By Lark Gould
Ahhh, the group tour – steady, safe, oft-maligned but far and away, the best way to tour and travel if you have a fixed window for time and money and want to pack in the places for the fewest pesos.
But what is the best group tour? They come in all shapes and faces, go to all corners and places and can mean anything from a group of two strangers and a guide, to lines of dark-windowed mega coaches filled with wide-eyed travel junkies on summer vacation.
It would be impossible to offer a list of the best international tour and travel companies and tours to recommend. The U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) has thousands of vetted member tour companies that have been ferrying Americans to all corners of the globe for decades.
Rather, emphasis on best group tours needs to remain in the hands of the traveler that is taking one. Questions must be asked and answered. A little soul searching should be in place and clear ideas must ensue about what is wanted, what is offered and what can be expected from the experience. Not all tours are alike; not all tours are created equal. For some people, the tour is the destination. For others, the tour is just a conveyance for getting to a series of destinations. For all who seek to travel this way, group tours have one thing in common: You will not be alone.
Does that mean the solo travel should stop reading right now? Hardly. Group tours were practically invented for solo travelers. Not all travelers want to travel solo all the time and for those who want a break from their own good company or have no interest in traveling alone, group tours, for better or worse, make the perfect travel companions. Even a group tour turns into the tour from hell (everyone has a story, trust me!) — and there is one person or three who make sure the rest of the folks travel in optimal annoyance — there are always ways of getting away and always one or two others in tow that create a comforting shield of agreement and social protection.
There are a number of pros and cons to consider in selecting this mode of travel and then one must figure out which tour company and tour group to join. The following is a guide to getting on the right group tour for you. And, of course, your travel agent will know best.
Where do you want to go? If you want to go to Los Angeles, you don’t even need a group tour. You need four hours and a Starline bus ride. Then you can hit the beach on your own. But if you want to go to Italy, France, Viet Nam or the Scottish Highlands, you’d better start collecting brochures. Companies such as Trafalgar Tours, Brendan Vacations, and Insight Vacations among many, many others, have years of experience taking large groups to Europe and elsewhere. They may have enticing programs that allow parties to opt into a dinner at a local’s home or a tour of a local’s winery or goat farm.
Of course, you can head to Europe on your own, rent a car or get a rail pass and find plenty of local adventure on your own. But you will have to make your own decisions, find your own bistros and order your own meals, drag your own luggage in and out of whatever hotels have a vacancy, and shell out for plenty of unanticipated expenses – all the time.
On the other hand, if you want to go to Namibia, you probably won’t want to rent a car and suss it out on your own. You will want the destination know-how of a trusted tour company.
How do you want to go? Do you want to go with a few people? With 10 people? With 28 or 40? Do you want to go by private van? By coach? By decked out and customized Boeing 757? (Yes, for $119,000 per person, the Four Seasons Private Jet Experience will take you and 51 others by private plane on a 16-day vacation of a lifetime).
Afraid of small prop planes? Skip South Africa and Alaska. Sickened by sea travel? Avoid the small adventure travel skiffs to the Antarctic and the yacht trips around the Galapagos. Claustrophobic? Skip the group van tours through Vietnam and do not travel around Africa or India by public bus. Afraid of heights? You might want to cross Lhasa, parts of Nepal and Machu Picchu off the bucket list. Prone to car sickness? The Great Rift Valley and perhaps the spine of the Tuscan foothills are not for you.
What is your budget? Group tours are not always the cheapest way to go. You will pay several thousand dollars for, say, two weeks of travel and you won’t be enchanted by all the places and activities. You might not stay in the best hotels and sip the best wines with dinner. In fact, that paella you were looking forward to in Valencia, Spain might be just a tepid buffet offering at the group tour restaurant you’re offered. And those Arcachon oysters or escargot Bourguignon in western France that you so sorely wanted may be something you have to order on your own on some of your few free hours.
But count up the hotels, the transport, the lugging, the parsing and bargaining, the English-speaking guides, the museum passes, the meals bad and good, the history and good company and funny experiences … and most importantly – the sense of safety and the blissful time off from making decisions — and some things turn out to be priceless.
That said, a concept in travel that has become increasingly popular in recent years is that of “Bespoke Travel.” That is a group tour in which the group works with a tour company to customize the experience toward the wants of the passengers. Such a tour can be for two or 20. It can be in a leathery Mercedes sedan or a decked out bus or the aforementioned jet. This group can be visiting the stepwells of northern India, catching balloon festivals in France, crashing Tet celebrations in South East Asia or joining a religious pilgrimage in Ethiopia. Or they may take a scheduled tour and tweak it this way and that. Such companies as Travcoa, Brown + Hudson, Elevate Destinations, Peregrine Adventures, Kensington Tours, even Abercrombie & Kent are not hard to find and they each offer their specialty spins for the crowd that forgets to look at price tags when they shop.
How busy do you want to be? For some travelers, packing it in is the name of the game: see as much as possible in as little time as possible. They will be getting on and off the bus with the fluidity of a butterfly. They will race around museums, buy a Coke at the souvenir stand and read the itinerary and guide book to check up on what’s next.
For others, a vacation still needs to have a vacation in it and it is important to see how much free time can be expected each day, how many free days there will be, where these free days will be and if near a beach, how far away is the hotel? Should you want time for shopping, will that be guaranteed? How often and where in particular? Do you like to sleep late? If so, what time are the wake up calls most days and will there be any free mornings? Do you need to bring your own coffee pot?
How fit are you? Even for the young athletes in the group, constantly getting on and off the bus can be taxing. Then there are the cobbled, broken and uneven streets, the constant stairs, the hillside hikes, the “just down the block” walks that turn into treks, possibly in the rain. Check the level of fitness the tour company suggests and then ask yourself if you want to work that hard or if you are even up to the choice.
For others, a tour will not be fit enough and there may be options for side hikes or biking segues. You may be fit but your mother isn’t and you may be stuck on the bus with mom while the rest of the group tours the Alhambra. Not everyone can find a group tour that is right for them or right for all members of their party. How much flexibility does a company or tour offer? Perhaps some parties in the group can go to the beach while others to the museum. Or perhaps there is no wiggle room in an itinerary at all … ever.
How hungry are you to see a destination? Chances are something will go wrong – someone will be late … a lot, some problem will happen with the vehicle’s engine, some guide won’t show up – and something on the itinerary will get knocked off the list. And no doubt, just as you are coming back from the Vatican, someone will mention Trevi Fountain and you will start up an imaginary self-flogging session because you forgot to count that in on the “must” list when you were researching this trip. But you might be in luck – you may have asked the right questions about a tour’s flexibility and found that you do, indeed, get some hours at the end of each day to do with as you please in the destination. Other times you will not be so lucky – an attraction or place may be hours away – or a tour will not be so flexible. Can you handle the disappointment? Can you take the good with the bad? On a group tour, your time is not your own and that may be the hardest adjustment to make as you roll along.
How picky are you about where you stay? Chances are you will not be staying in 5-star hotels, unless you have specifically researched this factor and have paid for it. But most tour companies have pre-set deals with the hotels they use and these are listed in the itinerary. There may even be a choice between budget and deluxe that will figure in. In either case, before booking take a look at the various hotels and decide if it matters to you that the spot in Venice is not in the town or the auberge in France is actually a bland Novotel off a highway. Is there a mix? Perhaps some hotels need only be a clean stop between iconic destinations while others really should be on or near the beach or smack in the middle of the Old City.
How safe do you need to feel when you travel? This is perhaps the key reason why people do go with a group travel option rather than going it alone. Not only is there safety in numbers, there is safety in familiarity – or being with people who are familiar and a guide that is familiar with all the local nuances. Lose something? It’s a simple call to the hotel. Lose your way? The bus is not going to leave without you. Need a bathroom? A price? A translation? Not a problem. And possibly, in these uncertain times when anything can erupt at any time – and does – you need someone or some organization that has your back.
Still the group tour from hell? While you may not get your money back from a bad trip, if you go with a group tour company and that tour was booked by a knowledgeable travel agent that has a relationship and experience with that company, your complaint will be heard and acted upon.
In uneven times, many companies, including tour companies, go out of business – even before all the busses have come home. There are insurances for this and assurances for this. California, for instance, has a Seller of Travel law in place that requires California based tour companies and travel agents to register with the state. In the event of a sudden bankruptcy or closure, a special travel fund is tapped that allows travelers who have purchased from a registered seller to get their redress. Even if that traveler does not live in California but has purchased through a California-based company, the coverage is still in place. Other states with varying laws regulating sellers of travel include Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington.
Lark Gould is an award winning writer and journalist who has been covering the travel industry for four decades for top national and international publications. She blogs about her personal travel experiences on Larkslist.