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venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

— written by Amanda Geronikos

afraidBill Bryson may have been going for a tongue-in-cheek approach when he wrote about the various ways one might die in Australia (“In a Sunburned Country”) and along the Appalachian Trail (“A Walk in the Woods”), but he was more than just a little serious too.

If you’re going to visit Australia, the truth is you’d better watch out for saltwater crocodiles, sharks, stinging jellyfish and redback spiders. And bears in North America are nothing to laugh at (except when Bryson writes about them, that is).

But wildlife predators are not the only thing tourists need to be wary of when traveling if they want to get home in one piece. I’ve read too many tragic tales of travelers killed in helicopter tours (in Hawaii and in New York City, to name a few) to ever climb aboard one.

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And, of course, there’s always the clich√© that rings a little too true about holding on for dear life when riding taxis in Rome, Paris or New York City.

Now, sadly, I may also have to worry about gondolas and water buses in Venice.

Earlier this month a German tourist was killed when the gondola he was on collided with a water bus in Venice’s Grand Canal. As it turns out, the gondolier tested positive for cocaine, but authorities also believe boat congestion on the Canal may have been a factor.

10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

Will this incident stop me from taking a gondola ride when I finally get to Venice? Probably not. The truth is I have a better chance of being hit by a car on the way to work than dumped in the Grand Canal during my few days in Venice. So, no, fear is not going to stop me, but I’ll certainly be more vigilant. Just as I checked for spiders in my shoes in Australia, avoided taxis in Paris and eschew helicopters everywhere.

Do any destination’s specific dangers scare you? Do you take any precautions?

— written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot was taken in colorful Burano, an island in Venice.

burano venice italy colorful

Photos: 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Venice Hotels

— written by Sarah Schlichter

venice map woman lostAn hour is a long time in politics. It can also be an interminable unit of time on a train or when cooped up in a meeting.

But hurrying, lost, through Venice‘s maze-like streets, coming up against dead ends, blocked off by opaque green canals with a less-than-helpful map and a heavy bag, with under an hour before you’re due on a cruise ship or at the airport … well, then an hour can seem very, very short indeed.

With its bustling cruise port — Europe’s fourth busiest, in fact — and glorious history, Venice is a tourist magnet. Which may explain why getting away from it can be difficult.

As soon as I arrived in Venice, I took a short vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. It’s from there that I realized that it’s definitely still a working town. I saw boatloads of fruit and vegetables being unloaded into supermarkets, while police, taxis and firefighters rushed about in specially equipped boats. Amid the crowds of tourists, everyday people went about their everyday business.

Still, I couldn’t help but wish that I had the place to myself.

So I decided to put my map back in my rucksack and walk. Venice isn’t a big city, right? Though I’d never be able to see it all in such a short space of time, I was certain I’d be able to find my way back to the central station in time for my train to the airport.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Venice

I quickly lost the tourist crowds and, before long, was walking alongside the wide-open lagoon, watching the afternoon sun lighting the tips of gentle waves and looking at the far-off islands where Venetians have traditionally buried their dead.

But as darkness came, my curiosity went out the window. This had been fun, I thought, but I needed to get back. Now. But the streets got narrower and darker. The shadows stuck together behind me like cobwebs. No one else was around and I was getting worried.

I wandered urgently through narrow alleyways, crossing bridges over water that looked as though it had been used to clean someone’s paint brushes. The crowds of tourists I’d passed before were long gone. Getting lost in a foreign city is an excellent way to step away from the obvious and have a unique and memorable experience. In a city like Venice, you are almost guaranteed to bump into something new and astonishing around every corner.

But there is also something to be said for knowing where you’re going and being able to find your way out again.

11 Best Italy Experiences

By chance, I made it to the only part of Venice that had cars and managed to catch a taxi to the airport. I was lucky, but I was also stupid. I was so keen not to be a typical tourist that I ended up being even more of one by taking the place for granted. I presumed that once I’d had enough, the way out would be plainly signposted and easy to see.

And chasing after a taxi while sweating under a heavy bag, map flapping like a sail, is, I suppose, probably not the best way to see a city either.

— written by Josh Thomas