Considering a multi-day guided tour but not sure if it’s worth it? Check out my list of the pros and cons of group travel, below!
One of the best jobs I ever had was working as a tour director for a major cruise line in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. For three years, I spent the summer guiding busloads of guests on six- to twelve-day, 1,000+-mile adventures between Anchorage and Skagway.
Along the way, I took care of almost every need my guests could have had: I arranged hotel rooms, took care of customs paperwork, made reservations, hauled luggage, booked excursions, solved problems, answered questions, and overall made sure that their vacation was running as smoothly as possible. I even served meals at lunch stops, handled medical emergencies, and told the occasional groaner joke over the motorcoach’s sound system.
And. I. Loved. It.
Even though I watched hundreds of guests have a fantastic time on guided tours, I also know that group travel isn’t for everyone. Today, I want to share with you the pros and cons of group travel based on my own personal experience, as well as firsthand accounts from many friends still in the industry. I hope that this guide helps you decide whether a guided tour is right for you.
Pro: Group tours are low-stress. (Almost) everything is handled for you.
If you want to see and do a lot on vacation without the work of planning and executing the trip, group travel might be perfect for you! When you book a group tour, the itinerary is already taken care of, so there’s no need to do extensive research, find hotels, book tours, and/or figure out your own transportation. You basically just show up and enjoy the ride!
Additionally, guided tours frequently take care of a lot of the work while you’re on vacation, as well. Many tours handle your luggage; my guests never needed to pull their suitcases any further than into and out of their hotel room doors. I also handled customs at our border crossings, taking care of all the paperwork up front so that they just had to show their passports when we left or entered the United States. I distributed room keys at each hotel (no need to check in or out!), organized meals, and made sure hotels and restaurants were aware of allergies, mobility issues, special occasions, and other special needs.
Plus, if something goes wrong, you have a tour director, driver, and/or other company representative there to help handle it. Whether confronted with lost luggage, illness, or wildfires ravaging the state, my guests knew that I was doing everything I could to help.
Con: There is little opportunity to customize your trip or be spontaneous.
The downside to the entire trip being pre-planned is that there is usually little room for customization or the spontaneity that makes travel so enjoyable. Most tours offer some free time, optional excursions, and upgrades, but overall you are at the mercy of a predetermined schedule. And most of those schedules are pretty jam-packed!
If you’re the kind of person who likes to travel at your own pace and make decisions as you go, group travel probably isn’t for you. Likewise, if there is something that you really want to see or do along your tour route, make absolutely certain that you will have the opportunity and enough time to do it before committing to a group tour.
Pro: Group travel can be more economical than doing it all yourself.
If you’ve ever booked a room from a wedding hotel block, you’ve probably noticed that group rates can be pretty fantastic. Because tour companies can negotiate with hotels, excursion providers, and airlines, they often can secure price breaks that could save you money compared to booking everything yourself. You also take care of most vacation expenses in one fell swoop, which can be a tremendous help when it comes to figuring out your budget and expenses.
Just remember that there may be additional costs above and beyond your tour price. Check the fine print to see which meals are or are not included, and be prepared to pay extra for additional excursions, services, and gratuities. (That last one can take people by surprise with how much is recommended. My company suggested $4 per person, per day, so many couples were tipping me $100 or more after a tour, in addition to tips for drivers, rail guides, excursion guides, and other service professionals along the way.)
Con: They can be exhausting.
As I mentioned above, tour schedules can be grueling. You’re trying to fit in as much as possible, which often involves long days on the road, early mornings, and quickly bouncing from one place to another.
When I worked as a tour director, it wasn’t unusual for our group to be on the go from early in the morning (between 6:00 – 7:00 AM) until dinnertime (between 4:00 – 6:00 PM). Occasionally, we would have a dinner show or other evening engagement that would extend the day even further. They were long days – full of great things, but certainly exhausting if you stacked one right after another.
If you have a choice, I suggest choosing a tour that includes some “down” days or multiple nights in the same place to cut down on fatigue. My guests who took nine days to travel between Anchorage and Skagway were infinitely less exhausted than those who did it in six.
Pro: You get to meet new people who become your "family" for the week.
One of my absolute favorite parts of being a tour director was how, almost without fail, each group of strangers ended up becoming a bit of a family by the time the tour ended. Spending so much time together, especially when that time involves experiencing incredible new sights and activities, tends to bond people in a really special way. Guests who were strangers a week earlier cried saying their goodbyes when a tour ended, and I received Christmas cards for years after I stopped tour directing. I still tear up thinking about one of my favorite guests, Mr. Carley, and his beautiful piano playing that enchanted his fellow tour members in the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks.
Traveling with a great group can enhance the experience for anyone, but the “family” atmosphere is one reason why tours are especially great for solo travelers!
Con: You can get stuck with a lousy group.
On the flip side, you’re completely at the mercy of your fellow travelers actually being people you’d like to be around. Fortunately, I believe that serious conflicts within tour groups are rare, but every now and again you’ll have a person, couple, or group within the group that can negatively impact everyone else’s experience. (While hundreds of other names and faces have disappeared into the ether of time, I can still remember the full name and every facial feature of the worst guest I ever had. But that’s a story for another time.)
Thankfully, a skilled tour director can help mitigate this situation, and you’ll likely have plenty of other people on the tour who don’t grate on your nerves. But it is a risk, and there’s no getting away once the tour begins.
Pro: Your tour guide(s), driver(s), and other experts will give you lots of historical, cultural, and other details.
When I was younger, I rarely bothered to hire guides or invest in anything other than my trusty guidebook and the occasional historical site’s audio tour. Now, however, I travel differently and really see the value that expert narration and tour services bring. I can’t imagine visiting a place like the Colosseum in Rome without having someone around to interpret it for me.
Most guided group tours include plenty of opportunities to learn about the places you’re visiting. When it’s from your bus driver’s narration, a guide’s demonstrations at a place of interest, or through conversation with your tour director, you’ll gain a much better appreciation of the places and cultures you’re experiencing. Unless you’re the type to do extensive research and reading before and during the trip, it’s likely more than you would get on your own.
Con: You may stick to the more "touristy" places and miss out on some hidden gems.
Many tour itineraries focus on the most famous and popular places at any given destination. It makes sense; those are the places most people would be looking to visit, or at least the ones that would be most recognizable and attractive to folks considering travel.
While this means that you’ll definitely hit the highlights you’re probably looking to see, it also could mean that you spend most of your time at popular sites (and with the accompanying crowds) and don’t stray far from the beaten path.
Pro: ... but not always! You may discover new places you might not have found otherwise.
On the flip side, if the tour company is local to your destination or has good local connections, they may feature some great off-the-beaten-path restaurants and attractions. You can also do your research and choose tours to less popular places. For example, I led or participated in tours that went out into the eastern parts of Alaska, the Yukon, and north to the Arctic Ocean on Alaska’s Dalton Highway. Few of my guests would have had the opportunity – or possibly even the inclination – to visit such places without a tour.
A guided tour also gives you access to people who know the area well, including hotel staff, drivers, and guides. They can point you in the direction of hidden gems and make recommendations to help you find those out-of-the-way spots.
Con: There's no hiding you're a tourist.
This may not bother some people, but it’s hard to blend in with the locals when you’re traveling in a big group. You’ll disembark a bus or a train car en masse, spend a lot of time walking behind a guide like so many ducklings, and descend upon restaurants and gift shops in a big wave. For some, that’s not a problem – your accent, language, or fashion choices are bound to give you away eventually, anyway – but others would rather stay as inconspicuous as possible.
Guided or group tours can be an excellent way to travel, but they’re not for the best for everyone or every location! I hope that this list of the pros and cons of group travel has helped you decide whether a tour is right for you. And if you’ve already traveled in this way, I’d love to hear YOUR pros and cons in the comments!
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