A couple weeks ago, I deliberately embarked on what I would normally consider a nightmare method of travel – 10 days with 40 strangers and a fixed itinerary.  My entire travel life, I’ve been avoiding trips like this, and for the past four years, my full time job has been promoting the exact opposite type of experience. I ended up having a great time, but ultimately it just made me better appreciate the off-the-beaten path, authentic travel that we work to make more accessible.

Jack near the Sea of Galilee

Lookout near the Sea of Galilee

There’s a non-profit called Birthright that sends young people with Jewish heritage on a free trip to Israel. Their implicit goal is basically to get the next generation to support Israel, since many young people are losing touch with their Jewish roots and Israel is small and pretty much consistently under attack (literally and politically). My dad’s side of the family is Jewish, so I signed up for the trip in February and didn’t really think about it again until the week before I left, when they sent us the itinerary and connected us with the other members of the trip.

Every minute of every day accounted for, in a group of 40 people. It’s downright unforgivable to complain about a free ten day trip to Israel, but my last few international trips have involved things like riding a motor scooter around Bali without a map and backpacking solo in mostly rural parts of South America for four months, so the rigid format made me a little uncomfortable.

That said, I began to see the benefits of this type of travel pretty quickly. While being herded around and told what to do all day feels obnoxiously like summer camp, it is also completely mindless, which is relaxing. No planning, no scrambling to find a hostel bed at 10pm in a strange city – just follow the guide, take pictures, and chat with the other participants.

Walking through Jerusalem

Herded through Jerusalem

The tour bus was also refreshing. No waiting on the side of the highway for two hours in order to catch a too-full, dilapidated, 1970s-era school bus to the next destination. Just get on the bus and aim an air-con vent at my face. I didn’t even have to wrap my backpack strap around my leg to prevent it from getting stolen.

I was also fortunate to have an engaged, mature, and fun-loving group. Rather than detract from the overall travel experience, the people in my group enhanced it significantly and I’m excited to potentially travel with some of them again in the future.

There were, of course, drawbacks. I felt the pang of annoyance most acutely when we were given just 30 minutes of free time to explore Jerusalem between guided tours around the city. I absolutely loved the old alleys and tall, tan walls of the old quarters and could have easily spent an entire day just wandering. Thirty minutes just doesn’t allow for proper exploring – not even close.

I also couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing out on some excellent food. We ate most meals in the hotels, buffet-style, with sometimes hundreds of other people (there were a lot of other Birthright trips going to the same spots at the same times). Again, I’m not complaining about free food on a free trip, just pointing out that it’s difficult to eat authentic while trying to accommodate the taste and schedule of a large group.

Israel

Sunrise over Masada

Ultimately, the trip was a great introduction to a beautiful and historically-rich country, but my lasting impression is that I can’t wait to go back for the type of travel we promote at Keteka – community-based adventure travel. There are a lot of benefits to fixed-itinerary group travel, but in order to really get in touch with a country’s people, adventures, and culture, it’s important to get lost, eat dinner in somebody’s kitchen, and otherwise go as local as you can.

Hopefully soon, we’ll be able to offer some of those authentic experiences in Israel right here, but for now, check out what we have in Panama.