No frills or uber-luxury? Five days or five weeks? Group of five or group of 50? Once spurned for their bland ‘one size fits all’ approach, many group tours are today increasingly tailored towards specific kinds of travellers with specific interests. From cooking in Tuscany to walking a pilgrim road or appreciating fabrics in New Delhi, travellers can choose from a seemingly endless range of destinations, with tours ranging from a few days to over a month and at a range of price levels. But the fundamental questions remain – is group travel right for you and what kind of group tour will be the most satisfying for you?
Robert Veel, draws on his 25 years’ experience in designing and leading cultural group tours and has put together the following list of questions to ask yourself before committing to a group tour:
Cultural or special interest group tours, such as those run by Academy Travel, are essentially social activities. While there are plenty of opportunities for personal discovery and reflection, one of the main enjoyments can be in sharing your passions with like-minded people. It is not usual, for example, for travellers on a special interest tour to leave a partner at home so they can indulge their passion without worrying about what their partner is thinking. There can be a real sense of shared joy and community when a special interest group ‘discovers’ a site they did not know much about or debates the merits of something they have seen or done.
So, while there are always travellers who prefer their own company to that of others, you will probably get more from group travel if you enjoy this social side. And let’s face it, dining on your own or even with your partner night after night can get a bit tedious!
Tip:Think about group size and try to find out how the tour operator sources its clients. If the group is too big, if members come from a range of countries or if there is a wide spread of ages, it is less likely that there will be good group cohesion.
Some destinations are naturally suited to group travel – Sicily, Iran, Uzbekistan, Morocco, western China, the Baltic States all spring to mind. Travel distances, physical terrain, language, accommodation and food all make it much easier and safer to travel in a group, and it is not surprising to see these destinations are in most travel companies’ offerings. Other destinations are best left to independent travellers and families – the Greek Islands in summer, Bali, Disneyland etc.
Another way in which a destination can be well suited to group travel is through the kinds of experiences provided on the tour. Everyone can travel to New York, but as an individual can you ensure the best seats at the Metropolitan Opera, tickets to the right Broadway shows, a private tour of MoMA and visits to houses normally closed to the public? If a tour company can do this then it has created a compelling reason to travel in a group.
Tip: If you are contemplating travelling to a challenging destination independently, you need plenty of time to move from place to place, organise accommodation and site visits. As a rule of thumb, double the number of days that a group tour takes to cover an itinerary if you want to see the same things. If your time is limited, then a group tour may be the better option.
Like it or not, your enjoyment of a group tour is heavily dependent on the knowledge, skills and experience of the group leader. Depending on the tour, this leader could be a manager, who organises the logistics of the tour and deals with emergencies, or it could be a specialist with expert knowledge and excellent communication skills. In my experience, the capability of the tour leader is the single greatest factor in determining travellers’ satisfaction levels.
It pays to do some research about the kinds of tour leaders that a tour operator uses. More specialised tour companies assign a specific tour leader to a tour well in advance and give biographies and client feedback about the tour leader. The tour operator’s website may also have videos of the tour leader or offer seminars where you can meet the tour leader and judge their capability for yourself. More mass-market oriented tour operators, especially those who offer many departure dates for the same tour are usually not in a position to give the name of the tour leader/manager until just before departure.
When it comes to local guides, be aware that standards and ethics can vary enormously from country to country. In many middle-eastern countries, for example, the country guide who stays with you for the entire trip is often well qualified, with post-graduate qualifications and excellent communications skills. However, this is often because the guide can earn a significant income through tips and commissions, so expect trips to shops that are were on the itinerary and some pretty subtle hints about tipping*. In western Europe guiding can be seen as a low-status occupation and guides can be surprisingly uninformed or just plain dull. In these situations an expert tour leader is essential.
* Better tour operators will include tipping in the tour cost, so you can happily ignore the local guides reminders!
Tip:Try to find out as much about your tour leader as possible, either through the tour operator’s website or by attending seminars and lectures given by the tour leader. It’s important that you feel comfortable with the person who will be shaping your experiences for a few weeks.
With the proliferation and increasing specialisation of group travel, the 1970s stereotype of a bus jam-packed with passengers no longer applies to most tours. Here are some of the main types of group tours operating today.
‘Cultural tours’, ‘art tours’, ‘history tours’ etc are all code words for a kind of group tour that is designed to appeal to travellers wanting greater depth and detail in their travel. Compared to mass-market tours, cultural tours will offer longer stays in most places (3-4 nights is the norm), centrally-located accommodation, usually about four-star level, an expert tour leader, a reasonable amount of free time and a moderate group size (15-25 travellers). Travellers on cultural tours typically have a professional background or a well-established interest in the destination country, through attending a course, reading, film etc. Unlike special interest tours (below) cultural tours will usually include a range of experiences, not just a single focus.
Special interest tours
Special interest tours cater to travellers with a strong, single interest. This can be anything from railways to sporting events, music festivals or particular arts and crafts. Sometimes these tours can be skills-based – such as cooking or drawing. Accommodation and ‘peripheral’ experiences are generally less important. Group size can vary enormously. Usually skills-based groups are small (5-15) whereas sporting and music groups can number in the 100s.
These tours are based on a specific type of physical activity. This can vary from ‘soft adventure’ such as walking a pilgrim route to really challenging sports such as mountaineering. Like special-interest tours, accommodation and peripheral sites take second place to the core activity.
Road trips vs long-stay tours
In the past, opportunities for travel were fewer than they are today. As a result, tours were generally longer and itineraries created value by packing in as many famous sites as possible. This tradition lives on, in the form of the road-trip coach tour and in ocean and river cruising, and the vast majority of group tours are still road trips, even though the pace is a little slower and the experiences more varied. More recently, however, long-stay or residential tours have begun to feature in tour operators’ programs. These tours are generally shorter in length and visit just one, two or three places, but cover them in depth. Long-stay tours have proven to be extremely popular. They have the advantage of not having to move your luggage every day, and give you the chance to really get to know a place. However, they do rely on an expert tour leader and a really good destination.
Tip:when considering a road trip, look beyond the map of the territory covered and try and discern the kind of tour that lies beneath. How many hours are spent on the bus? How long is spent in each place? Is the accommodation central? How big is the group?
Generally speaking, the smaller the group the better. Groups of, say, 22 or more require more time to get in and out of sites, to visit toilets, to check in and out of hotels etc. However very small groups of 6-12 can also be problematic. You may find yourself forced in to the company of people who you really do not get along with, and who can be politely avoided in a larger group. Also, you may not have the number for special access to sites. Over the years, we have found that groups of 16-20 strike a nice balance between efficiency and cohesiveness, though there’s no magic formula.
Tip:Group size should play a significant role in the cost of a tour, as fixed costs such as coaches and guides are divided by more people. Think carefully about the maximum group size you are prepared to tolerate and the premium you are prepared to pay to travel in a smaller group.
Group tours cater for everyone from school students to over 80s, and the pace of the tour will reflect the expected demographics of the group. Your travel can be ruined by being in a group that is either frustratingly slow or one that moves so quickly that you are exhausted after a few days.
Most tour operators publish guidelines as to the physical requirements, and you should consider these carefully. Good itinerary design and a skilled tour leader can also make it possible for more nimble travellers to move at a faster pace or for sower travellers to take a break and not slow down the others. However, it is unlikely that everyone in the group will move at exactly the same pace as you, so you have to be prepared to compromise a bit.
Tip:Contact the tour operator to find out about the typical age of their groups and to what extent the tour program can be tailored to your capacities.
13-19 days seems to be about right, but this depends very much on the destination – how far it is from your home country and how easily independent travel can be added to the group itinerary. If living in Australia, it makes little sense to travel to Europe or the United States for less than two weeks. In these destinations many travellers extend their group travel by adding independent travel at either before or after the tour, meaning that a group tour can be as short as 8-10 days. However other countries, such as Iran and Morocco are mostly ‘fly in/fly out’, meaning that the group tour should be at least 14 days.
Tip:If your tour requires a long plane journey, think about how you can extend your travel and amortise the cost of the flight. Group tours can be tiring, so it often makes sense to arrive a few days early and get your bearings before launching into the tour program.
Will I get any free time for individual discovery?
‘I’m not really a group traveller, but….’ or ‘I’m worried about being trapped with the group for the whole time’ – I can’t tell you how many conversations with potential travellers have started with these words over the years. If you can think for yourself and have even a slight sense of adventure, then it is essential that your tour includes at least some free time in each place. This could be in the form of free afternoons and evenings, or from having a long stay in a place, allowing you to dip out of scheduled group activities if required. To allow for individual discovery, it really helps if your hotel is well located and you are armed with enough information about the choices available.
Having said that, some destinations do not lend themselves easily to individual discovery. This may be because you are at an isolated site, where there really isn’t that much else to see beyond what is in the tour program, or if the local language is impossible to decipher. It may even be unsafe to venture out alone in some places. Your tour operator should have thought of all of this in advance when planning the itinerary. Free time should be saved up for places where there are interesting places that can be explored safely.
Tip:Think carefully about how much ‘me time’ you require each day, and try to find a tour that allows for this. If you like your own company and find yourself sharing every meal and every moment with your tour group, you may begin resenting it.
We all crave authentic experience in our travels, and so many tour operators emphasise the tailor-made aspects of their itineraries – meeting a local family, having dinner in a small village visiting a local market etc. While these experiences can be fascinating, it is more likely that you are participating in a highly-choreographed, tried and tested activity, much like the rest of your itinerary. In truth, it is hard for a group tour operator to provide a truly ‘authentic’ experience.
One thing that group tours can offer is exclusive or after-hours access to sites that are either very crowded or normally not open to the public – such as a private visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, or a visit to a privately-owned palace or historic home. Another thing to look for is encounters with local experts, in the form of a talk or a home visit. While it may not feel as authentic as a visit to the local market, you are getting something that other travellers cannot access.
Tip: If you do really want an authentic behind the scenes experience, try to arrange it yourself, perhaps by reading up first, then a bit of trial and error on the ground. A good tour leader should also be able to provide some valuable pointers, though they won’t have the time to escort you.
What are the main differences between budget and high-end group tours?
Because group tours are packaged with a single price, it can be very difficult to determine if the tour is good value or not, and there are a bewildering range of price levels to consider. One basic calculation is the cost per day, though this is in no way an indication of value – what you get from the tour.
Generally speaking, high-end tours should offer most of the following:
Group size or no more than 22-25
A named tour leader who has some special qualifications to lead the group
Centrally-located accommodation, usually about 4-star level
Minimum two-night stay in each location
Better-than-average meals with drinks included
Special events, such as performances, talks, private visits
All tipping included
Nearly all optional events and excursions included
On a budget tour, you should expect at least some of the following:
Group sizes of 25 or more
A local tour guide
Hotels at 3-4 star level, good quality but perhaps in somewhat remote locations
A choice of optional activities that you will have to pay for
Reasonable restaurants where you pay extra for the beer and wine you consume
Guidelines as to the tips you will have to provide
To sum up: Advantages and Disadvantages of group tours
In spite of some of the perceived negatives of travelling in a group, such as a lack of freedom and authenticity, they offer many practical advantages and good value for the right traveller. With so many kinds of group tours available today, it’s important to do your research and pick the style of tour that best meets your personality, your interests and that an itinerary best suits the destination in terms of length, pace and tour leadership. Good tour operators will have lots of information available to help you choose, and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions about inclusions, the tour leader and the other likely travellers in the group.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.