As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of group tours. It can be nice to have someone else take care of logistics and transportation so all I have to do is have a good time.
When most people think of a tour group, they picture a huge coach bus carting around a group of 50 or so people (retirees, foreign tourists, etc.). They stop at famous landmarks and move en masse around the museums, following a guide who gives them mini-lectures on the history of the monument/building/painting. Groups like these do exist but they are far from the only option.
Group tours, and the companies that offer them, vary not only in price and duration but also in level of service, what’s included, and group size. It’s important to know both what you want and what you’re getting when searching for and booking a group tour.
Here are some things to consider when looking for the perfect group tour.
This is the most important consideration when searching for a group tour. What will you do on the tour? Will you see the places and things you really want to see? Is anything essential left out? How much time will you get to spend in each place? How much time will you spend in-transit, e.g., on a bus or train between stops?
Will you have any free time to see things on your own and, if so, how much? Some tours take you from city to city but then you’re left on your own at each location to see and do what you want. Are you comfortable with that or do you want more planned group activities? Other tours, particularly those involving hiking, cycling, or nature walking, tend to have more time with the guide and group and less time allocated for solo exploration.
Group size is an essential consideration for me, second only to the itinerary itself. In fact, I won’t book a group tour that doesn’t limit the size of the group to 15 people or fewer. Small groups give you greater opportunity to really get to know the people in the group and feel by the end like you’re traveling with friends instead of strangers. Small groups are also less conspicuous than large ones, another bonus for me as I try not to draw undue—and unwanted—attention to myself when I travel.
Many times information about group size is in the About Us or About our Tours section of the tour company’s website, not necessarily in the section on a specific tour. You might be fine traveling with a larger group (20-50 people) and might even prefer it. Just know what to expect.
Level of Service
Level of service refers to the luxury factor of your lodging and meals as well as the role of your tour guide(s) during the trip. For instance, are you staying in bed and breakfast establishments, in rustic lodges, in upscale hotels, or in tents? If meals are included, are they at Michelin-starred restaurants complete with bottles of fine wine? Are meals prepared by your tour guides? Are they basic meals at the local eatery? There’s no good or bad here, just preference. Companies might offer the same or similar tours but with different levels of service (and corresponding prices).
Where tour guides are concerned: Is your tour guide there just to get you and your stuff from point A to B safely? Or does your tour guide also know the history and significance of the places you’re visiting? Do you have more than one tour guide? Does your guide accompany you on every activity during the trip, including eating meals together?
When I went to Greece with a school group in college, our tour guide gave us history and culture mini-lessons everywhere we went. When I went back to Greece on a kayaking tour many years later, our guide didn’t know about the ruins that were being excavated or the history of the big cathedral in the town square. His job was to load us into our kayaks in the morning and take our luggage overland to the next seaside village on our itinerary, where he met us a few hours later. Neither style is better than the other, you just need to know your preference (if you have one).
Value & What’s Included
I am purposely not mentioning price because I believe value is a better factor to consider. A dirt-cheap tour is going to offer less and might not be a better value than a more expensive tour, or vice versa. Further, we all like to spend our money on different things when we travel. My uncle will stay in a hovel to save money whereas I am willing to pay more for a proper hotel room and I won’t go at all if camping is involved. (Hiking the Inca Trail in Peru might make me eat my words on that one.)
When looking at group tours, consider not just the price but what you’re getting for that price. Some things to look for:
- Is all your lodging included? What type of lodging is it? Is there an option to upgrade your lodging if you’re not satisfied with the primary offering?
- How many meals are included, if any? How fancy or basic are the meals? Can they accommodate food allergies or other dietary needs?
- What transportation is included in the tour price? (Most tours cover in-country transportation but it’s up to you to get yourself to/from the start and end points. That said, double check to be sure.)
- What activities and admission costs, if any, are included in the tour price? Are there optional activities and how much do they cost? Will you feel obligated to do the optional activities so as not to “miss out?” If so, how much does that add to the cost of the trip?
- Does your tour include classes in the local language, art, cooking, etc.?
- How many tour guides lead the tour? What is their role/what level of service do they provide (see above)?
- How many “extras” are listed in the tour description, including mandatory fees?
- Are you expected to tip the tour guide(s)? If so, what is the suggested amount? (Tipping your guide is not strictly required but has come to be a socially expected practice most places, particularly when you’re an American traveling abroad, since we tip everyone for everything.)
This one might seem obvious but it’s not necessarily the first thing you check when you’re researching options. Some tours are only offered seasonally while others change up the itinerary depending on the season. Some companies also charge more for tours during high tourist season than the off-season. Be sure to see when the tour is offered before you get your heart set on taking it.
Level of Activity/Fitness Requirement
Consider how active you will be on the tour, based on the itinerary. Many tours rate the activity level (easy, moderate, challenging, etc.) but even so, ask yourself these questions:
- Will you be doing a lot of city walking?
- Are hikes, zip lines, swimming, or similar activities included?
- What fitness level do you need to have to participate fully in all activities?
- Do you have any health issues or physical limitations that would prevent you from participating in any of the activities? What are your options if you can’t participate?
- Are you comfortable using all of the transportation methods included? For instance, do you get sea sick or have a strong fear of flying? If so, can you mitigate those or should you avoid tours with those elements?
When it comes to choosing a group tour, there’s no right or wrong. However, doing some research and knowing your own preferences can help you chose the right group tour for YOU.
Need some help? Email me and we’ll talk over your options.
Have you been on a group tour? What else do you wish you had considered before booking? Tell me about it in the comments below.
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