Mesa Verde National Park offers new guided tours for 2010

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is preparing to open next Thursday, April 22nd, and to celebrate, the park will be offering several exciting new guided tours. Additionally, the Fair View Lodge, the only hotel within the park’s boundaries, has spring time specials for those who elect to stay on site when they visit.

The most popular attraction in Mesa Verde is the world famous cliff dwellings that were once inhabited by the Pueblo Indians, prior to their move from a hunter-gatherer tribe to a more advanced agrarian society. The park offers a number of great interpretive tours of those ruins, including the three-hour long “Classic Pueblo”, which includes visits to Triple Cities, Square Tower overlook, Sun Point and Sun Temple, The tour also includes a hike to Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The price for this archeological and cultural walk through the past is just $35 for adults and $17.50 for children 11 and under.

For something a bit more in depth, check out the “Far View Explorer”, which is five hours in length and includes visits to a number of archeological sites throughout the park, including the Spruce Tree House in the Chapin Mesa area. The cost of this tour is $25 for adults and $12.50 for children, and includes a box lunch.

Finally, the half-day long “700 Years” tour visits Pueblo sites that span the length of the tribe’s history, beginning in 600 AD and running through 1300 AD. Visitors are shuttled throughout the park aboard comfortable coaches, taking short hikes on a variety of trails and visit ancient dwellings. Running four hours in length, the price of this tour is $45 for adults and $34 for kids 11 and under.

To entice visitors further, the park is offering their Spring into Mesa Verde package for travelers who want to spend the night at the Fair View Lodge. $139 gets you a nights stay in a standard room at the lodge and includes two reserved seats on the Classic Pueblo tour. This price reflects a 25% savings over booking the stay and tour independently. To make your reservation, call 866-292-8295 or visit and use the promo code SPRING10.

How to decide if a tour is right for you

For some travelers, the mere sight of a tour bus is enough to make them cringe. Heck, I don’t enjoy seeing large masses of humanity spilling out of a humongous vehicle and mucking up my “unique” travel experience. But that’s not to say that all tours are wastes of your time and money.

There are some phenomenal tour operators all over the world offering myriad types of guided excursions. Many are even geared towards seasoned travelers who don’t need their hands held the entire time. So, rather than discount all tours as wretched experiences best left to novices, spend more time finding a tour that meets your needs and you may be surprised to find that you, too, can enjoy a guided experience.

Finding a tour that matches your travel aesthetic is easier than you think. You simply need to ask a few important questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour?
You can read reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, but there’s no way to know for sure that you’ll share the same opinions as the commenters on those sites. But you know your friends. You trust them. Reach out to family, friends and colleagues to see if they can recommend tours before you book anything. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to crowdsource opinions from people you know and who know what you like.

Will the tour help with a language barrier?
Sure, you can point at menu items and gesticulate your way to the bathroom, but, at some point, your inability to speak the local language may inhibit your ability to see something that you truly want to visit. That’s why finding a reputable tour operator can become the difference between having the trip of your dreams and going home disappointed. Gadling’s Darren Murph has mentioned in the past how a tour in Central America was his favorite guided travel experience. One key reason was his guide’s ability to expedite his border crossing – something Darren would not have been able to do on his own. Darren told me that the tour “literally made the impossible, possible.”

Does the tour solve transportation problems?
In the developed world, even novice travelers feel comfortable renting a car and heading off on their own adventures. Sure, driving on the left may feel awkward at first, but awkward is better than dangerous. In the developing world, transportation can often be the single biggest challenge that you will face. Whether it’s because the roads are dangerous, difficult or non-existent, it’s perfectly respectable to prefer that someone else do the driving. Other times, a car is not even an option. Paying for the boats, camels and helicopters needed to reach a remote location can be prohibitively expensive. Booking yourself on a tour can mitigate that problem and cut your transportation costs immensely.

Does the tour operator share your ideals?
While traveling should expand our minds and challenge our beliefs, there may be nothing worse than being on a tour led by someone who operates their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities. When Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel, was planning a trip to Morocco, she sought out tour operators who shared her “same ideals about sustainable and authentic travel.” This is particularly important if you are seeking out cultural tourism. Forced cultural experiences can leave you feeling uncomfortable, which is a topic we have covered before on Gadling. Finding a tour that meshes with your ideals will prevent you from wanting to jump out of a moving bus at any point on the trip.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook?
Sometimes wandering on your own and supplementing your own knowledge with a guidebook is all you need to immerse yourself in a place. However, guided tours can often provide a deeper understanding and local expertise that no amount of self-directed research could unveil. Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer took a free walking tour in Reykjavik with a guide who predicted Iceland’s economic problems well in advance of the news hitting the front pages of newspapers around the world. Whether it’s an Art Deco tour in Miami, a private tour of the Vatican or a prophetic walk around Reykjavik, a guide will be able to tell you much more than a book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide?
Darren Murph’s Central American tour was led by the owners of the tour company. Small operations like that have more of a vested interest in creating a positive experience because they can’t afford to develop a bad reputation. Massive tour operators with transient, part-time staff may be cheaper, but they probably don’t care about their product as much as a small business owner does.

How big is the tour group?
When it comes to tours, size matters. Small groups allow for personalized and intimate experiences. Large groups keep costs down and allow you to meet more people. Janelle Nanos wanted to avoid being part of a herd. She chose an operator in Morocco who kept the groups small. “That meant no big buses, no crowded tourist restaurants, no walking through a city like a group of four-year-old soccer wannabees following a ball.” Know your preference before you put down that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have?
Even travelers who always prefer tours to independent travel want some time to themselves. Before booking yourself on a tour, find out how much free time you’ll have to explore neighborhoods, wander through ruins or just have a meal by yourself. Local knowledge and expertise are wonderful things, but so are customizing your trip and hearing your own thoughts.

Where will you be staying?
If your tour will involve overnight stays, investigate the level of accommodations. If you want to rough it, be sure that you won’t be at hotel chains every night. If hostels aren’t your thing, avoid finding yourself on a budget tour.

Many of you will continue to eschew tours and that’s certainly your prerogative. But, that may not always be an option. Some parks and historical sites only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group. Gadling’s Kraig Becker noted that hiking the Inca Trail is limited to those who are members of a guided tour. There are plenty of places with similar policies and even the most stubborn independent travelers will have to suck it up and ask themselves the above questions.

What questions do you ask yourself before booking a tour? What has made your tour experiences positive (or, unfortunately, negative)? Do you agree that it’s OK to take tours? Share your tour tips and tales in the comments to help us all get the most out of our travel experiences.

Special thanks to Janelle Nanos and all of the Gadling writers who shared their advice.

La Mamounia in Marrakech now open

The only way to experience Marrakech is in luxury surroundings, especially after a day of wandering the medina. A new hotel promises to make this better than ever.

After three years of renovation, La Mamounia is open to guests. This property’s unique collection of amenities and activities allows the guest experience to be tailored, so you can make your trip to Marrakech exactly what you want it to be. La Mamounia is celebrating its reopening with a five-night program that includes a spa treatment upon arrival and several others during the stay, airport transportation, aromatherapy turndown service and several meals, including dinners at L’Italien par Don Alfonso, Le Pavillon de la Piscine and Le Français.

The culinary and spa experiences are supplemented with an array of touring alternatives, including a guided tour of Marrakech with a professional photographer (trust me, both parts of this are very useful), a “Flavors of Marrakech” tour and a Moroccan wine tasting with the hotel’s sommelier. Also, you can take a full day trip out to the Atlas Mountains.

Tour Michael Jackson’s hometown

The Michael Jackson madness continues!

When the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death circulated around the globe in late June, news outlets went crazy. We watched day after day of non-stop Michael mourning on TV. CNN talked about his kids, his declining health, and the rumored cause of death. E! reminisced about the scandals that plagued him, and his decidedly eccentric behavior (baby-dangling, anyone?). VH1 and MTV paid homage to his musical contributions. And I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Food Network had profiled his favorite meals. People Magazine and Us Weekly ran multi-page spreads in every issue for weeks. Even the funeral was televised so that we could watch as the former “King of Pop” took the stage one last time in a rumored $25,000 gold-plated casket (and am I the only one who thought that thing looked like a chafing dish?).

And just when I thought the never-ending frenzy of Michael Jackson mania was winding down, I learned that a company is now offering bus tours of Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana.

For just $55, you can visit such historic sites as Jackson’s childhood home at 2300 Jackson Street, the junior high school he attended and the venue where the Jackson 5 first performed. According to the tour website, the “King of Pop” tours are narrated by Gary residents who knew the Jacksons themselves or their friends and classmates.They also promise never-before-heard stories about Michael and the family.

The first tour will launch Saturday, July 25th at noon. Tours depart from the south side of Chicago and last about 4 hours.

Tour Detroit’s “good, bad, and hopeful” sides

Detroit gets a bad rap. So bad, it was voted the “Least Favorite” city in a recent TripAdvisor poll. But one local is trying to help both visitors and residents get a better understanding of the city, to see that maybe it’s not the punch line everyone thinks it is.

Linda Yellin, the creator of Feet on the Street Tours, runs walking, bike, and bus tours of the city for individuals and tour groups. One of the most popular tours is called “The Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful – You Be the Judge”. It’s held the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month and costs $25 per person. Says Yellin, “We created the city sightseeing bus tour . . . because we wanted people to see and decide for themselves – not just assume what they hear or read is correct. We guarantee that people will get a new view of [Detroit].”

As the title of the tour implies, the goal is to show all sides of Detroit. Instead of glossing over the city’s blight, the tour will take you past plenty of crumbling buildings and abandoned lots, and explain the circumstances that led to the city’s current condition. It will also show you the institutions that have stood strong in the city for years and the rich history surrounding them. The tour will take you past the “hopeful” too – the signs of life being breathed into the city in the form of new shops and restaurants and a burgeoning local art scene.

Tours can be customized to focus on Detroit’s history, architecture, music, culture, food, or art, or to concentrate on a certain neighborhood of the city. Learning about the history of Motown Records in Detroit, exploring the festive neighborhood of Greektown, gallery-hopping to see works from the city’s up and coming artists, or sampling fresh produce and local specialties from the vendors at Eastern Market are among a few of the options.