Planning a trip somewhere foreign is daunting. Travel arrangements, itineraries, researching the places to go (and maybe more importantly not to go)—they can all be pretty overwhelming. If only there was an option where all of that is done for you…
Traveling with a tour group is one solution that really ticks all the boxes. Groups provide safety for those who don’t have a built-in travel companion, they tend to have flexible itineraries that suit different interests, and they offer a way to meet people through extraordinary experiences. Some might scoff at the tour groups following a guide walking backward proudly waving a flag aloft and shouting, “This way! This way!” but if you choose wisely you don’t have to have that kind of experience. Here are our tips for having a trip of a lifetime while traveling with a tour group.
Tour group travel – choosing the right tour
This is the most crucial part of planning your trip because the right tour will do the rest of the planning for you. Groups often have a unifying theme; there are couples’ trips (which we don’t recommend if you’re traveling alone, for example), wine trips, groups for history buffs, or naturalists, and trips planned entirely around the foodie experience. Whatever your interest, we can almost guarantee there is a vacation planned around it as long as you look in the right places.
A few things to focus on would be location, itinerary, and pacing. It seems obvious but when planning to travel with a tour group be sure to pick a place you’ve always been interested in visiting. If you hate the winter, maybe don’t visit Norway in January. If you suffer from horrific sea sickness then maybe reconsider that 10-day cruise off the Alaskan coast.
After you narrow down your locale, find an itinerary that fits your interests and desired activity levels. If you want to interact with local cultures, consider an itinerary that includes something other than just visiting museums or monuments. Look for trips that include local cooking classes, or artisan workshops, or smaller performances that might be off the beaten path.
Additionally, consider how you like to travel. If you want some downtime, look for a group that allows for that in its itinerary. If most days have a morning hike followed by lunch somewhere, followed by an afternoon museum tour, and then an evening social, and then dinner on the river, etc, you’re going to be exhausted. Look into whether the outings are optional, or else find a different trip that includes a bit more free time.
The same goes for your desired activity level. Make sure you are comfortable with all of the physical demands your trip requires. Hiking Machu Picchu takes significant physical fitness, for example, so if you’re recovering from your second knee replacement maybe that’s not the right match.
Finally, research group size. As mentioned earlier, almost no one wants to be part of the group that takes up an entire museum foyer, bogged down with identifying lanyards and a group leader humiliating you with every bellowed “My group! This way please! Have your passes ready!” The best tour groups have a cap limit for every outing and will make it clear whether the places you’re visiting are going to be with large groups or a smaller contingent. Descending 50-plus people upon a German Christmas Market is a drop in the bucket for that experience, but it wouldn’t be as enjoyable to try and admire the Mona Lisa in a group of that size.
Study the itinerary
Once you’ve selected your travel group, familiarize yourself with the itinerary. Most tours offer a standard plan for each day with optional add-ons that will cost extra (and are *usually* worth every penny.) Look into each offered opportunity and select the ones that fit your budget and interests. Additionally, make sure that you want to participate in each planned activity. If there is something you’re not interested in, you can plan ahead and find something you might want to do on your own instead. The hardest part about this is making sure you can safely reconnect with your group, so make sure once you’re there to really nail down the times and meeting places.
Whether you’re traveling alone or with someone else, it can be a ton of fun making friends on group trips. Approach the journey with an open mind and a friendly face and you may find yourself with some fascinating dining companions who become lifelong friends once the tour is ended.
If you are traveling by yourself, making friends also can help save you money. Hotels, cruise lines, and tour operators base their per-person rates on double occupancy. So if you don’t have a travel companion to share a room with, you may pay extra to compensate. You can revel in your alone time and a lighter wallet, or you can opt to have a stranger for a roommate. Many providers offer a roommate match-making service prior to the trip to smooth out any potential problematic pairings, which sounds like a lot of fun, at least to the extroverts in the crowd.
Finally, befriend the people working with your group. Often you are served by the same rotation of waiters, hotel staff, or tour guides throughout the trip, and it makes things so much more pleasant to treat them with the same respect you would give any host. And don’t underestimate the power of kindness; a career in a service position is never easy, and many people will repay your kindness with even more kindness. (I made friends with the bartenders on my Viking Cruise down the Rhine River, and let’s just say I never had to worry about my wine glass even approaching empty.) Yes, they’re working for tips, but people will always go the extra mile for someone they appreciate.
The whole point of traveling with a group is that all of the hard work is done for you. So once you’re there, remember to let go of that impulse to control everything and just go with the flow. There are times to be joiners and times to go off on your own way, so be sure to listen to your needs and make the most of your amazing vacation.