While very few U.S. companies now hire professors and experts as tour guides without also charging usurious tariffs for the privilege, the tradition of affordable educational tours for the masses is still alive and well in Great Britain, so if it's an edifying trip you crave, you may have to pick up your next vacation in London.
Since 1985, the specialty of the UK-based Andante Travels (011-44-1722-713800, www.andantetravels.com) has been "Travels in Archaeology" of the ancient world, but of course in practice, that subject matter lends itself to discussion of a wide range of areas, including anthropology, classic literature, and history.
Andante's tours once focused on Europe, North Africa, and around the Holy Land, but now they span the globe. They zoom in on unique, often classical areas that you're unlikely to see offered by any American travel company. Its "Ravenna and Aquileia" tour seeks out the decorative arts from the Roman period that are still found around the Po Valley of Italy. And how many other companies do you know of that will take you to the Arab state of Oman, and to its little-touristed UNESCO World Heritage gems, in the company of an archeologist expert in the Bronze Age?
Most unusually, in 2014 it will run A House Divided, an ambitious panorama of American Civil War sights, taking in the rural Georgia POW camp of Andersonville, Richmond, Harper's Ferry, Gettysburg, and culminating in Washington, DC.
Andante is one of the few companies anywhere to offer comprehensive national tours of Albania, a once-isolated mountainous country that has been left behind by the rest of Europe, and to Australia's most remote Outback in search of precious examples of indigenous rock art—led by a man who got his Ph.D studying prehistoric rock art, of course.
Tours generally employ several expert guides. One or two will be speakers of the location's native tongue, and they handle day-to-day details of managing travel. But the other guides are professors, lecturers, and experts in the place you'll be seeing, and they devote themselves to imparting their years of knowledge to you. These experts include professors at English universities (where study of the classics is still held in esteem).
Prices, while not dead cheap, are still reasonable considering the status of the expert guides and the small size of the group (average: 19)--and the fact that nowadays, you're unlikely to find many brainy tours for much less. Travel with Andante usually costs around £200 a day, including all meals (including wine with dinner), hotels, and transportation, which translates to about $313 in American currency. Andante allows a deduction of several hundred pounds for those who arrange their own flights (which Americans would surely do for the Civil War tour), otherwise, its trips begin and end in London, which gives Americans an excellent excuse to add that great city into their itineraries.
Special praise must be given to Andante's efforts to craft intelligent tours for people who would like to save money. Ten of its tours are classified as "Bare Bones" trips, which don't include lunch of dinner (and therefore require passengers to mingle less as a group), might have a single expert guide, and choose moderate-value hotels. The company often schedules these trips during the times of year when older kids might be out of school, since their independent structure lends themselves to family travel. These largely cost less than £200 a day.
For vacationers who want a scholarship in their destination without the exhausting breakneck pace of a coach tour, Andante also puts together "Relaxed Breaks in Ancient Places." They're set in such stunning locales as Provence; the Roman port city of Split, Croatia; or the established Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, and they allow you a deep-dive education of a single place along with plenty of free time to lounge by the pool, hit wineries, and loaf with a book. Because smart people need to chill out, too.