What do the words “tour group” mean to you? Images of a camera-hung horde shuffling along in the wake of a guide with a raised umbrella, racing through the country on a big bus and eating at huge tables in cheesy restaurants? Happily that doesn’t apply too much these days, and let’s face it, organising your own accommodation, meals, the daily program and getting around can sap the joy out of foreign travel, so why not let an expert do it for you? Especially for exotic destinations such as India, Morocco and Romania in Europe, where language, food, culture and hygiene present a challenge, a group tour is a great way to go. And better still if it’s a small group tour. Just like any other group tour, accommodation, attractions, guides and at least some meals are organised, but there are some big differences in the places where you stay, the experiences along the way and the pace of travel.
What is a small group tour?
Plenty of travel operators advertise “small group tours” but dig further and you might find that “small group” means 18 or 20. That’s not a small group. A small group is maximum 12, plus the guide and driver. That’s big enough for variety but not so big that you’ll feel lost in a crowd. You won’t get separated when you’re wandering around the narrow back streets of Perugia in Italy or a crowded bazaar on a tour of India’s golden triangle, and you’ll always be able to hear what the guide is saying. They’re also more flexible. If you’d rather skip the tour of Rome’s Villa Farnesina and sit in a café and watch the world go by, that’s usually okay. Bigger groups tend to have more problems. Group check-ins at hotels are often slow, toilet stops can blow out to 40 minutes. There’s always that one person who arrives at 8:30 in the morning when your tour leader set a departure time of 8. Another who drags their feet on the walking tour and slows the whole group down.
Remember that song by John Farnham, One is the Loneliest Number? That’s how it is with travel. Sharing magnifies the pleasures. Food, wine, awesome sights, wildlife encounters and shopping for treasures are all better when they’re shared. Which is another reason to travel with a group. When you first glimpse the Taj Mahal – or taste pasta with truffles you’ve just dug from the wooded slopes of Italy’s Umbria – those are moments you’ll want to share with someone who’s just as dazzled as you are. For single travellers who want to travel alone but not be alone, a small group tour is the perfect option. Choose the group tour that’s right for you and you’ll experience things you might miss on your own, laugh more and have heaps more fun. And for solo women who love to see the world, a group tour offers security as well as companionship.
The tour price is important, but price alone shouldn’t determine which tour you choose. Larger tour groups cost less per person because they can take advantage of cheaper hotel and transportation costs – but do you really want to travel with 30 or 40 other people? A cheaper trip often means staying in a budget hotel with a personality bypass, and far from the main attractions. Small group tours also offer more intimate experiences. That might be a flamenco guitar performance in Seville by students recently graduated from the city’s prestigious flamenco schools – while a large group will only see flamenco performed at a theatre set up for tourists. As a rough guide, you’ll get what you pay for, but compare your chosen tour with other operators who are offering a similar experience.
The tour that fits
It’s important to choose a tour that dovetails with your own interests. If you choose a backpacker tour, expect budget accommodation, a fast pace, late nights and plenty of noise. If your idea of great travel experiences includes a few nights in a guesthouse in rural Romania favoured by Prince Charles or a lingering vineyard lunch sampling Sagrantino, a wine made from grapes grown only around the Italian town of Montefalco, that backpacker tour is not going to work for you. How do you know what’s right? Check the itinerary carefully, and ask the tour operator who goes on their trips. The same applies to the activity level. Go for one that fits your fitness level.
the perfect tour guide – one who knows their stuff and makes you laugh
Want to see 13 European cities in nine different countries? Rome, London, Amsterdam, Paris and more – all in 12 days? Fine, if that’s right for you there’s a tour that will do that. What you’ll probably remember is lots of blurred scenery through the window of your tour bus. And you’ll probably spend a lot of those 12 days getting from one city to the next, and not a whole lot of time experiencing the wonders along the way. If you want to immerse yourself in a place rather than just gliding over the surface, you need to slow down. Many of the experiences from a trip that will stand out in your memory are not the highlights listed on the itinerary, they’re the ones that happen by chance. It might be having a troop of monkeys invade your carriage on an Indian railway journey, or discovering a Bucharest café that makes the most delicious papanasi, the Romanian cheese doughnut, and for that you need time. If that’s what you want from your travels, look for a tour that spends three nights in most places. That gives you two full days to explore. Any less and you have to wonder whether it’s worth stopping in the first place
The role of group tour guides
Your tour guides are the keys to a foreign culture. If they’re doing their job they’ll make sure everything happens when it’s supposed to, that you and your valuables are kept safe and your trip is totally worry-free and that you come away with nothing but glowing memories. They should take you beyond the superficial views to give you a deeper, richer understanding of a place and its culture. Travel companies that work on high-volume mass travel tours will probably use one guide for the whole trip who will be expected to know everything about the places you visit, and that’s a tall order. They might not even speak the local language. Specialist operators who want to deliver a first-class experience will use one local guide who is well versed in the history, culture and customs of their birthplace for the duration of the trip, plus specialist guides in the cities and regions along the way. If you want to know who’ll be guiding you, ask your tour operator.
do your hotels add something to your trip?
What hotels are featured?
Hotels define the character of a tour. City hotels are often expensive and a low-cost tour will sometimes get around that by booking hotel rooms that are well out of the way. Others might go for the chain hotels that can be found the world over, and like McDonald’s, they work to the same recipe. Whether you’re staying in London or New Delhi, a Sheraton or a Hyatt hotel feels pretty much the same. They’re comfortable but predictable, and there’s little about them that tells you where you are. Other tour operators will work harder to choose hotels that are more authentic, that reflect the character and culture of the country they’re in. That might be a traditional riad, a courtyard house, in Marrakech or the former palace of a maharaja in India’s Rajasthan – and when you wake up on the morning you’ll be in no doubt where you are.