I often get defensive when I tell people I am going on a group tour. As silly as it may seems, there’s this part of me that is afraid I seem lame, like I can’t find anyone to travel with so I have to resort to doing a group tour. Luckily, I haven’t let this defensive response deter me because group travel has been one of the highlights of my traveling life. For those who may be skeptical, I present my top five reasons to travel solo in a group.
1. You aren’t completely ready to go it alone.
I booked my first group tour when I was 25. I graduated from law school and had a month free after taking the bar exam before starting work. I always dreamed of traveling but school, work and too many other things got in the way. Hoping to experience as much as possible in the time I had, and not feeling comfortable traveling alone, I booked a tour with Contiki, a company that caters to 18 to 35 year olds. Seven countries in 23 days, all on a big bus with 40 of my new closest friends. It was a whirlwind of a trip, spending just one or two nights in each city and hours on the bus in between. We saw the Eiffel Tower, raced through the Louvre, toured the Coliseum and got lost in Venice. We also danced the night away in Nice, chugged liters of beer in Munich, and downed shots of schnapps in the Alps. While I probably wouldn’t repeat the same trip today, it served its purpose of allowing me to get a taste of the best sights in Europe and giving me a sense of where I needed to return to someday. And it gave me the confidence I needed to eventually go back on my own.
2. You are not a planner.
This doesn’t apply to me. I am a planner with a capital P. However, if the thought of scouring a guidebook or the internet for hotel deals, train schedules and sightseeing information makes you want to cancel your trip, a group tour may be for you. The itinerary is set, hotels are booked and transportation is provided. Most tour managers will provide a schedule for you a couple days in advance so you know exactly what to expect. These will often include a city orientation tour, visiting a major site and a few optional activities. Good tour managers will also give you details on the best sites to see in your free time and how to get there. You really can get away with doing almost no advance research. While I don’t recommend that, I understand how it can appeal to some and I certainly have encountered people who go this route.
3. You can save money.
If you prefer to stay in hotels and don’t mind sharing a room with a stranger of the same sex, a group tour can save you money. Many tour groups, including Contiki, GAP, Geckos and Intrepid, will not charge you a single supplement if you are willing to share a room. Most include breakfast daily so if you take advantage of that and eat a hearty breakfast, you can save money by not eating a large lunch. Some tours may even include a couple dinner, which is a bonus. Assuming you would normally stay in a hotel (not a hostel), once you factor in accommodations, train, bus or plane tickets, meal costs and excursion expenses, you can come out ahead by taking a group tour.
I emphasize, though, that this is not always the case. You should look closely at what is included and what is extra to see if a tour is really worth it from a financial perspective.
4. There is a major language or cultural barrier.
When I decided to go to Egypt a few years ago, I don’t think I even considered NOT going with a group. It had been five years since I travelled in a group, but I was nervous about the cultural differences and my complete inability to read or speak a word of Arabic (and I did try!). Not to mention, as a blond American girl, I knew I would stand out. Could I have made it on my own? Probably. Would I have enjoyed the trip as much? Maybe, but I think it would have been more stressful. Travelling with a group gave me a tour manager who explained the cultural norms, wrote directions in Arabic for taxi drivers, and shooed away kids begging for money or gifts. While I admire people willing and able to brave the most difficult travelling environments on their own, sometimes going with a group will just make your adventure a bit easier and, as a result, more enjoyable.
5. You love to meet new people.
Some (many?) people picture group tours as buses full of elderly folks with dentures and walking canes, hobbling along behind a perky tour guide with a colorful umbrella. I guarantee you, this doesn’t have to be your group travel experience. Many companies cater to the adventure traveler and backpacker crowd, while limiting the size of their groups to 16 or 18 people. Ages and nationalities may vary but the people you encounter generally will be like-minded, active individuals. On my Egypt tour, I was the only American in a group of 14 Australians, as well as the second oldest in a group that included several girls who weren’t even legal to drink in the US. But when you’re riding camels in the desert, cruising down the Nile, exploring Egyptian temples and climbing Mt. Sinai, those differences really don’t matter.
Meeting new people is great, but making lifelong friends is a bonus of group travel. When I decided to travel solo to Australia a few years ago, I was able to meet up with two guys from my first Contiki trip. Friends from Canada, Australia and San Francisco have visited me here in Chicago and there are others who I communicate with almost weekly via instant messenger. Even better, I know that the next time I think about visiting South Africa, England, Tasmania or Dubai, I have friends I can call (and hopefully a place to stay!).
So how do you find the right tour for you? Stay tuned for next week’s post, How to Choose a Group Tour.