It was a scene from one of my travel nightmares. Somehow, I found myself sitting on a group tour bus in Spain, with over 60 fellow passengers and a pink-lipsticked, leopard-print-wearing guide who kept referring to us as her "family" and making appalling jokes. At our first sightseeing stop, we were herded through the narrow, charming streets of Cordoba like chattel, with headphones in our ears to hear the tour guide, and at the end of the visit, we got a whopping 10 minutes of free time -- just enough to use the bathroom.
So how, exactly, did this happen, and to a paid travel professional, no less? The short story is that I was traveling with a couple of family members and thought it would be a logistically easy way to see southern Spain, for a great price. I had never done a bus tour before, but the tour got good user reviews, and I'd heard good things from friends who had done group trips to places like India and Egypt. I naively thought I'd learn some interesting things, see all the important sights, and not have to worry about transportation (none of us wanted to drive). As a group tour novice, I made every error in the book.
The reality is that group tours are just as variable as hotels, and I had picked the one that was the worst possible fit for my preferences. I'm not the type to like giant cruise ships or crowded all-inclusive mega-resorts, and I chose the group tour equivalent of exactly that. But it doesn't have to be that way. I learned after the fact that there are group tours for just about every kind of traveler -- some of which I've broken down below -- and I'll share exactly what questions you need to ask to find out which kind you're getting. During my trip, I also picked up some handy tips for how to salvage the situation should you, too, find yourself in group tour hell.
Another tip to help you decide if the group tour is worth it? "Look for a tour group that offers an experience you wouldn't be able to easily recreate yourself," says Jake Steward, Operational Director for the Global Expeditions Group. "The biggest advantage of group travel is inside access and the connections with other like-minded travelers."
But even when a tour itinerary could be reproduced, for some travelers, it's just not worth the time. "When you segment the leisure travel market, there are those who revel in the planning and researching and have the time to do so, and those who either do not revel in it and/or do not have the time," says Laura Mandala, CEO of Mandala Research. She explains that some also feel that a group tour can be a safer bet. "Leisure time is precious for these travelers, and a good group tour operator can help eliminate the risk factors to an unsuccessful vacation."
1. The Big, Cheap Bus Tour
As you’ve probably surmised, this is the type of group tour on which I found myself. These tours can be massive — my Julia Travel tour had a whopping 63 members — and they’re often very cheap. (Note that these tours often make money by having optional extra tours and attractions not in the regular itinerary, and fees apply.) The included meals are often bland hotel buffets (certainly not great local cuisine), and the hotels are big chains that might not be within easy walking distance of attractions. The most popular sights for the tour might not even be included (as they can be logistically too challenging for a huge group, or because it can be hard to snag enough tickets for everyone at an in-demand sight). Other downsides may include early rising times, limited legroom on the buses, and little free time in the destinations. Though these tours draw a wide range of travelers, the age bracket does skew older.
This isn’t to say you should never do this type of tour — many travelers love them, and there are some upsides besides the low cost. Dan Bagby, who blogs at Honeymoon Always, recently went on a group tour in Rome. “The waits to get into the site were extremely long and having a group tour always got us in quickly,” he says. “The cons are you do not get to spend the time looking at the things that interest you and instead you have to follow the guide’s timing.”
Trafalgar, Insight, Globus, Cosmos, and Julia Travel are some of companies that fall into this bracket. Insight is considered slightly more upmarket than Trafalgar, and has a max group size of 40 people. Globus boasts an average group size of 36, but the maximum number of travelers can be higher than Insight’s. Contiki and Top Deck are big bus tours specifically targeting a younger market (ages 18 to 35 for Contiki, and 18 to 39 for Top Deck).
2. The Small Adventure Tour
Small, adventurous group tours are an entirely different beast than the big bus tour, and can be a blast. G Adventures is one of the biggest players in this space, and has a maximum of 15 travelers per trip (but an average of 10). These types of tours tend to skew younger (G Adventures’ Yolo Tours are specifically for ages 18 to 39). Its Classic Tours are advertised as “that sweet spot between independent backpacking and organized group tours,” and have “the flexibility to go off-script.” Intrepid Travel is another major company in this vein (leading 100,000 travelers around the world every year), and many groups have 12 to 16 people (though Overland trips are in purpose-built vehicles that carry 24). It specializes in “small groups, big adventures, and responsible travel.”
3. The Luxury Group Tour
Abercrombie & Kent is one of the leaders in luxury group tours, and stands out primarily for tour size and hotel quality. It typically has group sizes of 18 to 24 (the max sizes vary depending on the trip, and will be clearly stated upfront). We surveyed some of the hotels included in the tours and can confirm that they are upscale or luxurious — a few examples include the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech as part of the Splendors of Morocco tour (though note that it is not walking distance to the medina), and the Cour de Loges in Lyon as part of the France: From Paris to Provence tour. Some of the downsides of group tours, such as rushed itineraries and important sights that aren’t included, may still be an issue, however. In its Spain & Portugal: A Journey Across Iberia tour, for example, the day in Seville doesn’t include a visit to the Alcazar, one of the city’s top sights (though there is enough free time to squeeze it in on your own).
For those headed to Europe and for whom Abercrombie & Kent prices are out of reach, it’s worth considering Rick Steve’s European tours, which are often cheaper than the luxury group tours but still have some of the same upsides. “I prefer tours that offer a combination of visiting the important sites, led by a local guide, with plenty of free time to explore on my own,” traveler Suzanne Ball, who is about to go on her eighth Rick Steve’s tour, says. “I also prefer small groups that aren’t herded by someone holding a banner. Finally, I like to be treated as an intelligent person; teach me to use the tram, then let me go.”
Those who don’t like the socialization aspect of tours or the one-size-fits-all approach can also book customized, private tours. Abercrombie & Kent offers these through its Tailor Made Travel packages, while Heritage Tours Private Travel specializes in these types of trips.
4. The Active Tour
There are a ton of tour options out there for active travelers, from biking and walking tours, such as those offered through , to the “high-end, scrupulously researched active trips” from renowned Gray & Co., to Trek Travel, which prides itself on its excellent guides and high-quality Trek bicycles. REI Adventures offers small active trips such as its Costa Rica Ultimate Adventure, which involves hiking, biking, rafting, zip-lining, and cycling, for groups of four to 16.
These trips are far more targeted than the big bus tour. Because those going on active tours are often looking to participate in a specific type of outdoor activity — and because the group sizes are almost always smaller by necessity — travelers who partake in these trips may be more likely to have a positive experience.
VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations Chairman Gregg Marston says their travelers share a “love for the outdoors and a desire to experience the world up close and personal, not from behind the window of a large tour bus.” He adds, “Our itineraries are designed so that they really slow down and take in all the sights, traditions, and history of their destination.”
5. Family or Solo Tous
Finding a group tour targeted toward the number of travelers in your party — whether that means just you or you and a gaggle of children — can help ensure a more successful trip. Solo travelers in particular know that many group tours charge a “single traveler supplement” to ensure private accommodation — making the tour less affordable. But some tours are designed with single travelers in mind, especially those geared toward younger travelers. “G Adventures’ Yolo Tours are perfect for solo female travelers seeking a fast-paced adventure and the opportunity to meet new friends and fellow travelers,” says Lindsey Epperly, owner of Epperly Travel. “These trips include a flexible itinerary and groups of travelers within your age range to hang with so you don’t feel totally alone.” G Adventures doesn’t charge single supplements, unlike some other companies — but solo travelers on these trips can expect to share a room. Intrepid Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel also do not charge single supplements.
Finding a group tour suited for families can be even more challenging. The last thing you want is to be stuck on a bus with little ones who urgently need a bathroom break but can’t have one. Luckily, Thomson Family Adventures offers tours specifically geared toward family travel. Other travel companies also offer family tours as well, including Abercrombie & Kent’s Family Journeys.
Questions You May Want to Ask Before You Commit
- What is the maximum number of people allowed on the tour?
- How much time will be spent on the bus?
- How many nights will be spent at each hotel? What are the morning meeting times?
- What activities or sights will incur an extra cost? Are the sights I most want to see included on the itinerary?
- What language(s) will the tours be conducted in? (NB: Mine was conducted in both Spanish and English, which I didn’t know beforehand.)
- Where are the hotels located?
- What meals are covered and what type of food will be offered (e.g. a hotel buffet or a three-course meal at a local restaurant)?
- What countries and age groups does the tour cater to?
- How much free time is there, and is the itinerary customizable?
What to Do If You Find Yourself on a Group Tour You Hate
Luckily, not all is lost if you find yourself on a tour you can’t stand. It is often possible to use the big, cheap bus tour just for the hotels and transportation — and ditch the cattle herding during the day. Once I realized what I’d signed up for, that’s exactly what I did. In Seville, we spent the whole day visiting the Alcazar and the Seville Cathedral — neither included in my tour — and skipped the inedible hotel buffet dinner to take advantage of the city’s great tapas instead. In Granada, we split from the group once again; luckily I’d had the foresight to check if entrance to the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra were included in my tour (they weren’t) and booked tickets weeks in advance (they sell out far ahead of time). Not every tour will allow you to “break the rules” in this way, and what’s possible will depend on your specific itinerary. But the moral is not to give up — a little improvisation might turn your group tour nightmare into an amazing adventure.