Intrepid Travel: Not your average tour operator

Tours have a PR problem when it comes to wooing people who define themselves as “travelers.” Tours are crowded. Tours are contrived. Tours are for…well…tourists. But are all tours created equally? I’ve written before about deciding if a tour is right for you, but it had been a while since I actually took one. Since I last wrote about the topic, I had been curious if I could be satisfied on a tour. If it could cater to my needs for interaction with locals, meals consisting of regional cuisines and limited exposure to excruciatingly annoying crowds. That’s why I decided to experience a tour for myself. I recently returned from a trip to Turkey with Intrepid Travel and realized that you can’t make sweeping generalizations about tour operators.

In my previous post on tours, I referenced a conversation that I’d had with Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel. She was fond of Intrepid Travel after her experience in Morocco because they kept their groups small. That was one of the top criteria on my list, as well, and seems to be par for the course in Intrepid’s business plan.

I wasn’t quite used to just showing up at the airport having done no preparation at all for a trip. I hadn’t had to reserve any hotel rooms. For all our planned moving around, I hadn’t looked at a single train schedule or booked any bus tickets. It felt odd at first, but it was also incredibly liberating. All I had to be concerned about was how much döner kebab I could eat in ten days. Perhaps if I was more OCD I would have been troubled by not playing a major role in the planning of the trip. Instead, I rather enjoyed darting away for a while and not having to think too much about it in advance of my departure.

My biggest fear about taking a tour was that the itinerary would be rigid and uncompromising. That I would be forced to go to a bazaar in which I had no interest or dragged somewhere no matter how exhausted I might be. But Intrepid’s guides were accommodating. Tired? Stay at the hotel and catch up on sleep. Not fit enough for the mountain bike ride through Cappidocia’s fairy chimneys? Go to the Open Air Museum and visit the cave churches instead. This flexibility made it feel less like a tour and more like a holiday with my friends in which we often go our separate ways only to meet again for dinner. Perhaps best of all, free time was ample. Rather than having our days planned from sunrise to midnight, we had more than enough time to explore the markets, wander around the towns or simply catch up on emails to friends back home.

In many ways, our methods of transport resembled how I would have gotten around had I planned the trip myself. We traveled from Istanbul to Bursa to Selçuk to Cappidocia and back to Istanbul. We rode on the same buses as Turks (both local public buses and long-distance motor coaches operated by private companies). We took the metro in Istanbul and an overnight sleeper train from from Ankara back to Istanbul. When we did require private transport, a coach bus was never necessary. Minivans sufficed, which kept us from being a spectacle when we arrived at our destinations.

We dined in the homes of three separate families while we were in Turkey. I’m sure many of you hardcore “travelers” are now shaking your heads and reciting the numerous times someone invited you over for supper while you backpacked overseas. But for your average vacationer, such an experience is rare and difficult to come by. Intrepid believes strongly that dialogue with locals helps people connect with their destination. Those three meals were quite possibly the best I had there. Not only because of the human interaction but because home-cooked Turkish food is downright delicious.

The accommodations were far from luxury but by no means hostels, either. Guests shared rooms at middle-of-the-road hotels. Often the group took up most of a hotel’s rooms not because there were so many people but because it was a small, locally-owned accommodation.

You may still think that tours are for tourists or that no tour could satisfy you, but if I learned anything during my time in Turkey with Intrepid Travel it’s that tours can be a good thing. They can make the weeks and months leading up to a trip devoid of the stress that comes with planning all the moving parts of a vacation. They can handle all of the logistics while still allowing you to customize your trip once you are on the ground. And they can immerse you in culture rather than cocooning you in coach buses and chain hotels.

I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with Intrepid Travel. Apparently not all tours are created equally. And that’s a good thing.

Mike Barish’s trip to Turkey was sponsored by Intrepid Travel. While everyone should agree that döner kebabs are amazing, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are strictly his own.