Seasoned traveller Niraj Shah has now embarked on three of our Epic Trips. On the eve of his latest adventure, we caught up with him and found out more about why he travels with Culture Trip and why our premium collection of small-group trips is exactly what he’s after.
When he’s not travelling for work he’s probably on one of our small-group trips, so it’s quite hard to pin Niraj Shah down for a chat. Having arrived early for his next departure, we managed to grab some time and find out more about why he trusts Culture Trip to deliver the ultimate travel experience.
“It’s not a bad view, is it?” Niraj says, pointing out at the unmistakable peaks of the Great Pyramids of Giza, clearly visible from his hotel window. I guess there’s no point in building up the mystery then, the trip Niraj is about to go on is our 10-day Ultimate Egypt tour. Like many people who join us, Niraj has arrived a few days early so he can take advantage of time in the city on his own. It’s a clever way of doing some solo travel if you want to explore at your own pace, but why is someone so clearly comfortable with independent travel keen to join a small-group trip?
“This is my first time in Egypt and I’ve been looking forward to doing a trip of this magnitude for some time now. It has always eluded me but I had a great reason to do it because Culture Trip had this one available. It covers everything I am after and I wanted to spend some time here before and after the main part of the itinerary. I can cross everything off my bucket list in one go. I decided I had to do it”. Niraj explains.
Born in India but emigrating with his family to California at an early age, you could say travel has always been a big part of Niraj’s life. Having gained a masters degree and worked in Washington DC for a while, there came a moment of awakening.
“I realised I was kind of bored of work”, he tells us. “I was looking around and thought I have a great, high-paying job and a series of titles but I still wasn’t fully happy. I took a leap of faith and joined a programme called Remote Year. I was able to invest in myself by travelling the world while still working. Essentially I was remote working, but this was about a decade before Covid was a thing.”
Since then, Niraj admits he hasn’t really stopped travelling but says he has been able to manage work life, social commitments and time with his family well. He no longer just travels for the sake of travel, however, he is more interested in immersing himself in local cultures and feeling a part of the communities he is in. “I really enjoy doing that, and it makes travel more profound. Having friends all over the world is addictive, in a good way”.
Clearly solo travel is part of Niraj’s way of life now, but he is also a big advocate of group travel too. “What I like about the trips I do with Culture Trip is that you get to meet people from so many different walks of life. You get that community aspect that I like so much, and you can find out what everyone brings to the table. It’s always fun speaking to people and finding out where they’re from. The planning is taken care of and, as free time sometimes dwindles, it’s great to know that someone has found the best hotels, experiences and places to eat for you. Having someone like Culture Trip take care of the logistics means I get more time to focus on my own work or spend time with the family”.
When travelling solo Niraj says he often finds himself in the company of other experienced travellers. As much fun as that is, he does like sharing his experiences with people who may not be as confident as he is, and that’s one of the other reasons he enjoys travelling as part of a group. “I must have been a teacher or a guide in a past life!”, he jokes.
So how did Niraj find Culture Trip? “I know exactly where I was. It was Mexico City and I was watching something on Netflix and I got an email from Culture Trip. Through all my travels I have always used the site for insights into each country I went to. I find the content to be the most current and comprehensive, so before I go anywhere I download all the places to go, things to do and make my own map. The email I got said that Culture Trip is launching its own trips. I clicked on the link and saw the one that goes through Puglia, Lecce and the south of Italy. I was with my girlfriend at the time, we had always wanted to spend a summer in Italy and this covered everything. I reached out and that was it.”
Even an experienced traveler like Niraj still had some questions he wanted to know the answers to before finalising his travel plans. That’s where our dedicated Travel Experts come in. “Shelby (one of Culture Trip’s team) set up a call and she is now like my sister! She answered everything and I was sold immediately. She helped me navigate my plans around Italy, which really helped. I found out I had ample time to add more things on if I wanted and also be part of the group.”
“It was one of my first trips post Covid and I had a number of additional concerns that made me slightly nervous, but again Shelby was on hand to answer everything.”
“Matera blew me away!”, Niraj exclaims when asked to pick out a highlight from Italy. “Every city on that our Local Insider Francesco showed us was so good that I wanted to go back to see more of it. Actually Francesco was another highlight”.
Matera, just outside of the region of Puglia, has grown in popularity since it featured in the latest Bond film No Time to Die (2021). “It is even better in person. Matera is a really wholesome experience and I felt the warmth from everyone. Another highlight is Lecce, it’s more outgoing and full of nightlife. It’s actually what I love about these Culture Trip trips, getting to spend two nights here and two nights there. I strategise in my mind where I want to come back and spend more time afterwards. This was a great introduction. I actually went back to Matera and lived there for four weeks afterwards. If it wasn’t for the trip I wouldn’t really have known how to get from the Amalfi Coast and Naples to Matera, but Francesco was on hand to show us. We also had a wonderful shuttle bus driver who was able to get us to those hard to reach spots, and I actually used him again when I flew back to Italy the second time.
Niraj clearly loves Italy as his second trip with Culture Trip took him to Sicily. “This time we went from Palermo to Panarea and Mount Etna. We saw the islands and the rest of the beautiful towns. I’m a big movie fan, so to be in the birthplace of The Godfather (1972) was special too. Walking through spots where Francis Ford Coppola shot his movies was like walking back through time. The food might not be the best for you… but it was so good!”
“I have to say the hotels were great too. Walking from Syracuse and along the coast on warm evenings was an unforgettable experience.”
Clearly enjoying his experiences with Culture Trip, Niraj is bringing along two very special guests for his trip to Egypt. “My parents are on their way. I’m here a few days early, but will pick them up before we start the trip together. It’s been a dream of my father to go to Cairo as he is a big history buff. You had a great Black Friday sale and I thought I have to get on that! I didn’t know back then who was coming with me, but when my dad found out he said “I will be there”. Once he confirmed, my Mum also said she was coming.
We’ll be hearing more from Niraj once he’s back from Egypt. Meanwhile he’s already planning some winter trips to see the Northern Lights. Well, there’s always Iceland for that…