Why Our Family Avoids Group Tours

If you’ve been following the ongoing “2012 Road Trip Photos” series and/or the original “2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go” series that the former supplements, you may recall one of my descriptions of our family’s stubborn decision to view Dinosaur Ridge independently and at our leisure, without benefit of shuttle bus or tour guide. As described in Day Three of the Notes:

…we made the mistake of taking a self-guided walk up the ridge rather than taking the optional shuttle bus with a helpful, informed tour guide.

Without the bus or the guide, our experience amounted to an uphill one-mile walk to view one set of dinosaur footprints, several examples of variegated stratification, some plant fossil imprints, and one or two very tiny, singular fossils embedded in the cliff walls, no full sets of skeletons. After missing out on whatever the tour guide told the paying customers, we found the subsequent one-mile downhill walk back to the car a little disappointing. The healthier, better equipped bicyclists zipping past us up and down the route each added just a few grains of salt to our wounds. That salt was then washed away when the rain returned for a few minutes. This was not our finest hour.

As recounted with the Photos:

No cars are allowed up the ridge except the official Dinosaur Ridge shuttles. The shuttle ride is free, as is their tour guide who elaborates on any points of interest and keeps you focused on the marvels you’d hoped to witness. If you’d prefer to chart your own destiny, pedestrians and bicyclists are permitted to traverse the ridge as they see fit. Our family policy is we prefer to set our own pace and avoid trapping ourselves in other tourists’ schedules or paces. In some situations this can be advantageous if you know what you’re doing and have all the same exhibit access that the tour groups do.

In this situation, it meant a stubborn one-mile walk uphill… Open highway plains to the left of us, rough terrain to the right.

I chose not to expand too much on that thought at length in either entry, but I was reminded of it, and of our family policy in general, by a series of incidents that occurred over the past twenty-four hours.

For the sake of protecting the innocent and guilty alike, we’ll note for the record that this happened to, uh, a friend of mine. Yeah. Let’s call him Notme. Pretend it’s an Eastern European name, like “Latka” or “Balki”. His name is certainly not “Mary Sue” or anything. If you mention The Family Circus to Notme, he’ll give you such a harsh look.

Notme and his wife were privileged to participate in a one-day group outing to Chicago. Two charter buses would pick the group up in the morning, drop them off at a certain time and place, allow them to roam freely of their own recognizance, pick them up at a later time in the same place, then deliver them to their original starting point by a certain time. This was all planned in accordance with standard group outing procedure. The total price for Notme and wife to attend was cheaper than the gas and parking fees would’ve been if they’d driven themselves to Chicago for the day. Some of the other attendees were Notme’s acquaintances. Notme found this bargain hard to refuse. Notme usually prefers to do his own driving, and his family has a policy about not ceding control of their itinerary or transportation arrangements to others, but this bargain represented too sweet a temptation, especially since it would allow Notme and Mrs. Notme to spend quality time together in an exciting, vibrant locale.

The time in Chicago itself was fun. I mean, I’m told it was fun. Notme and wife visited two museums they’d never seen before, tried new restaurants, and took photos they hope to share with readers in the near future. The traveling portions of the day were less fun.

As travel entertainment for the first leg of the trip, attendees were cordially invited to play Bingo. Notme and his wife politely declined to participate. Notme lost count of how many rounds were played — somewhere between twenty and three thousand. Bingo went on for miles and miles. Later rounds required players to make pretty shapes to win, not just dull straight lines. Challenges grew increasingly more ornate as gameplay continued. Notme didn’t begrudge the majority their enjoyment and togetherness, but found it hard to concentrate on individual activity apart from the group, such as conversing with his wife or catching up on several hours of lost sleep from the night before.

On the way to Chicago, the two buses approached their first tollbooth. The first bus passed through one of the easy-pass gates without incident. Notme’s bus was stopped at the gate because it apparently lacked proper credentials, functioning equipment, or whatever magical quality should’ve allowed quick passage. After a minute or so of fussing and fuming, the driver placed the bus in park. exited the vehicle, and took several attempts to pay for passage with a debit card instead. Eventually the machines relented and allowed Notme’s bus to proceed. The first bus had been patiently waiting by the roadside for its crippled partner to catch up.

At the next tollbooth, despite the problem at the first tollbooth, both buses approached the easy-pass gates. The first bus again passed with flying colors. Notme’s bus again was barred from crossing to the other side, like a rejected joke chicken. The driver spent a minute in denial, attempted to pay with a debit card, then had to spend several minutes negotiating with a live attendant from one of the Cash Only booths because this particular booth no longer accepted debit cards. The driver had to ask the leader of the group outing to pay the toll. Notme was a little incredulous at this, and was afraid to look behind him to see how many other vehicles were waiting their turn. Once the cash payment was processed, eventually Notme’s bus was granted entry, again catching up with the gracious first bus.

At the third and final tollbooth, the driver again attempted egress through an easy-pass lane, somehow expecting a different result. The only difference between the second and third booths was in the gender of each respective put-upon cashier. Otherwise, once again: failure to appease the easy-pass technology, failure to complete the mandatory transaction without intervention, and appreciable tolerance from the first bus. Notme’s tour group eventually arrived at their destination, albeit with time shaved off their itinerary.

In the evening, pickup went as scheduled. Both buses arrived on time, as did all tour participants. Both buses took off on time. However, in order to avoid the tollbooth issues, both drivers agreed to use I-94 for the return trip to avoid tolls, instead of the toll-aholic I-90. The buses apparently rely on a buddy system that strongly recommends they stay together through thick and thin. This route would add extra minutes to the trip, but not nearly as many minutes if Notme’s deficient bus had had to rely on the kindness of beleaguered attendants once again.

The first bus found its way to I-94 of the driver’s own accord. Notme’s bus was separated from the first bus by an extra-length red light, so the driver was left to navigate the new path solo. The driver drove the following approximate path to I-94:

1. From the loading zone on the south end of the John Hancock Center (Chestnut Street), turned left onto Michigan Ave.
2. Turned left onto East Superior Street.
3. Turned right onto the North Lake Shore Drive local portion, which does not immediately connect to the express portion.
4. Turned right onto East Ontario Street.
5. Turned right onto North McClurg Street.
6. Turned right onto East Erie Street.
7. Turned right onto the North Lake Shore Drive local portion, which still did not immediately connect to the express portion.
8. Turned right onto East Ontario Street.
9. Turned right onto North St. Clair Street.
10. Turned right onto East Superior Street.
11. Turned right onto the North Lake Shore Drive local portion, which looked exactly as unwelcoming as it did the first time.
12. Turned right onto East Ontario Street.
13. Turned right onto North Fairbanks Court.
14. Turned right onto Chicago Avenue.
15. Finally turned right onto the express portion of North Lake Shore Drive, which was the Yellow Brick Road that would lead to I-94.

That’s more than three full loops completed within the same quarter-mile section of town. Notme counted. It wasn’t until after step eleven that the driver contacted the commander of the first bus for assistance, after which time the day was saved. The first bus was nowhere in sight, but its driver’s help was vastly appreciated by those aboard Notme’s bus.

Eventually Notme’s bus discovered I-94 and was on its way. For return-trip entertainment, since darkness precluded any more Bingo variations, riders were treated instead to a movie. Again, changing names in the interest of protecting the innocent or guilty, let’s say this movie starred Academy Award Winner Norman Narrator and Academy Award Winner Rasp Mutterson. The two men’s characters spent the whole movie feeling very sick, and consequently whispered or growled most of their lines. Unfortunately Notme doesn’t have the best hearing and could hardly discern any of their dialogue, as it was drowned out by talking passengers, the A/C system, and the bus engine. The volume could not be turned up any further because it would disturb some riders. Notme was not excited about the movie in the first place, but was disappointed that he was physiologically unable to exercise the option of joining the group activity, except by following along with the pictures, which were mostly upset talking heads.

Early portions of the movie were also drowned out by an animated discussion between the driver and several passengers, few of whom could agree on which of the three available A/C settings should be in effect: Refrigerator Cold, Nursing-Home Hot, or Cut Off Air Supply. The driver pulled rank and stuck with Refrigerator Cold. The collective body heat and group oxygen consumption would later nullify this effect anyway.

Several miles later, everyone was surprised to discover the first bus parked in the I-94 breakdown lane, as if once again patiently awaiting its poor sibling’s arrival. This was not the case.

While Notme’s bus had been playing loop-de-loop in Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood, the first bus had been coasting ably along I-94 West, up until the moment that another car sideswiped it, knocked off its own fender, and sped away hit-‘n’-run style. The first bus was parked because it was awaiting the arrival of a police officer to process and file the necessary paperwork for such an incident in accordance with local laws and the drivers’ job requirements. Notme’s bus had no problem catching up with the first bus. It parked alongside and waited patiently, just as the first bus had done for it in kind.

Several eternities later, required papers were completed and both buses were on their way at last, arriving back home considerable time later than planned or hoped. By this time, Notme was bitter. Notme doesn’t like being bitter, and is having trouble sleeping once again because of it.

This is why our family prefers to be control freaks about their travel arrangements, and usually eschews guided tours or group transportation. We prefer to man our own vehicle. We like adjusting our travel environment to our needs or wants. We like that our decision-making committee is small and tightly knit. We absolutely love determining our own schedule. Best of all, I like that when something goes wrong, I can take responsibility for it myself and correct it myself, rather than having others to blame and resent.

This particular group excursion is an annual event. Sometimes the destination is Chicago; sometimes it’s other nearby places. When the next opportunity is provided, who will be attending?

Probably Notme.

4 responses

  1. Reading this post on a glorious morning in Italy where last night we had an amazing walking tour with a personal guide. Happily walked passed buses loaded with people Notme. We’re so with you on that whole group tour thing. Ciao!


    • Our first stroll through downtown Chicago a few years ago was with a personal guide, too — a suburban friend who guided us well through the train system, as well as assorted nooks and crannies. If only we could impose on her every time we’re in the area!


    • I struggle with group experiences in general. I feel as though I ought to get out of the house more and engage other humans, but when a comedy of errors such as this one occurs, it’s really tough to convince myself that the compromises are worth it.


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