I’m just going to come right out and say it: I’m a fan of group tours. I’ve been on several and already have my eye on a couple more for future trips. I’ve had universally positive experiences (knock on wood) with group tours and think they can be a terrific way to experience a place while meeting similarly adventurous people and not worrying about logistics. This is especially true when I’ve been a solo traveler.
Although I have had great experiences with tour groups, I concede that they may not appeal to everyone and there can be some downsides. Tours also vary widely in terms of group size, free/unstructured time, and what is included in the price. Some tours hit the main tourist highlights of a city/country while others aim to take you off the beaten path for a unique experience. All of this can affect your tour experience. (I plan to cover what to look for when booking a group tour in a separate article—stay tuned!)
Pros of a Group Tour
Someone else takes care of planning, transportation, and logistics. All you have to do is show up when they tell you to. No need to research train schedules or map out routes in advance. No need to stress about whether you’ll find a restaurant in this remote area before hunger pains drive you to start gnawing on your own arm. All that is taken care of so you can enjoy yourself.
You’re guaranteed to see the best spots. Tour group organizers have scoped out the area thoroughly—and in some cases they live there—so they know what is popular, iconic, and worth visiting. They know where to get the best mojito, where the clean bathrooms are, and which scenic views are Instagram-worthy.
You have a local to rely on for help. Your guide(s) understand how things work at your destination and are well-versed in cultural norms, not to mention fluent in at least two languages (English and the local tongue). This can be invaluable when there are language barriers, you’re not sure how much to tip your server at dinner, or you need a pharmacy or medical attention. Just for starters.
You’ll get good value for the money (usually). This one depends on what is included (meals, in-country transport, lodging, sometimes even airfare to/from the tour destination). I’ve generally found tours to be more cost-effective than taking the same trip à la carte. Plus they come with the intangible benefit of making new friends. Which brings me to the next pro:
Meet interesting, like-minded people. By “like-minded,” I don’t mean they share all your political and religious beliefs or your love of bagpipe music. I mean that the people in your tour group will love and value travel the same way you do, will likely be open to trying and experiencing new things, and will doubtless have some great stories about past trips they’ve taken. I’ve kept in-touch with and even traveled again with people I met on past group tours.
Cons of a Group Tour
You have no control over your itinerary. Since the tour company sets the itinerary, you have no say in how much time you spend in each place and little to no say in what you do or see there. (Note that some tours do build free days into the schedule, which would give you more flexibility here.) As a result, you might miss something you would have sought out had you been there on your own. You might also have to endure a museum that doesn’t particularly interest you.
You have little control over budget/cost. While I think group tours are generally a good value for the money, their one-lump-sum payment does prevent you from parsing out costs. You can’t decide to stay in hostels to save money, for example. Many tours are less-expensive because they don’t include meals, which offers you a chance to be a little more frugal even while traveling with a group.
You’re always en route to a new place. The very nature of a group tour means you are going to move around every few nights or more. This means you’re constantly repacking your suitcase and hauling it to/from the bus/train/plane. While you get to see lots of places, you are also never able to unpack and feel vacation-settled into your hotel.
Be prepared for long stretches on the road. All that moving around takes time. You could be on a bus or train for several hours at a time to get to your next destination. While it can feel like you’re wasting time by not being out there sightseeing, it’s not a drawback for everyone. I like staring out the window at the scenery. Those travel hours also mean you have downtime to read or take a nap, and they give you a chance to get to know other group members.
It’s hard to get alone time unless you’ve paid extra to have your own room. On a group tour, you’re with each other constantly. Even when you have free time, you’re with each other in smaller groups. This isn’t a con for everyone since we all need different amounts of alone time.
Should You Take a Group Tour?
On the whole, I think the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to group tours. Choosing the right tour company and specific tour can make a huge difference, so be sure to do plenty of research before you book any tour. When you do find the right fit, however, you’ll revel in being taken care of, meeting people who share your curiosity about the world, and experiencing a new place in style.
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