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What It’s Really Like to Take an OLLI Trip, as Told by Carla Rossi

Carla and her husband participated in their first group OLLI trip to Spain and Portugal in March 2024. We asked her to provide a genuine perspective about her on-trip experience as a first-time group traveler. Read her recount to learn more about her first international adventure with OLLI.

Carla and her husband.

My husband and I haven’t done much previous group travel. In fact, this was our first OLLI trip. I entered into it with a bit of hesitancy because we are accustomed to doing our own thing. I wasn’t sure how we would like being part of a group, but we ended up having a really good time on the trip.

There were many benefits of group travel I hadn’t really thought about, including:

No driving required. It was really nice to be shuttled from place to place. That was especially true given some of the narrow streets, multi-lane roundabouts, and tight parking lots. It also meant we both were able to enjoy the scenery as we traveled around the country.

Pre-purchased tickets. We often avoided long lines at popular attractions because we had “group” status. If we had been on our own, likely we would have skipped most of those when we saw the lines.

Knowledgeable tour manager/local guides. Our tour manager really made the trip special. She was extremely friendly and provided so much information to make our trip more meaningful. She knew lots of historical and cultural information that she shared. As importantly, she provided lots of suggestions and recommendations for things to do in our free time (and knew where to find public restrooms!). She quickly got to know the group and what its interests were, so she knew to point out shopping districts, good restaurants, and nice places to take walks, satisfying the varied interests of everyone. Also, she was astute at knowing when to stop talking and just give us all some time to relax, nap, or just enjoy the passing scenery.

Free time. Nearly every day, we had at least a couple hours of unscheduled time. That was very important to me. I love to walk quickly, not stroll. So having time to walk in parks, along city streets or beach fronts, or on medieval town walls was often the highlight of the day for me.

The OLLI travelers/Penn State administrative personnel. Last, but certainly not least, our fellow travelers and Brynn made the trip so much fun. We knew some of them before the trip and got to know everyone by the end of it. The camaraderie of the group was delightful. Inside jokes and general pleasant conversations made the bus rides more enjoyable. Joining others for dinner or in the evening at the hotel bar was always fun, too. We learned about each other’s backgrounds and other previous travel experiences, and generally just had fun socializing.

Those things all far outweighed aspects of group travel that weren’t quite as enjoyable to me, which included moving from city to city, typically every two nights. That meant lots of packing and unpacking and some early mornings. We also often had limited time in the smaller places we visited. Typically, it was midday, so we had time for lunch or something else, but trying to do both was difficult, particularly in Spain/Portugal where the culture around meals is very relaxed. I wished there had been more opportunities to discover some out-of-the way spot, strike up a conversation with the locals, and just relax and enjoy the various towns we visited. The good part about that was that we were able to “whet our whistle” and see many places to know whether we might want to go back to some of them again.

Many of the local tours of cathedrals, museums, etc. moved too slowly for my taste, although I think many in the group really looked forward to them. Our local guides were extremely knowledgeable, passionate, and proud of their towns. I empathized with their desire to provide lots of information to us about the things they were showing us, but I would have preferred a couple of quick “bullet points” and then moving on to something else instead. The tour manager was very accommodating. If we asked to leave the group, view the attraction at our own pace, and then make sure we knew where/when to meet up with the group again, that was always an option.

Some of the enjoyable things specific to this trip included:

Scenery. There were so many beautiful places throughout the trip. The architecture of the cathedrals and even various municipal buildings and residences was breathtaking. The charm of medieval towns with their walled city centers, narrow cobblestone streets, and bustling marketplaces was delightful.

Hotels. We generally stayed in very nice hotels that were well-equipped, located conveniently, and had delicious breakfasts (we rarely ate lunch!).

Food/wine. We ate so many delicious meals and drank some great wine, sherry, port, and madeira. We were able to try local specialties: spring leeks in Barcelona, paella near Valencia, cherry liquor/chocolate cups in Sintra and Obidos, and delicious custard desserts in Portugal, to name a few.

Shows. We had a chance to experience flamenco, fado, and paella-making. On the post trip, we also observed and then participated in folk dancing at a restaurant that served the meat on long kabobs hung from racks in the middle of the table.

Activities. We had a boat ride in a nature reserve, a brief tour of a traditional fishing village hut, and a chance to ride a funicular (for western PAers, an incline). We also were fortunate to experience Valencia on the eve of “Fallas” (fire days). Neighborhoods create hundreds of large sculptures that range from serious to nearly irreverent themes. They are on display in nearly every square. Ultimately, they are set on fire, except for the winner. On the post trip to Madeira Island, we also took a cable car ride and a toboggan cart ride (search Funchal toboggan carts to see what this is) and walked on a glass walkway over the 2nd highest cliff in the world.

In conclusion, I had a great experience and highly recommend OLLI travel. For the cost, I don’t think you can find a better all-round travel experience. We came home and have already registered for another OLLI trip.