ACIS Pathfinder tours offer a unique travel experience. From the sites they see to the transportation they use, students on a pathfinder tour are immersed in a foreign culture. While tour managers and teachers guide the group, the focus on local travel customs offers high school students a glimpse at the kind of independence typically gained during a college study abroad. Recently, International Travel Consultant, Tricia Holda, authored a guest blog on her packing prowess before departing for a Pathfinder tour. Now that she’s had the chance to unpack, she gave us the inside scoop on her 9-day Pathfinder tour with an ACIS student group through France and Switzerland.
Hi Tricia, welcome back! Let’s dive right in to the details of your trip. What were some of the factors that made the Pathfinder experience unique from other ACIS tours you’ve experienced?
Tricia: The fact that the kids arrive in Europe and immediately begin to experience the local culture and lifestyle that an individual traveler would when visiting a friend in Europe, is fabulous. Taking public transportation from the airport to the hotel on arrival (with the help of their tour manager) is a really appropriate introduction to this off-bus adventure. It gives them immediate interaction with locals, and a look at how they commute in their daily lives.
Our ACIS Tour Manager was an excellent fit for a Pathfinder, as she had a different student from the group navigate us around the city each time we had to take the metro in Paris, using city and metro maps. This is another very unique aspect that the students LOVED that they would’ve missed on a traditional style tour. It gave them a sense of can-do independence to travel on their own in Europe one day.
They also really enjoyed taking trains between the countries we visited, as many of them had never been on a train before, and really enjoyed this European experience.
Train travel is a quintessential European experience, we love that the kids were able to experience it! What kinds of cultural connections did your group participate in during the trip? Any favorites?
Tricia: This group really enjoyed the Sketch Paris activity, rain or shine – and it was rain! Even the Group Leader and Assistant participated in this activity, that gave them all a wonderful way to really see Montmartre, via their local artist guide. It really turned on their creativity switches and they were happy to be able to keep their sketch books as a great memory of their time in France and Switzerland.
How would you describe the mix of activities, touring, and free time during the trip?
Tricia: A common misunderstanding among first-time group leaders is how free you actually are during “free time”. Free time is meant for freely exploring additional aspects of the city that are not planned into the itinerary. ACIS Tour Managers are always happy to accompany the group during free time if the group leader wishes, adding more local perspective and creative activities to help them to interact on a deeper level with the local culture. The students on this group very much appreciated time to also be on their own a bit to do shopping in the different cities, to buy French books and to order food in French. The mix of included activities and free time, as well as the time spent to travel between cities was very well-balanced.
What were some of the benefits enjoyed by traveling with a smaller group of students?
Tricia: The clear benefit of a small group is more personal interaction with the local tour manager and licensed guides, as well as more opportunities for the group leader to enrich the tour with a deeper academic focus based on the instruction he/she has carried out in the classroom, prior to the trip.
Additionally, the potential to customize the tour around the tailored interests of the particular group is a plus. Another group that did this same Pathfinder trip a few weeks before us was able to tweak their time in Lyon in order to include a visit to a local organization that they have a long-standing relationship with that is based in Lyon.
The smaller hotels and restaurants that are available to a smaller group also make the students feel a bit more connected to locals and one another.
It sounds like being a smaller group on a Pathfinder tour offers some fantastic perks! Did you notice any challenges?
Tricia: The challenges involved in this style of tour that are not found on a traditional touring bus itinerary—such as transporting their own luggage on trains and city buses and walking a great deal throughout the tour—actually proved to be this group’s favorite aspects. On some days, they walked 10+ miles, but on the days they walked less, they were looking for chances to walk MORE and exceed their previous number of steps (that they were all tracking closely on their iPhones.)
At the end of the trip, I asked the group: “If it was the same cost to include a bus in this tour, and go directly from the airport to your hotel, and have help with your bags throughout, what style of trip would you choose for your next trip?” I got an overwhelming “We would definitely travel on a Pathfinder again. We feel like we got to experience what it would be like to study abroad here and do this on our own!”
This sounds like a great group of students who really embraced the experience! What are the main things a teacher should know when considering a Pathfinder trip?
Tricia: The group leader should be very prepared for the amount of walking that is involved, primarily in Paris and other large cities on our Pathfinder tours. The students need to have the mentality of powering through, learning independence and a sense of figuring things out. Getting around on foot and in some cases by bike should be viewed as a treat and an advantage of this style of tour, so this is important to clarify with students before leaving. Proper FLAT shoes with cushioned soles are the most important must-pack item for this itinerary. A Pathfinder tour will not be enjoyable without very comfortable walking shoes.
Group leaders should have a trial run for packing skills on a Pathfinder tour. Half of the students on this tour said they’d over-packed and wished they’d packed less so they could, a) have only carry-on luggage, and b) save a bit of room for European purchases!
Flexibility is key…both in the mindset and in practice while on tour. When your trip is based on public transportation, a train or bus may be late or cancelled, and this is all part of reacting, planning and living like a local.
Thank you, Tricia!