All four of us in the gigantic silk store were crabby. The employees were obviously annoyed that we weren’t buying. And my travel partner and I were not happy to be there. We had not signed on for this. At least not knowingly. It was a little “extra” which had been slipped into our day tour.
Combining transportation with the knowledge of a local guide, day tours can be a great way to see the sights. But I’ve learned (though I don’t always remember) that it behooves me to clarify a few points before hand.
Of course, there’s also an issue of who and how you ask. I frequently sign up for third-party day tours that are advertised in a hostel. This gives me a chance to check in with other travelers staying at the hostel who may have already taken the tour. Do they recommend the experience? Also, since a tour is something you do once, but hostels enjoy repeat, or at least more than one night, customers, the staff usually gives pretty straight forward information.
- Language: I’m always told that the tour guide speaks English, but that doesn’t mean it’s English that a native English speaker can actually understand. If you get a chance to meet the tour guide before signing up, take the opportunity to ask some obscure questions (Tell me about your favorite kind of music? Does your grandfather still have teeth?). Sometimes they’ve memorized the words in a script and can’t offer anything beyond that. Also, try to find out if the majority of the other people taking the tour are foreign or domestic tourists. If you’re the only foreigner you may get to hear detailed descriptions that last for ten minutes in a language you don’t understand, followed by a two-word explanation in English.
- How much time at the actual site? It’s great that the tour can pick you up from your hostel, but that means that you’re also going to spend some time crammed in a van driving around to pick up other tourists from other hostels. Ask how much time you will have at the actual site(s). And if you have something important (a bus/train/boat/plane to catch) afterwards, ask the hostel staff what time folks usually get back. It may be quite different than advertised.
- Shopping/Other Stops: The surprise visit to the silk store was not the first time that I’d found myself hi-jacked to go shopping. And in truth, it’s not always bad. On a tour in Viet Nam, we made an unexpected (at least by me) stop at a ceramics and woodcarving workshop. I didn’t buy anything, but it was interesting to see the process and the artisans were disabled, so I was happy that the tour company was supporting them. I didn’t feel that way at the silk shop. The other members of the tour, all Chinese, were at a casino built to look like an Egyptian pyramid. I didn’t want to be there either. I would rather have spent another hour seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors. So now I’ve learned to try to scope out if the tour includes any unadvertised side trips. This is a good time to practice the art of asking a question in such a way that the listener has no idea which answer you’re hoping to hear.
- What does “all inclusive” really mean? The price of a day tours may or may not include entry fees or meals. Even if you’re told everything is included you’ll still want to have some cash on hand for incidentals (drinking water, snacks, etc.) and you will most certainly be asked to tip. On a couple of occasions, I’ve signed up for something all inclusive and later have not been sure if some of the people I was asked to tip (the person who transported me for three minutes on the motorcycle) received part of my tour fee as I had expected.
- Transportation: Which brings up the topic of transportation. It’s going to be a long day so it’s nice to be comfortable. Will you be riding in a 14- passenger van? And if so, how many people will be in it? Will you be bumping along in the back of truck (hat and sunscreen required)? For me, pretty much anything is okay, as long as I’m prepared.