From the earliest days of Christianity, pilgrims have traveled far and wide to the Holy Land and to other holy sites in Europe that have produced miracles and physical healings. Some do this as penance, many are looking for a healing of some sort, and others are looking for a deeper relationship with Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, Mary.
Last year I was watching and waiting for just the right group to travel with to Lourdes, France, when an opportunity popped up to go to the Holy Land with a Priest I got to know from one-day pilgrimages here in Saskatchewan (Rama and St. Laurent). Since this package ticked all the boxes, I changed plans and jumped at the chance to go. Once I signed on and gave my deposit, I began to realize how lucky I was to get in with this group. When word got out that I was going, the questions other people asked and the feedback they gave about previous pilgrimages they had gone on helped me to realize what a special trip this was. Unless you are an experienced group traveler, you don’t really know the variables involved and what to watch for.
Here’s a list of the top 10 things to keep your eye on before committing to a group pilgrimage (in no particular order)…
- Daily Mass: You would think this is something automatically offered when booking with a Catholic group to travel to some pilgrimage site. Not so. Not so. I’ve talked to others who have gone on pilgrimages to the Holy Land (for example), organized and led by a Priest, and had no daily Mass because they were told “it wasn’t possible, there’s no time”. Imagine that! Traveling all that way, half-way around the world, to visit the land Our Lord chose to walk on, and there’s “no-time” that can be set aside for daily Mass. There is time and it is important. Pass on any pilgrimages that will not guarantee a daily Mass. It just doesn’t make sense to go on a trip like this with the hope of deepening your spiritual life and your relationship with Our Lord, and have to sacrifice daily Mass to do it. No sense at all.
- Priest Presence: This is another important one, even if the tour isn’t led by the Priest and you have a tour guide. A Priest is there to accompany the group during this time of prayer and reflection. They will be available for Confession and daily Mass, no need to scramble looking for a local Priest that may or may not speak English. The Priest will also be a “presence” that protects the integrity of the Catholicity of what’s being presented and stand firm to the correct misinformation or teachings (especially when led by a non-Catholic tour guide). This is trickier than it sounds. If a tour guide is a leading a group with no Priest, who among the group is going to stand up and challenge the information? And do you really want that to happen since some of the people you are traveling with may not be 100% in their knowledge of the Faith either. Things can get real tedious real fast.
- English Tour Guide Who Is Catholic: English must be excellent (or very, very good) otherwise you will miss much of what there is to learn when a good tour guide is leading you. It’s also important that the guide is Catholic (or at least of the Orthodox Faith). Other Christian denominations don’t have the same (if any) reverence for Our Lady, the Sacraments and Church Traditions. If you’re led by someone who is not of the Faith, they can’t possibly give you the information that can deepen and inflame your Catholic Faith. I’ve heard some interesting stories of groups being led by non-Christian tour guides and how the time given is sparse and even reluctantly at some of our faith’s most holy places.
- Meals Provided: Watch for the amount of daily meals provided, you should at the very least receive Breakfast and Dinner in the package price, with Lunch at your own cost. I chose to go on a group pilgrimage that included all three meals: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner and it was well, well worth it. The costs on your trip can get quite high if you are paying for meals on your own. Another issue that arises is if you can afford or prefer to pay for your own meals, you may be traveling with folks who are on a tight budget and while they’re eating a piece of bread, you’re sitting beside them enjoying a platter of “Peter’s Fish” (grilled tilapia). That can cause some discomfort.
- Double Occupancy: Many folks travel with their spouses or maybe an older child so this won’t apply to them, but if you’re traveling on your own, you need to be aware that you will be partnered with someone and have to share a room with them as rates are based on double occupancy. Chances are you will be traveling with at least one friend you know who is also on their own, you can ask to be paired together no problem. One thing to consider though is that if you snore or talk in your sleep, you could be seriously disturbing the sleep of your roomie…or…if they snore, they might be keeping you up all night. If you are aware of issues and that you are a “loud sleeper”, it would be more appropriate for you to pay more and get a room for yourself (usually around $75 to $100 a night extra or so). This would also apply if you are a light sleeper and easily woken, you will find it worthwhile to pay the extra money for your own room. Imagine spending thousands of dollars to travel on a very special trip only to crash hard on Day 3 because you are getting zero sleep. This isn’t something you want to ignore.
- Tips Included?: On top of the tour package price, you will likely be expected to contribute to a tip to give the bus driver, another tip to the tour guide, and if you are staying in monasteries or religious houses you may be asked to give a donation on top of what you’ve already paid for accomodations. If a Priest has organized the trip and accompanied the group, it is also customary to offer him a “group collection” at the end of the tour. Some packages will include most of the tips expected (usually for the bus driver and tour guide). If the price doesn’t include any of the tips, keep in mind your total cost will rise to accommodate these offerings. Some are self-determined, others are an expected flat rate or percentage.
- Entrance Fees: You will likely be visiting several holy sites a day, some may charge entrance fees or ask for donations in order to enter the building. Make sure the package you choose includes all associated fees.
- Airfare Options: I was surprised to learn that there was a substantial difference between what I paid for in the package that included airfare and what other pilgrims paid who arranged their own flights. You can get some great seat sales and this is a way you may be able to shave off a few hundred dollars from the package price. Keep in mind you are taking a risk of missing connections and missing the group meetup in the designated country, but this is something that can be smartly arranged, just take care to leave lots of time in case of delayed flights. See if this is an option available to you or if you’re locked in to buying the whole package from the tour group.
- Group Size: This one is important and you’ll want to find out what the maximum group size will be. I’ve come across packages that have had 5, 6 even 10 buses full of pilgrims (that’s around 500 people!). This is a nightmare logistically. You will be distant from the Priest organizer who will have to split his time between all the buses, the large groups arriving at the sites at the same time (or one after the other) means long line ups to tour the sites (and the washrooms), group meals will be tedious and lengthy. I’ve only ever been on pilgrimages with one bus and find that amount just right, but I would probably accept a two-bus size (around 100 people). That would be my absolute max. Also see if you can find out the amount of seats on the bus and how full the bus will be. It’s nice if there are a few extra spots kept open in case someone isn’t feeling well and needs the extra seat for himself or someone who’s tall can stretch their legs across an empty seat.
- Free Time: Is there free time and shopping time scheduled into the itinerary? You will need it! The mornings start early and you’re running all day. You may be on a special, spiritual trip visiting holy sites…but you need quiet time just for yourself to pray! After the group supper, evenings should be free and mornings should start at a reasonable time enabling you to get up earlier to pray the Office and spend some quiet time with the Lord before the day begins. This is something you’ll miss and feel stretched too thin if the days are too packed and it will affect your trip. Yes an argument can be made that “alone time” can wait until you get home, you’re on once-in-a-lifetime trip and no moment should be wasted…but prayer time is very necessary or things start clashing and falling apart.
This will be a lovely, special time for you. Most of us can’t afford to get it “wrong” and try trip after trip before getting it right. The list I’ve given above will help ensure you are comfortable, plan with no financial surprises and enjoy the time you’ve been given. Once you’ve booked your trip, check out this post which gives you some tips and ideas for what to pack: Packing For The Holy Land, much of what I’ve listed there will apply to other holy sites too. May God bless you on your special journey!