I’ve often quoted the maxim; “There is nothing new in the world,” because it’s mostly true. Nearly everything is derivative of something else, and that’s certainly true in the world of travel. That’s why when I worked with independent travel company Monograms earlier this year, I was intrigued. They didn’t fit into any category neatly. There’s not a tour company, not really, they’re definitely not travel agents, they are in a way their own category of travel. My experience with them in Colombia exceeded every expectation I had, and I left the country satisfied I had done all I could to experience the best of Colombia, but in my own unique way. That’s why when Monograms Travel approached me and others to work on a project just a few weeks ago, I was excited to see what the second experience would be like. If something happens once, it’s an occurrence, twice or more and it’s a pattern, and I was curious if my Monograms Travel experience in Colombia was an anomaly or something else entirely.
What is an independent tour?
This is a strangely difficult concept to explain because, for the most part, it wasn’t really a service until recently. Monograms is not a tour operator, not really. Usually, a tour operator creates package trips with everything you’ll need on your travels. This can include flights, but not always, but always does include hotels, tour guides, activities and many meals. They’re one-stop shopping, they ARE your trip. Monograms doesn’t do that. Instead, I really see them as a different kind of resource for the independent traveler. They offer tours and experiences around the world, but one of their strengths is Europe and I was excited to see the differences between my Monograms trip in Colombia and Italy and, as it turns out, there were many. But there are certain bedrock principles that form the foundation of any Monograms trip, including these key benefits.
- Specially selected hotels based on service and location
- Transportation to and from the airport as well as transportation throughout the trip
- Limited sightseeing. Usually a half a day or so of sightseeing is included with a local guide, but most of the time is independent and left up to the individual
- Local Host. This is what separates Monograms from everyone else and is an on-site local who is there to help with anything you might need. From knowing where the cleaners are to finding the best spot for dinner, they’re the fix-it people that are priceless to have on a trip.
The way I normally explain Monograms is that they take care of the annoying aspects of a trip, lock down the details, which in turn provides the independent traveler with the luxury of just enjoying the destination without headache. It’s a fantastic combination of services, the full benefits of which I didn’t fully appreciate until my second trip with them in Italy.
Informed independent exploration
I’m so bad at directions and getting my bearings that I usually joke with people that I get lost in my own house. Sadly, that’s not too far off from the truth. I have a singular ability to get discombobulated even in Washington, DC, a city where I’ve now lived for 17 years. When I travel, getting around town those first few days is an exercise both in humility and patience and it always adds up to wasted time and opportunity. That’s why one of my favorite features of Monograms is so important to me, because it helps me not only enjoy a new city’s top sights, but it helps me learn more about the destination.
Every time you visit a new city with Monograms, they include a short guided tour. In a place like Sorrento, this means a 2-hour walk around the central core of the city. But in larger cities like Rome, the included tour takes on a whole new level of importance. When we visit places like Rome, Paris or London there are certain sights so famous, that we simply have to see them. Monograms understands this and includes those top sights in their tour, freeing up time for the traveler to explore the city later on in more depth independently. In Rome we toured the Vatican, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Not only did we benefit from transportation and an expert guide, we also benefited from unique access. With skip the line passes in hand, we jumped the hours long lines at both the Vatican and the Colosseum and enjoyed our time there as efficiently as possible. Had I attempted the same on my own, an entire day would have been consumed. Monograms doesn’t waste anyone’s time, seeking to instead maximize the experience for travelers. Not only that, but the tour helped me familiarize myself with the city, making it easier for me to get around during the many days of free time I enjoyed.
There was an important difference between my Monograms trip in Colombia and Italy, and that was the inclusion of optional excursions. In Colombia there were only one or two and I didn’t avail myself of them because there was no need. The included tours there along with the Local Host meant I was able to experience the country to its fullest. In Europe though, there are just so many different things to see and do that optional excursions take on a new level of importance. Choosing the right ones can significantly enhance one’s trip and, when combined with the ease of Monograms logistics, the experiences become part of the overall trip holistically. I personally love a great walking or day tour. I think there’s significant value in a well trained guide sharing knowledge about new places. In both Rome and Sorrento I experienced several of these optional excursions and while I enjoyed more some than others, there’s no doubt that they greatly enhanced my trip. It was also easy to incorporate them into my overall travel experience. Booked through Monograms, they then take care of all the messy details for the traveler, including getting to/from the tours themselves. You certainly don’t have to take an optional excursion when traveling with Monograms, but they do add a lot to the overall experience in a way that is easy to manage.
At the end of the day though, I really am an independent traveler. There’s nothing I like more than picking up a dog-eared guidebook and tackling a new city with clear goals in mind. Monograms doesn’t interfere with that, no, instead they help facilitate it. Other than the one included tour, the entire trip is independent and travelers can experience new places in any way they want to. Monograms sets the stage for this independent travel in a way I’ve never before experienced. Monograms really is all about balance I think. Details like hotels, airport transfers and so on are automatically taken care of for you so you never have to think about them. Learning about new destinations, exploring them in your own way and at your own pace, that’s the responsibility of the traveler. It sounds a little trite, but it really does accentuate all the great aspects of the travel experience while eliminating some of the annoying minutiae.
No sheep allowed
Whether I’m gallivanting around Europe, enjoying a cruise or checking into a great hotel, like most travelers I never, ever want to be treated like a number, a travel sheep. Personalized travel is important and I usually say it’s at the heart of any truly great travel experience. From the moment I was picked up at the airport in Rome, I knew that once again, Monograms would treat me like a person and not a commodity. True to form, as I meandered around Southern Italy I was treated like an individual, there to enjoy new experiences with a little help along the way. This is relatively rare in the travel experience and while you won’t see it on a bulleted list of key attributes, I think it’s at the core of what Monograms is all about. They recognize that the modern traveler needs a little help but, for the most part, also wants to be left alone. We all want to feel that rush of exploration, that feeling of independence and discovery. You won’t find that on a 50-person coach bus or while waiting in line for a cruise ship’s water slide. No, it’s a level of personalized travel that to me at least seems more real, more authentic and infinitely more enjoyable. I think that’s why I left Italy once again loving my experience with Monograms. It’s also why I know it certainly won’t be my last time enjoying their very unique way of seeing the world.