The Challenges of Group Travel: A Planner’s View

Planning group travel is an interesting experience in coordinating the schedules and plans for people traveling with you as trip leader. I decided a decade ago to plan all travel on my own without using tour companies and other groups that can definitely simplify the work involved. Some people have openly questioned my sanity related to this particular approach to travel and I have some answers.

One of the most challenging parts of booking international travel are flights to and from a place. Staying up to date with costs of transportation is difficult, especially if you also have a full time job. In my case, the time I spend on watching flights and costs for flights takes up hours as I both budget tickets and plan travel. As I write this piece, I’m preparing to purchase tickets to Japan from New Mexico. On first thought, one might imagine that you could head to any one of a number of online sites and purchase tickets. Using sites like Orbitz or Expedia or Kayak is great to locate flight information because they aggregate all flights into a common interface. However, I cannot say strongly enough how risky it is to purchase flights from those web sites.

When purchasing flights from a site that is not associated with a specific airline opens travelers up to a huge number of risk factors. Flights changes, cancellations, and other unforeseen changes to flight planes becomes a real problem when tickets are purchased through a non-affiliated site. In one case years ago, I purchased tickets through one of these sites and when changes occurred, I was referred back to the site rather than to the airline involved. In effect, I had no leverage when trying to get home from international travel with my group. We were, effectively stuck in an airport until the site found a solution that cost us a small fortune. Simply put, using an airline’s web portal for purchasing flights is almost always the best course of action. Again in my case, I purchased tickets through United to Asia and when one leg of the flight was cancelled, they quickly offered options. While changes can wreck havoc on travel, having a reliable partner in the process does make things so much easier.

Planning housing in international destinations is so easy now, and finding a great location to stay is possible using the web. For travel to Asia, I always use Agoda as my tool to find hotels. Too, because of the widespread use of VRBO for home stays, I use that tool as a means of finding housing that is less like a hotel and more like a homestay. For example, for our Japan trip, we’ll be staying in VRBO affiliated homes in Tokyo and Kyoto. Those stays, we will all stay together in one location, sharing meals in a common eating area and preparing our own meals together.

Approaching international travel as less of a tourist experience and more of a cultural/historical experience is one of my quests in making international student travel unique. That means staying together and assigning people to cook meals is one of the more fun aspects of our trips. Negotiating the challenges of finding food in local and neighborhood grocery stores is both a fun experience and provides cultural interaction as students try to find the things they need to make a meal. Further, those one on one interactions with folks in a grocery store are some of the most common interactions we can have in a community. It’s so cool to see students find food, bring it back to a house, and prepare that food in a setting that is unusual for them. From my perspective it changes the ways in which we interact with the communities we visit.

Once your group is in the country, ensuring a good experience involves a lot of very careful attention to travel details like museum visits, train rides to community, singing karaoke, or riding bikes through city streets. The minutia of identifying where to go and what do to is time consuming. One thing that I do is avoid a lot of the locations that gather huge numbers of tourists. While some places, like Fushimi Inari are must see spots, finding places that are out of the way and offer an interesting perspective and is equally valuable. That work takes time and some actual experience in the country. Using a guide book to help plan out a trip is really helpful AND if you have never visited a country, taking a group there is terrifying. (no, really) Little things like the best way to get to a place can be a huge challenge if you have not visited a place. Just trying to negotiate transportation can be nerve wracking. In one case, I used Google Maps to to find a location in Tokyo that we all read about and wanted to visit. It was not well-marked and the directions had to follow. When we arrived at the address, the location was an Outdoor Store and not the place we were looking for. How could it go so wrong?!

Fushimi Inari, Summer 2018

As we finish the planning for the Japan trip this year, we are using every resource we have available and that includes student input. Students have lots of ideas about where to go and what to do. Using that knowledge makes the trip so much more interesting and less like a package tour. Too, we can change things on the fly, making decisions to drop stuff off of the agenda and quickly redirect our plans. Some of those moments, like searching out a “secret” ice cream shop is one of the kinds of small adventures that make trips like this one memorable. It really doesn’t have to be about seeing historical and cultural sites every day; it can be about doing small things that have experiential meaning in our lives. Maybe THAT joy….finding hidden places, is worth every bit of silliness that goes along with it. Could be THAT is the real adventure of travel in the world.

Preparation for travel to Japan

Traveling involves a whole series of steps and none are more important than understanding the people and places we will visit. We are guests in Japan and as such need to be attentive and mindful of the culture and practices of folks in the country. Our goal, over the next few weeks, is to become familiar with the history and culture of Japan, as much as possible, and to focus on learning some language and the best ways to interact with people. Yes, it’s true that a global culture is emerging in the world and, respectfully, it’s important to be aware of ways to be both compassionate and kind to those we meet.

In our first meeting this year, we discussed some of the history of the country, focusing on the complexities of life in Japan before World War II. The transformation of Japan between about 1868 and the present has been profound. It’s not to say that countries like the U.S. have not also seen these changes, and, in many ways, Japan is unique in the world in both what changed and what happened in the country. Attached and available is the presentation from the last meeting with some general information about changes in Japan. The presentation is meant as a very brief description of some of these changes. Keep in mind that the way Japanese people see their own history is quite different from the presentation provided. My advice is to search that information and learn about what Japanese folks think about their own past. For our group, we will present on recent Japanese society, post-WWI in March.

One of my favorite places in Japan is Ginkaku-ji not far from the Path of Philosophy. The temple grounds are a wonderful spot to enjoy the landscape design and the intentional ways in which temple grounds guide a pilgrim to contemplation.

The Path of Philosophy in the northern Higashiyama part of Kyoto immerses you in this contemplation as you walk past shrines and temples. Dotted along the path are vendors selling everything from stationary to snacks, and cats perched on walls and stairs.

The more technical side of preparation involves learning some language! Posted are the various pieces of information we talked about in the past. We will begin a more intensive language journey next meeting (February 8th) with some videos, images, and practice! We’ve recommended a few apps for building vocabulary and we’ve found one of the best to be Duolingo. It’s not great at creating context and providing a good understanding of sentence structure; however, it does do a good job of helping you build some vocabulary for the trip!

A few things to make sure YOU have before time gets away from us!

  1. Your Passport! You have to have at least six months left before expiration to travel. Please renew the passport NOW if you need to.
  2. COVID Vaccinations. Be up to date on the COVID vaccines. You must have had all boosters. Have a vaccination card with the updated information available for travel. It is not possible to arrive in Japan without all vaccinations.
  3. Carry-On Bag. I’m a BIG believer in using a carry-on bag verses a checked bag going to Japan. Yes, it’s limited in size AND you always know you have your stuff with you. We’ll discuss this detail in the next meeting. Check out THIS great web site about how to pack a carry-on for extended travel: One Bag Travel. I personally use the EBAG which is a minimalist bag with lots of possible features….you can see that bag here: EBAGs.

I will post more information, more regularly on this site to get ready for travel! In the meantime, check out any and all information about Japan including my favorite band Bump of Chicken.

May you be happy, may you be well!

Travel to Japan in 2023

After a lot of consideration about travel to Bhutan and Thailand, it’s pretty clear that the cost of that trip was far beyond the ability of families to pay the steep fees imposed by the Bhutan Tourism Council. I understand their approach and I want the best for Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. At the same time, it does mean that our school will not travel to Bhutan this year as a result of those changes.

What that DOES mean is that we are traveling to Japan in late June 2023. Our plan is to start in Tokyo, staying primarily in Asakusa, and then on to Kyoto, living for a week in a machiya near Gion.

Included now is the updated itinerary with some specific details about where we’re going and what we are doing. Like all of the trips I organize, we are in Japan using public transportation, staying in one location in each city and visiting sites, museums, and everything else in the region.

As we finalize details for travel, be sure to pass me a note with ideas you have about places to visit in Tokyo and Kyoto!

Be well, my friends, and watch this space for more information about the trip, preparations, and specific thoughts about spending time in Japan!

BIG Changes for Tourism in Bhutan

While the final work on the new Tourism Levy for 2022 is being completed, the biggest change that affects tourists around the world is the increase in the government excise of $200US per person per day. This ONE change signals an end to travel to Bhutan for many people. Simply put, with this new minimum daily cost added to all other costs including transportation, housing, food, and flights into Bhutan will bring daily costs in excess of $400US per day for a minimum package. That daily rate is very expensive compared to many Asian countries and make travel to Bhutan for my school groups practically impossible.

The desire to change the excise tax on tourists into Bhutan has a long history. For years the rate has been $65US per day for all travelers making the minimum daily costs roughly $200 in the low season, $250US in the high season for adults. Additional changes over the years have added $10US to $15/day as the needs of the country have changed. This most recent change practically doubles the cost of travel in Bhutan.

As the leader of school groups that have traveled to Bhutan since 2010, the changes will result in an end to group travel to Bhutan. To make this clear, from the United States, travel to Bangkok, the main launching point for a Bhutanese tour, costs roughly $1200 – $1500US RT from my location. Add to those costs nights stay in Bangkok, RT flights into Paro, a typical ten day trip in Bhutan, and various other costs in the country, the total price of travel to Bhutan would exceed $7000. Even for relatively wealthy US students, the costs for a school trip to Bhutan are unsustainable.

In our case, we will reorient our trips to East Asia to Thailand, India, South Korea, and Japan. To put the difference in costs into some perspective, a school trip before COVID to Japan for twelve days including all transportation, lodging, and food was $3800US per person.

As someone who has traveled to Bhutan many times and really has fallen in love with the people, the country, and the experiences, it’s hard to imagine that we cannot reasonably travel to the country in the future. While I understand the desire to improve the services, infrastructure, and the quality of the lives of people in Bhutan, I am not sure increasing the excise tax into the country makes sense in the short term. Maybe there are thousands of people who are both willing and able to visit Bhutan as a kind of exclusive experience for the very wealthy. I honestly and sincerely hope that the country will benefit from the changes to tourism in the coming years and that this new policy will demonstrate the wisdom of those who fashioned it. As it stands, our small school and community will not have the chance to see those changes first hand and maybe that is as it should be. Tourism is, in and of itself, a complicated and fraught system for Western travelers and for those people who encounter our groups. If nothing else, my hope is that Bhutan thrives even if I cannot be witness to that change. My concern is that these changes will reduce tourism and a stream of income for the Nation. Only time will tell.

Summer 2023 Travel is in the Planning Stage

If you are here then you know about the upcoming Bhutan / Japan trip for summer 2023. Because of COVID and all of the other changes in life and love, I’ll be organizing this trip as a carbon copy of my 2018 travels.

Our plan is to visit Bhutan and Japan, with a small piece of Thailand throw into the mix. We will adventure into villages, temples and shrines as we try to gain some cultural and social understanding of the people and places we will visit.

As we make our way to Asia, assuming all goes well, we will hit a few milestones along the way including a trip to the Bumthang Valley, a visit to the Orgyen Choling house in the Tang Valley, a float down the Mo Chu, and extensive time in the Dzongs of Western and Central Bhutan. Overall, my hope is that those who travel with me will find an adventure and an experience that will transform hearts and minds….a tall order, indeed.

From Bhutan our trip takes us to southern Japan and the former capital of the country, Kyoto. Renting two machiya, we will make food for ourselves bought at a local grocery, bike to temples and shrines in this expansive city, and learn about the history and culture of Japan by seeing the sites. We’ll make our way to Kinkaku-ji and Gingaku-ji temples, Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari, the small but beautiful bamboo forest, followed by time on our own wandering the city.

I remember distinctly my experience planning this trip for the summer of 2020 only to face the scourge of COVID as it swept across the globe. I never imagined the virus would spread to all of these places I’ve known and I hope that the people that I encountered years ago are doing well. I’m particularly excited to visit my favorite coffee shop in Kyoto, Sagan.

So, this blog site will host more musings on the travel, details about the trip, and a few new stories of previous days spent in Bhutan and Japan. You’ll see too a few new photos from the archives as I go about updating these pages as a way to incorporate stories and ideas. Finally, you’ll find the earlier trips that did not make it to this blog posted here in their full glory.

So, hang tight my friends and get ready for one of the most wonderful experiences of your young life. In the meantime,

May you be happy, May you be well.

Travel Changes on the way to Bhutan

Looking at the international travel landscape, things look challenging. The spread of COVID across the globe has changed the way we can move in the world. My plan, originally, was to travel first to Thailand and then on to Bhutan. As it turns out, this plan may not be possible.

Right now, the best possible way to get to Bhutan from the United States may be through Delhi, India. The flights to India are significantly cheaper than to Thailand, and Bhutanese airlines have more flight choices out of Delhi. Right now, the price difference is more that $700US. That could mean that we will need to adjust our itinerary to stop in India instead of Thailand, and make arrangements with my contacts there.

The benefit for those of us interested in traveling to Asia in Summer 2022 is that we can adjust to changing circumstances. Also, airlines are willing to offer refunds for trips that get cancelled for COVID. As a result, we have the unique ability to decide on changes to travel as things develop.

Further, should India, Thailand, or Bhutan NOT open to travel next summer, we have options. I do expect Japan to reopen and we can pivot to Japan, a trip I planned to take in the summer of 2023. As things change, we can monitor and develop plans based on conditions in the countries we are considering.

I will post TWO alternative plans for travel this summer, relying on my friends in various locations in Asia. Honestly, I look forward to the possibility of travel this summer and hope for all of us that we can again see our friends around the world.

Travel to Bhutan and Thailand, Summer 2022

After years trapped in COVID isolation, it’s time to get back into the world. In the Summer of 2022, we are headed to Bhutan and Thailand for a remarkable cultural experience. Our travels will take us into the heart of Thailand and Bhutan. We will spend about two weeks traveling in these countries, doing service projects in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary and in Bhutan visiting a school for some cultural exchange. Our trip will travel in the first week of June, leaving Albuquerque for Los Angeles and then on to Bangkok. We will spend a few days in Thailand before flying to Bhutan for our meander through the country. As is the case with this trip, all planning, flights, housing, and etc is in-house, meaning that we work together to design a trip that both allows for remarkable experiences and can fit with our collective interests and schedules. A trip itinerary is posted on the site and everything is flexible from the dates we travel to some of the stops along the way.

Namgay, talking to students about the Trongsa Dzong

Is It Safe to Travel to Asia?

The short answer to the question about travel to Asia is yes, it is and it will be. Take a look at some of the links to news about COVID in the countries we will visit. You will notice that Thailand and Bhutan took the outbreak seriously from the beginning, ensuring that the COVID would have a limited impact. In Bhutan, the adult population is vaccinated to about 93% of the total adult population. By the time we arrive, the population over the age of 5 will be vaccinated.

To travel we will all have to be vaccinated and have a negative COVID test prior to travel. In addition, we may face multiple COVID tests on the trip itself. What I know is that this trip will be among safest international trips you can take.

What Will We Experience?

On this website you will find many stories about travel to Thailand, Bhutan, and Japan. Read through student comments and ideas, look at the photos and imagine yourself on a short hike to a temple in Bhutan or a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Each story you read gives you a glimpse into this trip of a lifetime.

After the football match on a field of mud.

In brief, we will visit museums, temples, and shrines. We will meet people from all walks of life and interact with these folks in so many ways. You’ll buy street food in Bangkok, hike to one of the most iconic temples in the world, sit in meditation in a scared space, and play games with students in Trongsa, Bhutan.

Through it all, you will find a travel experience unlike any other. As your guide throughout the trip, I will introduce you to the people and places we visit and, along the way, you’ll have the chance to venture out on your own.

Ultimately, our goal is to get to know the people and places we visit and not just tour a place. I can promise that you will discover something about yourself that will last forever.

The Tiger’s Nest

How Do I Join This Trip?

Email me and I can provide you will more details, information, and ideas. I’ll provide a cost breakdown, schedule and other details you will need to know prior to deciding on travel.

Bhutan Tourism: The Changing Landscape

I’ve traveled to Bhutan many times over the past eleven years, taking student groups to the country as an experience unlike any other in the modern world. These trips have been transformative for many travelers and continuing such travel is my goal for the coming years (assuming, of course, a break in the COVID crisis).

Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing sweeping changes to the way tourism operates within the country as people consider the role of tourism in Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan operates a minimum daily rate for tourists from countries outside of the SAARC nations. Essentially, tourists to Bhutan contract with a local company and pay a minimum standard daily rate for travel. This rate includes housing, transportation in the country, food, and the services of a licensed tour guide.

As a traveler to Bhutan and the leader of student groups to the country, the existing structure works well for travelers on a specific budget. I can state, clearly, what the cost of travel will be in Bhutan, and students and their parents can manage the costs based on very clear guidelines. For students traveling on a tight budget, the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) serves the needs of my group well and allows us to plan accordingly. Further, in my years traveling in Bhutan, the quality of service, lodging, and the like have exceeded the needs of my travelers, making the experiences in Bhutan life changing and exceptional.

These kinds of exceptional experiences are the goal of a movement in Bhutan that encourages sustainable travel. Karma Tshering, the founder of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society has urged lawmakers in the country to maintain the high value, low volume approach to travel, ensuring that the MDPR stays in place and serves the needs of all of the people employed by the tourism industry. Tshering has said, “It was evident that if planned and implemented in consultation with the local people and other relevant partners, tourism has the potential to offer a symbiotic relationship in promoting socio-economic development, cultural preservation and biodiversity conservation. Tourism is not a single sector responsibility – as it used to be perceived by people in my country – but a multi-dimensional concept which requires constant communications, collaboration, and partnerships.” (https://sustainability-leaders.com/interview-karma-tshering-bhutan/).

Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing a dramatic shift in the way both money is collected and the elimination of the minimum daily rate. The new proposal states that tourists would pay a standard $325 US plus an additional $30 US per day in country for a 14 day tour. This change represents a decline in the real dollars charged for travel in Bhutan. Effectively, this would impact the lives of individuals who are part of the tourism industry. Further, the reduced price will transform the high value, low volume approach and encourage high volume travel changing the very nature of the industry and transforming Bhutan from a selective destination to just another place to check off the bucket list.

My concern for the Bhutanese is that such changes to the tourism industry will impact religious, cultural, historical, and environmental concerns not to mention the lives of people relying on income from tourism. Driving down the cost of travel in Bhutan may appear to be a way to increase overall income, and would result in declines in all of the areas I mentioned. It doesn’t take much effort to see how high volume tourism impacts society and culture in nation-states in Asia. That effect can be traumatic and determental to the people who live in these areas.

High volume tourism is not unique to Asia and examples of such tourism in countries around the world and attest to its profound impact on local culture and customs. Living in New Mexico in the United States, I can attest to the changes high volume tourism has had on everything from infrastructure (roads, bridges, bike paths) to the lives people lead. For example, in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico a transient community that ebbs and flows with tourism in the city alters the cultural context of the community. As a result, a kind of Disneyland quality emerges that whitewashes the cultural story of the people and the place, creating a mythological representation of the history, culture, and people who live in the area. Culture is sold in trinkets and souvenirs, and these changes alter the very nature of the place. In this way, institutions like religion become a commodity, as the original Spanish Catholic Church is sold as a tourist attraction, stripping the deep spirituality into a picture postcard. Millions come to the city to be awed by the architecture and a glossy, magazine style view of the city.

My concern, then, is that changing the well-established structure of the tourism industry will fundamentally alter the nature of culture and society. Of course, some of these kinds of changes can benefit Bhutan and some people. It is my belief, however, that such changes result in the society loosing control over their culture as the very soul of the country is sold as a commodity on the open market. While change is inevitable and we all face impermanence in the lives we live, maintaining cultural integrity is something worth fighting for in this age of tourism and the quick sale. I will be interested to see how Bhutan balances the many social, cultural, and economic challenges it faces, and hope, for the sake of the Bhutanese people, that these changes come with clarity of vision about what the future may hold.

May you be happy, May you be well.

Still Hiding from COVID while Dreaming of Bhutan

It’s always something when the world changes directions and sends your life reeling from the shift. That’s where we are, I guess, wondering at the world we are in and imagining life outside of a pandemic.

From that perspective, I’m posting a series of my favorite photos from Bhutan. These images bring me joy and hopefully, will bring you the same kind of wonder. If you are planning a future trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, look no further than my friends at Illuminating Tours. Namgay and his guides are no less than exceptional in every way and will create a trip for you that is life changing.

Sunset in the Bumtang Valley
Haa Valley Chorten
Soccer at the Temple of the Divine Madman
Waiting on a Prayer
On the Road to Trongsa
Punakha Rainbow
Sleeping in Bumthang
Friends in Bumthang, 2010
On the way to the Temple of the Divine Madman
Mugging for the Camera in Paro Dzong
…this image speaks for itself…
Superman
Playing the fun game of “Where is Evan”!

Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Hiding from a Virus

As plans often do, they are upended and changed as a result of events beyond our control. The ravages of the COVID-19 virus have changed the face of the world, and, in many ways, the way we think about our connections. In some ways, the virus reveals that we, as humans, are more connected than we can imagine. Our shared sacrifice if a testimony to human connectedness…the idea that we are, in so many ways, a part of a single, grand community.

While it may in fact be too soon to begin planning for next summer and travel to Asia, I am hopeful for the opportunity the future holds for us. If we are allowed to travel and the situation is safe for the places and the people we will meet, then we will travel to Bhutan next summer.

Toward that end, we are leading two trip to Bhutan and Asia in the summer of 2021. These trips are quite different in scope and approach while at the same time sharing some of the best of what we can provide as an experience for students, parents, and those interested in traveling to Asia.

The trips to Asia in 2021 will include a cultural and historical tour of Bhutan and Japan as well as a trek to the sacred heart of the Thunder Dragon in Bhutan. The details of the two trips can be found in the links above; both offer an inside look at Bhutan from two perspectives: one as a series of cultural interactions and the other as a trek into the Himalayas.

More information will be provided as we enter the Fall and access the situation in the world. The safety of our travelers and of the people we meet are of utmost importance to us all. Please know that we will keep you informed with specifics as the situation develops. In the meantime, consider travel to Asia in the summer of 2021. It will be a trip unlike any other you have encountered.