Tips to ensure your next group tour experience isn’t a massive dud.
I used to be stubbornly against group tours. Like most independent and often solo travellers, I’d research and plan everything myself and arrange most experiences under my parameters.
Scoffing at the idea of joining a throng of camera-toting, loud tourists, I would remark that it was “my personal idea of hell”. Ignorant? Yes. Judgemental? Definitely.
These stereotypes DO exist for a reason, though. Anyone who has travelled enough will have run into the drunken Contiki groups or experienced a mass of tour bus patrons cut a museum line on their express passes. It can be annoying and certainly not to everyone’s travel style, but there are certain circumstances where a tour may be the best bet.
Perhaps as I get older and no longer travel on such tight shoe strings, or maybe the desire to cram in more and more, making the most of my time after living in lockdown. The siren song of a tour whispering “all-inclusive” has undoubtedly increased its grip on me.
Maybe it’s middle age, and I’ve accepted that I’ll always look like a tourist. Porque no Los dos?
If you are considering a group tour when abroad, this should help you weigh up the options and get the most out of any trip you book:
The pros of going on an organised tour:
Less mental labour.
Researching local hotspots and must-sees and working out an itinerary can be fun, but sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do the work for you. You can just pay your money, and someone tells you where to get picked up. Plus, you can blame their itinerary, not yours, if you don’t like it. 😉
Time efficiency (and life in the express lane).
Sometimes you have little time and want to fit a ton in. Day trips with multiple stops can be a SUPER long day, but they always cram in a lot of experiences into the day and having transport ready to pick you up and whisk you to the next destination is a definite time-saver.
They also often have express lane privileges to museums and galleries, so you don’t have to hang about in the pleb lanes.
Local knowledge and history.
Even the larger tour companies use local freelancers with knowledge usually only gleaned by long-term residents. They have so many cultural and historical factoids on hand that you won’t read from a guidebook (showing my age), a blog or TikTok, and you’d be surprised how useful it might be later at pub trivia.
You may access experiences that aren’t available to the general public, such as lunch with a local family, hiking routes that everyone and shortcuts don’t tread in transport.
No cash is needed.
Other than a tip for your driver and your guide (which should be in cash), everything is pre-paid. The cost of the trip might be more expensive than a DIY job, but you don’t have to carry much money or credit cards, which is quite desirable in locations known for pickpocketing or theft.
Safety, cost, and social constraints are the top three inhibitors impeding or constricting solo travel*. While group travel isn’t guaranteed or backed by data to be safer, people generally feel safer travelling in a group.
These group experiences can particularly benefit the new evolution of solo female travellers. IYKYK.
Bonus pro: You don’t have to drive, so you can partake in any opportunities to imbibe in local alcoholic delights!
*A study of solo and non-solo travellers – Researchgate
The cons of going on a group tour
Slow f*cking walkers.
It’s my blog, so I’ll kick off with a personal pet peeve of mine. I’m not talking about people stopping for pictures, enjoying a view, or reading history; I’m not talking about those who aren’t able-bodied enough to walk fast or at all.
It’s the dawdlers. There will always be some muppet you’re waiting an extra 10 minutes on to get back on the bus. It’s a fact; there will always be a bit of extra waiting on the slowpokes.
Courtesy isn’t that common.
Unless you book a private tour, you can’t control who’s coming with you.
Cultural differences aside, you could be stuck with people that might annoy you for a whole day. They might chew loudly in the seat behind you or talk over the guide, or (this has happened in a tour I was on) mansplained what they thought was the correct history of the place to the tour guide. 🤦
They may just have a different tour expectation to you; for example, a group of lively young American women decided to use one of the tours I was on as a chance to have a “Woo-Girl” bender, which resulted in champagne running down the aisle of the bus.
It costs more than doing it yourself.
These companies are in business to make a profit. It will almost always be cheaper to DIY. You can expect to pay a tourist tax on virtually any tour, especially in a larger group.
The most common tourist tax is where they take you to lunch, which in an English-speaking tour is often a western, white-friendly meal option that costs 3x the local price.
Everybody needs to use the bathroom at different times of the day, and your personal need to relieve yourself may not line up with the tour’s scheduled stop.
Tips for getting the most out of a group travel experience:
- Book a small group – Or better yet, if you can afford it, a private group you can often customise to your desires.
- Pack loads of water – Or at least enough to handle any weather conditions without having access to refills.
- Use the bathroom – Take the offer; you may be on the bus for a while.
- Photos – Say yes to the photo opportunities; people from your group are always willing to take your photograph and offer to take theirs in return.
- Go with locals – Check that your tour group are residents of the local area for that sweet insider knowledge.
- Read the fine print – Make sure you’re fully across the itinerary that should be emailed to you the day before, so there aren’t any nasty scheduling surprises.
- Lean into it – Chances are you look like a tourist no matter how hard you try; just go with it. Take the selfies, gawk at the sights and just enjoy the fact you get to be a traveller!