When I think of guided tours, I automatically conjure up a mental image of a large group of rucksack-wearing, camera-toting middle aged tourists (some of whom are committing that most incomprehensible fashion faux pas of combining socks and sandals) being herded around a city's key sights by a harried-looking guide frantically waving an umbrella in the air for the flock to follow. I realise that my imagination is stereotyping wildly, but there's at least a grain of truth in there somewhere. As I'm the kind of girl who prefers to do some pre-trip internet research, grab a good guide book and go for a wander, I had avoided guided tours until earlier this month. Two friends visiting for the weekend effusively recommended the Madrid tourist board's Gran Vía Centenary Year tour, so I decided it might be a good time to put aside my prejudices and give guided a go. I reasoned that a shorter, more focused tour concentrating on a particular area of interest was probably a safe option for my first experience.
Guided tours may never have been trendy, but it now seems that their more successful travel aid the guide book is getting a bad press. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine recently published an avidly quoted and re-tweeted article on guidebook alternatives, which included options such as podcast tours and mobile phone apps. Call me cynical, but aren't these just guidebooks reformatted and tweaked to appeal to the iphone generation? As a traditionalist with a mobile phone that just about has a colour screen, I think I'll be sticking with good old print for now. I do understand why travellers are seeking new options, though, as it's become a common sight to see multiple tables of travellers clutching the same Lonely Planet at restaurants around the globe. The mass-market appeal of travel guides can lead to visitors following the same routes, taking in the same sights and dining in the same spots. That said, I personally wouldn't be without one: I love beginning to research a trip by cracking open a new Rough Guide or Time Out Shortlist, dreaming of the places I'll soon be visiting. However, I always make sure to use them as a starting point rather than the gospel that must be obeyed to the letter, as for me, travel is an experience that broadens the mind, rather than something which follows a rigid itinerary.