"There are plenty of upsides to group travel," says Ute Junker, an inveterate solo traveller and regular contributor, "and one of them is the calibre of the guides. Whether you are exploring Yellowstone in winter or prehistoric sites in Greece, travelling with an expert guide can completely change your understanding of a destination."
Remember a time, not that long ago, when cruises were just for fogeys? That was before cruising was reborn as the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry, thanks to a huge array of ships and itineraries increasingly designed to appeal to travellers of all ages and interests.
Now escorted journeys, as the travel industry prefers to call the guided tours segment, has emulated cruising.
Once characterised by oversized groups on breakneck itineraries led by umbrella-waving guides, today's guided tours are virtually unrecognisable from those in the past. Whether you want to travel in a small group, focus on a particular passion, or takes things at a slow pace, there is an itinerary for you.
"Australian travellers are now far more sophisticated, so the product that is available has also had to develop immensely," says Dennis Bunnik, chairman of the Council of Australian Tour Operators and managing director of Bunnik Tours. "There is now an incredible choice available."
Far from being the easy option for inexperienced travellers, escorted journeys now aim to appeal to a well-travelled clientele; not just by taking care of the transport and accommodation, but by delivering something extra.
"We offer experiences you couldn't have on your own," says Matt Cameron-Smith, managing director of Trafalgar Tours. Trafalgar is known for its Be My Guest experiences, where passengers dine with local families in their homes. "We introduce you to locals who have stories to tell," says Cameron-Smith. "In Florence, we meet a chef who takes us shopping at the fresh food market: you get given some euros and have to haggle with the stallholders. Then he teaches us to make perfect pasta pomodoro."
Variety has become the sector's defining principle. "At Intrepid Travel, it's all about choice," says managing director, James Thornton. "You can choose from trips that are longer or shorter, trips that are fairly basic or trips that offer more comfortable accommodation and transport. We also offer themed trips that allow travellers to pursue their passion, whether that's cycling, sailing or food."
Companies such as Martin Randall Travel, which specialises in cultural tours including art, music and ballet, has around 250 different tours on its books. Its lecturers are academic specialists in their field, but the touring experience is designed to be entertaining as well as enlightening.
"Our lecturers have a phenomenal depth of scholarship, but they have to be able to communicate with a lightness of touch," says Martin Randall Australia's managing director, Kelly Ward. "Gijs van Hensbergen, who leads our Cradle of Modern Art tour for example, is an outstanding lecturer, but he's also a great deal of fun, and has a great understanding of Spanish gastronomy."
Getting the group size right is a key concern for many operators. Take Bunnik Tours, which has a maximum group size of 20 people, but will run groups with just eight passengers. "That helps with logistics, and lets us work with smaller family-run hotels and restaurants, rather than larger chains," says Bunnik.
Despite the small group sizes, Bunnik Tours still uses large coaches in Europe. "You have room to spread out," Bunnik says. "It also means if you are driving, say, from Dubrovnik to Split, with an ocean vista on the left hand side, everybody can sit on the side with the view."
In the current global climate, escorted journeys offer another significant benefit: they give travellers a degree of reassurance, says James Thornton. "When you are travelling with local experts, you have a level of comfort and security that you wouldn't have on your own."
So if you are ready to give escorted touring a try, consider one of these tailored itineraries.
THE FIRST-TIME TOURER
OUR RECOMMENDATION A week flies by on the seven-day Colombia Active Expedition, limited to 14 passengers, which takes in buzzing Bogota, the central highlands and the Caribbean coast.
THE OPERATOR Canadian company Butterfield & Robinson has been in business for more than 50 years, specialising in active itineraries and food and wine.
TELL ME MORE Ease yourself into the touring groove with this short and sweet trip. From meals in Bogota's best restaurants and visits to coffee plantations to hikes through cloud forests and kayaking on the Caribbean coast, every day brings a different experience.
ESSENTIALS From $US5995 per person twin share, departing December 16, 2017. See butterfield.com
THE ACTIVE TYPE
OUR RECOMMENDATION A 14-day Cycle Japan trip from Osaka to Tokyo taking in bamboo forests and traditional temples, fishing villages and hot-spring resorts.
THE OPERATOR Australian company Intrepid Travel has been offering small group journeys for almost 30 years. They now offer around 1000 itineraries across the world.
TELL ME MORE This active adventure allows you to discover parts of Japan that many travellers never see. Expect to cycle anywhere between 10 and 65 kilometres a day; if you get tired, you can take it easy in the support vehicle.
ESSENTIALS From $6570 per person twin share. There are eight departures between May and November 2017. See intrepidtravel.com/au
THE BRAGGING RIGHTS COLLECTOR
OUR RECOMMENDATION An eight-day Heart of Italy: Venezia, Firenze and Roma tour offering a range of insider experiences, including visits to a historic hill-top winery and an art restorer's workshop.
THE OPERATOR The US-based Tauck company offers a range of upmarket tours. This Italian itinerary is part of their Culturious portfolio, which focuses on off-the-beaten path experiences.
TELL ME MORE This trip is filled with pinch-yourself moments, including everything from lunch with a contessa in her palazzo to an after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum.
ESSENTIALS From $5740 per person twin share. There are 12 departures between April and October 2017. See tauck.com.au
THE "THINK SMALL" TRAVELLER
OUR RECOMMENDATION With a maximum group size of 20 people, you will never feel crowded on Bunnik Tours' 17-day Taste of Sri Lanka Itinerary.
THE OPERATOR Australian operator Bunnik Tours specialises in small group travel. Return flights from Australia are included with all tours.
TELL ME MORE Ancient cities and lush tea plantations, colonial hill towns and national parks that are home to elephants, leopard and buffalo: Sri Lanka is one of Asia's most diverse destinations. Highlights of this extensive itinerary include a visit to the cave temples at Dambulla and a riverside dinner with a local family.
ESSENTIALS From $4995 per person twin share, including flights. There are 27 departures between March and December 2017. See bunniktours.com.au
THE "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCAL" LOVER
OUR RECOMMENDATION Get a local's perspective on Brazil and Argentina on the 10-day Impressions of South America.
THE OPERATOR Trafalgar Tours is known for its range of Insider Experiences, including local interactions such as dining with locals in their homes.
TELL ME MORE You will do more than see the sights of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires on this trip: you will also enjoy authentic local experiences. From mixing caipirinhas and feasting on traditional Brazilian barbecue at a churrascaria, to dining at home with locals in their home in one of Buenos Aires' trendiest neighbourhoods, this trip gives you an insider's perspective on these beautiful cities.
ESSENTIALS From $4561.98 per person twin share. There are eight guaranteed departures from February to December 2017. See trafalgar.com/aus
THE WINTER WANDERER
OUR RECOMMENDATION Enjoy a cold-climate Christmas in the heart of the Black Forest on the eight-day German Christmas Holiday.
THE OPERATOR Australian company Albatross Tours specialises in slower-paced tours, with most itineraries offering stays of two, three or more nights in each destination.
TELL ME MORE From medieval towns like Heidelberg and Freiburg, the Alsace wine road and the grand Hohenzollern Castle, this trip lets you explore a distinct Christmas culture. An added bonus: spending six nights in the same hotel means you are spared endless packing and unpacking.
ESSENTIALS Price on application (2016 pricing from $2789 per person twin share). Departing December 21. See albatrosstours.com.au
THE INTREPID FOODIE
OUR RECOMMENDATION Get a taste of authentic Greece on Gourmet Safaris' 13-day Greek Islands Gourmet Food Safari, which takes in four different islands.
THE OPERATOR Founded by TV presenter and cookbook author Maeve O'Meara, Gourmet Safaris offers food-focused small-group itineraries in Australia and overseas.
TELL ME MORE Expect meals in seaside tavernas and on private estates, feasting on slow-cooked lamb and freshly gathered figs, and dancing to bouzouki music after dinner. Exploring off-the-beaten track islands such as Prokopi and Limnos, you will visit local attractions, including 1000-year-old monasteries, as well as taking part in hands-on cooking lessons.
ESSENTIALS From $8250 per person twin share, departing September 5 and September 19, 2017. See gourmetsafaris.com.au
THE FIVE-STAR-ALL-THE WAY FAN
OUR RECOMMENDATION Moorish cities, Roman ruins and luxurious tented camps amid the desert dunes are just some of the highlights of this 12-day Splendours of Morocco trip.
THE OPERATOR Abercrombie & Kent has been offering luxurious travel in remote destinations for more than half a century, offering both private trips and small group journeys.
TELL ME MORE If you have both a taste for adventure and a love of luxury, this trip is for you. The itinerary takes in the best of Morocco, from the Moorish city of Rabat to the medieval heart of Fez, from Berber villages to the soaring peaks of the Atlas Mountains – not to forget the towering dunes of the Sahara. After a day spent exploring the Marrakech medina or wandering through ancient imperial palaces, at night you can unwind in the most luxurious lodgings around.
ESSENTIALS From $US6695 per person twin share. There are 29 departures between February and December 2017. See abercrombiekent.com.au
THE CULTURE VULTURE
OUR RECOMMENDATION Take a different view of Catalonia, Provence and the Cote d'Azur on the 17-day Cradle of Modern Art trip, which focuses on artists inspired by the area including Cezanne, Matisse, Miro and Picasso.
THE OPERATOR The UK-based Martin Randall Travel offers a wide range of cultural journeys including architecture, art, gastronomy, history, literature and drama, music and ballet tours.
TELL ME MORE The landscapes and culture of southern France and north-eastern Spain inspired many of the giants of 20th-century art. This leisurely tour visits hilltop villages and coastal towns, following in the footsteps of giants such as Renoir, Gaudi, Dali, Braque, Leger and Chagall.
ESSENTIALS From $12,370 per person twin share, departing September 21, 2017. See martinrandall.com
THE GREAT OUTDOORS TYPE
OUR RECOMMENDATION Explore the magnificent landscapes of western Canada by road, rail and sea on the 14-day Majesty of the Rockies tour.
THE OPERATOR Insight Vacations is a premium escorted touring company, offering itineraries in Europe, North America and India.
TELL ME MORE From floating down the Athabasca River to exploring icefields and sleeping in timber lodges, this two-week trip is packed with unforgettable experiences. There are plenty of Instagrammable sights along the way, including glittering Alpine lakes and towering glaciers.
ESSENTIALS From $6825 per person twin share. 15 departures between May and September 2017. See luxurygoldvacations.com/au
FOLLOW THE LEADER: FIVE GUIDES PITCH THEIR BEST TOURS
THE GUIDE Johanna Cordova
LIVES Quito, Ecuador; has been guiding for seven years.
THE TOUR Intrepid Travel's eight-day Ecuador on a Shoestring.
THE PITCH Ecuador is known for its biodiversity and its cultural heritage, and every place we visit is different. Quito was the first city in the world to be declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site. It's always awe-inspiring to travel to the Amazon basin and share time with the indigenous Kichwa people in the community lodge stay, learning about their culture.
BEST TIP FOR TOUR-TAKERS Bring clothes for all seasons: the weather in Ecuador is unpredictable and we can easily have four seasons in one day.
DETAILS From $885. Operates year-round, with several departures per month. See intrepidtravel.com/au
THE GUIDE Charlie Gardner
LIVES Norfolk, England, having lived in Madagascar for 10 years with 20 years experience as a conservationist.
THE TOUR Abercrombie & Kent's 12-day A Naturalist's Guide to Madagascar.
THE PITCH We visit off-the-beaten-track locations with a team of expert guides, so you'll experience the adventure of a backpacking tour in one of the world's least explored countries from the comfort of a small luxury hotel. The reptiles are very active, the birding is outstanding and the lemur viewing is excellent.
BEST TIP FOR TOUR-TAKERS Leave your expectations at home. Even seasoned travellers find Madagascar just a little different from anywhere else.
DETAILS From $9890. Departs August 6 and November 12, 2017. See abercrombiekent.com.au
THE GUIDE Todd Geist
LIVES San Francisco, US; has been guiding for 14 years.
THE TOUR Insight Vacations' 22-day America the Beautiful
THE PITCH This coast-to-coast trip gives you a great perspective on the entire American puzzle. As we travel from the east coast through the Carolinas to the deep south, on through Tennessee, Arizona and Las Vegas to Los Angeles, we pass through regions with different histories, different food, different politics.
BEST TIP FOR TOUR-TAKERS Make a point of trying the local food. Barbecue is a tradition in the deep south, and it varies from state to state as to the type of meats they use and how they prepare the sauces.
DETAILS From $9504. Four departures between April and October 2017. See insightvacations.com/au
THE GUIDE Anamarija Korošec.
LIVES Ljubljana, Slovenia; has been guiding for 12 years.
THE TOUR Bunnik Tours 21-day Jewels of Dalmatia
THE PITCH We'll meet in Budapest, with its splendid Habsburg architecture and history; stay in lively Zagreb; and spend a night in the still war-torn city of Sarajevo. In Dubrovnik, we will have a home hosted dinner: there will be dancing, singing and drinking. From here we'll travel up the stunning Dalmatian coast. We'll walk among the beautiful Plitvice lakes, spend a couple of nights in fairytale Bled, and bid our farewell in Venice.
BEST TIP FOR TOUR-TAKERS Coffee here is an event, never a five-minute stop. Use some of your free time to indulge in people-watching at a cafe overlooking the town square.
DETAILS From $9595 including return international airfares. 20 departures between April and October 2017. See bunniktours.com.au
THE GUIDE Petula Shaw Dennis
LIVES Melbourne and Munich; has been guiding for 10 years.
THE TOUR Trafalgar Tours 13-day Switzerland and Austria
THE PITCH The scenery on this tour is simply stunning, and you get great cultural diversity without having to travel far: in Switzerland alone we visit German, French and Italian-speaking areas, each with its own atmosphere.
BEST TIP FOR TOUR-TAKERS Know your camera before you come. There is so much stunning scenery, you don't want to be trying to learn how to use it while you're on the road.
DETAILS From $3417.88. 15 definite departures between April and October 2017. See trafalgar.com/aus
MISGUIDED: BUSTING ESCORTED JOURNEYS MISCONCEPTIONS MYTH "GROUP TRIPS FOLLOW STRICT TIMETABLES – IT'S LIKE BEING BACK AT SCHOOL."
REALITY "The most important inclusion on itineraries these days is free time," says Trafalgar's Matt Cameron-Smith. "We are aware that people want to time to search out their own experiences." Most companies schedule plenty of down time. It is also worth remembering that the only time you must stay with the group is when you are travelling between destinations. If you would rather sleep in one morning than visit another gallery, or skip the afternoon museum visit and hang out in the piazza instead, just let your tour leader know.
MYTH "GROUP TRAVEL IS ONLY SUITED TO FIRST-TIME TRAVELLERS."
REALITY "A lot of our clients are experienced travellers," says Intrepid Travel's James Thornton. "They travel with us because they don't have the time to research the destination in depth." And who doesn't like the idea of having someone else take care of accommodation and transport? The idea that only older travellers sign up for escorted journeys is also out of date, according to Thornton. "Our typical client is a mid-30s university-educated professional female who has travelled independently in the past."
MYTH "I WON'T GET TO MEET THE LOCALS LIKE I CAN ON MY OWN."
REALITY "People want a window into the local culture, and we can open that for them," says Cameron-Smith. Like many other companies, Trafalgar offers hand-picked interactions with locals. "We can take you to a Vietnamese herb farm where you can have an amazing fresh dinner cooked over a flame; or in France, you can share a meal with Beatrice, who makes goat cheese, in her chateau."
MYTH "ALL GUIDED TOURS ARE ALIKE."
REALITY "Touring has become really diversified," says Dennis Bunnik of Bunnik Tours. "There are now tours for all different types of people. If you want to travel in a small group or a slower pace, there are tours for that. You can focus on one particular region, or take in several countries." The wide range of specialist tours includes everything from active cycling trips to itineraries focused on food or music. An added benefit of travelling on a special-interest tour is that you know you and your fellow passengers are enthusiastic about the same things.
MYTH "I CAN ORGANISE THINGS BETTER ON MY OWN."
REALITY Group travel can involve big savings. "We book large numbers of hotel rooms right across the world, in Bangkok, in Lima, in Hanoi, in Delhi, so we can negotiate better deals," says Thornton. Tour companies are also able to organise experiences that you simply couldn't organise by yourself, including ones that are not on the itinerary. "I was on an Intrepid tour in Russia, and in Red Square we saw the InterMilan football team go past," says Thornton. "When the leader saw how excited I was, he organised a ticket for me to their match."
GUIDING PRINCIPLES: HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOUR
SPEED UP OR SLOW DOWN Do you want to see a new city every day, or do you like the idea of not having to pack your bag every morning? Do you want to tick off as many destinations as possible, or would you rather get to know one place in depth? Choose a trip that travels at the same pace that you do.
BALANCE THE BUDGET Some tours are all-inclusive; others deliberately limit inclusions such as meals to give guests more freedom to do their own thing. Decide which option suits you better.
SIZE MATTERS Some people live by a philosophy of "the more the merrier". The more travel companions, they figure, the more chance to make new friends. For others, the idea of travelling with several dozen people is off-putting. Decide which group size is going to work for you.
FEEL FREE What does your perfect day on tour look like? For some, it's the freedom to go exploring on your own that matters. Others prefer not to do too much thinking: they would rather leave it to the experts to decide which sights are must-sees, and then just show up. Choose an itinerary that offers the right amount of free time for you.
PURSUE YOUR PASSION With the huge variety of tours on offer today, there is no need to settle for second-best. Decide what you most want from this trip – whether it's a museum tour led by an academic, the opportunity to get active, or the chance to dine with locals – and then find the tour that can fulfil your dreams.