Have you ever thought about trying group travel? Or, have you ever thought about running as far from it as you can? If your idea of group travel is a bus trip to a casino, think again! Group travel can be an amazing way to see an unfamiliar area – and to try some things you’d never think to do on your own!
Admittedly, I never dreamed that I’d enjoy any sort of travel with a group. I’m fairly introverted, and the idea of spending time with strangers did not appeal. Then, too, there’s the loss of autonomy that comes with traveling with a group. It was not at all something that I thought was for me.
Then I took my first group tour.
I was in college, studying abroad in Spain. It was my first time going to Europe, and I couldn’t wait to see all that Spain had to offer. Fortunately, the program I studied with had organized a group tour for the first week of the study abroad experience which would take us from Madrid, to Toledo, through Sevilla, Granada, and Cordoba in southern Spain, and back up to Salamanca, where I would be studying.
It was wonderful.
Since then, I have taken several group tours in Europe, which have all been just as wonderful. Let me explain what made them so special.
The tour company arranged every detail. Flights were booked through them; travelers were met at the airport by their tour director. The tour director is responsible for everything that happens while you are on tour – he or she will do everything in his/her power to make sure you have a fantastic experience. If you’re traveling through a country that does not speak English, the tour director will speak, at minimum, English and the language of the country or countries you are visiting. This skill is invaluable as you navigate a different country.
The price of your tour will include most of what you’ll do while on vacation. Your flights, hotels, at least two meals, and most activities will all have been paid for before you even pack your suitcase. There may be extras to pay for, of course, but, like on a cruise, you can do quite a bit without paying additional fees while you’re there.
The schedule of the tour on the day of arrival is dependent upon when the travelers’ flights land. Unless you are traveling with a private group who is all arriving together, you may have to wait for additional flights to land. This is actually how I prefer to travel – I’ve been lucky enough to be on the first flight in most times, which means I have free time at the hotel while we wait for the rest of the group to arrive. I take this time to shower and change (overnight flights are no joke!) and to explore the area around the hotel.
After everyone has arrived, the official tour can begin! A typical day on tour begins early – your tour director will fill you in on what time your wakeup call has been set, what time breakfast is served, and what time to be ready to roll. I like a set my own alarm earlier than the hotel wakeup call – they tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take me to get ready. Also, not every country subscribes to US standards of punctuality, so your wakeup call could be late or not come at all. It’s better to be ready early, rather than to hold up the group.
Most tours include at least two meals a day, generally breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is almost always at the hotel, followed by a full day of sight-seeing and activities. Your tour director will have put together your itinerary, and will make sure that you arrive at each location on time.
The activities will, of course, depend on where you are and what sort of tour you’re taking. You can expect to do “touristy” things – when in Paris, you will certainly visit the Eiffel Tower; when in Barcelona, a visit to Parc Guell is in order. However, group travel also gives you the opportunity to do things you may not have considered – taking in a Flamenco show in a Gypsy cave in Granada, or watching a demonstration of sword making in Toledo. The important thing to remember is that these tour companies and tour directors are experts in the areas you’ll be visiting – they can show you things that you would not necessarily find on your own.
Schedules are not completely rigid – time is allotted for optional excursions, and tour directors will ask if there is something special you’d like to do while you’re in the area. For example, a group on my last tour asked to go bike riding through Barcelona. I joined in – and I am so glad I did. It was wonderful, and not something I would have thought to do without the input of others.
Your days will also include “free time,” when you can choose your own activities, or explore part of the city more. I often use this time for shopping, too. Some of the most fun we’ve had has been wandering around the city after dinner, looking for places to have a drink, or ice cream, or spending time exploring a park or a picturesque neighborhood.
With many tours, lunch is “on your own” – the tour director will provide restaurant suggestions and a meeting point and time, and you are on your own to find lunch. I love this feature, as it provides an opportunity to try that little café that looks so adorable, or to have some “comfort food” that you miss from home. And, I always like to follow the advice of Anthony Bourdain – if the locals are there, the restaurant is going to be good. No one local will keep going to a bad or unsanitary restaurant.
Safety is another appealing aspect of group travel. I’m not necessarily referring to physical safety – though there is safety in numbers! There is such a sense of security in knowing that your tour director and the guides who join you along the way know exactly where they are going and how long it will take to reach your destination. You don’t need to worry about taking a wrong turn, getting on the wrong metro, or stumbling into the wrong neighborhood.
Beyond that, they take care of any travel difficulties that arise. For example, during my last tour, we were scheduled to take a night train from Barcelona to Paris. That week, the train employees went on strike, so there was no way for us to take a train. Sonja, our tour director, spent a day working on it, and made arrangements for us to fly out of Barcelona that evening, and to spend an extra night in Paris. However, the hotel where we were to spend our time in Paris could not accommodate us for an extra night – Sonja got us reservations at a different hotel for the first night, and arranged for our transfer to the second hotel on time. All this happened behind the scenes – we didn’t have to worry about a thing, and the transition from the old itinerary to the new was seamless. And, all this happened at no additional cost to the travelers.
Group travel is an excellent way to see a new or unfamiliar place. Activities are planned that will give you a real feel for where you are, but enough free time is provided that you’ll have a chance to explore on your own. Especially if you don’t speak the language – or even if you do, but the destination is totally unfamiliar – group travel is often your best option.
Have you been on a group tour? Or, where you would you like to go on one? Let me know in the comments!