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My First Time as a Group Traveler: One Skeptic's Story

Group travel. For a lifelong independent traveler and skeptic like me, these mere words have always conjured up fears of large crowds, restricted itineraries and a possible bombastic companion or two. I've always avoided such trips.

Group ride in SlovakiaSo when I recently gave in and took an organized group bicycle trip to eastern Europe, it was with a fair of amount of trepidation. Could I adjust to the group mentality? Or would my worst fears be realized?

My chosen trip was the REI Adventures' Prague to Budapest Cycling trip. Like virtually all of REI's trips, the itinerary sure sounded great to me: 30 to 40 miles of biking each day through rolling countryside. The towns to be visited looked quaint; the history appeared to be palpable; the convenience of van support was appealing.

I remained unconvinced. So, as an REI employee, I chatted up several of the nice folks I had come to know in our travel department. I came looking for reassurance. Over and over, they told me that REI trips seem to attract a like-minded bunch and that boorish companions were a very rare problem. The hotels and food were good. Relax, they all told me, you'll have a great time.

Tomas explains local history of Telc, Czech RepublicThey proved to be right. In fact, they may have even undersold me.

Recently back from my trip, I came away with a newfound appreciation for the value of a good guide. Our trip's Czech-based guides—Tomas (shown speaking at left) and Jiri—made all the difference between an OK trip and a great trip. They knew about local history, explained each area's cultural differences, surmounted multiple language barriers, helped us with our own attempted pronunciations, got our bikes ready each morning and had a knack for keeping everyone loose and happy.
My trip mates (a full contingent, 13 of us) and I all became pretty fast friends, too. Each day was just plain fun. We saw castles, cathedrals and villages aplenty. Sometimes we pedaled lonely country roads. As the travel staff had promised me, we really were like-minded souls that appreciated and enjoyed the people and places we visited. How did they know?

One unexpected highlight was an evening visit to a tiny wine cellar near the Czech town of Lednice. The winery had apparently been in the same family for around 500 years. The winemaker didn't speak a word of English but had a smile and a jolly manner that was infectious. We sampled. We laughed. We got silly. Memories were made.

Rainy day rideAnother group-travel benefit I hadn't much considered: the total lack of stress that comes with an itinerary that has been well thought out in advance. Our group never rushed to anything; nor did we ever sit around killing time. Days were planned but flexible enough that one afternoon some of us (shown at right) chose to ride our bikes in the rain while others wisely stayed dry in the van.

The downsides? I really can't think of much other than, let's face it, these trips can be a little spendy for some of us. At least now I have a better idea of what I get for my money. It's hard to place a value on having a quality guide, but I do feel that they helped me experience far more than I would have by traveling on my own.

What kind of traveler are you? And why?

Below: Quiet moments are still possible with group travel trips.
Lonely country road in Czech Republic
Below: Van support makes logistics easy.
REI Adventures' van support
Below: Group rides tend to be social affairs.
Group photo along Austrian bike path
Below: Group photo on Prague to Budapest cycle trip.

Posted on at 4:57 PM

Tagged: Cycling, REI Adventures, Travel, group travel and guides

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I took this trip last fall and Tomas was great! Everything about the trip was amazing! Can't wait for my next adventure with REI!!

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