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Escorted tours deliver out-of-the-ordinary moments

A guide leads a group tour on a hike on the Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland. | Leonovo/Alamy Stock Photo

Tour operators offer special immersive experiences for curious, active travelers.

Lauralee Dobbins of Medford, New Jersey, ate cuy (guinea pig) for dinner at the modest home of a local family outside Cusco, Peru. Nancy Hamilton Musser of Bonita Springs, Florida, visited the home of a family in Beijing. Jim Green of Lakewood, California, learned to make cheese when he visited Hovensloot, in the Netherlands.

More than ever, travelers are seeking these kinds of authentic local interactions, but it may come as a surprise that each of these experiences was part of an escorted tour, or guided vacation. Many tour operators include immersive activities in their offerings, says Kenneth Shapiro, editor in chief of industry publication TravelAge West. “Today’s tour participants are not interested in just seeing something; they want to participate,” he says.

These days, guided vacations can include cooking classes, hikes, bike rides, or even home visits. “A lot of the credit goes to baby boomers; they’re active and curious, and not content to just sit back,” says Shapiro. Although tour operators have been offering immersive activities for several years now, Shapiro notes that the social media landscape—and the constant pressure for Instagram bragging rights—has sent the trend into overdrive.

Operators are obliging these experience-hungry travelers. Insight Vacations’ Luxury Gold, for example, includes admittance to the Tower of London’s nightly Ceremony of the Keys on some England tours. Trafalgar offers a traditional tea ceremony on several Japan tours. And on some AAA Member Choice Vacations to Finland, tourgoers can command their own dogsled.

[These are the advantages of taking a guided tour.] 

Memorable Interactive Opportunities

Tour participants appreciate these interactive opportunities. “It was fun to be part of a celebratory dinner in Peru,” says Dobbins, a public relations executive in the hospitality industry, noting that cuy is a special-occasion dish there. The tour operator pays the family to host these dinners. “It felt good to know that our visit was making a positive impact on this family and this community,” says Dobbins.

Green, a retired postal-affairs consultant, had mixed feelings about the soft cheese he made. “It smelled terrible—very pungent,” he says. “But it tasted pretty good.” And the hands-on experience was memorable.

“In the Chinese family’s kitchen, there were refrigerator magnets from all over the world,” recalls Musser, a communications expert. “When you travel, you learn that people are people—they are not their governments. Getting beyond the popular attractions, you see how other people live, and you’re grateful for that connection.”

Such immersive experiences promise to remain part of guided vacations. “One tour operator told me, ‘It’s not a trend,’ ” says Shapiro. “ ‘It’s the way it is. This is what travelers expect from now on.’ ”

Write to Paul and Elizabeth at westways@aaa-calif.com or Travel Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222. And check out their podcasts at OnTravel.com.

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