In Defence of Organised Group Tours

Dancing figures from Thailand found at ceremonial site

Some people have a thing against organised tour holidays. They think there’s no adventure involved, that it’s all about strict plans and blithely following the leader, with no room for fun or independence; I’m going to prove it’s far from the truth. My three group tour experiences were very different, but they all helped me to get more from the country I was visiting, and they were anything but dull.

First I headed to Berlin, Dresden and Colditz with Riviera Travel, a British company that mainly has middle-aged and mature customers – I went with my mum and I was the only one of the entire group not to have either a husband, a pension plan or the symptoms of the menopause. However, I learned loads and had plenty of free time to explore, even making it to Sachsenhausen for the afternoon.

I then took on Thailand’s east islands with Contiki, an Aussie company firmly aimed at 18-35-year-olds from around the world, who tend to travel with friends. Together we met monks and stayed in an eco lodge, then I went solo to barter in markets and grab a beer at a rock cafe.

Lastly, I saw a whole chunk of Peru with Intrepid Travel, a company that attracts families, couples and individuals. We drank unusual wine, went to a Coca Museum and rocked up at an ancient cemetery on New Year’s Day. No shortage of adventure there. But would this approach suit you?

Expat men and women in hot climate 1930s or 40s black and white photo
Don’t expect this kind of formality – modern tours are relaxed, fun and accessible.

Should You Book an Organised Tour Holiday?

  • Do you hate getting up early?
  • Would you rather stick pins in your eyes than share a minibus with strangers?
  • Are you likely to slope off during a museum talk?
  • Do you prefer to skip the obvious tourist attractions?
  • Is a week by the pool your idea of a good time?
  • Would a breakfast buffet fill you with dread?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, perhaps a group tour isn’t for you, but this post will help you decide once and for all.

Canyon and mountain view in central Peru
Without a group trip, I wouldn’t have seen Peruvian landscapes like this. Not a bad place to stretch your legs…

The Main Pros of Joining a Group Tour

  • Meet people from around the world
  • Step outside your comfort zone
  • Take the pressure off – you’re no longer chief organiser
  • Access insider knowledge from a guide who speaks the local language
  • Be part of a crowd, but have free time too
  • See and do much more than you would on your own

Sounds good? Here’s how to find your perfect trip.

Little girl at the seaside making a boat in the sand. Black and white vintage photo circa 1950s
Find your perfect fit and your holiday will be plain sailing.

Reviewing the Options

  • Research, research, research. Obviously you should take any online review with a pinch of salt, and really examine any criticisms levelled at a company. Are they valid (“This wasn’t the itinerary I was promised”), or are they minor gripes blown out of proportion (“Our leader kept telling us about the culture and it got a bit boring”)? Don’t forget to seek out hotel reviews if a company mentions the accommodation it uses. Regular complaints about noise, safety and cleanliness should set alarm bells ringing.
  • Write a list of what you want and need from your trip, then compare it to what a company provides. Is there enough time in each destination? Will you be wild camping and staying in hostels, or checking into four star heritage hotels? Are you chained to city tours and excursions that you’d rather ditch to go independent? Know what you’re willing to compromise on, and where you draw the line, to get the ultimate value for money.
  • Many companies have their own review systems built into their websites, so check them out too. Pay attention to group dynamics or age ranges mentioned; if everyone is talking about early nights and grandchildren but you’re seeking a wild holiday, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere. To get even more advice, ask around on a travel forum such as Wanderlust or Lonely Planet’s Thorntree.
Kids look at street illusionist in Germany performing magic trick
Look out for one-off experiences from your holiday company.

Where to Browse

  • For affordable experiences, aside from Contiki, Riviera and Intrepid who I’ve already mentioned, take a look at G Adventures, On the Go Tours and Geckos Adventures. There’s a mixture of short routes and journeys of several months on offer, featuring places like Morocco, Eastern Europe and Vietnam.
  • Want something a bit different? Try Dragoman, Travel the Unknown and Wild Frontiers. You could travel along the Silk Road, peek inside Lebanon’s caves, or see Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • If money’s no object, see Cox and Kings, Voyages Jules Verne and Great Rail Journeys. Options include Australia by train, Nile cruises and a journey through Oman.
Women waiting to enter a shopping sale circa 1950s USA retro photo
Keep an eye on your cash flow and check what your trip includes, so you can stick to a budget. Credit: Thetimewarpian.com.

Budgeting

  • If you’re worried about being able to afford your holiday, you could take a punt and book a late availability deal, when prices are slashed to fill spaces. This may be harder to organise if flights aren’t included (you’ll either get a great bargain from an airline or you’ll pay over the odds!), but a discounted trip may make up for additional flight expenses. Some operators with included flights, such as Wendy Wu, will offer upgrades to business class as an incentive to book.
  • Don’t gloss over the pre-paid inclusions, as these can really affect your budget and the amount of times you traipse to a cash point or hide a wad of notes in your luggage. Sometimes a cheaper holiday will mention excursions and organised meals out but will later mention (in small print) that you’ll have to pay for them each day. If you’re planning a two week holiday this will make a huge difference. Also find out about trip kitties, Visa requirements and any payments on arrival, as these can catch you out.
  • Weigh up the pros and cons of sharing a room if you’re a solo traveller. Avoiding a single supplement means you’ll save money – sometimes as much as £400 – however it won’t be worth the cost-cutting if you know you’ll spend most of the time drinking in the bar to avoid making small talk or witnessing your roomie’s nudist tendencies. I’ve found room sharing works for me, and I’ll sacrifice my privacy for cost-cutting, but it’s a personal decision.
Tourists overlooking Wayna Picchu and Incan ruins in Peru
We made it to Machu Picchu! This group shot takes me back to a brilliant trip.

The Social Element

  • Consider the group size, which is normally mentioned online, and whether this will fit your requirements. Do you want to meet more people, or would you prefer to hang out with only 5-12 others? With Riviera and Contiki, traveller numbers tend to be bigger, but Riviera was less sociable than Contiki and everyone was happy to do their own thing.
  • Your leader will be an expert in the destination and will tell you things you couldn’t necessarily have found out alone, like where the hottest new cafe is, or what the local slang means. They can often secure discounts in restaurants, which is an added bonus! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved.
  • Look out for pre-trip forums where posters can get advice on finding the right itinerary, and can get to know fellow travellers once they’ve booked. You don’t have to tell everyone your life story but it does help to calm any nerves before you go.

If you’ve been sitting on the fence about booking an organised tour, hopefully you’re that bit closer to deciding now. Still got questions you need answering? Post them in the comments box below.

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