8 Places Where You Shouldn't Travel Alone
Some of the world's most appealing destinations are also some of the most complicated places to visit. Here, eight places where even the most streetwise traveler would be smart to enlist guidance.
The words "group travel" can conjure up visions of busloads of tourists roaring past sites, checking off a strict itinerary. But not all group tours are created equal. More importantly, there are some places where you'd be at a distinct disadvantage without a guide. Each of the destinations on our list comes with its own charm—and it's own set of challenges. In these places a guide can help with everything from navigating a complicated bureaucracy to sidestepping common scams to getting your point across in a foreign language. For each place we've identified here, we also recommend a tour, and most of them offer free time and some customization. Some of the tours save you money, others cost a little bit extra, but all of them include airport transfers, entrance fees, and a few meals—not to mention a hefty dose of protection against anxiety. Yes, it is possible to go all of these places on your own, but it's a lot smarter to go with a group.
Back before the fall of the USSR, Americans traveling to Russia had to book through Intourist and stay at state-run hotels. Restrictions have become less and less limiting over the past two decades, but bureaucracy and red tape are still huge obstacles for a trip to Russia. You still need an "invitation" from a hotel or tour company to even apply for a visa, and it's not unheard of for travelers to be sent back home—or even stuck in Russia—because of "problems" with their paperwork. Corruption continues to be an issue, with guidebooks still warning travelers about being stopped to show "papers," a legitimate question that could be veiled as an intimidating request for a bribe. It is advised that all travelers have a local contact to navigate the confusion, and tour operators have trusted contacts with local knowledge.
Sample tour: Travel to Russia isn't cheap—and neither are the tours. SmarTours 10-night Cruise of the Czars package includes airfare from New York, time in St. Petersburg and Moscow (including tours of the Hermitage and Red Square), and a cruise down the Volga River. smartours.com. From $2,799 per person until Dec.19, 2012 when the price rises to from $3,199.
This is a trip that you'll likely only do once in a lifetime—do you really want to spend your whole vacation worrying about how to get from point A to point B? The language barrier is large making everything from dining in restaurants to navigating the sites frustrating. Now add to that the fact that China's most appealing attractions, such as Xi'an and the famous terra cotta warriors, are spread out between the interior and the long east coast. Unfortunately, travelers also must contend with scams geared towards foreigners, including counterfeit currency being switched in by everyone from street vendors to cab drivers. Having a trusted local guide can help you avoid being taken advantage of—and keep you pointed in the right direction.
Sample tour: ChinaSpree's 10-night Middle Kingdom tour starts in Beijing and ends in Shanghai, with stops in Xi'an, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, including air from San Francisco, all flights, and transfers within the country. chinaspree.com. From $2,799 per person.
This bucket-list destination is filled with some of nature's most inspiring creatures. Did you know, for example, that the islands are home to nearly 60 species of birds, half of which are native to the Galapagos? Or that it's home to around 20,000 giant tortoises, including subspecies that are critically extinct (sadly, the most famous tortoise, Lonesome George, died earlier this year)? It's facts like these that make the Galapagos so extraordinary and unless you're an expert yourself, the islands are best appreciated with naturalist guides who can identify the species and tell you the stories behind them. You'll want experienced guides to help you navigate the region too, which is comprised of 13 main islands, some with special habitats, reserves, and research centers. The best tours employ experts who will take you on hikes, boat rides, and even flights to see the region's signature creatures such as the blue-footed boobies.
Sample tour: Spend time in Quito before flying to the main island of San Cristobal with Friendly Planet's Galapagos Islands Wildlife Discovery. Once you are in the Galapagos you will take guided walks with a naturalist guide, go on a snorkeling tour, and visit the home of the giant tortoises. friendlyplanet.com. From $3,299 per person including airfare between Miami and Quito.