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8 Places Where You Shouldn't Travel Alone

By Danielle Contray
November 28, 2012
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Voltan1 / Dreamstime.com
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.

SEE WHY THESE PLACES ARE WORTH THE TRIP!

Russia

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.

China

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.

Galapagos

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.

Egypt

Political turmoil, riots, and the fall of the Mubarak regime forced many travelers to cancel or rethink travel to Egypt. And many people are still hesitant to book—good news for the adventurous few willing to go because it means there will be fewer crowds to contend with at popular attractions like the pyramids. But tensions can flame up again (as they did recently over political reform) and though the Department of State has no current travel warnings, it's still smart to travel with a group led by companies with local contacts who know exactly where to go and understand (and can anticipate) the local climate. An experienced operator can get you out quickly and can modify itineraries to avoid dangerous areas.

Sample tour: Sunny Land Tours' Platinum Egypt tour includes airfare between New York and Cairo, a Nile cruise, tours at the pyramids in Giza, and a trip to the Abu Simbel temples built by Ramses II—an excursion that is typically a pricy add-on for Egypt tours. sunnylandtours.com. From $2,947 per person.

India

India is still a developing nation and sanitation and cleanliness are not always up to our standards. E. coli is an issue, especially since 600 million residents of India do not have access to regular bathroom facilities, and even in large cities the water supply can not keep up with demand. So it's no surprise that around 10 million travelers to India experience gastrointestinal distress every year. A good tour leader will know the cleanest restaurants and, if the need arises, be able direct you to the closest reputable pharmacy, where medication is labeled correctly and not out-of-date. Plus, India's traffic is notorious, and many travelers encounter unscrupulous cab drivers who take advantage of foreigners' confusion about street names and monument locations—a fact that will make that air-conditioned tour bus all the more pleasant.

Sample tour: The nine-night Kaleidoscope of India through Gate 1 includes airfare between New York and New Delhi and also includes time in Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi. gate1travel.com. From $2,899 per person.

Kenya

Kenya isn't a large country, especially compared with, say, China, but the major parks are in various corners, meaning multiple flights to schedule if you want to see the Big Five on the green hills of the Maasai Mara down in the southwest and the reticulated giraffes on the lava plains of the Samburu Game Reserve in the north near Ethiopia. Like the Galapagos, expert guides mean better access and chances for wildlife viewing—not to mention safety. Going out into a wilderness full of carnivorous animals is not the time to skimp on quality, whether it's tour guides with expert knowledge of navigating the habitats or a company with up-to-date equipment and well-serviced vehicles.

Sample tour: Friendly Planet's nine-night Kenya Wildlife Safari starts in Nairobi and includes exploration in Samburu Game Reserve, OL Pejeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Masai Mara National Reserve. friendlyplanet.com. From $3,299 per person including roundtrip airfare between New York and Nairobi.

Machu Picchu

These stunning Peruvian ruins are breathtaking, with the remains of the 15th-century civilization spread over the 80,000-acre preserve. You'll see remnants of temples and terraced hillsides—but you won't see any signs explaining what you are looking at. So you'll want a knowledgeable tour guide who can bring the ruins to life via tales of the settlement's mysteries (was it a resort for the wealthy king or maybe the last stop on a spiritual pilgrimage?) and who can explain why mortar wasn't used in most of the construction (the technique helps the buildings withstand earthquakes). Most package tours (including the one we highlight below) include a train ride to the ruins. If you are looking to take the two- or four-day trek up the Inca Trail, you must go with an organized group with a permit, which can be arranged through a licensed tour agency in Peru. SAS Travel does a four-day hike starting at $580 per person, including pickup in Cusco plus meals, snacks, and water along the trail. Machu Picchu is worth the trip, of course, but there is more to Peru. Book a tour that also includes time in Lima, Cusco, and maybe even some of the smaller villages where you can attend ceremonies and meet families in an interactive way that's not exploitive.

Sample tour: The Peru Splendors tour with Globus includes time in Lima and Cusco plus two entrances to Machu Picchu (one guided visit plus time to see the ruins on your own). globusjourneys.com. From $2,129 per person not including international airfare.

Jordan

The volatile situation in the Middle East has not affected Jordan as much as Egypt. But even though the country hasn't seen the same extent of civil unrest, there have been (peaceful) protests here as recently as October 2012. The Department of State does not currently have travel warnings for Jordan, but does caution that that threat of terrorism is high. Does that mean you should avoid seeing the ruins of Petra and the Dead Sea? No, but it makes it even more imperative that you travel with a group led by someone who knows which areas to avoid and how to identify early warning signs of problems. Tour operators will also cancel trips in advance if there are official warnings for travelers and allow you to rebook a later tour or change plans altogether at no penalty.

Sample tour: Gate 1's seven-night Classic Jordan trip covers Amman and Petra, plus a trip to the Dead Sea. gate1travel.com. From $2,109 per person including roundtrip airfare between New York and Amman.

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9 Smart Ways to Keep Kids Entertained SCULPT A MASTERPIECE My daughter had a great idea to keep her five-year-old (and the rest of us) entertained. She brought a roll of aluminum foil, and we spent hours "sculpting" hats, flowers, wings, and anything else we could imagine. The time flew by, and it was a breeze to clean up. Honey Pettigrew, Danville, Calif. SCULPT ANOTHER MASTERPIECE When I travel with my kids, I always stow a package of colorful pipe cleaners in my carry-on. Being creative and twisting them into various shapes keeps them busy for hours. The best part? Pipe cleaners aren't messy or loud, and they don't take up a lot of space. Meghan A. Usmani, Queensbury, N.Y. GO ON A SCAVENGER HUNT To keep my three kids quiet while flying or on a road trip, I created the Magazine Scavenger Hunt. I look through three different magazines and find an item for each to look for, such as a lady with green shoes or a cherry pie. You can customize the difficulty level for any age. Each time, the winner gets a quarter, second place a dime, and third place a nickel. Sure, the game costs a bit of money, but we then use their prizes as souvenir money. Tiffany Bloshenko, Dallas CHANNEL YOUR INNER MARY POPPINS Nothing quiets children faster than a new plaything! So before taking a trip with the kids, I spend $20 for 20 toys at the dollar store. I take out one at a time, and when the thrill is gone I take out another. The plane ride is over before they know it! The toys also come in handy for other children on the plane.  A dollar is worth it to stop a crying child three rows up! Cheryl Dela, Buffalo, N.Y. ... OR YOUR INNER JIM HENSON When there's a fussy kid near me on a plane, I tear out a page from the in-flight magazine and fold it into a puppet—the same design as the paper fortune tellers we made when we were kids—and then draw on two eyes. The little ones are usually so amused that they stop kicking the seat in front of them, giving me—and their parents—a much-needed rest. Toby O'Brien, Hurricane, Utah MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE NEIGHBORS Before I took my son on his first flight, I printed out stickers saying: "I'm sorry if I'm a little fussy. This is my first flight, and it's a bit overwhelming. My parents are doing the best they can, and they appreciate your patience. Owen, 8 months." I attached the stickers to candy bars that I gave to nearby passengers. We all enjoyed the flight! Carrie Rodriguez, Beaverton, Ore. FINISH UP YOUR HOMEWORK My kids often end up doing homework on the plane. To avoid having to pack a lot of paper in my carry-on, I create a makeshift dry-erase board by mounting a plastic sheet protector on a piece of cardboard. We slip math problems inside and work them out with dry-erase markers. We can wipe the surface clean and retry as many times as necessary without wasting paper. Gloria Carion, Cincinnati KEEP YOUR KIDS DISTRACTED My child receives countless goodie bags at birthday parties. I stow the small toys (crayons, stickers, games) away for when we fly. They're the perfect size for carry-ons, and we don't care if they get lost. Onboard, I can dole them out and prevent those "terrible twos" tantrums. Susan Goldman, Beverly Hills, Calif. TENT YOUR TODDLER For quiet time on a plane, clip one end of an airline blanket under the top of the folded-up tray and the other end under the headrest (behind the child). Voilà: You have a "tent" that lets your toddler take a better nap on the plane. We put this together one night when we were stuck on a runway for almost six hours, and it saved a very bad travel day. My child rarely naps anymore, but he still asks for an airplane tent, if only to play inside. Roy Youngblood, Chicago, Ill. 14 Tricks for Relaxing While You're in the Air GET A MASSAGE Treat yourself to a golf-ball foot massage. During a long flight, or afterward in your hotel room, take off your shoes, put a golf ball on the floor, and roll it under your foot. It's a great stress reliever. Practice a bit before you try it on a plane, so that your ball doesn't go rolling down the cabin, tripping other passengers. Dawn Yadlosky, Centerville, Ohio TAKE A NAP On long flights, I bring a one-gallon plastic bag with a large safety pin stuck through the corner. I put my eyeglasses case, a small hearing aid pouch, a deflated neck pillow, and some sleeping pills into the bag and pin it to the seat in front of me. When I'm ready for some sleep, I take out and inflate the pillow, swallow a sleeping pill, and place my eyeglasses and hearing aids inside the bag. I never have to worry about sitting on or losing my glasses and aids. Stewart Woodward, Lafayette, Colo. BLOCK OUT THE NOISE To block out noise on a long flight or in a noisy hotel, I downloaded an 80-minute white-noise track from iTunes onto my iPod. I keep the track on repeat, and it works wonders. It was only $10—which is much cheaper than a sound machine or noise-canceling headphones—and since it's on my iPod, I don't have to pack anything extra. Kim Paschen, Philadelphia, Pa. VISIT THE SPA FROM YOUR SEAT Flights tend to dry out my skin and sinuses, so I always pack a rolled-up washcloth in my carry-on. During the flight, I ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot water, then dip the washcloth and place it over my face. Breathing in the steam helps my sinuses, and the warm, damp cloth hydrates my skin. Meekyung Chung, West Bloomfield, Mich. TAKE A BREAK FROM EVERYONE I like to sleep on the plane, but I don't like how eye masks block everything out. Instead, I wear sunglasses. They still shut out much of the harsh airplane light, making it easier to sleep, but I can also see around me when I need to. Even better, people don't bother me because they can't tell if I'm asleep or not. Katherine Boury, Seattle WEAR YOURSELF OUT I always try to work out before heading to the airport. It usually gets me tuckered out enough that I can relax and sleep on the plane. If I don't have time for pre-travel exercise, I take a brisk walk through the terminal before boarding or find a quiet spot in an empty gate and practice a little yoga. Kimberly Gilbert, Raleigh, N.C. PACK A PILLOW Therm-a-Rest's Compressible Pillow is perfect for the plane. It comes in three sizes, packs smaller and expands bigger than any other pillow, and is machine-washable. Whenever I pull mine out of my carry-on, I get jealous stares: People always ask where they can get one. REI sells the pillows for $15 to $25, depending on the size (rei.com). Sheila Lauber, Anderson Island, Wash. BRING YOUR OWN LINENS They're useful in a million different ways. Obviously a soft cotton pillowcase makes those scratchy airplane pillows bearable, but it can also be used to gather loose items when deplaning. A nice sheet will cover up an ugly bedspread or sofa, and makes a great tablecloth or picnic blanket. Dori Egan, Pleasant Hill, Calif. TAKE A "BATH" For long, overnight flights, pack a dry washcloth in a Ziploc bag in your carry-on. Right before landing, ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot (not boiling) water. Very carefully pour the water into the Ziploc bag and then wipe your face and hands with the steaming cloth. It's like having a portable sauna! Henrietta Scarlett Ober, Rexford, N.Y. PAMPER YOURSELF Create your own comfort kit—the kind that a few international airlines still give their first—and business-class passengers. Fill a Ziploc bag with some lip balm, a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bottle of hand lotion, a sleep mask, a pair of socks, and some eye drops. Don't forget to bring a bottle of water, too. Carolyn Whitman, Gulf Breeze, Fla. HAVE A BALL I always pack an inflatable beach ball in my carry-on for long flights. When I'm ready to sleep, I just blow it up, put it on my tray table, and curl over it to sleep. I don't have to worry about my head bobbing from side to side as I sleep, and I never have a sore neck when I wake up. Connie Race, Tooele, Utah HAVE A BALL, TAKE TWO A beach ball can replace many expensive in-flight gadgets. Depending on how much you inflate it, the ball can function as a very comfortable footrest, as back support, or as a lap pillow to support your book. Dorothy Vincent, New York, N.Y. REST YOUR FEET Many airlines give passengers socks to wear on long international flights, but we all know what a sad mess airplane lavatories can be after a few hours. I keep a pair of rubber-soled slippers in my carry-on and slip them on as soon as we're airborne. My feet stay comfortable during the flight and dry when I use the lav. When it's time to take them off, I slip them into a plastic bag (usually one of the free laundry bags found in the hotel room closet) and tuck them away till my next flight. Lori Lamb, Peoria, Ariz. DON'T MIND THE MIDDLE The middle seat isn't always awful. On a recent trip overseas, I called too late to confirm an aisle or window seat. After explaining the plane's AB-CDEFG-HI configuration, the customer service agent urged me to take the very middle seat, E, because D and F have less footroom. (In some rows, there are metal boxes underneath the seats in front of you that house wiring for onboard electronics.) I went along with her advice somewhat skeptically, but I ended up with plenty of room. The people on either side of me weren't so lucky. Audrey Ting, Secaucus, N.J. 9 Tips for Staying Healthy In Transit WIPE GERMS AWAY Are you tired of catching colds while traveling? Take along a travel-size package of Clorox wipes. Disinfect the tray table and armrests on the airplane, and the telephone and TV remote in your hotel room. Sherill Hacker, Williamston, Mich. EAT A HEALTHY BREAKFAST I always bring a packet of instant oatmeal in my carry-on bag during morning flights. Then I simply ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot water, and I have an easy and healthy breakfast on the plane. Christina Tuff Saull, Washington, D.C. KEEP CHEWING If you worry about clogged ears when you're flying, bring along an apple. When you feel the plane begin to descend—about 25 minutes before arrival—eat your apple. The chewing and swallowing will keep your ears in good shape. I'm an airline pilot, and I always bring a couple of apples and have a flight attendant give them to passengers who complain of ear problems. They work every time! Capt. Mike Filippell, Tower Lakes, Ill. COOL OFF IN STYLE Now that airlines serve either snack boxes or no food at all, we often pack sandwiches. I also like to freeze a bunch of grapes and place them in a freezer bag. They'll keep your lunch or dinner cold, and you'll have a snack when they defrost. Patricia Spillane, Warwick, R.I. KEEP IT CLEAN On a flight to New Zealand, the pilot informed us that the aircraft cabin was pressurized to 8,000 feet above sea level. This became apparent when I opened my dinner container of yogurt and had its pressurized contents spray all over me! Place a napkin over containers (salad dressing, condiments, etc.) as you open them—or point them toward the nearest offending seatmate. Guido Hara, San Luis Obispo, Calif. BRING A BRUSH I always like to brush my teeth on long flights, but with the new carry-on restrictions, I thought it would be a problem. Then I found Eco-DenT tooth powder at Whole Foods (along with Burt's Bees Rosemary Mint Shampoo Bar). You can carry both products on board. Anna J. Ware, Atlanta, Ga. FRESHEN UP For overnight flights, pack a few Dove Body Refreshers and Oral B Brush-Ups in your carry-on. Before the plane lands, you can "wash" your face and "brush" your teeth, leaving you refreshed and ready for the day! Janice Pruitt Winfrey, Atlanta, Ga. AVOID MOTION SICKNESS Besides being a tasty treat, candied ginger is a preventative or remedy for motion sickness. (Some cruise ships even offer it with after-dinner mints.) We always carry a small supply with us in a resealable plastic bag, whether we're on the road, in an airplane, or at sea. Weyman Lew, San Francisco, Calif. BREATHE EASY If the dry, recycled air on planes makes you stuffed up, take a half-dose of moisturizing nasal spray, such as Afrin, before you board. The spray keeps your nose from drying out and overproducing its own moisture (which is what causes stuffiness). My doctor recommended this trick. Karen Van Brunt, Issaquah, Wash. 3 Most Popular Ways to Pass the Time RESEARCH YOUR DESTINATION Ask your flight attendants for dining, lodging, shopping, and sightseeing advice. Most crews have up-to-the-minute recommendations gleaned from layovers, which they're more than happy to share with passengers. You can count on flight attendants to seek out budget treasures—I know; I've been married to one for over 21 years! Fred Manget, Potomac Falls, Va. CATCH UP ON YOUR FAVORITE SHOW I download TV shows to my iPod to watch while I fly. I was having trouble figuring out a way to watch hands-free until I discovered that the plastic cups that airlines serve drinks in are the perfect size and shape to prop up an iPod. Put a cup on your tray table and place the iPod inside; the screen will be just above the lip-the perfect position. Everyone I've shown this trick to says it works great. Kristi Wright, Norman, Okla. READ A CLASSIC BOOK Download free audiobooks online. Before my last long flight, I went to LibriVox.org and chose a bunch of books, short stories, and poems to download to my iPod-for free. The site has both adult and children's books (Pride and Prejudice, A Little Princess, The Call of the Wild), and the list is growing. All of the titles are in the public domain and they're read by volunteers, so there's no question of copyright infringement. Even if you don't own an iPod, you can download them to your computer and burn them onto a CD. Diane Bowman, Huntington Beach, Calif.

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