Once you have chosen your travel destination, you will need to decide whether you want to explore independently or travel with a tour group of some kind. Here are some things to consider when deciding whether a tour group is right for you.
- Convenience - When you take a tour, someone else handles all the details. You choose an itinerary, pay the tour operator and let the professionals deal with airlines, drivers, guides, and hotels. All you need to do is arrive at your departure point on time.
- Cost - Tour operators capitalize on economies of scale. 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 will 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 will 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 entrances. 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.
- Worry-free travel - Some travelers like the challenge of solving problems themselves. If you would rather worry about what to wear to dinner than where to eat, a group tour can provide a stress-free travel experience.
- Learning experiences - Tour groups offer many ways to discover cultures, learn new skills and study the subjects you have 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 refine their itineraries and programs.
- Tour guides - If you are visiting a place for the first time, you will enjoy taking a group tour with a knowledgeable guide. Well-informed 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 guide is saying. When you have free time, your guide will know some good restaurants and can tell you how to find the places you want to visit.
- Social opportunities - 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 single seniors or take tea with fellow Red Hat Society members, you can find a tour that meets your needs.
- Pre-planned itineraries - Some travelers prefer to see things at their own pace and like the flexibility independent travel provides. If you are the type of traveler who reads every museum sign, a tour group’s itinerary may not work for you. Spontaneous sightseeing is not part of a tour group experience, either. If you have your heart set on spending all day in the British Museum, skip the tour group and see London on your own.
- Lack of free time - Many tour itineraries include free time, but you are 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.
- Health concerns - Many tour operators provide ratings or detailed explanations of their tours’ activity levels. They work hard to make sure that travelers 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 had imagined. If you are part of a tour group, you might not be able to see everything on the itinerary if your tour proves more difficult than you had anticipated.
- Schedule issues - Tour group itineraries range from relaxed to ridiculous. You will be expected to meet the group on time, ready to go, regardless of the weather. If your ideal vacation includes sleeping in until 10:00 am, skip the tour group.
- Accommodations and dining options - 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 does not live up to your expectations. You will need to eat at least some meals with your tour group or pay extra to eat elsewhere.
- Conspicuousness - Tour groups don’t blend in. 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 might feel more comfortable traveling independently.
- Personality conflicts - “There’s one on every bus,” experienced tour group travelers say. If you are part of a tour group, you will probably have to sit next to the guy who snaps his chewing gum or the lady who has taken a dislike to the place you are touring at least once during your trip. If diplomacy is not 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 will 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.