Archive for the ‘Interviews with Experts’ Category

Small Group Travel with Smithsonian

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Bruce Epstein is President of Odysseys Unlimited, one of our esteemed travel partners specializing in small group travel, talks with Smithsonian Journeys staff member MaryBeth Mullen about these exciting opportunities.  We look forward to welcoming you on a Smithsonian Small Group tour in the near future.


Bruce Epstein with a Lion.

Bruce Epstein with a Lion.

MaryBeth Mullen: How is Small Group travel different from other escorted tours?

Bruce Epstein:  The small group tours designed for Smithsonian travelers are specifically for groups of just 16 to 24 guests, which enables guests to move about more flexibly and efficiently, enjoy more spontaneous encounters, and experience a degree of freedom and independence not available to travelers on conventional group tours of 35 or 40 participants. We offer the best of both worlds: the value, ease, and comprehensive itinerary of a group tour, and the freedom, flexibility, quality, and service that independent travelers demand, and deserve.  Additionally, our small groups often have the opportunity to stay in small, unique lodgings that offer a remarkable sense of place not generally available with conventional tours.

MBM: What are some of the most popular destinations?

BE:  Smithsonian travelers have taken advantage of small group tours to virtually all corners of the globe. While some travel patterns do change over time, especially with the recent happenings in the Middle East and North Africa, some destinations continue to generate strong interest within Smithsonian’s circle of travelers.  These include France, Turkey, Spain and Portugal, Peru, China, Southern Africa, India, and Scandinavia.

MBM: On Smithsonian trips, there are a team of experts who enrich the travel experience, and a tour director that travelers depend on to handle logistics.  Is this also included on Small Group tours?

BE: Yes – on each small group tour, guests enjoy the benefits of having an expert, experienced tour director as well as a Smithsonian expert. The two work closely together to provide you with a memorable travel experience integrated with great educational elements.

MBM: On average, how many nights are travelers in a location?  Essentially, how active are these trips? 

BE: Each of our tours is custom-designed specifically for small groups, with a balanced mix of traveling, sightseeing, and cultural encounters. We make sure we set aside time for you to explore on your own or simply to relax. Guests are assured of seeing the highlights – and also the unexpected. And because we generally spend at least two nights in most places and in many cases three or four, you’ll be able to fully discover destinations, as a traveler, not a tourist.

MBM: With only 16-24 guests, do these trips tend to fill quickly? 

BE:  Since no two travelers are alike, the planning process varies among travelers.  Some plan more than a year in advance while some only a few months. However, many of Smithsonian’s small group tours do fill fairly quickly so, to have the best chance of garnering preferred travel dates, we recommend an initial reservation at least 8-10 months in advance. 

Ready to go? Click here to see all of our small group tours.

Where do you want to go next?

More Q&A with Journeys Director Amy Kotkin

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Last week, Journeys Director Amy Kotkin answered travelers’ questions about top travel destinations for 2012 and where you should go next. This week, she tackles more of your questions about Smithsonian Journeys and travel value.


China's Yangtze River

China’s Yangtze River.

Q. Is Smithsonian Journeys part of the Smithsonian Institution?  How are they related?

A. Smithsonian Journeys is very much a part of the Smithsonian Institution! As the Institution’s travel program, we share the goals of education and outreach with the whole Smithsonian staff. Just as the Smithsonian seeks to share knowledge of the world around us through museum exhibitions, publications and on-line resources, Smithsonian Journeys shares the world through first-hand experience in destinations worldwide with Smithsonian experts! Your participation in Smithsonian Journeys benefits the Institution’s myriad activities, helping us preserve our national treasures and shape the future through science, research and exhibitions.

Q.   What does All-Inclusive mean? 

A. That’s a good question, because it can mean slightly different things on different trips.  Take our All-Inclusive Mediterranean Cruises, for instance. These are fabulously priced trips that include international air fare, port charges, hotel stays before the tour, on-board gratuities, shore excursions, and wine with dinner each night on board! In essence, 90% of what you need on tour is included. Why not 100%? Because we know that though you are looking for a great deal, you also want to shape your vacation to your own tastes and pace. So, while all morning excursions are included, for example, we leave the afternoons up to you! Explore independently, relax on board in lovely ports, or join an optional afternoon excursion at a modest additional cost. On most of our small group land tours, international airfare is included, all gratuities, most meals (though again, we want to make sure you have time to explore on your own, including finding a great restaurant!) as well as the services of a full-time tour director and study leader. We never want you to pass an envelope at the end of the tour, or feel that you have been “nickel and dimed.”

Q.  Why do some tours include roundtrip airfare and others don’t?  Can I use my frequent flyer miles? 

We are delighted to offer included airfare on many of our tours, through special arrangements with our travel partners. We provide this feature on as many tours as possible, though included air is not available for all routes. If you’d prefer to use your frequent flier miles, you are always welcome to get a “credit” for unused airfare, resulting in a lower tour price. However, many of our travelers find that the included airfare is so reasonable that they opt for our air packages and save their frequent flier miles for other travel!

Want to learn more? Click here to read last week’s Q&A with Amy.

Where do you want to go next? Let us know!

Q&A with Journeys Director Amy Kotkin

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Amy Kotkin has been developing educational programs for the Smithsonian Institution since 1974 and is Director of Smithsonian Journeys. Here, she shares her thoughts and recommendations for travel in 2012, as we launch our new travel season.

Q.  Every year Smithsonian Journeys adds new destinations.  What are some of the highlights for 2012?

Amy Kotkin with artist in Turkey

Amy Kotkin visits with an artist in Turkey.

A. Just when we think we’ve been everywhere – a new destination beckons.  Or, we “re-imagine” existing destinations by looking at them in novel ways.  Always “looking around the corner” at what’s next is truly invigorating for our staff. For 2012, we’ll offer a cruise to Southern Spain and Morocco on the elegant small ship Corinthian II.  While we know that there was significant cross-cultural fertilization between these two regions going back before the middle ages, the opportunity to see how this is reflected in the art and architecture of Spain and Morocco is simply dazzling, as well as thought-provoking! Speaking of cruising, we’ll also be offering our first in-depth cruise to Crete!  We’ll encircle the island on the gem-like yacht Callisto (with only 34 guests), stopping at charming small towns, ancient ruins including the magnificent Minoan palace at Knossos, Byzantine chapels.  Two new holiday trips will also make their debut in 2012!  Christmas in Vienna and Prague promises festive performances, special access tours and fine food. Jane Austen’s Christmas features time-honored English holiday traditions.

Q.  What are your most popular destinations?

A.  Wow! So many come to mind.  But if I had to identify the top three just in terms of enduring interest over many years, Turkey, China and Peru top the charts for because of their amazing cultural treasures.  Having been with Smithsonian travelers when they first beheld the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, China’s Great Wall and Machu Picchu, I can tell you that these are truly magnificent, moving experiences.  Of course Egypt is on nearly everyone’s “life list,” and we are happy to have resumed our expert-led trips there.  For natural history – Alaska, Galapagos, Tanzania and the Amazon are “the classics.”  Interest in these incredible destinations never wanes.

Q.  Early Booking Savings!  Why do you and so many other companies encourage early bookings?  Are there really deals to be had or is it just a gimmick?

A. No! They are not a gimmick!  It is always worthwhile for Smithsonian and our tour operators to fill our tours long in advance.  That way, reservations for hotels, meals, special tours, and excursions can be locked down early and assure us of the best services possible.  Confirming all tour details several months before departure is well worth our while, and therefore, we are happy to encourage early bookings by giving you the incentive to do so.  Ultimately, early booking is in everyone’s best interests.  You get a better price and we are able to assure an optimal tour! Be sure to take a look at our early booking incentives featured on our website under Special Offers.

Amy will be back next week to answer more of your questions.

Have a question for Amy? Send her a note at

How the Isthmus of Panama Changed the World

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Tony Coates is a Smithsonian geologist, Senior Scientist Emeritus, and former Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Currently, he is working with a team of scientists to unravel the geological history of the Panamanian isthmus over the last 12 million years, and preparing to lead our January, 2012 departure of Around the World by Private Jet. Here, Dr. Coates answers some great questions about the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which connects North and South America.

Q. What would happen if the Isthmus was not there? What do you think the world be like today?
Locks along the Panama Canal

A. If the Isthmus of Panama was not there, the world would be very different today. All the animals of South America would be unique marsupials, like in Australia, very different to today because they would never have been invaded and overtaken by all the species that colonized from North America. The Caribbean and the East Pacific would be one ocean with similar species; today they are very different with corals reefs abundant in the Caribbean but without large supplies of commercial fish, whereas the Pacific has few small coral reefs and large important commercial fisheries. Humans from Asia might not have reached South America via the Bering Land Bridge from the north so different kinds of humans might have arrived, say, from Polynesia. Columbus might have sailed on to Asia! The Ice Age would have been different and Europe’s ports might freeze every winter like the Saint Laurence seaway does. El Niño and climates in other parts of the world might have been different in ways that we still do not fully understand.

Q. Do you feel that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama has anything to do with causing the El-Niño phenomenon?

A.  The formation of a land barrier between the Atlantic (Caribbean) and the Pacific certainly changed the patterns of ocean circulation in both oceans. It is very likely that this change helped to set up the oceanic conditions in the eastern Pacific which allows the El Niño to develop every few years.
Q. How did the diversion of the Gulf Stream, following the development of the Isthmus of Panama, cause man to begin to walk upright?

A.  Many scientists think that the closure of the Isthmus of Panama strengthened the warm Gulf Stream Current. This current took warm waters high into northern latitudes providing moisture to the atmosphere so that snow formed to build the glaciers of the ice age. At the same time a strong current also flowed south along the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean and affected the climate of north Africa causing it to become drier so that savannahs and open grasslands developed which provided the habitats that previously arboreal (tree living) primates then colonized. In the process one group became more socially organized, had their front limbs freed up for tool making, caring for young, and for other tasks, and in the process started to walk upright.

Q. Animals that traveled south over the land bridge did better than the animals that traveled north. Can you please tell us why?

A. Yes. Some 50-60% of the mammals of South America, including cats, deer, mice, bears, and many others were not known in South America until about 3 million years ago. Why there are only three species that remain from the migration from south to north is not known certainly. Many scientists think that because the North American animals had already evolved in competition with animals from Asia, which had crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age and had then survived within North America, they were in some way “hardened” or more robust when they met and competed with the South American animals which had been isolated on that continent for millions of years and had never faced competition from other regions before. But this is just speculation.

Q. Who first came up with idea of making the canal? About how many miles long is the canal from Panama City to the Caribbean Sea? About how long does it take for a boat to travel all the way through the canal?

A. The idea of a canal across the Central American Isthmus is quite old historically. The Spanish early in their conquest wrote about the possibility, the British surveyed the San Juan River between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and the route over to the Pacific in the early 19th century or late 18th century, and of course the French started to build the canal in Panama in the late 1800s but failed. Their route was successfully taken over by the USA and the canal was completed by 1914.

It is about 65-70 kilometers as the crow flies from Panama City (the Pacific entrance to the canal) to Colón (where the canal reaches the Caribbean). Ships usually allow about 24 hours to complete the crossing of the canal; about half this time is spent navigating the canal and its locks. The remainder is spent at anchor with other ships, waiting to be notified by the Panama Canal Authority that a pilot is ready to take them through. The Panama Canal is the only place in the world where the pilot takes complete control of the vessel and the captain cannot countermand him.

Dr. Coates will be leading the January, 2012 departure of our Around the World by Private Jet tour. Click here for information on travel to Panama and check out the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Q&A On Our New Private Departures

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
Plan your next vacation on your terms with Smithsonian Journeys.

Plan your next vacation on your terms with Smithsonian Journeys.

Our new Private Departures mean that you can go where you want, when you want, with who you want, at your budget. Below, David Tett of Bushtracks Expeditions, one of our esteemed travel partners specializing in customized travel, talks with Smithsonian Journeys staff member MaryBeth Mullen about these exciting opportunities.
Q: For 20 years you and your family have planned custom journeys for the curious traveler to Africa, India, and South America, Alaska, Galapagos, and more destinations off the beaten path. What makes a Private Departure so extraordinary?
 A: Private Departures offer the ability to choose your own dates, control your own itinerary, be independent, and ensure you get the accommodations and destinations that suit you. We’re all so increasingly busy these days, it’s more difficult than ever to get the family together between business, family, school and sports commitments. Planning your own tour is for many people the best way of navigating through all of these schedule challenges.

Q: On a Private Departure, do travelers get to choose their preferred schedule and budget?  Is it really that flexible?

A: Yes it is! Give us your dates and we’ll find out the best available properties that work within your time frame. Of course the more latitude you give us, the better chance we can book exactly what you want. You could potentially even book your international airfare with air miles and let us form an itinerary around those dates you have booked. However, please give us as much time as possible so availability does not become an issue!

 Q: How many people do you need to plan a customized itinerary and are there age limits?
A: Two guests and a minimum 7 consecutive nights travel. There are age limits at certain properties whereas others focus on ensuring younger children are part of the experience and included. We’ll help match the right product to you!

Q: On Smithsonian’s group departures, a team of experts add educational value to the experience, and a tour manager handles logistics and any problems that might arise. What happens on a Private Departure?

A: We have expert guides who we can work into your itinerary. Also, we and Smithsonian Journeys will be happy to find you a full-time study leader if you wish. You are met and greeted by our select representatives along the way. Our local representatives will be able to handle problems on the spot and we provide all travelers with an after hours emergency phone number so that we can assist you if need be!

Q: How far in advance can you book a Private Departure? Is there travel insurance in the event of cancellation?

A: We have booked itineraries one week out, however, considering possible visa requirements, shots, accommodation and flight availability, the sooner you can book the better. Generally one year is perfectly adequate, six months is nice and three months is possible. Yes, we recommend you take out trip cancellation insurance since the trip can be non-refundable as you approach departure date. We also include emergency evacuation insurance for every traveler as part of your tour fee.

Q: Is a Private Departure more expensive than a group departure?

A: It certainly doesn’t have to be more expensive than a group tour. Because the private departure is designed around your specifications we are able to help you manage your budget by choosing from a variety of accommodations, routing, and time of travel.

To reserve your Private Departure, call 1-877-547-1701 or click here for more information.