it.
It was an absolutely magical and mind-broadening experience, that I'll never forget.

Going on a guided tour is a great way to see Morocco.
Trips like this are what travel dreams are made of,
even if there are a few travel snobs out there who might disagree.

What are your feelings about traveling with a group?  Happily or Hell No?


  1. I sit in the happy medium. I think that group tours serve their purpose, but I also think that traveling solo/with friends etc is great. When I go to Sweden on Wednesday I am going with a tour because I just don't think I could get around to all the places I wanted to by myself :)

  2. We definitely experienced most of these Pros and Cons on our tours in Bali. Especially the people ones. I was amazed that some of the worst travelers I have encountered are Canadians. People always trash Americans, and recommend that you say you are Canadian when traveling, but we had one couple who complained (loudly) non-stop, and another that while friendly asked some of the most offensive and inappropriate cultural questions of our tour guide (who was awesome, and took it like a champ!). It just really caught us off guard.


  3. I think a group tour would be nice but then at the same time I love those days with nothing planned and we just wonder around to see what we would find.

  4. There's a lot to be said for group tours. I went on my first one last year, with my daughter and we definitely had experiences that we wouldn't have been able to access on our own. We went on a tour of the Bay of Naples with the Adventure Company and it was great.

  5. I totally did a post on this too! Link-up :D

  6. I've done an amazing group tour (Abercrombie and Kent to Machu Picchu) and a fun tour when single and in my 20s (Contiki). But for now, with kids, unless we did a Disney tour, which is WAY out of our budgets, it is easier to travel on our own!

  7. I'm kind of torn on this, too, but I really appreciate how you broke it down. I am such a slow traveler - that's one reason why I've never cruised or taken a group tour. I like to take my time everywhere and I despise being rushed, BUT a group tour would be something I'd consider if I were going someplace where I didn't feel safe.

  8. I'm the opposite as far as planning. I'd rather let someone else plan. I get way too stressed out about it and everything just becomes annoying - So I like leaving that up to someone else and just going along for the ride! :) But I would like a tour group that offers a fair amount of free time.

  9. We went on one when we went to Italy, and it was the best thing we could have done. We got to see two cities we wouldn't have seen and go on a wine tasting, and we made friends with a NZ couple who came out for drinks with us later that night. Before taking that one I had never done any sort of organised tour really, but I think I would give them a chance again for sure now, especially for day trips.

  10. I really wish I had done more group tours when I was single. I think it would have been a great way to save some money and not feel alone while traveling. You bring up some great pro's and con's of group travel. I definitely think it have kind of an "unhip" stigma attached to it. But it is a great option for many...anyone who wants to pack a lot into their trip while saving some money getting a group rate.

    Your post made me think of two things I've read recently. First "Tourism is NOT a Dirty Word" from Lost in travels (I think a guest post). She says there is a REASON that tourist sites are popular. Yes, be polite and make an effort to find some local favorites. But don't think it's tacky to visit the tourist attractions too.

    And second, I thought of this recent article from the NYT: The Unhip, Unexpected Joys of Cruising. As you have discussed regarding cruising, there are many pros and cons. But it seems like so many folks these days are turning into travel hipsters, if that makes sense.

  11. We've never done a group tour. We are off the beaten path kind of people. I think much of that could depend on where we go. If it's a place like this, I do like the safety aspect you have, but I don't like standing out in a big group. I'd probably put that aside for oh say, safety!!!

  12. You are a rock star. I'm amazed at how much you travel with kids. They are such amazing little travelers, aren't they? I love following along on your adventures. I don't think I'd ever do a group tour with kids. You need way more flexibility.

  13. This was a great post, Alexa! I remember reading it when you first posted it and thinking YES! I've heard so many great things about Trafalgar. We're going to have to check them out.

  14. I've not heard of the Adventure Company. I'll have to check them out. The access to different experiences is a big plus. As long as the group isn't to big, I think they're a great option.

  15. There were a few times when I whined that I didn't want to be with the group. It was challenging but definitely worth it. My mom travels all the time and always goes with a group. When they visited in London it was a challenge, because they are used to having everything planned out.

  16. People are so funny. I think they often forgot that there was and American was in their midst. I was shocked as some of the rude comments. And I'm not good at hiding my emotions, especially when I'm tired. :D

  17. I agree. There is a lot to consider and many times they are not the best option. I struggled with the control issues quite a bit. Especially as it was my first and I didn't know what to expect.

  18. Oh, SE Asia! I'm so jealous! But happy for you, too, of course. :) I'd give anything to live in that part of the world again. It definitely has my heart. I've been seeing so many other bloggers visit recently and write about it and it's only making my longing worse!

  19. I'm typically not great at hiding my emotions, but we were stuck on cramped tour buses for large portions of the day several days in a row with these couples, so I tried to just bite my tongue and go with the flow. We did meet some really nice people on the tours, as well as some separate classes we booked though, so it kind of balanced out. :)


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