TOUR BUSES CAN SEEM about as adventurous and educational as watching a week’s worth of infomercials. With the slumping world economy putting the squeeze on travel plans everywhere, however, many backpackers are starting to reconsider.
The steep discounts on lodging, food and transportation that tour operators offer can make traveling much more affordable. And it is quite possible to squeeze a memorable trip out of even the most brain-meltingly bland bus tour. To do it, you’ll have to go undercover: it’s time to enter the world of the tour bus ‘rebel.’
1. Get away.
Large groups don’t get far off the beaten path. Logistical concerns force them to limit their destinations to the biggest tourist sites and cut out everything else. However, if you’re interested in the uncut, 360-degree view, ‘everything else’ is just what you’re after.
Most tours offer occasional blocks of free time, usually for shopping in designated marketplaces or lounging around city squares. These breaks are ideal opportunities to get away from the tour bus regimen and peruse what the destination has to offer; just poking around the seams can yield some interesting results.
2. Do your homework.
Read up on your destination before you leave home. The more, the better – it’s the knowledge that you bring with you that enables you to function as a comfortable self-sufficient traveler.
While guidebooks are a great place to start, they certainly aren’t everything. Spending time reading the newspaper will help you understand what those campaign posters are really about or why everyone is putting straw-stuffed mannequins in front of their houses.
Who knows? Study up enough and you may even find yourself catching the guide’s mistakes.
3. Power to the people!
When you’ve spent days watching the world through a bus window, it’s easy to slip into the role of spectator. The landscape on the other side of the glass starts to seem like a TV documentary. The people who inhabit that landscape are either background details or obstacles blocking your view.
Traveling to a country without paying any attention to the people who live there is like ignoring that country’s soul. Beyond broad cultural traditions and stereotypes, the subtle differences between people often explain a lot.
You’re not just interested in the clothes they wear or the holidays they celebrate. You want to know how important punctuality is to them, what kind of school they went to, how they perceive government. Get to know the people around you, and stay curious: Conversation doesn’t cost a penny.
4. Don’t get tourist trapped.
If the commission system is in effect, you may find your vacation getting less Discovery Channel and more Home Shopping Network. If your guide seems just a little too cozy with the store owners or too enthusiastic about the quality of their wares, be on guard.
Be wary of trips to visit “traditional textile workshops” or other handicraft galleries. While they are often advertised as free demonstrations, you can expect to face a hard sell afterward.
The fact that tourists are almost universally assumed to be wealthy doesn’t help matters, and merchants in heavily traveled areas such as Rajasthan often try to convince visitors to impulsively drop small fortunes on unnecessary luxury items like vases or hand-woven rugs.
Buy what you actually want and be on your way; if that fails, you can always try offhandedly remarking that you’re completely broke.
Hey, it may even be true. You are a backpacker, after all.
Prepare yourself for those authentic markets by reading up about how to evaluate and purchase traditional textiles.