I’m definitely a big advocate of at least connecting with some type of tour in every city I go to. This is really because I want to get plugged in and learn more about the places I am visiting I don’t want to be rolling around with my nose in a guidebook the whole time. Give me the good stuff, tell me the stories! One of my favorite things to do when I first get to a city is find one of those free walking tours. Often times these guides are some of the best because their wages depend on just how good they are doing their job. If they provide a unique, fun, and just awesome experience, the tips leap from the pockets of their patrons into their well rehearsed hands. If you thought they were duller than a wet napkin you are free to walk away without so much as slipping a fiver in their back pocket. These guides are usually very enthusiastic about their cities, have a lot of pride, and I enjoy all the stories and fun facts that you just can’t quite get from even a Rick Steves book. It feels sort of like learning all the swear words in a different language. Yes, there is a lot more content out there to learn, but it feels good to get the really important stuff under your belt. One more little thing I like about these tours is the time. Usually they only last between two and four hours. It gives you a great overview of the city and ideas of what you might like to go back and explore more, and you might even meet a few friends in your group.
Toot, toot! You are on board now, right? Well, for those of us on wheels or with any limited mobility option where you might be constantly looking for the next bench to rest on, group tours can be a stress inducing nightmare. Most guides do not plan for people with limited mobility, and sometimes – if not often – the tour route contains obstacles that my wheels just cannot handle. So how do you decide if it is worth it?
Give the company a call
The day before I like to call and check in and ask if the tour is wheelchair friendly. Almost every time, they say no. But they very often say that they will talk to the person leading the group and see if they can make some adjustments. When I was in Lisbon I called ahead to see what my options were. I knew they were not going to be great. In touring Lisbon you will have an opportunity to absorb a massive amount of history and beauty but in the process you will develop the calves of a Hungarian shot-putter. These hills, on cobblestones, are no joke! To my surprise, this free tour company offered to do the route backwards and change things up a little bit, just for me! There were probably 20 people that ended up going on this and no one knew any different – and I like to think it was probably better than the original!
Check the price
If you show up for a free walking tour and need to bail out halfway through because things just aren’t working – it’s no big deal. However, if you prepay for something and your guide leaves you in the dust it’s going to leave a slightly dry and gritty taste in your mouth. In Italy I wanted to visit Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. Again, I didn’t have high hopes. Although I occasionally like to think the world revolves around me, I very much doubt that a city built well over 2000 years ago had me and my wheelchair in mind when they designed it. Not to mention the volcano blew up all over it making it even less accessible. I didn’t want to spring for a private tour in case I couldn’t get down to the good stuff … cough cough, bodies …so I settled for one of those headset tours, you know, the kind where you put your earbuds in the and the guide talks into her microphone. Well, the fantastic news is that it was relatively accessible! The bad news is that it did take me a little bit longer to get around and that damn guide smoked me so hard that I couldn’t hear her in my ear buds anymore because the receiver was too far away. I prepaid and prepaid the price for it. Anytime you do prepay make sure that the guide is committed to making sure you have a good experience as well as everyone else.
Do a little bit of research
Tour companies and guides absolutely know that their reputation determines their business – if they want to stay relevant they need good reviews and they need to please… me and you! A few places you can find trustworthy guides are sites like TripAdvisor, Any Road, and Rick Steves’ site. Don’t forget to check out their website as it will give you a feel of the type of activity level required. I mean, I am just not up for a mountain climbing tour unless you will be carrying me upon a herd of elephants. Taking a few minutes to do some research will ensure that you will be safe, and that you’ll be getting a high quality experience.
You know, sometimes group tours just don’t work out. But it doesn’t mean that you should miss out on the opportunity to explore your surroundings. Sometimes that means grabbing a book and doing your best to MacGyver the city and sometimes that does mean springing for that private tour for a full and rich experience. For instance, I knew… because I called… that there was no way I could do a group tour at the Vatican. There are too many steps. But, I wanted a really rich experience and so I sprung for a private guide and I’m glad I did. We got to go backwards through the Vatican, I got to see some halls and other areas that are generally off-limits to other tourists, and I even got to snap a picture in the Sistine Chapel which is a big no-no for most people!
Remember you can travel too, everyone’s experience looks a little bit different and that’s okay! The decision to get out and explore releases the shackles or the boundaries that have slowly snuck up on us. Travel on!