Finding the right group tour is a mix of persistence, research, and a bit of magic. You’re not just looking for a great tour, but a great tour for you. For example, an active 40-something single woman might not be happy on the same tour that a couple in their 70s would enjoy.
Below are 14 tips to help you choose the right group tour for you, including important questions to ask and decisions only you can make.
Understand the Variety of Group Tours Available
Many travelers picture a week on a motorcoach when the hear the words “group tour,” but this is only a fraction of the group tour landscape. Sure, you can book a big bus tour to hit the major attractions in Rome, Florence, and Venice, but you can also book an intimate photo tour of Tuscany or a hiking vacation in the Italian Alps. If you have a dream activity or vacation, there’s probably a tour operator that offers it.
Understand What Type of Traveler You Are
It’s your responsibility to understand yourself as a traveler and to make sure you are the intended customer of any given tour. If you are a young person looking for fun and you end up on a bus full of retirees, or if you are traveling solo and end up surrounded by families with kids, it is absolutely on you.
Comb the tour operator’s website; do the people in the pictures look like travelers you’d want to hang out with? Does the itinerary appeal to your interests? Is there a “frequently asked questions” section that offers information about fellow travelers (such as average age and where they’re from)?
Finally, reading reviews may be more critical for tours than almost any other travel purchase. A dingy hotel for a night is one thing, but 10 days completely out of your element is another entirely, and reviews can make a big difference.
Figure Out the Right Size Group for You
While most folks lean toward smaller groups, bigger tours have some upsides as well—including greater diversity of group members, more opportunities to find “your people,” and sometimes lower costs. The drawbacks include doing everything with a ton of other travelers, which can create instant crowds, and having to take more time to do simple tasks such as checking into hotels and eating meals.
Small groups, meanwhile, tend to move more quickly and can sometimes access experiences that can’t accommodate large numbers. It’s easier to get to know everyone else in a smaller group, and you’ll have more chances to interact with your tour leaders and guides.
The downside? Traveling in smaller groups means there are fewer people to talk to and makes it more likely that one or two strong personalities could have an outsize effect on the overall experience.
Check the Activity Level
You’ll want the physical demands of the tour to match your preference and capacity. If most of the time is spent on a bus and you want to walk around—or vice versa—make sure you ask before you book.
Check How Open the Itinerary Is
Do you feel more relaxed having your entire day planned out for you, or would you rather have some free time to break out on your own? Most itineraries are fairly clear on which approach they take, so look for it.
Understand the Pace of the Tour
Some people want to feel like they’re seeing as much as possible, while others find bagging attractions in rapid succession unfulfilling or even punishing. Does the itinerary have you exploring big cities like Beijing for only a day, or packing three European countries into a week and a half? How many sights and activities are listed for each day? Are there slower days that you feel would be time wasted? Look carefully at the itinerary and read past reviews to get a sense of whether the tour’s pace would suit you.
How will you get from one place to the next—an air-conditioned motorcoach? A crowded local train? A ferry? A plane? Any of these options might make a difference in your comfort and enjoyment.
Consider using Google Maps or a similar service to check the distance between stops on the tour. If you’re going to be spending four hours on buses every other day to get from one city to the next, that’s worth knowing (and, perhaps, avoiding).
Understand the Meal Plan
Some tours offer elaborate sit-down dinners, while others take a more casual approach or even leave you to find your own meals from time to time. Understand which you prefer as well as what is offered.
Use Travel Agents with Care
Travel agents can be very helpful, but occasionally they might steer you toward tour operators with whom they have a relationship, including incentives to steer customers in their direction. Once you have decided on the things you want from a tour, don’t allow yourself to be sold something considerably different; stick to your guns.
Consider Booking with a Foreign Tour Company
Though it may somewhat complicate your search for a tour company, you might want to consider booking with a company based in the country or region you plan to visit. So long as language barriers are not an issue, locally based tour operators can sometimes offer intense immersion in a place, as you may not only be visiting local establishments, but also traveling with locals.
Understand the Role of Group Tour Guides
Some tours use one or two guides to do everything; others employ different local guides at each attraction or location. Having only one or two guides can means travelers can get to know them well throughout the trip; however, one guide can’t be an expert on everything, while a series of guides absolutely can be.
Understand also what the guide will do. On an art tour, does the guide take care of the big logistics but then release you at the museum door? Or does he or she accompany the group into the museum, providing commentary and expertise on the art?
There does seem to be some correlation between the reputation of a tour company and the quality of the guides, for two reasons. First, the top companies can attract the best people, and second, that very reputation is often based on the experience the guides create.
Look for Experiences, not Attractions
Anyone can book a reservation at a great restaurant; not everyone can get the chef to come out and teach you how to make paella. Many tour operators offer “experiences” of just this kind, which are sometimes the entire reason to hire a tour company in the first place; keep an eye out for these distinctive offerings.
Price It Out
Because of the economies of scale that a tour operator enjoys, it can get many things below market rate. The company might not pass on all those savings to you, however, as that is how it makes a profit.
There’s a way to understand the value a tour operator is offering: Price out the itinerary yourself. See how much it would cost you to book the hotels and attractions on your own. (If air is included in your package, check out that cost, too.)
Many tour customers have found that the price of booking everything themselves isn’t significantly different from the cost of the tour; in this case, it may be worth booking the tour for the additional value of convenience and expert guides. If the cost of a group tour seems far beyond what you could book on your own, however, you might want to consider a different company.
See What’s Included
Things like gratuities, admission tickets, and meals may or may not be included on a group tour. A trip that looks affordable for you might be less so once you add in all the extras.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Top 10 Group Travel Survival Tips
- The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)
- 20 Questions to Ask Before Booking a Tour
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.