Tag Archives: independent travel

Two Independent Travelers Go All-Inclusive in Cuba

IMG_4268THE BACKSTORY

As you know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, my partner and I have a particular traveling style. (To see all the travel posts on the blog, click here.) I tend to take the lead on planning–with lots of discussion and input from my partner, of course. When I’m planning a trip, it goes like this:

  • buy guidebook (my current favorite is Rough Guides) and skim all the important parts
  • read the heck out of the Internet
  • plan a general itinerary/schedule/route
  • look up all the B&Bs, guesthouses, hotels, etc., on TripAdvisor
  • prebook some of the hotels and transportation

…and then spend our actual trip meandering slowly across a country, seeing the sights at maybe half the speed of most tourists, enjoying lots of downtime to relax and acclimatize and explore. We stay in locally-owned guesthouses or B&Bs, use a mix of public transport and taxis, and soak up lots of the culture. Sometimes we’ll book a day trip or a few days on a tour, but most of the time we like being left to our own devices and handling the logistics ourselves.

My partner enjoys this type of travel–we’ve done a lot of it together and adjusted to each other’s pace and preferences–but he’s gotten used to letting me lead the planning. But when we decided to go somewhere warm for a week this winter, I begged off the planning due to time constraints…

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…which is how we ended up booking a vacation at all-inclusive resort in Cuba.

Not only that, we booked a package through an airline. No thinking or logistics required (with a few exceptions I’ll get to later). We were both curious to try out the complete opposite of our usual travel style…and hey, there was a beach, what’s not to like?

PROS

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The beach: Okay, there was a fabulous beach. The sun was great, the beach umbrellas were great, the lounge chairs were great. I could complain about the constant wind and the chilly water (both the ocean and the pools…yes, pools, plural), but really? It beats the hell out of Toronto in March.

The lack of research: As I mentioned, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to spend dozens of hours planning a trip this time around. It was really nice to be able to take a trip anyway and not have to worry about not being prepared. (We did do enough research to know we should bring first-aid supplies, toiletries, sunscreen, and bug spray. But that goes for most places.)

 

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The resort we picked: The research we did do was on resorts (mostly via TripAdvisor, of course)–and this paid off. The one we picked, Melia Las Americas, was not cheap, but Cuba is cheaper overall than other Caribbean islands, so we were okay with the price point. It’s an adults-only resort, and when we were there, it was not crowded at all, as you can see from the pictures. Plenty of lounge chairs, lovely architecture and landscaping, multiple outdoor pools (even if they were chilly). The service was fairly good–a nice change from our usual style of roughing it, relatively speaking.

IMG_4295The food was hit-and-miss, but we’d been warned to expect that of Cuban all-inclusives, and it wasn’t so bad once we figured out how to get the best use out of the buffet and the various à la carte restaurants. (Go for the meats that are grilled as you watch. Take a little of everything, then go back for seconds once you figure out what’s actually good. Arrive early for shorter lineups and fresher food.)

The pace of life at an all-inclusive: So what does one do at an all-inclusive resort? Eat. Drink. (Side note: all the coffees were made with goat’s milk. Took some getting used to.) Go for a dip in the pool or a wade in the ocean. People-watch. Talk. Lie on a lounge chair and stare at the ocean. Read. (My partner got through almost an entire epic fantasy trilogy. If you want a chance to catch up on your reading (and who doesn’t?) I definitely recommend it.) Repeat. Definitely not our usual pace, but it was kinda nice to do absolutely nothing for a week. It was also fun to spend the day in a combination of bikinis, coverups, and long lightweight skirts, then dress up for dinner.

This Canadian can’t get over the crazy spiky trees. The one on the right was in front of our door. Click to enlarge.

CONS

Lack of originality: Once we started talking about the trip, we were taken aback by how many people around us had already been to Cuba this year. An undiscovered location it is not, at least for Europeans and Canadians. (Now that some of the restrictions for Americans have been relaxed, I expect it will slowly become a popular destination for you folks as well.)

IMG_4250Complacency: We were lulled into complacency and forgot to do as much research as we should have. For one thing, we didn’t bring the correct plug adapters for our laptops (we needed a three-prong to two-prong adapter), so one charge and we were done. For another, we had thought it was OK to tip in American dollars at the resort, but judging by the lukewarm reaction we got, we perhaps should have been tipping in pesos. Eventually we gave up tipping altogether. It didn’t make a noticeable difference in service.

Lack of control: We didn’t end up taking any “excursions” (guided tours) beyond the resort. I think it was a little bit due to laziness, but largely a matter of preferring to be in control. A 12-hour guided tour to Havana, including 2 hours on a tour bus each direction, just sounded like too long a day on someone else’s schedule, and too much forced socializing (did I mention we’re both introverts?). Same for the full-day dive tour, with the added difficulty of our both being shade-lovers (giant beach umbrellas made of dried leaves = best thing ever).

In fact, we didn’t leave the resort at all, not even to go into the nearest town (Varadero). I attribute that to a lack of confidence, since we didn’t have our usual experience of landing at an airport, having to immediately navigate to our lodgings, and thus being immersed in the country from the start. Here, we were insulated from the start (we walked out of the airport and immediately boarded a bus owned by our tour company that took us straight to the resort), and it dictated the rest of our stay. Granted, it didn’t help that we were only in Cuba for a week, and we felt obliged to make the most of the resort while we were there.

On the other hand, we did get to look at a lot of palm trees. Canadian, remember? Click to enlarge.

Lack of adventure: When you come back from a trip like that, there are no stories to tell! You can’t complain without sounding whiny. You didn’t do much of anything, and you certainly didn’t do anything different from all the other people you know who’ve been to all-inclusives.

 

Okay, we did have one adventure, and it was in the 30 minutes we spent outside of the resort’s/tour company’s control. On our homeward journey, we took a taxi to the airport due to missing the tour company’s bus…and he got stopped by police for speeding. We were a little worried that the police were up to something more serious, maybe related to noticing the foreigners in the car, but nope, just a speeding ticket. But at least we can say we had an interaction with the Cuban police…?

 

What are your thoughts on all-inclusives? Want more information? I can share my packing list, or talk more about the specific resort we stayed at. Let me know!

 

Long-Term Travel: 8 Ways to Mix Independent Travel and Guided Tours

Welcome to another edition of “long-term travel how-tos”! I’m sharing wisdom gained from my 12-week trip through Asia and two previous multi-month trips.

This week we’re talking about independent travel vs. guided tours. Often these are talked about as two opposing and incompatible methods of travel. But they don’t have to be.

I’m a hosteller/backpacker from way back, and my preferred mode is still to go indie, but I always incorporate a few mini-tours along the way. Here’s why…and how.

Last time I told you to identify your travel style. But after many weeks of travel, you might want a break from planning everything yourself. Or maybe you’ll find it more relaxing to vary your style of travel as you go. That’s okay!

Here are some ways to incorporate guided tourism into your independent-traveller itinerary…

1. City Tours

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Even if you’re the most budget-minded of backpackers, taking a day tour of a city when you first get there can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a feel for a new place. Plus, it’s an efficient way to check off all the major sights so you can spend the rest of your time soaking up the ambiance and discovering lesser-known gems.

Many cities offer hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that do a circuit of the biggest tourist draws. Sure, they’re more expensive than public transit, but they’re also more direct, and there’s a guide telling you interesting tidbits as you drive. And you can still wander around the actual sights at your own pace.

How I’ve used it: hopping on and off the famous red double-decker buses of London and the tourist ferries of Bangkok; taking a longtail boat cruise in Bangkok

2. Taxi for the Day

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

If you just want transport between sights and minimal guiding, consider hiring a taxi (or tuktuk, or auto-rickshaw) for the day. It’ll save you having to haggle repeatedly over fares, it gives you more autonomy than #1, and you’ll probably still get some good info from your driver.

Like #1, it gets you point-to-point transport and you don’t have to worry about public transit (or walking, in a pedestrian-unfriendly city). You can even use it for far-flung sights that may be in the outskirts or beyond the city borders.

How I’ve used it: hiring auto-rickshaws in and around New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, all in India (stay tuned for more about my India adventures!)

3. Adventure Tourism

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

If you’re at a destination that’s known for adventure tourism, sign up for a day or half-day or even an overnight tour. They’ll transport you to the location (usually outside the city), look after you (hopefully…do your research!), and give you an experience you won’t soon forget. Then you can go back to doing your own thing the rest of the time.

How I’ve used it: ziplining in Chiang Mai, Thailand; overnight camel trip in the Thar Desert, India (with Saraha Travels)

4. Specialty Mini-Tours

Bird's nest fern in Cameron Highlands

Bird’s nest fern spotted on a botany walk in the Cameron Highlands

If you have a special interest, check your guidebook or ask your place of accommodation (or the local tourist office, if there’s a good one) if they can hook you up with a small-group or customized tour.

For example, look for an urban walking tour that matches your interests – a ghost tour, an architecture walk, and so on. Or, if you’re outside the city, maybe you can find a guide for the day who specializes in birding, botany, or the like.

How I’ve used it: guided hiking in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

5. Day Tours Outside Cities

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Depending on your destination, you may not want to risk renting a car and braving the traffic. But you do want to go places and see sights that public transportation won’t take you to easily.

If you don’t hire your own transport (see #2), consider joining a tour for the day. You’ll get a guide to interpret the sights for you, and they may even feed you lunch or show you things you can’t see without a guide. And like a city tour (#1), it can be an efficient way to see several destinations in one day.

How I’ve used it: touring Connemara, Ireland; sightseeing around the Cameron Highlands; visiting Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam outside Chiang Mai, Thailand; visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand

6. Transport Outside and Between Cities

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Maybe you don’t want a tour; you just want to get from Point A to Point B and maybe Point C after that. But again, public transport is limited or a little less comfortable than you’d like. What to do?

In some countries, when you hire a car, you’re also hiring a driver…and it’s not prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re travelling with a few others and can split the cost. Worth looking into in Asia.

You may also be able to find a tour company that sells not only full tours, but also just seats on their tour buses or vans. They’ll get you where you want to go, but you won’t have to do all the activities…or maybe you can sign up for just the ones you want.

How I’ve used it: hiring a driver to travel between cities in India when trains were booked; taking a tour van and a boat to Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia (with Han Travel)

7. Backpacker Tours

When you think of a multi-city tour, do you picture giant buses and bland hotels? Think again. Some companies cater to young backpacker types. They’ll take you from city to city in small groups, put you up for the night at hostels, and may let you tailor the itinerary or pick and choose the activities you want.

Some also offer hop-on, hop-off services — take the van to a place you want to visit, hop off, and stay there for a few days until the next van comes along. Again, this is a great way to see a big area in a short amount of time, and make some friends while you’re doing it.

How I’ve used it: Touring in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in Northern Ireland

8. Tailored Touring

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

A little anecdote is in order here. After 3 countries and 10 weeks of mostly independent travel, we were about to hit Nepal. I was burned out on travel planning and learning to navigate new countries. Plus, we wanted to go trekking, but were worried about our abilities.

So we did some research and threw ourselves on the mercy of a tour company, Friends in High Places…and they were fabulous. They arranged our whole stay in Nepal, from hotels to a Kathmandu day tour to an amazing six-day trek with guide and porter (and just the two of us!) in the Annapurna Sanctuary region. They took all the worry away. Much as I love being in control of my own travel, and flying by the seat of my pants when I can, I have to say that having those 10 days in Nepal all planned for me was a huge relief…and totally worth it!

How I’ve used it: Trekking in Nepal; self-guided walking tour in the Cotswolds, England

Your turn! What’s your travel style? Have you combined independent and guided travel?