Group tours: Why some tourists will never be happy

"I've got a problem," the guy says to me. "A big problem."

Uh-oh. I know where this is going. This guy has been having problems the whole trip. We've been staying in places too long. We've been leaving places too soon. The hotels have been dirty. The people have been weird. There's really very little that's been good.

"Oh, yeah?" I say. "What's up?"

He holds his drink in front of me and wiggles it around. "Their tonic is flat. Totally flat. Can you believe that? And no ice either. All I want is a decent G&T."

Sigh. This would be a reasonable thing to complain about in, say, England. But we're not in England. We're in Myanmar. In fact, we're in Bagan, a fairly small town in the middle of a developing country that's had tourists in it for only a couple of years, and tonic water for considerably less so. They're doing well to deal with any problems at all really, let alone flat G&Ts.

But this is a tour, and I'm the guide, so I have to smile and grab the guy's drink and go and see what I can do to fix it. Inevitably, the answer is "nothing", but you have to make a show of giving it a try.

Welcome to life on tour. Welcome to the fun, frustration, agony and amusement.

I've travelled as a passenger on many tours, from Europe to Africa, Asia to South America; from budget to lux; with young passengers and old. I've worked on many tours too, doing everything from cooking the meals to driving the vans. And the funny thing is that the behaviour of the people on all tours has been fairly similar.

People on tours like to whinge. Not everyone, but there's always a few. Sometimes they're just quiet grumblers, which is fine, but occasionally you get a few who are particularly vocal, and then your tour is doomed.

I've always found that it takes only two or three strong characters on board to swing the mood of the group in any direction. Get a couple of passionate whingers and suddenly everyone else starts to notice the little things that have inevitably been going wrong, and they start to complain about them as well. Everyone has a bad time.

Get a few really enthusiastic, positive people on board, however, and everyone else gets dragged along for the joyful ride, sometimes having fun despite themselves, feeling far too petty to complain about anything even if they do have a slight grumble.

That's the same for every tour I've been with – young passengers or old, rich passengers or poor. All it takes is a few strong characters.

Another similarity that tends to surprise some people is that pretty much anyone who goes on a tour likes a drink. The Australians, anyway. They don't all drink to excess. Some of my backpacker groups in Europe barely even got boozed. But pretty much everyone on a tour will enjoy a tipple.

The average age of that group I led in Myanmar was about 50, and by the end of each day most people were dying for a gin and tonic (or the best substitute they could get). A high-end trip I took to Antarctica turned out to be the booziest tour I've ever been on. Drunkenness isn't limited to backpackers.

There's a funny mindset, too, that seems to pervade every tour group I've ever been with, and that's the tendency to think that they're better than all the other tour groups. That might be past tour groups – "We'd have to be the best group you've ever had, surely" – or it might be others that we bump into on the road – "God, I'm glad I didn't end up on that tour!"

It's an odd competitive spirit that groups seem to share. There are no winners in travel, but that doesn't mean you can't think you're the best.

And, last but not least, there's the granddaddy of all tour passenger quirks: the incredible tendency for even the most intelligent traveller to have pretty much no clue of where they are or what they're doing while on a tour.

For many people the appeal of going on an organised trip is that they get to switch off their brain and let someone else take care of the hard stuff. And I get that. But I'm still completely baffled to find the occasional passenger who won't even be able to pronounce the name of the country they're in.

"What are we doing today?"

"Where are we going tomorrow?"

"Where are we now again?"

These are questions you get used to on tours. These, and where can you find a decent G&T.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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