Teaching Traveling: I often get messages asking, “What’s an easy travel idea for my next vacation?”
The answer I usually give is that small group travel with a quality company for educational tours can be affordable and fabulous.
To help explain this in more depth, I’ve asked my beloved former student, Steph, to elaborate, drawing from her recent Costa Rica adventure.
Steph traveled with G Adventures, a responsible tourism company that goes to hundreds of destinations, offering multiple travel styles and time frames. If you’re interested in these trips, consider using the links in this article to browse, as they are affiliates that provide a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Steph, take it away!
Steph: Thanks for the intro, Lillie! Without further ado, here are 5 reasons small-group travel is awesome for your next vacation.
1. Group travel can be efficient and easy.
It is incredibly efficient having a local guide who is connected with vendors. In Costa Rica, our guide, Hector, purchased tickets ahead of time so we did not have to stand in long lines to enter parks and museums.
The line to the Manuel Antonio National Park was gargantuan. Hector purchased our tickets ahead of time and saved us hours of idle standing under the Costa Rican sun.
When we arrived in Tortuguero, sea turtle haven, it was an exciting new place, where our hotel was on the island! Soon, our local guide gave us a tour of the Sea Turtle Conservatory on the island where we learned of the protection efforts from the government to keep many species of turtles thriving.
On the outside, I was calm and collected but in my brain I was screaming “TURTLES! TURTLES! TURTLES!”
“Hi, everyone! My name is Jean, and I am so happy to show you around my island home today”
“Hello, Mr. Turtle Man,” I whispered under my breath.
I raised my hand, matter-of-factly and begged, “Um, hello. Hi Jean — Will we be able to see some turtles today?” I looked around at confirming nods and eager eyes. I was the voice of the people.
“We’ll get to that point,” Jean reassured me.
In the 1940s and 1950s many tourists traveled to see the sea turtles and unfortunately soon many species of turtles were on the brink of extinction until the Sea Turtle Conservatory opened in 1959. “It was hard in the past, because no one was protecting the turtles and some tourists wanted to take them home as pets” explained our guide.
With collaboration from local scientists and the government. New laws and regulations were implemented and thoroughly monitored. If guides were caught taking flash pictures with turtles, they would lose their licenses. Each tour group accompanied by a guide on the conservatory land cannot exceed 20 people.
Thankfully, it became illegal to take turtles and every effort is made to not disturb their habitats. And now, upon entering the conservatory guests are thoroughly informed of the regulations from flash pictures to taking careful steps around the nests. The small island of Tortuguero is now boasting with tourists and turtles!
As we walked across the conservatory, I wondered how difficult it would be for me to even find this treasured gem on a map let alone arranged the logistics of actually getting there. It’s alway an adventure jumping from city to city but navigating the tough waters of local transportation can be burdensome. We took two boats and a canoe to get to Tortuguero.
Group travel lightens the load of transportation, travel logistics, and tours so when I am exploring the turtle museum in Tortuguero, I can truly be there to take it all in.
2. There is still time to be independent during travel in groups.
I always travel to get away from myself — my usual get up early, go to work, oscillating between tired and exhausted self. It can get mundane doing the same thing daily.
When I travel, I look at the itinerary way ahead of time, and Google places that offer the most green space. I set up alarms and reminders to go to those places when I am on the trip! I knew I wanted time to be alone. I wanted time to do nothing.
On the tenth day of the Costa Rica Rica, we arrived at the Magsasay Lodge in Sarapiquí Rainforest. Sarapiqui is a jungle oasis, far removed from the small city of La Fortuna. Firstly, the tractor ride into Sarapiquí was one of the best experiences of my life.
Being an excellent multi-tasker, I quickly ran to the back of the humongous yellow vehicle to keep a close eye on the luggage tucked away at the back of the tractor (although, Hector’s bag fell off as I dozed off, and he had to retrieve it from the muddy road as we all chuckled and then lied that we were laughing about something else. Hector, you now know the truth).
We arrived in the lodge after two hours crawling up and down mountains and sporadic stops to see toucans.
“Remember, there will no Wifi at the Lodge,” Hector reminded us. We had been reminded for a few times in preparation for Sarapiquí and I was ready to embrace all the countryside had to offer.
It did not disappoint. The next day, we hiked to the nearby river through the lushest green rainforest and I stopped at every turn to spot birds. We walked through the beaten path as the rain poured down on us. The deeper into the jungle, we ventured, the more drenched we got.
The next day, we went on more bird spotting walks and made empanadas. Our host informed us that historically, the art of making empanadas contributed to whether or not a woman was ready for marriage.
My rigid, constantly-frozen Bostonian fingers were not the strongest empanada-making instrument at the table. I am happy to announce that I finished in the bottom ten percent. However, rest assured, dear readers, that what I lacked in empanada-making ability, my stomach more than made up for in empanada-eating ability. I devoured my own and (successfully) bribed someone else for their fried-golden, delicious meat pie.
At the end of the second night, I grabbed a walking chair and opened my journal and made some goals for the new year. I always struggle to find alone time at the end/beginning of the year – the holidays are replete with extra calories, parties, independence days, and more parties. It is such a busy time.
I wanted to welcome the new year by pausing and journaling because I knew life would be filled with tasks and deadlines once I got back home. It had been a year of transitions and I felt like I had reached the end of my rope: graduation, job applications, apartment hunting, job denials, interviews, etc.
I was exhausted and each new milestone felt like a miracle. I wanted this time. I needed this time to take a few hours to look back and see where I could improve, see where I’ve grown, where I took shortcuts, and where I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to enter the new year a more-aware Steph. And a stronger one, too.
It is healthy and necessary to take time off and to recharge. And I don’t think that that is emphasized enough in our culture. And I want to use this little corner of my world to say that here.
3. With a good group travel company, you can get deep into the local culture, FAST.
Hector knew everything about Costa Rica.
When we got to a new place, he told us the BEST things to eat and the best activities to do. He is a walking encyclopedia.
“Be careful of the monkeys in Manuel Antonio park – they’ll come for your lunches,” his warnings about the monkeys were completely warranted.
“Yes, you should go parasailing in Quepos, and do more hiking in La Fortuna,” he reminded us on the bus.
“Yes, order the fish — the ocean is like 15 feet away. It will be fresh,” he assured us in Quepos.
When Hector informed us of the monkeys in Manuel Antonio Park, I thought he was being fictitious. When we got to the park, we learned that he was not exaggerating. The cute little monkeys perched on branches and beat their hairy chests to let us know that the park was their kingdom!
“Three days ago I was deciding between peanut butter or turkey sandwich for lunch. Life is wild,” I whispered to myself.
One of the best stories about Costa Rica was our farewell dinner, where I proudly wore my G Adventures shirt. As it happened, G Adventures has a relationship with this restaurant, and the waiters. And then a waitress walked up to me and gave me a hug.
“Welcome to the G family. I have never seen you before!” she said with a welcoming smile
“Er. I’m not…” I froze.
“Yes, she’s our guide,” shouted Hector, mockingly.
“This is just a t-shirt that Kim gave me. She’s in Boston, well, not Boston, near South Station but not really.” I was rambling. The waitress nodded and smiled politely.
Hector came over chuckling and introduced himself and the group.
“Oh, Hector, I didn’t see you there!” she screamed and gave him a big hug. Then, he and the waitress caught up on new dishes on the menu, recent countries visited, and family-life, as I drooled at the pasta dishes.
I was welcomed and hugged because of a t-shirt. It can take a long time to get assimilated to a new place. It takes years for the people to truly know you and let you in. I love that this relationship between local communities and G Adventures took years to grow and nurture.
As an introvert, I need that foundation to be laid because it is impossible to achieve that trust in a two-week vacation. As a traveler, I get to enhance that relationship while getting into the culture fast!
In two weeks, I ate 12 coconuts, rode a horse in the pouring rain, made empanadas, marveled at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest, hiked many rainforest miles, ran from monkeys, and snorkeled in the Pacific Ocean.
4. Travel in groups provides instant friends and resources.
One of the best things about group traveling is the people you meet. When I landed in San Jose last December, I had no idea who my roommate would be, or the people that I would spend time with for the next two weeks.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves: Our group bonded deeply! In the wise (ever-cliche) and timeless words of High School Musical, “We’re all in this together.”
Here’s another piece of the group bonding I didn’t anticipate: Resource sharing. In the frantic days before a trip, you will most likely forget something at home: Sunscreen, international chargers, and vitamins are all notorious for being left behind. Luckily, groups can lend each other such items until new ones can be purchased.
New group buddies can also help solve problems. On the third day, my eyes grew tired of squinting and I searched endlessly for my glasses. I could not even read my favorite genre of novel: restaurant menus.
To my incredible encouragement, some of the group members took turns telling me the dishes on the menus. Thankfully, at the wisdom of my roommate, I checked the bottom of my backpack, and found my glasses amidst forgotten crumbs. The power of group travel friends!
5. A good group travel organization helps you be an ethical traveler.
Advocating for young travelers is something that I strive to do every day. I think traveling to a new country should be a part of every high school education curriculum. A semester abroad can ignite problem solving skills, inspire building bridges across differences, and unearth the power of diversity to young people at the peak of adulthood.
As with all endeavors and cultural experiences, it can only be done through an ethical lens. One of my greatest fears when I go abroad is the possibility of being disrespectful to a community or misinterpreting their deals and values. And worse, translating my own cultural norms as their cultural norms.
I cannot overstate the importance of having a local guide: someone actively building a bridge between tourists and locals. A guide there to and laugh at your horrible Spanish, teach you how to make empanadas, and make informed decisions about excursion sites. Having local guides is one of the many ways that G Adventures respects and encompasses the importance of respecting communities.
Group travel is always an adventure within itself. I’ve met people who have expanded my mind with their travel stories and their walks of life: People who have inspired me in my travel path and have left me with unconventional wisdom about trains in India, tea in Nepal, and best scuba diving gears for the Galapagos.
Group travel also shapes you and take a part of these new friends with you on your next travels – you remember their wisdom, their cautious tales, and their thirst for knowledge.
I came home from Costa Rica exhausted from the overnight flight and a 4am Uber. But you know what? I’d do it all over again. For some of us, our first communities are our families — people who look like us, eat with us, and grow alongside us.
But group traveling is different. You get to build a temporary community of people who are fundamentally different than you. And that’s powerful. It takes courage to build such communities.
In fact, I’m gearing up for South East Asia with a new group of people that I would have never met in Boston. I’ll meet people from all over the world and get to learn their stories.
I can’t wait.
TT: Thanks so much, Steph! Now here’s the question…
Can teachers get grants and scholarships for educational tours?
The answer is a good one! There are actually a number of funding sources for group travel programs! Here are ideas:
1. The Fund for Teachers grant can provide up to $10,000 for teacher-created travel, including organized group tours like the one featured here! Just be mindful of when funding is awarded to balance it with payment timing.
Learn more about Fund for Teachers here.
2. A number of organizations provide funding for teacher-selected educational travel aligned with their aims. For example, The Institute of International Education (IIE) offers various funding, and Qatar Foundation International (QFI) provides two grants of up to $2,000 for teacher trips connected to the Middle East.
See a list here of Global Education scholarships.
3. In certain circumstances, it can be possible to raise the money yourself, knowing that professional development by travel is one of the most powerful ways for teachers to learn. Many teachers I’ve met report having good luck with community fundraising through online and in-person means.
Meanwhile, some schools or districts have budgets to give teachers stipends for educational travel that leads to curriculum. Finally, other teachers researched have picked up extra jobs (in person and remote) to earn and save funds. For example:
Explore how to teach English online to earn money.
Steph and I hope these resources and ideas are helpful for bringing the world closer to your embrace!
Readers, what questions or comments do you have? If you’re intrigued by this story, consider browsing this link featuring new GAdventures discounts, as there are some incredible deals each month.
Have you ever tried group travel? What was your experience like? Do share!