I propose the “Actual Engagement Index” — a way to rate the quality of a bus or van tour of any size not by what sites are visited … but by establishing a ratio between the time you spend engaged with a site vs. the time you spend getting there.
I came up with the AEI after spending a rare, brilliant, sunny day in Reykjavik trapped inside a van.
Since we’d spent a week in Iceland’s capital once before, we choose to join new friends from the ship on their Golden Circle Tour. Now, to be honest, we’ve also done a Golden Circle tour before. But going again gives us a chance to see some of Iceland’s most popular natural wonders through the eyes of first-time viewers.
I’m talking about places like Pingvellir National Park, the site of the world’s first parliament and the spot where two tectonic plates (the American and the Eurasian) rub together, generating earthquakes and a very visible chasm in the earth:
And Geyser, the geyser whose name has become the brand name for geysers all over the planet:
And Gulfoss, a massive and dramatic waterfall with enough power to make the air vibrate and the ground shake:
Gulfoss, along with the Cathedral at Chartres, the Portuguese town of Sintra, the observatory at Newgrange, and the entire city of Bangkok, is one of my favorite places on the planet. So you can imagine my reaction when, after traveling 5,000 miles to see it again, today’s driver/guide says, “We’ll stop here and take twenty minutes to eat lunch and twenty minutes to see the falls.”
On the one hand, our guide was focused on getting us to the most sites possible in the time our ship’s schedule allowed. That’s admirable. But on the other hand, doing so forced us into an unacceptable pattern: twenty minutes at Pingvellir, twenty minutes at Geyser, twenty minutes at Gulfoss — and these were the generous stops. We had exactly ten minutes at Reykjavik’s signature icon — the Hallgrimskirkja Church. That’s barely time to see the exterior, much less soak up the ambience of the interior.
When all the math was done, during today’s 450 minute van tour, we had no more than 155 minutes of actual engagement with an attraction. (Time spent driving past sites without stopping — even if the driver is giving commentary — doesn’t count toward engagement. Engagement requires immersion.)
That gives today’s tour an AEI of 25%. And that’s unfortunate, because any tour scoring less than 50% is going to leave you feeing rushed, exhausted, and, ultimately, cheated.
So: when shopping for bus or van tours, start by asking, “What sites will we see?” — but be sure to follow up with “And how long do we spend at each site?” If the AIE is less than 50%, you’d do better to stroll the streets and soak up some local color on your own.