When planning your next vacation, how willing would you be to:
• Let someone else decide where you go, what you would do when you got there, and for how long?
• Let that same person decide where you would spend the night, where you would eat, maybe even what you would eat?
Before you shout “Never!” consider that you actually would be among the millions of Americans who choose package tours. These trips come in a variety of do-it-for-me options, and degrees of comfort up to near-luxury.
The willingness by vacationers to trade some of their independence is so strong that the more than 150 member companies of the U.S. Tour Operators Association sold about 3.1-million packages in 2011 — when the recession still held many in its grip.
And uncounted numbers of those group tours took place in North America, not “overseas.”
Roughly 1 million of 2011’s package trips were sold by the 29 brands owned by holding company TravCorp. A 23-year veteran of the industry, Richard Launder, TravCorp.’s CEO, says that package tours — he prefers “guided vacations” or “escorted tours” — have been “very big for 60 years, coming out of World War II.”
But, he cautions: “What we offered 30, 20, even 10 years ago has all changed. Our client base has gotten older — folks now are prepared to travel more, at an older age, than they were 20 years ago.
“And the middle class recognizes the value of educating the family beyond just the U.S.”
Another trend Launder noted during an interview from his California office is the graying of America.
“Boomers have certainly changed their expectations of what they want when they travel. They think they are younger than they really are — and they act like it … Boomers are very much interested in local immersion, the experiential — they want to do more, maybe see less.
“More often it’s not the landmark that ranks as the top memory, it’s meeting the locals, trying local specialties: crafts, food or drinks.” These travelers, he said, want to go “outside the comfort of the motorcoach, to touch and taste the real experience.”
Consequently, there are a multitude of themed tours: food and wine, history, birding, art and handicrafts, learning to cook, one-city or regional trips and more.
It was a history-themed U.S. trip, “Southern Elegance,” offered by Insight Tours that I recently chose.
The basic seven-night, six-day trip began with a get-together and light buffet dinner in an Atlanta hotel, with breakfast the next morning at 6:30. The 23 of us were aboard our inter-city bus for the 8 a.m. venture into morning rush hour.
During this week, we were each given the bus’ microphone to introduce ourselves. Within a couple of days of casual trials, we had figured out whom we wanted to sit with during the few group meals.
We also considered whom we might want to stroll around with during the “free time” we got on several days. Quickly, the group broke into a few small cliques, but some married couples simply stayed to themselves. And everyone was free to skip pre-paid group meals and buy meals on their own.
We spent nights in Asheville, Charleston, Savannah, and Jekyll Island, Ga. Six of us opted to continue the tour by flying to New Orleans for three nights.
The travel itself was painless. The bus had been customized, with seating reduced from 53 to 47, equipped with WiFi and an electrical power port at each seat. It even had hardwood flooring.
Carefully planned stops between cities — once for a farmer’s market, other times for meals and at historic attractions — meant we seldom rode more than two hours at a time.
Both on the road and in the cities, the Insight guide would offer easily digestible history lessons on the region. This proved a benefit for the several Americans who had never visited the Southeast, as well as for the three Australians, three Canadians and two Republic of Ireland citizens on board.
The guide also played regional music, read region-appropriate poetry, taught a few Southern words to drawl and passed around snacks — including boiled peanuts. She placed sticky notes on the windows to move us about the bus each day — there were so few passengers that everyone could have a window seat every day, but this moved us from front to farther back on the vehicle.
In other words, she served as our mom on the road, with a little homeschooling tossed in.
At the destination cities, local guides took us on tours, with varying degrees of success:
• In Charleston we took a walking tour, rode horse-drawn carriages and a sightseeing boat. I’ve been there several times and thought these separate tours supplied a good understanding of the history and culture of the “Holy City.”
• In Savannah, a resident stepped aboard the bus to describe the notable buildings, only to constantly interrupt herself to tell the driver which way to turn at the city’s numerous squares.
At the fabled Biltmore Estate, we were each given an audio guide to stroll America’s largest private home. But we were never taken to nearby Asheville to sample its bohemian flavor.
We also wandered on our own around a Civil War fort and historic millionaires’ homes on Jekyll Island, had a lively local narrate our pontoon boat tour of a Louisiana bayou, and were part of a larger group getting a guided tour of four rooms of a classic rice plantation mansion north of New Orleans.
There was also a cooking school lesson/lunch led by an exuberant New Orleanian, a closing dinner in one of the Crescent City’s famed restaurants and, fittingly, two hours in a pocket-sized jazz club on Bourbon Street.
Any of this package trip’s participants could have arranged each of its experiences. But they had paid to have professionals handle the planning and transportation matters. And that’s what the package tour really comes down to: How much of a vacation do you want to not just research but also reserve? How much driving do you want to do — including finding parking spaces?
On my tour of the Southeast, all of the Americans had previously bought package tours, some many times. Austin, Texas, residents Jan and Owen Carpenter — he’s a retired banker, she a homemaker and volunteer librarian — summed up the reasoning offered by these travelers:
“We’ve done many of these tours, in the U.S. and overseas,” said Owen, like his wife in his early 80s. “It’s just simpler to have someone else do the work.”
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of The Tampa Bay Times.