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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
What exactly is chaos theory? A branch of mathematics that studies long-term change, which is sensitive to initial conditions, so that small initial changes cause great differences long-term.
I often feel this is a fair explanation for the long process of planning and participating in an organized tour. And from the letters that I've received, chaos can plainly be the result if it is not properly prepared.
An organized tour - either from your travel agent, a wholesaler, your synagogue or close friends - is designed to take some of the hassle out of traveling. An itinerary is designed, an airline selected, a tour guide chosen and a group of like-minded individuals converge upon a destination.
Keep in mind that an organized tour is far different to a package, where you simply have a flight, sometimes an airport transfer and a hotel. On an organized tour, both the tour guide and any local guide accompany you throughout your journey, hopefully sharing insights on local cultures, taking you to places that you might not reach if traveling independently, and in many instances telling you exactly when and where to dine.
In general, participating on an organized tour will be more costly than traveling on your own. You're underwriting someone to accompany you throughout.
It sounds wonderful, in theory: No more hassles about where you're sleeping. No arguments with your spouse about what you're going to see. No need even to worry about a wake-up call; the tour leader will make sure you get woken up quite early. Hopefully time is allocated to support the local economy through shopping.
But what will make or break your tour is how organized it really is.
There are so many components when building an itinerary for a group tour that are not under one's control: airline strikes, surly hotel staff, poor weather, the bus breaking down...
The hardest part of the puzzle is the human element. Traveling with a group of strangers can be a challenging experience. When possible, we urge clients to travel with someone they know. Be it a friend or a spouse, a child or a parent, it makes for a far easier trip if you've got at least one person whom you're comfortable with.
Still, that's not a prerequisite, and to miss out on exploring a new country is a pity. Singles should ask to share a room if money is tight or choose the single supplement option if privacy is important, but do take the plunge and enjoy the adventure.
By nature, on any group, factions develop. Things can get cliquey, but real, long-lasting friendships can be made as well.
There's always the garrulous person, regaling you with stories of previous trips, filling the quiet time with jokes and keeping the group's spirits afloat. Invariably, there's the complainer, too: His room is too small; why isn't this synagogue on the itinerary?; the bed is too soft.
The conductor of this orchestra is the tour guide. He or she must have the patience of Job, a broad smile, a repository of tools to utilize on any occasion and a firm hand. In short, a travel professional.
What about your role? Be the discerning customer.
There are innumerable organized tours to every imaginable place: Theater tours of London; kosher tours of South Africa; you can retrace the Silk route in Uzbekistan, or explore Antarctica. Want an outdoor adventure tour of Kenya? A hot air balloon tour designed for kids of bar/bat mitzva age? The list is endless.
So you've done your homework, and you've decided that touring Mongolia's ruins is best done with an organized tour. Okay, now see who's organizing the tour. While I applaud originality, I'm hesitant to recommend a company that's doing it for the first time. Those operators with experience tend to get the best guides and have the highest number of return customers.
Next, read the program - carefully. Find out what's included and what is optional. Avoid a tour that lists more options than the basics. See how many meals are included, especially with kosher tours. Locate the hotels you'll be staying at, and check them out. (One good Web site we tell clients about is www.tripadvisor.com where real people write subjective assessments of hotels.) Make sure that if the hotel is listed, for example, as being in Moscow, that it's not actually 70 kilometers outside the city limits. (Hotels on an organized tour can be outside city limits, provided there's a tour bus at your disposal and you won't spend hours in traffic.)
Ask questions, especially of people who have participated on similar tours in the past, and your tour will leave you with great memories for years to come.
The next Travel Adviser column will deal with a reader's complaint about a tour to Italy - comic to read about, horrific if you were a participant.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.
For questions and comments, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.