Russia, April 14, 1999
Take a tour and expect the Russians to be there!
Yeah, you can call me a traveler, I take it as a compliment. I haven't traveled to all that many countries, but when I do leave the house I try to really get into the lives of the people I meet. I do believe that this can only be accomplished by one-to-one contact between people. You have to immerse yourself in the land, the people, and the life. When in Rome, you must do as the Romans.
As much as I believe in this maxim, and as much as the majority of people I know also believe this is the best way to go, I am continuously shocked at how Russians prefer to travel, in tour groups!
I think the main reason that every Russian I know arranges their trips abroad with a travel agent instead of doing it themselves, is a basic travel inexperience. For 70 years, free movement was not allowed, and anytime Russians went abroad, it was in a tightly controlled group. Only recently did their borders open up, so most Russians have only been abroad once or twice. They don't know that you can just show up in a county with a few bucks and ten words of their language and have the time of your life getting through the day. Of course, that's my definition of fun!
When I tell Russians that I'm going to this country or that one, they always ask which tour company set up the trip. When I explain that I just bought a ticket and I guide book, they look at me funny. "A guide book? You mean they have guide books to X country?" Yes, I explain, there is even one for Russia. This always amazes the average Russian. I guess, this too is a throwback to the Soviet days when info on other countries (and even Russia) was tightly controlled. When I show them my ever-expanding collection of Lonely Planet guides, they just stare is quasi-shock.
Ilove to show them one of the guidebooks and explain how easy it is to plan a vacation without a tour guide company. That's usually when all the Russia-centric problems start to appear. First, all the books are in English. If they can't read this pivotal language, well, that does make accessing the information a bit harder.
Pick a tourguide!
Then the omnipresent visa hassle appears. Since Russia is so restrictive about its visa process, the rest of the world is restrictive for Russians. They need visas for almost every country, with Cyprus, Czech, and UAE being some of the few exceptions. Oh, Russians even need visas to visit the Baltic states! Visas are not that hard to get, it's just paperwork and a few bucks, usually, but travel agents don't advertise that little secret.
One odd obstacle is payment. I have a VISA card (several actually), but there are only two Russian banks that can issue them. If you don't have a credit card, securing a hotel reservation is a little tricky. Russians cannot wire money to an overseas account without a special license, and there are no checking accounts in Russia. My simple solution was to call ahead, and if they didn't accept the reservation without a deposit, take cash and look around when you land. Tour companies, on the other hand, will take cash in Moscow and arrange all these things, for a fee of course.
This is where I get into a few arguments. A few Russians have told me that tours can be several hungered dollars cheaper than self-arrangements. Then I start to inquire as to what the tour pays for, and they list standard things like flights, hotels, transfers, and a few meals. This is when I bug out. Why would I want to get on a flight full of American tourists, no matter how cheap it is? Why would I want to take some hotel shuttle bus from the airport, instead of the local ground transportation?
Some of my best connections I've made walking into the metro (a girlfriend), waiting in an airport (a great pen-pal), on a city bus (another girlfriend), or a shared taxi (two week travel buddy). Oh, and that goes double for a tour placed hotel, and triple for hotel food! Americans outside of America are even more embarrassing (and a potential target), than as a group between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Russians are at least quieter.
In the end, it is a mix of all these reasons and them some, but I still try my best, every day, to encourage independent traveling. There is something so special and empowering to walk confidently though the crowd of sign-touting tour guides, and stroll into the bright sunlight of Jakarta, ready to see the strange land spread before you, alone.