Up at 6, bags out at 7, on the bus by 8, nap until 10, then off the bus again to see another tiny old town. If you couldn’t tell, bus tours have the tendency to get a bit monotonous. Not that I should complain. Having my parents come and tour Italy with me was an amazing opportunity, one I was fortunate to have. But let’s just say spending 12-hour days with a tour group whose median age probably centered around 50 is a wee bit different than backpacking around Europe with a group of college kids.
I spent the past five weeks immersed in Italian culture, always attempting to avoid the faux pas that would instantly give away my American citizenship. I avoided dipping my bread in oil, kept my voice down in public places, gave up on tipping and became an expert at deciphering the meaning of Italian words using the little experience I had.
All of that hard work was erased within 10 minutes of the official start of our tour.
For the first activity, our group of 28 travelers took over a restaurant at dinnertime. Sitting down at a table set with water, bread and butter should have been my first hint that the next 10 days were going to be nothing like my previous few weeks. It foreshadowed the treatment we would receive at every restaurant and hotel and on every tour from that point forward. The people conducting these tours know their job is to keep foreign tourists happy, because a happy tourist means bigger tips. Thus, a great effort was made to maintain an environment that mimicked what one might find in the U.S. From continental breakfasts to the “night time” excursions that ended before most locals left their homes to go out for the night, the trip was designed to make American travelers feel comfortable, practically right at home. This seems like a strange goal for an international tour company to have.
Bus tours do have their advantages. They offer a worry-free environment in which your day and activities come pre-planned. Each day is jam-packed with historical monuments, important museums and a decent share of tourist traps. After less than two weeks on tour, I can check off a large number of “must-see” sights on my bucket list. But for me, travel isn’t about a checklist.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is the opportunity to immerse myself in a new culture. A bus tour didn’t allow me the time or freedom to accomplish that goal. Rather than devoting at least a few days to a city like I did during my independent travel, the tour had us rolling through at least three cities almost every day. There was no time to get your bearings, no time to mingle with the locals and no time to just sit and people-watch for a few hours. In fact, the tour took such care to keep American vacationers within their comfort zone that it totally removed me from mine.
My suspicion that the restaurants, hotels and tour guides with whom we interacted were tweaking their service to cater to what they perceived as our “American needs” was confirmed by our tour guide on one of the last days of the trip. In trying in explain to a very confused couple why the service they received on an independent dinner was so divergent from what we experience at our group dinners, he conceded that much of the service we received was adjusted from the Italian standard in order to make it more palatable to tourists. The news seemed to come as a shock to some of my fellow travelers who seemed unaware that English and ice water don’t come standard in Italy.
This newfound information actually had an impact on the last leg of our trip. After being informed about some Italian customs, many travelers made a valiant effort to readjust their actions in order to better fit in to the local scene. It seems as if the tour company vastly underestimated the lengths their clientele is willing to go in order to fit into the culture they paid so much money to visit.
Touring a foreign country by bus may be efficient, but it takes something away from the authenticity and adventure of international travel. I’m going to make sure the next group tour I travel with offers a genuine experience, not a cookie-cutter version of a culture that some tour company thinks Americans expect.
Caitlin Morath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.