Two friends recently returned from a three-week whirlwind tour of Europe to say the highlight of their trip was bumping into someone from their tour bus while shopping.
I thought that was sad. Why bother to leave home if you most enjoy the company of fellow Americans while traveling?
If you're the type of traveler who seeks to learn and appreciate another country's culture up close, there's a different approach: an "Untour." It mixes the freedom of independent travel with the security of a guided tour.
Untourists can visit 10 countries and 24 destinations throughout Europe and two North American destinations - New York City and Quebec City. Year-round destinations include Switzerland, Holland, German castles, and Greece.
I chose to live in an apartment in central Switzerland for 14 days, not just seeing sights, but really learning about the area and its people.
Untours, a Pennsylvania-based company, handled most of the planning of the trip. After I selected a property from the website, an efficient staff member carefully helped me determine the most convenient and economical air and ground transportation. I received a floor plan of my apartment and a simple map, which showed its location relative to the train station.
The apartment, round trip airfare from New York City , a second-class Swiss rail pass for two weeks and the services of a local Untourist representative was $2,200 per person (based on double occupancy).
The Swiss rail pass included free (or reduced) travel on the entire terrific Swiss transportation network: trains, buses, lake steamers, mountain cable cars and trams.
I had a magnificent view of the snow-capped Alps from my kitchen table, and my pleasant landlady encouraged me to pick fresh vegetables and berries in the garden. Best of all, it was a 10-minute walk through the hay fields to the train.
Before I left home, I received extremely useful Untour guidebooks describing day trips, hikes for all ability levels, and other activities that were easily accessible from my apartment.
A local representative met our group at the airport in Zurich with detailed directions to our various destinations. Each apartment's refrigerator was stocked with coffee, bread, jam, eggs, cheese and juice for breakfast.
The following morning a group orientation session offered helpful suggestions about what to do and how to do it. It was most important to become proficient at reading the train, post bus and steamship schedules that were so conveniently linked together.
Our group included many retired professional couples, some female friends traveling together, a young couple, a family with young children, and family members who occupied two apartments in the same village. I was the only one traveling alone.
During the next two weeks, it was a quick and easy commute by train from any of our nine neighboring villages to join several optional Untour group events: a visit to the woodcarving center in Brienz; the flea market in the medieval town square of Thun; and a walk through the mountainside community of Hasliberg, surrounded by the tranquil sound of cowbells tinkling in the meadows. Each of us set our own tour agenda.
"What I appreciate most is that every day is not a forced march, " said Jane Knox, an untourist from Pittsburgh.
One Sunday I attended an all-day regional festival to cheer for the my home wrestling team of Giswil. (Wrestling is the Swiss national sport).
Another Sunday, two cable cars took me to the highest mountain peaks where a group of yodelers and Alpine horn blowers provided music for an outdoor mass.
In addition to offering a wealth of suggestions for local day trips, our Untourist "Dream Books" provided useful information for many overnight train trips, including the popular panoramic Glacier and Bernina Expresses.
On the last night, we all gathered for a festive meal and party at a village Bahnhof (railroad depot) restaurant, followed by a spirited sing-along and alpine horn blowing contest.
Joan Herriges, from San Rafael, California said , "My husband and I have made wonderful friends here in the village of Sachseln because we've rented the same chalet nine times. Although I have traveled worldwide, I always return to the Swiss Alps to renew my spirit."
"Untours is part of a tourism movement that makes sense," said its president and founder, Hal Taussig. "We need the joy of cooking paella and drinking sangria with Spanish villagers. We need to make friends with Parisian bakers and Vietnamese cyclo drivers. We need to know and appreciate our neighbors on this planet like never before."
IF YOU GO
Visit www.untours.com or call 888-868-6871