It isn't the usual travel fantasies that fill my head right now. No visions of recidivist backpacking across Central Asia, or train hopping from Singapore to Switzerland. After all this travel turbulence, all I really want to do in 2022 is join a tour.
Wait. Let me explain.
I, probably like you, just want to escape from everything, even the need to get myself organised. I want someone else to do the worrying; a travel director to arrange my itinerary; a tour guide to soothe me with patter in a palace.
I want to go forth with 20 new mates, rediscover the camaraderie of travel, and see reliable sights. The Alhambra, the unchanging Taj Mahal, the eternal Grand Canyon.
I'm not alone, with tour companies reporting an increase in interest as borders reopen, international flights pick up and vaccination rates increase.
"Initially, we were seeing bookings for September and October 2022, but with customer confidence returning, April and May are quickly becoming the hot favourites for long-haul trips," says Chris Fundell, head of marketing for the Globus family of brands.
"Australians are actively researching and booking international trips now, with more certainty around borders in 2022 finally giving people the reassurance they've been waiting for.
There are others tapping into the demand for escorted journeys in the form of highly-visible package-deal companies who once concentrated on flights and accommodation. But over the last few years they have increasingly offered all-inclusive holiday deals and now find themselves well prepared to meet the post-COVID demand for one-stop, curated travel advice and bookings.
"We have been preparing for the return to a travel new normal by building on our inventory, content and capability," says Paul Ryan, managing director of Inspiring Vacations.
"Since the recent positive border announcements, we have seen a sharp return to 2019 booking levels." Among destinations in high demand are Antarctica, the Middle East, Scandinavia and Japan for the cherry-blossom season.
Sweden, a destination in high demand for future travel. Photo: iStock
The demand for escorted journeys generally is coming not only from tour regulars but from new customers looking to rely on travel agents and tour companies to navigate complicated COVID-related requirements overseas, says Brett Jardine, managing director of the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO). "Travel agents and tour operators also provide a safety net if things don't go to plan."
Elsewhere, MyHolidayCentre.com chief executive Ryan Thomas says that 80 per cent of its bookings so far this year have come from new customers. "I believe that consumers want the greater sense of comfort that small, guided tours provide, particularly with the uncertainty of the various COVID-19 restrictions across the globe."
MyHolidayCentre.com has recorded a rapid spike in international small-tour bookings, especially in Europe, South Korea and Japan, and the company is far from alone.
World Expeditions and UTracks are fielding surges in inquiries and bookings. Globus has sold out some of its 2022 Kimberley trips, while New Zealand, Europe and North America are selling well. Abercrombie & Kent notes demand for a wide cross- section of international destinations, including Norway, Turkey and Costa Rica.
All in all, it seems now is the time to make plans for 2022, or miss out in the snowballing travel rush. Tour companies are offering not just old favourites but new itineraries and experiences too, leaving us with a cornucopia of choices as gradually travel resumes.
If you haven't considered escorted journeys before, here's Traveller's step-by-step, back-to-basics, specially tailored guide for the COVID era, so you can get a fix on choosing the right tour in 2022.
STEP ONE: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT AND WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
Know exactly which trail you want to take, in this case it's in Wyoming. Photo: iStock
Have a clear vision of what you want from a holiday to avoid disappointment. Are you after back-to-basics camping or five-star luxury? A breezy overview of US national parks, or serious wilderness hiking? Truth is, an unenjoyable tour is more likely the result of poor choice rather than any fault with a travel company.
"Touring itineraries have transformed, and are now specially crafted to cater to almost anyone," says Fundell. "With so many touring options, choose a trip tailored to your ideal pace, level of activity, budget and personal interests."
Start by studying company websites, especially their photos and how guests in them are depicted. Are they grey-haired, gym-toned, boogying in a nightclub, contemplating Matisse in a museum? Whatever the case, they paint a picture of the market the tour company hopes to attract.
We often only look for things we already know about, so don't limit yourself to online research. Consult a travel agent, as they can direct you towards suitable choices, and might know of a niche business that particularly aligns with your interests.
STEP TWO: SIZE REALLY DOES MATTER
Draw up a shortlist of tour companies that suit your personality and style. Beyond that, price is the obvious next filter, but study the inclusions.
An escorted journey that appears more expensive can end up being cost effective if everything is included upfront. On budget tours, you often have to add on the optional excursions, meals, entrance fees, gratuities and airport pickups.
Decide on a tour group size that best suits you. This is partly price-related, but there are other considerations. Larger tour groups might be better value, but service is less personal and itineraries more mainstream because they're organised around coach or train access, larger hotels, group discounts and the notion that middle-of-the-road experiences keep the majority of guests happy.
Small-group tours are generally more flexible, more in-depth (or even themed), more interactive with locals, and can access less-tramped destinations.
You'll certainly wait around less; small groups move more quickly. However, if socialising is high on your holiday agenda, small groups are riskier in terms of finding your happy space and avoiding dominating personalities.
Finally, check that tours are accompanied by an expert tour director or concierge for true hassle-free travel.
"There's an added bonus of having an expert tour director on hand, who can help to navigate countries and borders and assist with any unforeseen issues on a trip," says Fundell. "This is a key reason why we're seeing independent travellers opting for a tour, especially in the current climate where there's so much confusion when it comes to travelling."
STEP THREE: IT'LL PAY TO PLAY IT SAFE WITH AN ESCORTED JOURNEY
In the brave new COVID era, stick to reputable suppliers. Make sure the company you've chosen belongs to a national accreditation scheme such as the Australian Tourism Accreditation Program (qualitytourismaustralia.com).
If green credentials concern you, then Ecotourism Australia (ecotourism.org.au) lists companies that operate here. Equivalents elsewhere include Green Tourism (green-tourism.com) in the UK and The Rainforest Alliance (rainforest-alliance.org) in South America.
Check COVID-safe plans, which travel companies now outline on dedicated website pages. You should understand not just what they are doing to minimise risk, but what your obligations are as a customer.
Look for a streamlined system for refunds or rebooking; the best companies now allow guests to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours before departure.
"Travellers will want to know about COVID policies and that, when joining group departures, they have peace of mind," says Sue Badyari, chief executive of World Expeditions. "Worry-free and flexible booking conditions will also continue to foster confidence in travellers to book with certain providers."
STEP FOUR: CHOOSE THE TOUR THAT WILL SUIT YOUR PACE
Setting the pace on a Contiki tour in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Individual companies can offer very different types of journeys, so read the full itinerary carefully. What visits and activities are being offered, and do they suit your interests? The number of destinations visited, daily start times and allocation of free time all point to pace, depth and how much energy is required.
Take to Google Maps for a clear idea of how much time is spent on transport. You'll soon see a day that begins in Seville and ends in Lisbon requires five hours on the coach – which indicates just how much of Seville you're going to see. Resist the temptation to choose a jam-packed tour on the assumption it is better value.
A journey with free time, and even regular unscheduled half days, will be more enjoyable. The pace of tours can be tiring, and you'll sometimes want to explore or enjoy a meal on your own. The only exception is in remote places (such as on safari or hiking tours), where free time leaves you with few options.
Look for tours that offer immersive experiences. This is part of what gives tour groups an edge over independent travel: they can get you behind-the-scenes at museums, market shopping with a chef, meeting an expert potter or painter: enjoying experiences not easily available to individuals.
STEP FIVE: GET COVID COVERED AND GET GOING
Booked an escorted journey? You'll need to get your COVID status and paperwork up to scratch long before you depart. Adults will be required to provide proof of a current, valid COVID-19 vaccination, and you'll probably need your second dose at least two weeks before departure.
Children are often exempt but this varies from country to country, with Canada (for example) requiring anyone over 12 years old to be fully vaccinated for services such as domestic flights, trains and restaurants.
The onus is on travellers to ensure they comply with local regulations, including that their type of vaccine is recognised not just in their ultimate destination but transit points too. Smart Traveller (smarttraveller.com.au) lists current requirements country by country.
You should also take into account longer wait times for passport renewals, and talk to your travel insurer about whether you can obtain COVID cover, which will likely depend on the level of travel warning issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the Smart Traveller website (these are likely to rapidly change for the better over the next months).
The best thing about escorted journeys is that, once you've done your research and stepped aboard a plane, you don't have to concern yourself about another thing. A smiling face greets you at the airport. A tour leader deals with any troubles. You're wafted from A to B and never have to consult a map, let alone drive yourself. Somebody else has queued for tickets long before you rock up at a museum or castle.
You might find yourself more relaxed on an escorted journey; you might find you enjoy being a travel airhead, not having to think. You'll appreciate being freed from the wheel of a car and sitting on a coach high above the road, gazing at the scenery.
And you'll enjoy the camaraderie of touring, where friendships with like-minded people are made quickly, and meals are convivial. Escorted journeys have an energy and enthusiasm that carries you along. The only question for 2022 is: where are you going?
FOLLOW THE LEADER: 10 TOP TOURS FOR 2022
JOURNEY TO THE CAUCASUS
Breadmaking in Armenia on an Abercrombie & Kent tour. Photo: Justin Weiler
Georgia and Armenia are barely known to Australians. Their rich history and culture is matched with sumptuous mountain and lake scenery on this 13-day tour with upmarket Abercrombie & Kent. Discover Byzantine monasteries, 7th century ruins, the world's oldest wines, hot sulphur springs and the capitals Tbilisi and Yerevan. Departs May 11, June 8 and August 31, 2022, from $8815 a person. See abercrombiekent.com.au
TREASURES OF THE INCAS
While a visit to Machu Picchu is the highlight of this 12-day Luxury Gold tour of Peru, you'll also visit the Sacred Valley, Cusco, Lake Titicaca and Lima. Archaeological wonders are leavened with opportunities to meet a shaman, textiles expert and local family, and to tuck into Peru's contemporary dining scene. Multiple departures January to June and August to December 2022, from $8875 a person. See luxurygold.com
This 11-day tour from Darwin to Broome with AAT Kings showcases remote and splendid landscapes including Katherine Gorge, the Bungle Bungle Range, Geikie Gorge and Broome's Cable Beach. You'll also learn about Indigenous art, dine in a sandalwood plantation, cruise Lake Ord and visit Argyle Diamond Mine. Departs May 24 and August 9, 2022, from $7319a person. See aatkings.com
This 12-day jaunt with youthful, energetic tour company Contiki takes you to Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm as well as scenic fiords in Norway. Chances to hike, cycle, white-water raft and paddleboard will appeal to the active, but there's also plenty of urban entertainment and free time to follow your interests. Departs May 24, June 21 and July 26, 2022, from $2936 a person. See contiki.com
AMERICAN PARKS TRAIL
If you haven't seen America's big-sky country then this nine-day Insight Vacations itinerary through Wyoming and South Dakota will have you marvelling at Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and other iconic landscapes such as Mount Rushmore. Stay on a ranch, learn about Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, and visit Crazy Horse Memorial. Multiple departures April to September 2022, from $4950 a person. See insightvacations.com
WALK THE EAST COAST OF TASMANIA
Walking the Three Capes Track, Tasmania. Photo: Stu Gibson
This four-day Intrepid Travel itinerary between Hobart and Launceston amply demonstrates that touring can be for the active. The hiking adventure takes you to part of the Three Capes Track at Cape Hauy, the Fossil Cliffs and Painted Cliffs of Maria Island, and the sumptuous landscapes of Freycinet National Park.
Multiple departures January to April, September and November to December 2022, from $1260 a person. See intrepidtravel.com
JOURNEY THROUGH EGYPT AND JORDAN
The pyramids of Giza, Egypt. Photo: iStock
Any true traveller has to see Petra, the Pyramids, and the temples and tombs of Luxor and Aswan. This 12-day Collette tour does that and then some, also taking in landscapes such as the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, and a stunning slice of the Nile River on a three-night cruise. Multiple departures February to May and September to December 2022, from $5359 a person. See gocollette.com
GEMS OF THE RED CENTRE
Six days with Globus into the outback heart of Australia is an eye-opening serving of magnificent landscapes and indigenous culture. Although Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon are obvious highlights, you'll also be impressed by Standley Chasm and Mututjulu Waterhole and its surrounding rock art. Splurge on a helicopter flight if you can. Multiple departures April to November 2022, from $3245 a person. See globus.com.au
SWITZERLAND BY RAIL
A 13-day APT tour between Zurich and Geneva takes you to all the scenic highlights of the Swiss Alps from St Moritz to Interlaken, the Jungfrau to Zermatt – including a ride up Mount Pilatus on the world's steepest cogwheel train. Visits to the Italian and French-speaking parts of Switzerland provides pleasant variety. Five departures June to September 2022, from $12,145 a person. See aptouring.com.au
HIKE, BIKE AND KAYAK VIETNAM
On tour in Vietnam with World Expeditions. Photo: Lachlan Gardiner
From cruising Halong Bay by junk to cycling and paddling through the Mekong Delta and hiking in Bach Ma National Park, there's nothing sedate or sedentary about this 12-day World Expeditions look at the more tranquil, rural side of Vietnam. It also takes in vibrant Hanoi, Hoi An and old imperial capital Hue. Monthly departures Jan-Dec 2022, from $2890 a person, see worldexpeditions.com
ESCORTED JOURNEYS: WHAT THEY SAY AND WHAT WE SAY
TOO MUCH REGIMENTATION
Well yes, in the practical sense – but you have to keep moving no matter how you travel. Many tours are quite flexible, allowing travellers opportunities to break away, eat independent meals and choose optional excursions. One size doesn't fit all, especially on curated, more upmarket, small-group itineraries.
NO REAL INTERACTION WITH LOCALS
Actually, contemporary tours are more about participation than simply observation, with the best including experiences such as cooking classes, dining with locals, indigenous immersion and behind-the-scenes tours with experts. Examples are Trafalgar Tours' "Be My Guest" and Contiki's "Local" experiences.
THE BORING COMPANY
The biggest touring myth is that they're for timid people cautious about foreigners, food and free choice. In fact, most tour participants look for convenience, not cosseting. They often have a lifetime of independent travel experience behind them and remain inquisitive, friendly and adventurous. You may even make firm friends.
NOT ENOUGH FREE TIME
Well, you'll actually save time by not having to hire cars, find hotels, buy tickets or queue. Secondly, tour companies increasingly recognise travellers don't want every meal and minute timetabled. Choose the likes of Insight Vacations' "Easy Pace", Globus' "Choice Touring" or Collette's "Spotlight" options for built-in free time.
TOO MUCH COACH TIME
Probably, if you visit 10 European cities in a week – though incidentally coach time, unlike driving, means you can relax (and sleek, comfortable modern-day coaches are nothing like their past equivalents). But you can do train tours with Belmond, cycle trips with UTracks, trekking with World Expeditions and even chartered jet tours with Captain's Choice – just for starters.