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Nine Ways to Get the Most Out of a Guided Tour
(Photo: Interior of Tour Bus via Shutterstock)

I'm a seasoned traveler who's always shunned the canned group-travel experience in favor of wandering on my own. Yet recently, I was talked into a coach tour and discovered that there's actually a good place for it in my stash of ways to see a new place.

You know the feeling: You want to get overseas but don't have the time, knowledge, or inclination to plan (and pay) for every single transfer, hotel, and meal. I'd wanted to explore the northern coast of Spain for some time, but I lacked the resources to put together my dream tour any time soon. I was surprised at how satisfying and easy it was to take a group tour.

Thankfully, tours have changed. The days of being stuck on a coach as the wonders of the world blur by are long gone. Many tour operators understand that travelers—both with empty passports and bulging ones—want most of the major details taken care of with built-in free time to break away from the group. Here are nine tips to turn a guided tour into a more personalized journey.

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Pick The Right Tour For You
Pick the Right Tour for You
(Photo: Annette Thompson)

Be sure to do your homework before signing up with a tour company. Think about your style. Do you typically put most of your money into high-end hotels and fancy meals? Then choose a high-end travel company, such as Abercrombie & Kent or Mountain Travel Sobek. If you'd rather pay more for a variety of destinations with insider tour guides, opt for industry leader Insight Vacations.

Beware of tours that follow a common-denominator itinerary. You know how that goes: The "activity level" of a promised experience is dumbed down to the least capable individual. When you're seeking a truly athletic experience, sign up with an operator that caters to your abilities.

Find out how many people typically go on the tours, the average ages of participants, the type of transportation, and how crowded the vehicles will be. I decided on Insight Vacations for my journey for all these reasons, and I appreciated their 53-seat touring buses retrofitted for 40 roomy seats. I never felt crowded. I also learned that Insight's groups skew younger, with 75 percent under 65 and 28 percent under 40.

Choose The Right Itinerary
Choose the Right Itinerary
(Photo: Annette Thompson)

Only you can answer the questions of where you want to go and how much time you want to spend in certain locations. Some tours focus on placing visitors in culturally rich, city-centric hotels and then setting participants free to explore independently. Others plan every minute for their customers and frown upon folks who sneak off by themselves. Do your due diligence before booking by reading what participants say about their experiences on travel-review sites such as Travel Tour Group Reviews and Tour Company Reviews or even on the individual tour company's comment board.

I used my journey as a general introduction to the region across northern Spain. I'd tried to get to San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela on my own the year before, but because I hadn't done a great deal of planning, I wasn't able to pull it off. Now I feel confident that I could rent a car and zip in and out of the locales that I want to experience more fully next time I'm in the country.

Others may view group tours—especially those visiting a challenging-to-access site such as India's Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China—as a once-in-a-lifetime journey that they want to let professionals handle. Be sure to compare tour operators on these classic routes to assess the details most important to you.

Plan Formal Side Trips Before You Go
Plan Formal Side Trips Before You Go
(Photo: Annette Thompson)

Like cruise ships, land-based tour operators typically offer side trips for an upcharge. Compare those trips by doing some independent research.

For instance, San Sebastian's food scene boasts restaurants with a total of 16 Michelin stars, more than 40 cider houses, and dozens of pintxo (tapas) bars. It's ideal for food tours. Consequently, I had no trouble finding a local to guide me through the most remarkable spots as well as a cooking class on making pintxos. I also learned that most guided tours don't take the time to visit the Sagardoetxea, the cider museum about three miles outside of town. It took only 2.5 hours to get there, tour, and return to town during my free afternoon.

My other companions did a bit of online research to come up with the best pintxo bars in the city, and they created their own tours during the same time period. At dinner that night we all compared notes, creating an even more appetizing evening meal.

Know When It's Okay To Sneak Away
Know When It's Okay to Sneak Away
(Photo: Travelers Looking at Map via Shutterstock)

You may make good friends on tour, or you may want to escape from the crowd as often as possible. Most people probably land somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Even if you're not a joiner by nature, give yourself the opportunity to become part of the group before departing from it.

When tours begin, the first 48 hours are crucial to group dynamics. You'll want to be there on days one and two to find your place within the group, your seat on the bus, and your favorite dining companions, and then you'll want to determine who might be a good friend to ask what you missed when you do head out on your own. If you disappear from the regularly scheduled activities at the very beginning, the others may consider you with less camaraderie.

Use The Tour Director As A Travel Resource
Use the Tour Director as a Travel Resource
(Photo: Annette Thompson)

Make this person your new best friend. The tour director was hired because of his or her deep local knowledge of the places on your itinerary. Think of him or her as your own walking, talking Google. Let the tour director know what your plans are, and ask for recommendations. Start a dialogue, sharing your own finds when you're out on your own.

Tour directors are excellent resources on local transportation options, too. They've got great recommendations for spots not on the tour—like the best clubs and discos (as well as how to get back at four in the morning when the local buses are no longer running) or neighborhoods off the tour-bus path in which you can meet local craftspeople.

Skip Lunch
Skip Lunch
(Photo: David Baron via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

I chose a tour that didn't include lunches—instead, I made good use of my free time to explore small restaurants and shops or to sign on to a local tour. Lunchtime is the best time of day to depart the group without causing much of a stir. Before I left home, I did a bit of research and downloaded smartphone apps with tips on where to go in San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Santiago de Compostela, and I also chatted with my tour director about them too before setting out.

On Not Getting Lost
On Not Getting Lost
(Photo: William Hook via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Map out the locations of your hotels in advance, so you can separate and find your way back. Unlike on cruise-ship shore excursions, you can stay out as late as you want on a guided tour.

Barcelona's dancing scene doesn't really begin until 11 p.m. You'll want to plan how to get back to the hotel after the buses have stopped running. I have a small GPS (or you can use your smartphone) that maps out the best walking routes in advance. (One year, I determined that buying a handheld GPS would be cheaper than paying a surcharge to add one to a car rental in Europe.) That little device has saved me from getting lost many times, whether I'm walking or driving. Oh, and don't forget to keep small amounts of cash on hand for taxi rides back to the hotel if you choose to go that route.

The Boring Hotel Dinner
The Boring Hotel Dinner
(Photo: Malcolm Manners via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Hotel dinners are the bread and butter of group touring. They make for a less expensive night for the tour company and give guests craving downtime an early night in. But these nights are also the best times for romantic dinners out alone with your sweetheart, and they're fabulous opportunities to dig into local events that may be going on while you're in town. Again, ask your tour director for recommendations.

Don't Miss The Bus
Don't Miss The Bus
(Photo: Annette Thompson)

Or the train or the plane. Tour companies do not have to wait for you when you're out on your own. If you're tempted to go back for that pair of shoes you saw the day before, I hope that you've made friends in the group who will convince the tour director that her watch is running five minutes fast and to hold up the group for you. Because if you miss the departure, it is your problem to figure out how to catch up. Not only will it cost you cash, it will cost you emotional value with the tour director and the other participants—especially if they spent their valuable touring time waiting on you.

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