I love traveling to international places, eating wonderful foods, and experiencing new cultures. But I'll admit there's something I hate—planning the trip! I keep hoping that a local travel agency will somehow create an amazing itinerary with fabulous hotels and B&Bs, transportation, and a tour guide who will take me around to all the sights.
What usually happens is I'm handed a catalog of overpriced tours geared toward senior citizens or college students. You spend all your time on a bus with a nametag, and you get approximately 30 minutes at the tour site before you're whisked away to yet another location. And often, you'll stay in a hotel that lost its luster in the 1970's. At least, that was my experience on past bus tours. Maybe they've changed, but from the look of it, they're about the same.
So because of that, and because of my husband's aversion to guided tours, I usually have to book everything on my own. I end up scouring guide books, TripAdvisor, or other websites to determine whether a B&B is really worth it. I print out directions, plan out where we're going, buy tickets for the castles and tours online, and worry myself into a wreck, hoping that I haven't forgotten anything critical.
This past summer, I planned a trip to Ireland, Scotland, and London. One of the things I learned about the UK is that their roads are NOT the same as U.S. highways. A location that's 100 miles away could very easily take four hours to reach. But despite our GPS, which mistakenly believed we were driving through a cow pasture, it was fun to blast U2 on our teeny-tiny rental car's stereo and marvel at the fact that we were in a foreign country. Without kids!
I filled up a notebook with descriptions of the scenery and town names, while my husband valiantly braved the one-lane roads, taking our lives into his hands as he passed the tractors. I spent hours in the museums, photographing what artifacts I could and asking the guides questions about medieval weapons and clothing. At night, we drank Bulmer's and Guinness, ate in the pubs and tried Sticky Toffee Pudding in every town we visited (Dublin had the best).
A few times, we took the "scenic" route, where the streets had no name and the sheep wandered into the road. We stopped in places where there were no phone or power lines, and it was like going back in time.
Those moments made all the hassle worthwhile. When you stand in the ruins of an 8th century monastery and can sense the priests who lived and worked there. When you don't have to be anywhere and can go hiking somewhere unexpected, discovering the ruins of a medieval fortress completely overgrown with grass. For me, it's a way of recharging the creative batteries and getting inspired.
Though it's a pain in the neck, skip the bus tours and try going off on your own. Ask the locals for recommendations on where to eat and where to visit. You just might find yourself in a small part of paradise. Or possibly behind a tractor.
When you've traveled, did you go on a bus trip or on your own? Where did you go, and what was your experience like? Post a comment, and two lucky winners will receive a signed copy of my new release, SURRENDER TO AN IRISH WARRIOR or a free download of the linked novella "Pleasured by the Viking." Both are set in Ireland while my next series, which kicks off with the book CLAIMED BY THE HIGHLAND WARRIOR (available in the spring of 2011) is set in Scotland.
Michelle Willingham is a RITA® Award Finalist and the author of seven historical romances and five novellas from Harlequin. Visit her website to read excerpts of her work or find her on Facebook and Twitter. You can see all the pictures of her trip on Facebook.