Group (RE) Think

I’m a travel snob… By that I mean I have always felt that THE ONLY WAY to truly experience a destination is to travel independently.  Choose where you want to go, when you want to go. Visit smaller cities. Eat at locally owned restaurants. Spend money on experiences rather than travel “infrastructure” where spending more money only creates more distance between you and the locals.  Skip the “group think” of package/escorted/ group tours… Recently I decided to revisit that last one… 

While preparing travel options for a tour of Ireland for some new clients I realized that, for some, traveling in that independent, “do it yourself” fashion may detract from, rather than enhance the travel experience. Today’s “escorted” tours are not your grandparents’ traditional bus tour featuring 14 countries in 14 days, eating and sleeping in soulless chain hotels and being escorted around major sites between meals and bathroom breaks.

Package tours, now more commonly referred to as “organized” or “escorted” tours now come in many “shapes” from tours focused on targeted demographic groups (families, young adults, single women) activities (walking/biking/eating) interests (family heritage, movies/TV shows, religious tours) or charitable/educational focuses. They also come in many “sizes” – “small group” ranging from 10 – 24 travelers to larger group tours offering tremendous value to “customized groups” where you put together your own group package based on your own agenda – popular for multi-generational trips or affiliated organizations such as college reunion groups or sororities or incentive travel. And they come in all types of transportation options from the traditional coaches that now feature amenities such as WIFI to river cruises and private jets. There are even “unescorted” group tours, where participants can take advantage of shared transportation/hotels and a tour “director” but are free to explore on their own once in destination.

These tours may offer the traveler important advantages. Escorted tours take care of the planning and organization. You don’t have to put in hours researching an itinerary. You can wake up in the morning and your day is planned out for you. Find a tour that matches your destination and interests and they take care of the rest. You don’t have to travel alone. Your fellow travelers will have shared travel interests since you picked the same tour and many go on to reconnect with their fellow travelers after the tour is over. Because you are sharing the costs of your transportation and guides with others, there is often good value for the money. There is also comfort and security in traveling with guides who know the local language and culture, especially in countries where you may not be able to read, write or speak…

There ARE some disadvantages… you may find it irritating to stick to a fixed schedule that doesn’t perfectly fit your travel style. You may tire of the “action packed” itinerary that usually starts early in the morning (i.e. you MUST be at breakfast by 7am and ON the bus at 8am) and may run into the evening hours, leaving minimal “alone” time. One or two annoying fellow travelers may get on your nerves – sometimes that can make or break an entire trip. You may experience “pre-arranged shopping” at vendors or shops that the tour company or your tour director has “pre-determined.” In all likelihood you’ll see the most popular sites and cities, but probably not smaller, less well-known but equally impressive ones. You’ll be eating many of your meals with the group, limiting your ability to go out and experience the local food and culture and interact with the locals.

It’s important that you decide with each trip what will work for you for that trip, at that time period in your life, in that destination. Generally if you don’t mind trading off some flexibility for the socialization, value for the money and seeing the major sites of a country you may want to look into escorted tours. If you value your independence, a flexible itinerary and the opportunity to travel more off the beaten path then you may prefer an “independent” vacation. In either case, make sure to carefully research the pros and cons of each type of travel, how they will positively or negatively impact your vacation and what will best align with your own personal “travel philosophy.”