10 July 2015

Italy and Switzerland Tour 2015

Italy and Switzerland Tour 2015

This year we had another very successful tour! This tour marked my 8th tour and it was one of the most successful yet!  On this customized tour, we visited Lugano and Bellinzona in Switzerland and then we were off to Italy to visit Milan, Parma, Florence, Sarteano and Rome.  

I chose Lugano and Bellinzona because in this canton of Switzerland, they speak Italian and so it was completely relevant for my students.  Crossing the border from Italy into Switzerland was as easy as going through a toll booth in America! Once across, we were so excited to explore.  Our hotel, the Hotel Walter Au Lac could not have been more inviting!  It was right on Lake Lugano and had stunning views.  Almost all of us had balconies overlooking the lake!
The location was about as central as you could get and made it easy for us to explore the area right away.  There was a park nearby and the students even got to go on the lake in paddle boats!  Nearby, we found a funicular that would take you to the top of Monte Bre but we were not able to go to the top because of time constraints.  However, the initial ride (part of the way) was free and even gave a beautiful view! 
The next day, we were off to visit the three castles of Bellinzona.  They were incredible and offered some breathtaking views!  If you are going to be in Northern Italy, near Milan, I highly suggest you cross the border into Switzerland and enjoy!
Leaving Switzerland, we headed back into Italy towards Milan. In Milan, we visited the Duomo and even went to the top!  Make sure you wear good shoes and are ready to climb a lot of stairs!  The views from the top are worth it.  Plus, it lets you get an even better view of the Madonnina statue on the top of the church.  We visited the famed Teatro La Scala Opera house and the Castello Sforza, where the kids even had time to take a break from sightseeing and play soccer, right on the lawn behind the castle! 
On our way out of Milan, heading towards the Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence, we made a pit stop in Parma.  Parma is the home of prosciutto and of course, parmigiano reggiano cheese! I asked our tour director, Paolo, if he could arrange for us to see how the cheese was made and we were able to stop and get a tour (and buy a ton of cheese!) 

After we sampled the cheese and bought it, we headed into town to check out a local market and eat pizza.  I couldn't help but get my pizza with prosciutto di Parma
After eating, we were on the road again towards Florence.  I hadn't been to Florence in years and was excited to be able to show my students everything that Florence has to offer and to make them walk all the way up to the Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy a panoramic view of the city and then up even more stairs to San Miniato al Monte.  Although they were exhausted, everyone agreed that it was well worth it!  The next day, we took a walking tour with a local guide and while she was very good and informative, my students couldn't help but comment that I practically did the same tour for them the day before, why did we even need her! Maybe next time, we'll skip the local guide and I can step in!  

We said Ciao to Florence and headed south to Rome.  On our way, we made a stop in a town called Sarteano. I had read about this town a while ago, remembering that they had found some very interesting finds dating back to the Etruscans.  The Archaeological Museum of Sarteano is closed on Mondays, but somehow, we were able to get a private visit!  The museum had many Etruscan artifacts, including  many items related to their burial rituals. After we toured the museum, our guide took us out into the fields to visit the actual tombs of the Etruscans! We were lucky to be able to visit one where they had found some original artwork in the tomb.  This particular tomb is known as the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot or Tomba della Quadriga Infernale.  This was an amazing opportunity for us. 

 After our visit, we ate in a local restaurant, La locanda dei tintori.  We had a special tasting menu that included two different types of pasta (one was their homemade pici - you must try these!) , a few different types of grilled meats and salad. It was arguably one of the best meals we had the whole trip!

This was one of the best stops along our route! Then we were headed for the Eternal City, Rome.  While we only had a few days in Rome, we were able to take in many of the sights. We ventured to the top of St. Peters Basilica where we had sweeping views of the city and a great workout climbing all those steps!

We toured the Colosseum, the Pantheon and more.  And then it was time to head back to New York.  We had a great time and shared some awesome memories. Memories I hope will inspire my students to return to Italy and to keep traveling.

09 July 2015

Pre-departure meeting

Pre-departure meeting

Once your groups are made and rooming assignments are taken care of, you'll need to do a few more things before you have your pre-departure meeting.  Here are a few things to consider:

Travel to/from airport: You'll need to decide whether it is each man for themselves, carpooling or arranging for a charter bus.  There are pros and cons to each.

Each man for himself:   This way is probably the cheapest for your travelers, depending on how far you are from the airport.  This also allows parents who are not traveling with their children to extend their goodbyes a little longer.  The downside to this is that someone can be stuck in traffic, get lost or just run late which could cause you to worry as the group leader.  Also, it's not the most eco-friendly way to travel.

Carpooling: This way is more eco-friendly and can be less expensive than a coach bus or even individual travel.  In order for this idea to work, you have to make sure that each car has enough space for the people/luggage.  Here again, though, people can be late, stuck in traffic or get lost.

Coach bus (charter): This is my personal preference because while it may not be the cheapest route for your group (depending on size), it is eco-friendly and it ensures that your group will arrive at the same time and check in together.  There is no waiting around for any latecomers. Parents will have to say goodbye at the school which might be difficult for some of the more clingy parents but they can always use FaceTime from airport before departure.  This involves more work on your part because you'll have to research companies and then collect money for the bus from participants.  Another upside is that you will have the bus time to review some important information with your travelers.  At this time, I usually assign a number to each participant so that when we come back together as a large group after free time, I don't have to walk around doing a head count.  We just count off as loud as we can! I use this bus time to practice!


Here again, you'll need to make a decision.  You can have each participant be in charge of tipping their guides, tour directors and bus drivers or you can collect in advance.  My recommendation is to do the latter. It is much easier for you and more efficient than collecting on tour.  It also gives the travelers one less thing to worry about.  I usually go with the recommendation of the tour company on how to tip.

Email or send a letter to your group

Once you have made your decision regarding the travel to/from the airport and the tips, you are ready to draft an email or letter to your group.  In the letter, you should let them know when you'll hold your pre-departure meeting and what they should bring with them to the meeting.  If you travel with EF, they usually send you a backpack and luggage tag for each participant, which I like to give out at this meeting.  For an idea of how to draft your letter, click here.

You're ready to have your meeting!  Good luck!

Your group is set!

Your group is set!

Once your group is set (meaning you will not be accepting any other travelers for the tour), you should meet with your student travelers and maybe send an email to your adult travelers.

Student Travelers

There are a few details to work out with your student travelers, like who they'll room with and who will be in their small groups.  I am a bit of a control freak and so I never allow students to roam around during free time on their own. They are always with a chaperone in a small group.  I try to have no more than 8-10 people per group. As for the rooming, it is hard to know in advance how the rooms will be broken up in a hotel.  Some can accommodate four in a room, some three and some students will be really lucky to have a double.  This is all up to the discretion of the hotel and of course, the number of students you have.  What I can do to ensure they have the best time is to allow them to choose who they'll be spending the majority of their time with. Here's what I do:

- I call a meeting after school for all student participants.
- I have students fill out a request form that tells me their rooming preferences for rooms of 4,3, and 2 (just to be safe) and for larger groups and chaperone choice.

Based on their input, I will sit down and try to give them what they want.  I always let them know that depending on the group size (I have taken up to 87 people on one tour), they might not get everything they want but I will be sure to do my best.  I will then create groups for chaperones and then a rooming chart for boys and girls with all rooming scenarios (quads, triples and doubles) to be as best prepared.  Sometimes, you will have to break up rooms because the hotel might not have all quads or all triples. This is where you have to be creative and just go with your gut as to how to separate.  Remind students that they will only be in rooms to sleep because you are on tour to see as much as you can and rooming is just a few hours of sleep and getting ready for the day.

For myself, I create multiple spreadsheets- one with the rooming and chaperone groups, one with an alphabetical list of travelers and their passport information (date of issue, number and date of expiration) and one with emergency contact information.

Adult Travelers

The adults are usually roomed in doubles unless they request a single room.  There is always an up charge for a single room, so make sure they know about that.  If they choose to room with their child, the child will normally pay the adult rate (check with your travel agency).  I would just send an email to them asking what their preference is for rooming (single, with child or another adult).  Once they let you know, you can make arrangements for them as well.  As far as the chaperoned groups go, I include the parents in a chaperoned group with their children but always let them know that they can of course go off with their child only on their own and meet us back at the designated time/place. 

Once you have all the student/adult requests, you should then make your spreadsheets and prepare for a pre-departure meeting!