I am an experienced traveler. I have been traveling the world, solo or with a few friends, for over 35 years. Even before I retired five years ago to travel full time, I never thought twice about looking at a map, hopping on an airplane, and diving headfirst into the experience.
If you have been following me for a while, you know that I believe seeing the world is important and ultimately an easy thing to do. Travel options are virtually limitless; the important thing is getting “out there,” living your dreams and seeing the world first hand. Even though my travel style is pretty random — one day I may be staying in a five-star hotel, the next I may be sleeping on a straw mat under mosquito nets – one thing that I had never tried before was a group tour.
Since I arrived in Asia, I have dreamt of seeing India. I was also tired because I had been away traveling more during the last 12 months than I had been at my home. I still had my perpetual wanderlust — traveling doesn’t get traveling out of your system — but I wanted to try something new in as stress-free a way as possible. Enter, On the Go Tours.
On the Go recently named LifePart2 as an “addictive” travel blog for travelers over fifty, and we were looking for a way to work together. Since I longed to see India, and they had some fantastic tours to compelling places throughout the country (well, the world actually). We looked at it and decided that it would be a good idea for me to go on one of their trips so I could get a feel of what they offered and in return I could share my experience with you guys.
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I chose their 18 day Highway to the Himalayas trip so I could see many of the places I wanted to see in India as well as get a taste of Nepal toward the end of the journey. Who wouldn’t be enticed by the ancient markets of Delhi, the Taj Mahal at sunset, India’s holiest city, Varanasi, and Kathmandu — to name but a few of the stops? Again, since lately I have been traveling solo, or with my partner Sarah, I was extremely interested to see how I would enjoy trying out an organized tour with a bunch of people I didn’t know. When I arrived at the hotel in New Delhi from which we were to begin our travels, the clerk at the front desk gave me a personalized manila envelope with the name of our guide, details about the places we would be staying, our transportation en route (literally planes, trains and automobiles) and various tips about the destinations. I still hadn’t met any of my traveling companions, but it was comforting knowing that everything was planned and in order.
I did meet the group after breakfast the next morning in the hotel lobby. Everyone on the trip spoke English, after all, this was the language the tour is in, but they came from all corners of the globe; including, South Africa, Australia, the United States, Canada and the U.K. I didn’t do a formal survey, but I would guess that the youngest people with us were in their 20’s and the oldest were sprightly 70-year-olds.
We had arrived when India was in the midst of a currency crisis. The government canceled some common denominations of currency and Indians had to take their stashes of old rupees to the bank to trade them for new rupees. ATMs had no cash in them; there was no money available at the airport money-changers, and people were standing in lines at banks waiting for new rupees to arrive. For a few days, I was able to make do with credit cards, U.S. Dollars, and Euros, but I was concerned about how I was going to continue for three more weeks without local currency. I had been talking to other travelers and heard stories of people leaving because they had run out of currency.
Luckily, the people at On the Go Travel in coordination with our guide Satendra Sharma, a.k.a. “Sat,” had anticipated the difficulties and, as it turned out, through a combination of planning and ingenuity managed to minimize and impact felt by the travelers on our trip. Taking the pain out of the unexpected was a nice bonus of being on a tour.
We started out as a group of twenty. To me, that is a fairly large group, but certainly smaller than the cattle drives of tourists I have seen parading in various places throughout the world. (There were fewer people as the trip progressed because On the Go has different segments of trip you can book.) No one had to wear name tags, and you didn’t have to play follow-the-leader with a guide holding a flag high on a stick to keep the herd moving. On the first long leg of the trip, between Delhi and Jaipur, we were each brought to the front of the bus, given a microphone, and compelled to give one of those awkward “Hi, my name is,” speeches. It was painful to do but, in all honesty, I enjoyed hearing everyone’s story, and it brought us all closer, even if I found it a bit embarrassing.
It was refreshing having people of different ages, backgrounds, and points of view to talk with as we went around India. I enjoyed watching how different people reacted to different situations and how, even though we were traveling together, they could experience things so differently. Everyone had their favorites, but everywhere added to the experience.
Traveling with a group does limit you in some ways, but that is the price you pay for convenience. I found it nice being able to ask “Sat” specifics about the history of the places we visited, get his opinion on different matters about his country. It is convenient to have a safe place to leave your bag. It is nice not having to worry about transportation or a reliable place for meals. The tradeoff is that your schedule is fairly set and that makes it difficult to linger in places you love. You just had to accept that and plan to fall in love again at the next stop.
There were very few aspects of the trip that I would call physically challenging. At times we did travel relatively long distances, but we were always either on a comfortable coach, train or airplane. The stops were well planned, and although sometimes they were in fairly touristy spots, this was to be expected taking parking and group size into consideration. I missed visiting the tiny “mom and pop” restaurants that I usually seek out, but there was enough free time to find some of these places to get my fill.
One of the things that surprised me most was how well traveled many of the people on the tour were. Some had been all over the world as part of a tour group, and others were independent travelers, like me, who wanted to try visiting a new place in a no muss, no fuss, kind of way. For many, this was their fourth or fifth On the Go Tours trip. One guy was on his tenth trip with On the Go and he already had another tour in the works. It is hard to think of a greater testament than that.
I admit it. I have sometimes been a snob about and avoided group travel. But, after my experience traveling through India with On the Go, I will now include small group and bespoke tours as another option in my arsenal of tools for seeing the world. Traveling, even on a tour, is a great way to expand your comfort zones and challenge yourself to try new things and break with dull routines. I now know not everyone is as comfortable as I am “winging it” and just letting things unfold, and there is nothing wrong with that. I made some good friends on the trip, and I am sure that our paths will cross again. I also now realize myself that sometimes it is nice to have someone else do the planning and ensure that there is a cold beer and a comfortable bed waiting at the end of the day.