Have Tour, Will Travel

The search for the perfect overseas vacation. Or at least the most tolerable.


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It begins in September. My husband starts trolling travel sites on the Internet and, after dinner, retires to the living room with brochures emblazoned with pictures of the vast Sahara and the high Himalayas. Then he begins to throw out possibilities for our summer vacation: Barcelona? Kyoto? A trip down the Volga?

I resist. Travel strikes me as one of life’s more absurd endeavors. If you live here, why go there? Why not sit on the front porch, go to the local Italian restaurant, and rent a Bollywood movie? As far as seeing the sights, isn’t that why they invented IMAX?

But couples, if they endure, are sites of compromise: The extreme of one partner cancels that of the other and thereby creates a reasonable middle course (reasonable being, admittedly, a relative term). Take, for example, a typical negotiation between my husband and me four years ago:










Prague it is.

I am aware that my husband has definite strategies for getting what he wants. By starting early, he both wears down my resistance and wheedles a commitment when the trip is still a dim abstraction. He works cannily through felicitous contrast, suggesting a sunny climate (Greece) in the middle of a snowstorm, a historically and esthetically rich destination (Russia) as we watch the mind-numbing inanity of American Idol, or a gastronomically enticing spot (Sicily) while chomping on our lite franks. When I voice my usual resistance, he knows he can disarm me with the argument, “I want to go before I get too old to travel.”

This statement plays on: 1) my sense of mortality: I am acutely aware of tempus fugit; and 2) my guilt about depriving him of what he wants (I won’t tell you what he does for a living, but will say it’s not cheerful and not easy).

So where are we going this summer? Since we went to Prague four years ago, we’ve worked our way up to Bejing (see above negotiation). To clinch this, my husband brought out a tailored version of the “before I die argument,” noting that he wanted to go to China before they build the dam that will flood the Three Gorges. Could I really live with depriving him of seeing the Three Gorges before they forever disappear underwater?

For someone who hates to travel, I have therefore traveled quite a bit. I do draw the line at certain sorts of vacations. I won’t hike long treks (especially since I don’t own a pair of sneakers), I won’t sleep in a youth hostel (having done this in my 20s and contracted head lice), and I won’t drive or let my husband drive on the wrong side of the road (both of us don’t have the reflexes for it). If we are going somewhere where the alphabet is foreign or we are obliged to cover large tracts of land, I push for a professional tour. It is not easy to find one that is reasonably priced without being tremendously annoying. We don’t want a 10-cities-in-10-days trip, but neither do we want to spend our kids’ college tuition on a yacht in the Mediterranean with an emeritus professor lecturing us on the Peloponnesian Wars. We thought we’d found the ideal outfit when, 10 years ago, we took a superb and not costly trip through the Greek Isles, but the company, Renaissance Cruises, went out of business the next year. Currently, we favor ABC tours, which are reliable and reasonable (all tour packages include air fare). The trips to the more common destinations are “hosted,” which means they get you there, after which you can contract local sightseeing excursions through the tour director. ABC’s more exotic locales are “escorted,” which keeps you tethered to the tour director, who serves as a kind of knowledgeable nanny. The drawback to escorted tours is that they involve early morning schlepping to sights that you may not want to see, inordinate amounts of time with people from New Jersey, and too many second-rate meals of authentic regional cuisine. Accommodations can also be uneven. In St. Petersburg, for example, we were lodged at the Hotel Dostoevsky (which contained the Raskolnikov Bar). The hotel, though well located, was infested with mosquitoes and had a rank odor in the hallway (it’s since been taken off the ABC Russian itinerary). Our trip to Scotland with ABC was exceptional because the guide, an American who had been in the country for 30 years, had a Blue Badge — a license that requires rigorous training in all facets of the culture. Our guide’s American roots also allowed her to anticipate our questions, whether about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or about kilts and underwear. Also noteworthy was our ABC guide in Moscow who bore a striking resemblance to Rosa Klebb from the James Bond film From Russia With Love. Another tour company that has worked out well for us is Uniworld, with which we traveled to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. The success of that trip was also helped by the guide, a raffish young man who spoke fluent English, Czech, German, and Hungarian and had a personal understanding with the prettier officials at the major museums, allowing us to move to the head of the lines.

Our trip to China this year is again with Uniworld (we researched the itinerary and discovered it was about the same as the much costlier Tauck Tour). Now, as the trip approaches (we are going in early September), I am faced with the prospect of visiting a country recently traumatized by a natural disaster, threatened with political unrest, and trashed by the Olympics. These factors should earn me the right to stay home next year — or at least win Paris over Patagonia. • 30 June 2008