May 29, 2019

It’s my first time in South Korea, and I’ve already spent more time on a bus in a day than I do in an average week back home. After countless trips planned independently, I was coaxed into a travel agency group tour, the first in such a long time that I’d forgotten what it was like to participate in one. How bad could it really be? I thought naively to myself.

My five days in Seoul were meant to be a time of discovery, adventure and relaxation. Yet, none of those boxes were ticked. After a banal six and a half hours on the plane, I was raring to get out and soak in the city. In my head, I was approaching Asia’s New York City. In reality, Asia’s New York City looked more like the inside of a stifling, bulky bus with outdated upholstery. I felt like cargo on a ship, being transported from point A to B with no stops in between to admire the scenery or wander into a wacky-looking boutique outside of the itinerary.

With no wiggle room in the schedule to slow things down, we had to be by the book on the number of minutes we spent at each location. For someone who savours her freedom, it felt all too authoritarian. The point of a vacation is to escape—escape the pressures of discipline, the unyielding, unimaginative routine of the day-to-day. Yet, I’ve been plonked from my regular timetable into another taut, hour-by-hour schedule against a different backdrop.

The worst transgression of all is that the group tour doesn’t offer a proper induction into the foreign land. All you’re seeing are the same places, the major tourist spots (more traps than attractions, in my opinion) where you get to take predictable postcard pictures, yet walk away with no real experiences. Everyone has seen that famous monument by the river, but not everyone has tried the little pizzeria down the road with the best escargots.

After five days, following a rigid timetable of visiting unimpressive shopping destinations, I still don’t quite know how to describe Seoul because I haven’t seen it or gotten to experience it. None of my memories there stood out. It was as if the trip never happened. What I do remember is the vague feeling of lethargy and motion sickness from spending too many hours on a bumpy tour bus, made worse by the vexing sound of the tour guide’s incessant spewing of useless facts through the microphone.

I wasn’t doing as the locals did either. For one thing, no one in our group tour experienced the public transportation system of Seoul. This may sound mundane because almost every city has trains, trams and buses that operate rather similarly to each other, but there’s always a distinct difference between each system. Sydney’s trains, for instance, come with two levels, one of which dips below the train platform so when you look out the window, you’ll see feet shuffling about. Call me easily entertained, but this slight novelty turned a regular train ride into an amusing discovery.

The most infuriating reason why you don’t see the actual country on a travel agency group tour is because the tour guide is in pursuit of money. Everything else takes a backseat to this paper chase, including the tourists’ enjoyment of a city. This does not apply to every tour guide from every travel agency, but for the unlucky few who aren’t paid enough by the agency, they have to strike deals with certain brands and boutiques.

Whoever the tour guide brings to the store, the guide will earn a commission for those who make a purchase. The more the shoppers spend, the more the tour guide earns. It would make sense to keep the tourists in those stores for as long as possible, even if those were the worst joints in the metropolis.

On day three of my trip, I remember being herded into a multi-brand cosmetics retailer, but it was no Sephora. The dull fluorescent light was akin to that of windowless offices, while the hubbub of yammering salespeople made it feel like I was at the wet market, sans the colour and character. Ditching my tour group for a spot of fresh air and sunlight, I took a quieter stroll along the side of the road, eventually stumbling upon a quaint bakery with neon signs—much to my delight. They had the most tantalising spread of patisserie I’ve ever seen in my life.

After settling for a brownie, I ran back to my group to convey the good news of my little escapade beyond the borders of the makeup store. Woefully, almost as if the tour guide had a clairvoyant vision that her flock would be awakened to the great big world outside, the group was ordered back into the bus. Well, at least our guide didn’t explode in a fit of fury at us for not buying more souvenirs and giving her a higher pay—which, by the way, has happened before.

Look, I know it can be stressful to plan for a holiday. Why not get someone else to do the planning for you, right? Travel agencies exist for a reason. However, if you consider the true joys of travel, characterised by those unexpected destinations, spontaneous journeys and out-of-the-ordinary experiences, then a group tour from a travel agency would be an unequivocal mistake.