Group tour holidays: Eight myths about tours, busted

When it comes to prejudice, touring is the Mr Darcy of the travel world, viewed with unthinking suspicion and scorn. No other form of travel except cruising is so automatically dismissed and ultimately misunderstood.

Touring isn't watered-down travel, nor for the timid or unsophisticated. It has become more varied and adventurous, active and intelligent. And in these turbulent times, when we're looking for the reassurance of curated travel advice, clearly established cost and back-up plans, there are even more reasons to consider a tour.

A tour holiday provides an up-front price, which avoids unhappy surprises in a world where travel costs are projected to rise thanks to inflation, staff shortages and post-COVID restructuring. Some of the nations with the highest inflation – such as the US, Italy, Switzerland, Greece and Turkey – are big tourist destinations. Lock in your package cost now and it's a good financial bet you'll be pleased come tour time.

Among persistent furphies about tours is that they're overpriced, but big tour companies leverage their purchasing power for good deals on airfares and hotels. Add in meals, guides and (depending on small print) airport transfers and gratuities. Don't forget the not-so-obvious inclusions that add up as an independent traveller: petrol, motorway tolls, entrance fees. Price the journey yourself and you might reconsider.

You pay not just for the product but peace of mind. One-stop bookings are an advantage if things go haywire: travel with a reputable company and you're in good emergency hands, and can access refunds more easily. Even a missed or cancelled flight in these times of airport chaos isn't something you need to stress over: let a stressed-out tour director deal with it instead.

Even in the best-case scenario touring takes the trouble out of travel. Everything is organised for you and the nitty-gritty of travel practicalities banished. Some might say that's exactly what a holiday ought to be.

Those used to individual travel don't get the welcome relief of not having to think about anything, except about enjoying the sights. They don't get that enjoying the sights accompanied by an expert guide adds another layer of appreciation.

If you want to fall in love with travel's Mr Darcy, here are a few more myths that might make you reconsider touring.

TOURS ARE FOR THE LAZY

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Cycling Cappadocia, Turkey with Intrepid Travel. Photo: Liam Neal

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Oh, that old trope. It's surely the stereotypes that indicate lazy thinking. Upgrade your outdated view if you imagine tours are filled with couch potatoes gazing at monuments from moving windows. Tour-goers aren't nearly dead nor early to bed.

Even mainstream tours require considerable stamina. Expect an early wake-up call, full day and several hours' walking; the best tour companies keep "gentle walkers" aside to explore at a slower pace. You might be offered activities such as biking or kayaking. Then it's a quick change at magician's speed and a convivial dinner before someone inevitably suggests a nightcap at a local wine bar.

Meanwhile there are endless options for walking, hiking, camping, cycling and other active tours. Among the most extreme is World Expedition's Great Himalaya Trail: 150 days of serious trekking, occasionally with crampons and an ice axe – laziness not an option.

GET GOING Intrepid Travel specialises in active tours such as its 12-day Turkey tour that includes hikes in Cappadocia and along the Lycian Way, sea kayaking above sunken Greek ruins, and mountain biking  From $1936 a person, departs September-October 2022. See intrepidtravel.com

YOU TRAVEL WITH THE BORING

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G Adventures - Maya Adventure

On a Mayan Adventure with G Adventures. 

Of course you do. Heaven knows travellers who want to see the Golden Eagle festival in Mongolia, swim with South African sharks or visit rock-hewn Ethiopian churches must be utterly devoid of curiosity and spark.

Okay, the over-50s form the bulk of some tour markets. But don't assume they're timid travellers. They aren't looking for blandness in tours but rather convenience, sociability and security. Get chatting and you'll find inquisitive minds, friendliness and stories about how your fellow travellers once volunteered at orphanages in Ethiopia or hitchhiked the hippy trail to India.

Do tours still exist that cater to the unimaginative looking to tick off buckets lists while fretting about local food? Maybe. But plenty of tours offer adventure, nightclubbing, culture, history and remote landscapes – and sometimes all five.

GET HAPPY G Adventures attracts the youthful minded, and many customers are solo travellers looking for cheerful company. Its popular 22-day Mayan Adventure through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala is very varied. From $2974pp, departs July-December 2022. See gadventures.com

NOBODY LIKES COACHES

The review: Matakauri Lodge, Queenstown Photos supplied?by?Matakauri Lodge tra28-review

Matakauri Lodge, Queenstown. 

Says the backpacker happy to squeeze into a tuk-tuk and overnight on an Egyptian bus while being screeched at from loudspeakers by a ululating pop starlet. But whatever. And is a hire car better than a coach? Not if you've tried self-driving in Mexico City or Mumbai or European old towns with slippery cobbles and narrow one-way alleys.

Coach touring saves you the energy and stress. Relaxed in an elevated seat, you can enjoy passing scenery and chat to your companions. No worries about parking or the price of petrol, and top-range coaches have good legroom, WiFi and an on-board toilet.

Not convinced? You don't have to tour in a coach. You can walk, cycle, barge, ride a horse or tour by luxury train or yacht.

GET FANCY Yes, you can even tour by chartered jet with Captain's Choice. Try the Luxury Lodges of New Zealand tour to the Bay of Islands, Queenstown and Taupo and live the billionaire life, at least for 10 days. From $32,950 a person, departs October 15, 2022. See captains-choice.com

TOURING IS A COOKIE-CUTTER EXPERIENCE

Trentham Gardens are formal Italianate gardens, part of an English landscape park in Trentham, Staffordshire. The site is located on the southern fringe of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, England. sunjul3cover escorted journeys cover story ; text by Brian Johnston
(handout image supplied by Insight PR, no syndication)
The Insight tour

Trentham Gardens. Photo: iStock

Well it can be, but if someone with limited time wants to see the South American highlights they'd never otherwise experience, good on them. Moreover, anyone who can't find a tour that they think is interesting has lost their zest for travel.

A proliferation of flexible, small-group, culturally immersive and adventurous tours has emerged over the last decade, and all the Earth's crannies can be explored. Stay in Buddhist temples in South Korea. Visit Roman ruins with an archaeological expert. Take a culinary tour of Thailand.

Themed tours can be as esoteric as the hill-tribe textiles of Laos or the Jewish history of the Czech Republic. Rather than middle-of-the-road, follow the footsteps of poet Matsu Basho around Japan. Even an abundance of more mainstream tours focuses on photography, food, wine, spring blossoms, Christmas markets, music or encounters with wildlife.

GET INTERESTED Insight Vacations' 15-day British Gardens tour gets you access to iconic gardens and preeminent horticultural extravaganza the Chelsea Flower Show. From $7999pp, departs May 2022. See insightvacations.com

YOU SEE 10 COUNTRIES IN 10 DAYS

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Scenic

See Lake Louise with Scenic.

Everyone knows the joke about the tourists who aren't sure whether they're in Belgium or France. Still, if you have limited time off work and crave an overview, the multi-country tour isn't a bad thing.

Actually, few tours of any sort these days are go-go-go; most have become less regimented and provide leisure time for rest or for the chance to follow personal interests. Many tours focus on a single country or even region and, if you're looking to limit travel time, you only have to pick the right itinerary.

Companies such as Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and even the once super-speedy, do-it-all Contiki now offer slower-paced tours that feature fewer stopovers, double nights in one place, more free time, a more relaxed pace and optional add-on excursions.

GET RELAXED Scenic's 14-day Christmas in the Rockies visits a small but hugely beautiful part of Canada. Every stop is double night, with three nights at Lake Louise for a white Christmas. From $9645 a person, departs December 16, 2022. See scenic.com.au

TOURS AREN'T ECO-FRIENDLY

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 18:  The second class compartment of the last generation of the ICE 3 Deutsche Bahn high-speed train, version 407, pictured during a media ride from Frankfurt to Cologne on February 18, 2014 at Cologne, Germany. The operation of version 407 was delayed by two years due to complications with certification. The train, built by Siemens, has a top speed of 320km per hour. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images) xxTrainCover All aboard the rail revolution - Europe by train ; text by Anthony Dennis
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Trains are an eco-friendly alternative to flying. Photo: Getty Images

Travel in groups gives the impression of a big footprint, but compare it to individual travel and that ain't necessarily so. On a coach tour, you're responsible for five times less CO2 than in a car. The truly committed can look for the (still admittedly few) companies that use coaches such as the VDL Futura that runs on biofuel.

Trains are particularly eco-friendly and, with train touring undergoing a renaissance, you have plenty of choice, such as Journey Beyond Rail in Australia, Amtrak Vacations in the US or rail journeys in Europe with APT.

More generally, look for green credentials properly certified by bodies such as Green Tourism, Ecotourism Australia or The Rainforest Alliance. Companies such as Adventure World Travel, Intrepid Travel and Natural World Safaris support sustainable tourism projects, conservation, carbon offsets and voluntourism

GET GREEN Sustainable adventure company World Expeditions has numerous initiatives for responsible travel and runs community projects such as its four-day Healthy Cook Stove Project in a village in Peru's Sacred Valley. From $1230 a person, departs July-November 2022. See worldexpeditions.com

YOU CAN DO IT ALL YOURSELF

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) In typical desert habitat. Dist. South-Western & Northern East Africa. Namib desert, Naukluft National Park, Namibia. sunjul3cover escorted journeys cover story ; text by Brian Johnston
(handout image supplied by Trafalgar PR, no syndication)
2. The Trafalgar tour

See Namibia with Trafalgar.  Photo: Martin Harvey

Sure you can. Go right ahead. Squeeze hours of planning time into your busy life. Book all those hotels, restaurants, transfers and tickets. (What happens if your trip is cancelled or disrupted?) Work out how to get from Beijing to the Great Wall, or how to queue-jump at the Vatican Museums.

Set off. Get stressed in your hire car. Walk around Ephesus without a guide, in ignorance of what you're looking at. Spend precious hours on the logistics of getting around and finding your hotel. And to think you could have been sitting in a mellow cafe instead.

Okay, individual travel isn't that much of a pain. That said, part of a tour's value lies in the headaches and hassle it saves. Although there isn't a guided tour that can't be copied, it would be difficult to achieve the same journey in the same well-organised timeframe.

GET EASY Trafalgar's 13-day Namibia Adventure takes you into the Kalahari Desert and Fish River Canyon, visits several national parks and tracks elephants on safari. Try doing that yourself. From $6885 a person, departs October-December 2022. See trafalgar.com

TOURS ONLY VISIT MAINSTREAM DESTINATIONS

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Costa Rica World of Nature 2023 TS
Tortuguero National Park

Explore Costa Rica with Collette. 

The bread-and-butter of tour companies is popular journeys around western Europe, the south-west US and south-east Asia. Still, if you haven't seen Grand Canyon or the Alhambra, you should.

If you think other compass points are overlooked, you haven't looked hard enough. There's nowhere tours don't go except Antarctica, and you can get there on an expedition cruise, which is a tour afloat. Even mainstream companies like APT take you to Botswana and Bosnia, Madagascar and Ecuador.

Niche companies up the ante: climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba-dive in Belize or enjoy a foodie tour through Armenia. You can also see stereotyped destinations in a different way by cruising the Maldives on a traditional fishing boat, taking a wellness tour of Iceland, or discovering New Zealand from a Maori perspective.

GET ALTERNATIVE Heard of Arenal volcano or Tortuguero National Park? Collette's 11-day Costa Rica tour takes you to remote rainforest resort, a sea-turtle research station and zip-lining across lava fields. From $3549 a person, departs August and Octtober-Decemeber 2022. See gocollette.com

GUIDING LIGHTS

The advantage of a tour over individual travel is a curated experience. Here are some of the people who make your journey easier and more interesting.

THE TOUR LEADER

Tour leaders (also called directors or concierges) accompany the entire tour and ensure its smooth operation, solve problems, entertain, answer questions and relate history with unflagging enthusiasm. In Poland with Collette, my Polish-American leader Marta had Wikipedia knowledge, memories of growing up under communism, and a pleasing patriotism tempered by a joke and good grasp of realities. I'd have missed it all if travelling independently. See gocollette.com

THE GUIDE

When you get a good local guide who lives the culture, you know why tours are worth it. In Paris with APT, tour guide Flavia and her passing comments on streetscapes and daily life made me look at the city anew. Later in Versailles, firecracker American expat Lexy's catty comments on the French (with an affectionate wink) made my day amid the pompous gilt decor. See aptouring.com

THE EXPERT

Ben Walker of Inside Japan Tours is an Aussie two-decade resident of Fukuoka, with a Japanese wife and a son who plays for the local rugby team. What better person to understand what Australian visitors want from Japan? People who go on tours benefit from such experts who create itineraries, organise bookings and have abundant background knowledge. For those without a personal assistant, it's the next best thing. See insidejapantours.com

THE DRIVER

Talk to your driver, who'll have great tips for local dining and off-beat things to see in your downtime. Many have cracking conversation if encouraged, and insight into ordinary workers' lives. On a tailor-made journey in Rajasthan with Abercrombie & Kent, my driver Rajendra proved unflappable in the face of cows, motorbikes, potholes and tangled alleyways. Who said doing it yourself is easy? See abercrombiekent.com.au

THE LOCALS

One of the greatest pleasures of contemporary touring is meeting interesting locals, who might be winemakers, husky breeders or indigenous elders. On an Insight Vacations tour in Spain, I had lunch with Immaculata and her family in Alfarnatejo village, surrounded by Jesus statues and kids' photos. She showed us her kitchen, fed us pork fillet and plied us with local wine and laughter. See insightvacations.com