Should I do a small group tour?
I decided to write a post to help people answer the question, “should I do a small group tour?” because small group tours are becoming increasingly popular. This could be down to several reasons. Firstly, people are busy, so may like that the planning element of a trip is taken care of. Or perhaps the level of online information is too overwhelming, just too many choices. Additionally, a tour to a destination that may be considered “unsafe,” might hold appeal or to a country where the language barrier could be an issue. That said, the opportunity to meet like-minded people is often the main reason why many people choose a small group tour.
Kerry and I have been on several small group tours. As a couple, we have visited Canada and the Rockies, Romania and Northern India. In addition, I have taken two small group tours as a solo traveller. I loved walking in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the adventure tour I did in Turkey was fantastic. At that time, I didn’t know anyone who would be interested in accompanying me and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough to go on my own. Walking alone in the Atlas Mountains, looking back, would have been highly dangerous. My sense of direction is abysmal and it was before I had met Kerry, who is the reader of maps…
Questions to consider…
All small group tours have their pros and cons, but to begin with, there are some important things to consider. Have you decided on a destination? Do you want to explore the idea of taking a tour? I’ve compiled a list of questions, to support you in making an informed choice. Tours will work out more expensive than doing things yourself, but for many the advantages far outweigh the additional cost. That said, tours are expensive so you’ll want to ensure you are seeing the highlights of a country. Going beyond the bricks and mortar is important to us. Additionally, enjoying an immersive experience culturally. Finally, having the opportunity to explore the local culinary delights is a must!
How small is small?
The size of a “small group tour” could range from two to up to 16 people. This depends on the mode of transport used and the company’s policy on numbers. Many will operate with a minimum requirement, check before booking depending on your preference. The tours we have taken have accommodated 16, which was a good number for us. It offerers diversity, in terms of your fellow travellers. There has been a mix of solo, friends and couples travelling. This prevents people from feeling alienated and unlike some coach tours, the low numbers enable punctual starts and convenient parking.
Does age matter?
Many tour companies specialise in organising tours orientated towards (or indeed cap at) a specific age group. If you are over 35 for example, many (but not all!) of STA’s tours are out. Yolo tours (part of Gadventures) specify 18-30 somethings and Trek America 18-38. It’s important to check this out before you start analysing different tours, saving time and disappointment! A mix of ages is great for the group, but there are generational gaps! Give yourself the best possible chance by choosing a holiday suited to you, your interests and lifestyle.
Where do you live?
We’re based in the North of England and have discovered many small group tour companies operate from London. This can up the cost of your trip considerably. Remember to factor in travel to/ overnight accommodation. Will being far from home be an inconvenience, particularly after a long haul flight/busy tour?
How much money is in the pot?
It may be a good idea to start with a between? and? amount, that you are able to afford. The cost of your trip will depend on several factors. Knowing your budget for the actual tour is a good place to start. It’s important to read tour notes carefully. Within the itinerary, there are probably “optional activities” which will incur additional cost. Whilst in some countries, the cost is minimal, check out the prices. We found on our Canadian tour, that activities could cost between £80 and £120 each. Cheaper or free alternatives were suggested, but include all optional extras within your costings.
The cost of eating/drinking varies vastly, across the globe, so budget accordingly. Numbeo is a great site, where you can see the average cost of common items. This will give you a rough comparison as to what you are used to. Remember to add in any additional visa costs too as well as any “gear” you may need. Walking shoes/poles, waterproof clothing or a rucksack, may be required. We find Decathlon has an excellent range of outdoor clothing/footwear and sports equipment to suit all budgets. The shop sells lots of their own brand “Quechua” which we love and are donned by the Italians!
Tent, bunk or bed with or without “facilities?”
For many people, a clean bed and a hot shower is a priority. Some shudder at the thought of a shared bathroom whilst others are in their elements wild camping… The cost of the tour (excluding flights) and location are a good indication of the sort of sleeping arrangements you can expect. No frills/budget tours often include an element of camping and very basic accommodation. In the mid-range, you can expect a reasonable standard leaning towards “comfortable” experience. High end, is just that.
If you are the sort of person who prioritises experience over comfort, a budget style tour may suit. If you have never been camping, try it out before booking a predominately tent based trip! Also, check out if there are any overnight trains/coaches on the itinerary. This may be a game changer for you! We can say we have slept on an Indian sleeper train, but won’t be doing it again in a hurry…
How long do you want to be away?
How much time you have will greatly influence your tour options. For some, it’s tempting to choose longer tours, as many offer diverse experiences across many countries. But are you fit? Do you have plenty of stamina, patience and tolerance? Days are often long and busy, maximising experience time but this can be tiring.
How much do you want to do?
Are you a thrill seeker, adventure lover, the sort of person who can run up mountains and kayak before lunch? Or do you prefer a leisurely pace, a meander and opportunity to explore and discover? Some tours are action packed, fast paced with 8 am starts and many long days of walking/cycling. If you don’t really partake in those sorts of activities at home, try before you book!
Most small group tours are graded, but there is a lack of consistency between companies and no standardised level. Make sure you are clear on the grading for your tour and read the reviews from people having participated. One person’s interpretation of a “3” can be very different from another’s. Personal perceptions of fitness will vary, never mind the people who graded the tour. Remember, all group travel at whatever level is quite tiring. You are not, on some tours, able do things at your own speed. There won’t be an “opt-out” option if you’re in the middle of nowhere and have only your feet to get you from A-B! That said, if you book something that you then feel was too easy, you might feel you’ve missed out.
Bus, train, plane and horse?
How do you like to travel? How long is too long on a bus? Are you happy to fly between countries or does doing things the long way appeal? Many tours offer a private minibus, which you will learn to love (or hate)… Part of the appeal of tours, is that you get to see and do an abundance of things. Unfortunately, most countries lack convenience where experiences/sites are concerned. Locations are usually scattered far and wide, meaning a lot of time on the bus…
When I read an itinerary, I’m instantly excited by all the wonderful opportunities to be had. I relish the prospect of magnificent sites and the lure of an unknown culture. Kerry is a tad more practical. She carefully highlights how long it will take to get from here to there. She asks me if I mind spending 8 hours travelling on 4 consecutive days… The humble ‘kwell’ is my saviour on long journeys! Tours with internal flights cut travel time dramatically but can mean very early starts. Tours with trains are also an option. Being aware of the type of transport offered is really important. Some companies cut costs by using local transport. This is great for the local economy but might mean not keeping to a schedule or guarantee you a seat…
Solo, with friends or as a couple?
Most of the tours we have been on have been a mixture of solo travellers, friends and couples. We have been fortunate with all our tours. Most people, we have met, have been likeminded, patient and excited to try out all that is on offer. If you are a solo traveller, you might want to consider paying a single person supplement. You will get your own room and will not be expected to share with another solo traveller. We’ve known paired solo travellers to hit it off immediately and become great friends. We’ve also known group pairings to be quite disastrous! If you are concerned about the gender balance, you might want to ring the tour company and ask for numbers. We’ve tried to ask for average ages but haven’t got very far!
Street food, pop-ups or Michelin Star?
Fine dining won’t be a priority on some tours but on others, the culinary experience makes the trip. Budget tours may suggest cheap and cheerful eats, middle of the road tours might combine quick bites with upmarket and costly experiences. Depending on the tour, people might choose to eat with the group, or do their own thing. Small groups may form within a group, but in our experiences, nobody felt left out. As far as food is concerned, everyone is different in terms of their priorities and the amount of money they want to spend.
Most group leaders are able to gauge the general needs of the group and adapt accordingly! Our Canadian tour leader, Jo was akin to superwoman. She drove the minibus and conducted all the tours, singlehandedly. In addition, she prepared a fabulous picnic lunch, in sublime locations! Well equipped with ice boxes, a filtered coffee pot and a frying pan, it’s the alfresco dining experiences we best remember!
What about you?
Are you a control freak, easy going type, intolerant, patient, flexible or a bit of a mix? Do you like to be in throws of it all, the centre of attention or take a back seat? Do you enjoy structure, thrive on a plan or like to deviate, play things by ear and do something different? Can you cope with someone else managing your holiday? Are you happy to relinquish all responsibilities, trust a leader’s judgement and allow them to be the “expert?”
You know you best and unfortunately, you are not in control of the group. You might find it challenging when people get tired and stressed. A couple of weeks in and the cracks begin to show. Differences, particularly between the attitudes of people of different nationalities, may become apparent. Ultimately, you have to decide on your own personal way of “coping” with any disharmony. I do not travel without an iPod, filled with all my own favourite pieces and several audio books. I fear being subjected to someone else’s choice of tunes, or worse still, the radio. If I need a bit of “space” to enjoy a moment of quiet and do not want to hear inane wittering (not counting my wife’s of course…) I can tune into something appropriate!
Everyone within a group is there for the same reasons. In our experience, most people are respectful of everyone’s priority to have a wonderful time. So don’t let the thought of your fellow travellers put you off. They could very well be the making of the trip!
To sum up, what are the advantages of taking a small group tour and what’s the flip side?
The tour is all organised for you. There is no planning to do. The tour guide takes care of the accommodation, internal transport, activities and experiences. You are responsible for being up and ready for the day ahead, without having to consider the logistics. Entrance times, catching the train or how to get to your next bed, will be of no concern to you. Additionally, you might meet some wonderful people, who become lifelong friends. It could be the best experience of your life. A holiday when your time was utilised and cash well spent. You will almost certainly have some memorable experiences that you will forever talk about and cherish…
You don’t get to choose your route, accommodation or majority of experiences. The tour is pre-organised and often there’s not much manoeuvrability. On the whole, (aside from partaking in optional activities) you are not in charge of your holiday. You might think you can improve on the tour guides arrangements, but you have to keep quiet. This can be quite challenging as you’ve booked a tour based on the itinerary. Unfortunately, sometimes the itinerary doesn’t quite work the way it should. People can be irritating! You can combat this, with some consideration and forward planning. The tour may cost more than you anticipated. You might feel frustrated by the prescribed amount of time you got to spend at any one place. Maybe you won’t get as much out of the tour as you hoped. You might choose the wrong type of tour or tour company for you…
So, as you can see there is rather a lot to consider before answering the question “should I do a small group tour?” You can avoid the negatives of the flip side by considering the questions raised in this post!
Kerry and I probably won’t be doing any small group tours for a while. Although we do have our eye on a couple of Central American highlights… and wouldn’t turn down the Galapagos! We prefer the freedom and flexibility of independent travel. That said, with the limited time you certainly get to do and see more than you could probably do on your own!
We thoroughly enjoyed our small group tours to Canada and India. Elements of Romania were fantastic. I suppose nobody was to blame for the ice hotel melting… And I, as a solo traveller, had a fantastic time in Morocco and Turkey. For me, I would never have had the opportunity to travel to those places, had I not have embraced the world of small group tours and I have no regrets what so ever! I hope these questions have proved helpful if you’re considering a small group tour, thanks for reading. Oh and check out TourRadar, this is a brilliant site to filter and compare tours, once you’ve decided on a location, length and budget!
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