Once you’ve chosen your travel destination, you’ll need to decide whether you want to explore independently or with a tour group of some kind. Here are some things to consider when deciding whether a tour group is right for you.
Tour Group Pros
When you take a tour, someone else handles all the details. You choose a pre-set itinerary, pay the tour group operator and sit back while the professionals deal with airlines, bus drivers, local guides and hotel managers.
All you need to do is arrive at your departure point on time, suitcase in hand.
Large tour operators capitalize on economies of scale. They have buying power with airlines, hotels and ground transportation companies. Some of those savings are passed on to you. When you combine these savings with senior discounts or travel memberships (such as AAA, Costco, or Sam’s Club), you may discover that you’ll pay the same for independently-purchased airfare alone as you will for a tour, which might include not only airfare but also hotels, meals, ground transportation and guides.
Access to Unusual or Overcrowded Destinations
If you want to visit Antarctica, you probably have to go with a tour group. Fortunately, you can find tours going to Antarctica, Vietnam and many other exotic places. Tour operators can set up trips to just about anywhere, even to places most individuals can’t reach on their own.
Popular sights, such as the Vatican Museums in Rome, are so crowded during peak months that many would-be visitors are turned away after spending hours in line. Tour groups have their own access times and may even enter through a different door. If standing in line is difficult for you, or if you have limited time available to visit your “must-see” attractions, you can maximize your sightseeing value by traveling with a tour group.
Some travelers like the challenge of solving problems themselves. Language barriers and transit strikes, to them, are part of the experience. If you’d rather worry about what to wear to dinner than where to eat, a group tour can provide a stress-free travel experience.
Tour groups offer many ways to discover other cultures, learn new skills and study the subjects you’ve always wanted to know about. You can practice your French in Québec, weave baskets in the Appalachian Mountains and watch migrating birds on Virginia’s Eastern Shore – all with tour groups. Tour operators understand travelers’ preferences and continue to add to their senior-friendly itineraries and programs.
If you’re visiting a place for the first time, you’ll especially enjoy taking a group tour with a knowledgeable guide. Well-informed, organized guides add value to your tour experience. Today's technology allows you to walk away from the group to examine something and still hear what your tour guide is saying. When you have free time, your guide is likely to know the best photo opportunities and can tell you how to walk around Venice when the streets are flooded. You’ll always know where you’re going, and you won’t have to worry about outdated maps and broken ticket machines.
In a tour group, meeting new people is part of the fun. Some tours are created with social interaction in mind. Whether you would like to travel with other single seniors or take tea with fellow Red Hat Society members, you can find a tour that meets your needs.
Tour Group Cons
One person’s pleasure is another’s pain. Some travelers prefer to see things at their own pace and like the flexibility independent travel provides. If you’re the type of traveler who likes to read every single museum sign, a tour group’s itinerary may not work for you. Spontaneous sightseeing is not part of a tour group’s program, either; you won’t be able to duck into an inviting shop or restaurant on the spur of the moment. If you have your heart set on spending all day in the British Museum, for example, skip the tour group and see London on your own.
Lack of Free Time
Many tour itineraries include free time for shopping or relaxing, but you’re often limited to a few hours here and there. There’s little opportunity to savor street food or watch the evening passeggiata in Rome. If you value flexibility, a tour group might not be your best choice.
Many tour operators provide ratings or detailed explanations of their tours’ activity levels. They work hard to make sure that travelers, especially seniors, know how much walking and climbing will be expected of them. Even so, you may discover that your bus tour of Sicily is not the relaxing experience you’d imagined; instead, it involves long bus rides and strenuous walks. If you’re part of a tour group, you might not be able to see everything on the itinerary if the tour proves more difficult than you’d anticipated.
Tour group itineraries range from relaxed to ridiculous. You’ll be expected to meet the group on time, ready to go and regardless of weather. If your ideal vacation includes sleeping in until 10:00 A. M., skip the tour group.
Accommodations and Dining Options
Similarly, you don’t control hotel and restaurant choices when you travel with a tour group. Although tour operators do their best to find quality lodgings and accommodate dietary preferences, you won’t be able to change your hotel if it doesn’t live up to your expectations. You’ll need to eat at least some meals with your tour group or pay extra to eat elsewhere.
Tour groups don’t blend in. It’s easy to spot the guide and the tourists. If that “touristy feeling” will ruin your trip, avoid large tour groups. You might be able to find a tour operator that specializes in small group tours, but, in some cases, you’ll probably feel most comfortable traveling independently.
“There’s one on every bus,” experienced tour group travelers say. If you’re part of a tour group, you’ll probably have to sit next to the guy snaps his chewing gum or the lady who has taken a dislike to Italy at least once during your trip. If diplomacy isn’t your strong suit, a tour group might not be your best option.
Make Your Choice
Grab a sheet of paper and write down your personal list of tour group pros and cons. You’ll probably discover that you strongly prefer either the tour group or independent travel option. If your list is evenly balanced, consider taking a weekend group tour – a “test drive,” so to speak – to find out if you like the experience.