Hopefully I convinced you last week in Five Reasons to Try a Group Tour that a group tour is worth checking out. So now that you’re ready to give it a shot, how do you find the right group for you?
1. Figure out what you want. Granted, this may be easier said than done, but it should be the starting point. If you book a tour without having an idea of what you want your experience to be, you’ll likely end up disappointed. Start out by getting a good travel guide (I like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide) and read up on the country or countries you want to visit. Get a sense of what sights you would like to see or activities you would like to do –importantly, what are your “must-sees”? You should also consider:
- What level of comfort do you need? Are you okay camping or do you need a 4 star hotel with a hot shower and cable TV?
- What are your priorities – sightseeing, partying, or a little of both?
- What type of transportation can you handle? Overnight trains? 12 hour bus rides? Camels? Horses? Walking?
- What size group are you comfortable with? Will you mind being one in a herd of 40 or would you prefer a more intimate crowd of 15?
2. Determine your budget for the entire trip. This includes airfare, accommodations, meals, sightseeing and socializing. Again, guidebooks can be valuable in giving you a sense of how much things will likely cost.
3. Search for tours that match your interests and budget. For multi-country trips, larger tour companies often work best. A few to consider are Contiki, GAP Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Dragoman, Gecko’s Adventures, Peregrine Adventures, Imaginative Traveller, Kumuka and Tucan Travel. If you live in the U.S., Adventure Center serves as the booking agent for several of these companies so you can search their website for tour offerings from more than one company.
If you plan to limit your travel to one country, it may be worth checking out a local tour company. Your guidebook may recommend a few possibilities. If not, ask around on message boards like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet or simply do a Google search (i.e., “Peru tour company”).
4. Review the details carefully. Most companies will include both a summary itinerary and a detailed itinerary for tours on their web sites. Read the detailed one carefully to determine what sights are included, what sights are optional and how much free time you may have. Sometimes this requires a very close reading of the itinerary – are you going to “see” Buckingham Palace or actually “visit” it? Is a guided tour included? What meals are included? Some tours may appear to be a great deal, but if they don’t include any entrance fees or meals, you may actually end up spending a lot more than you think. Does the tour start and end in different cities? If so, you will need to find a way back to where you started or book a flight into one city and out of the other. Either option may present an additional cost.
5. Dig deeper. Find out what hotels the group will stay at and whether they are centrally located or at least close to public transportation. On my first tour in 2001, the majority of our hotels were on the outskirts of town not close to anything so we didn’t have much flexibility to explore on our own or hit the town at night. On later tours, the hotels were in close proximity to the subway, if not in the center of town, so it was easy to head out solo. Read reviews about the companies and the tours, but take them with a grain of salt. Some companies operate message boards where travelers can post their experiences – a negative review should make you cautious, but don’t let it be determinative. Post your own questions or try to contact other message board posters and ask directly.
Finally, don’t forget to read the fine print before you book! Make sure you’re familiar with (and comfortable with) rules about refunds and cancellations and disclaimers about possible changes in itinerary.