Travelling in an organised group isn't real travel. It's like using a tricycle instead of a grown-up bike: something for the inexperienced or insecure, lacking exhilaration and freedom. Why trundle around the block like a toddler when you could go on a free-wheeling adult adventure? Why be a tourist when you could be a traveller? So goes the stereotype, anyway.
I get that some travellers are wary of tours, I once dismissed them, too. I thought people on group tours gawked at big-name sights, stayed in bland hotels, ate tasteless food and couldn't read maps. Touring wasn't for me. I was an experienced, independent traveller. I'd hitchhiked in China, lurched in local buses across Iran and survived driving through central Rome.
I'm part of several generations undaunted by travel. Two decades ago many were predicting the demise of the tour group for that reason. Tour companies quietly dropped the word "tour" from their brochures. But today the "guided holiday" or 'escorted journey' is back, and definitely better than ever.
Touring has become more adventurous, active and immersive. Groups are often smaller. Itineraries are flexible and incredibly varied. You can take Cambodian textile tours, French garden tours or American history tours; tours by comfortable coach around Renaissance cities, or tours by rickety bus across central Africa; luxury small-group tours to tiger reserves in India, or raucous large-group tours to the budget booze capitals of Europe.
Organised tours aren't a watered-down form of travel. They aren't for the incapable. They don't have to involve a slow shuffle behind a raised umbrella. If you think group travel isn't for you, it might be time to abandon your preconceptions and reap the rewards. Here's the lowdown on how to plan and enjoy an organised tour.
THE PLANNING STAGE
Considerable research is a must in order to find a good tour that matches your budget and travel style. Determine your destination and interests and then search for a tour that fits. Maybe you've been with a tour company before, although a successful tour in Paris doesn't guarantee the same in Patagonia.
Big international companies likely have a good safety record, recognisable standards and expert guides, but can be predictable. Don't exclude boutique operators, as some are excellent and provide in-depth, themed or remote tours. If eco-credentials are important to you, choose a small company that focuses on sustainability, environmental impact and community engagement.
A big group has cost-saving advantages but moves more slowly and can only visit places catering to large numbers. Small groups are nimbler, more intimate and interactive, and can access boutique hotels and out-of-the-way places.
Don't be fooled by a simple up-front price. An apparently cheaper tour might charge later for entrance fees, meals and airport transfers. It might run off-season, which is no bargain if a monsoon is raging.
Don't only check out the tour company and overall tour description. It's important to click open the full itinerary and read through it to see if it suits your interests, energy levels and expected pace. How many nights are you in each destination? Are you happy to be in a major city a single night, or would you rather linger longer?
Other things to note are daily start times, the balance of included activities versus free time and the number of destinations covered, since touring can rapidly get tiring (and whirlwind) if the itinerary is too tightly packed. Note what's included and what comes at extra cost to avoid unexpected budget blowouts.
Such considerations will make a big difference to your satisfaction levels once you're on the ground. There's no bad itinerary, just an unsuitable one. Some travellers want no more than to see the sights from a coach window. Others want to walk and talk, while some are looking for expert, insider tours of art museums.
You'll need a passport valid for at least six months, the appropriate visas, your tour ticket and information such as your airport pick-up arrangements or the hotel meeting point. Usually you'll check into the hotel yourself and meet the tour leader for the first time at a welcome dinner or another pre-arranged time. Bring a tote bag with any extra clothes, guidebooks or medicines you'll need for the day, you can also plan some individual sightseeing.
The tour company will likely limit you to a single suitcase because of coach storage limitations and hotel porterage, which is covered on more upmarket tours. Also, hotel rooms in Europe are small, so stay compact if that's your destination. You will move hotels every night or two, so there'll be scant opportunity do to laundry.
Pack light clothing that you can layer in unpredictable climes. In tropical destinations, don't forget a jacket or cardigan, as air-conditioning in hotels and on coaches can be nippy. You'll need good walking shoes. Few tours are dressy and smart casual will suffice for group meals.
MEET THE TOUR GROUP
The thought of spending time with strangers is a legitimate worry for tour novices. But your chances of travelling with like-minded people is high if you choose wisely. Go to the tour operator's website and look at the models in photos, hotel standards, itinerary style and writing tone to see whether its clients are your demographic and type.
You'll meet the group on your first night at a welcome dinner. Thereafter it will often split into smaller groups of newfound friends. Besides, you won't be interacting as much as you imagine. You'll be listening to guides while touring, relaxing on the coach and branching out during free time and excluded meals. How much you interact with others is your choice.
There are many positives to group travel. You can share reactions, excitement and consternation over your destination; journeys are enriched through such exchanges. You can find a level of security in uncertain places. You'll likely have plenty in common. Many people make friends, and some even plan to travel together again.
MEET THE TOUR LEADER
The tour leader (sometimes called the tour manager, director or concierge) accompanies the entire journey and is responsible for its smooth operation. He or she should know the destination and its history, speak the language and convey energy and enthusiasm. They'll influence the whole tour atmosphere and ensure its punctuality, but local guides with specialist knowledge often conduct individual daily tours.
The tour leader can fix problems, address reasonable concerns and even (to some extent) adapt an itinerary. They aren't mind readers, so if something troubles you, speak up. That said, tour leaders work incredibly long hours and aren't personal butlers or psychologists, so don't expect endless attention.
Tour leaders (and daily guides) are a good source of advice on local sights, restaurants and experiences, so take advantage when planning free time. If, at the last minute, you suddenly get a burning desire to see a particular park or palace, they'll let you know if you have time to do so, and how to get there.
Tour itineraries can be coy about how much time is spent on the road, so before booking use Google Maps to get an idea of daily distances and time remaining for sightseeing. If you're keen to reduce coach travel time, look for regionally focussed itineraries, and those that offer several nights in one place.
Coach time isn't, however, dead time between two points of interest. You sit higher off the road than in a car and, freed from the steering wheel and stress of driving, you'll appreciate the passing scenery and (in destinations such as India) tumultuous street life. Don't worry that you'll be stuck in the back seat. Good tour companies have a rotation system so that guests sit in varied coach locations.
The tour leader provides commentary on passing sights and gets you up to speed with local history as you travel. You can also recoup your energy or chat to fellow travellers. Wi-Fi on luxury coaches provides an opportunity to keep in touch with family and update social media.
Like any social situation, you decide how much you wish to interact with fellow travellers and the tour leader. Some keep to themselves, some are the life of the party, most are reasonably engaging. You can read on the coach rather than chat, plug in your earphones, ask questions or organise a late-night bar crawl as the spirit moves you.
Similarly, it's reasonable to have group loyalty, not keep others waiting and not wander off without telling anyone. But feel free to skip a day tour, take a rest or duck out of an evening meal in favour of room service. You're an adult on holiday, not a child on a school excursion.
Expect the pace to be fairly busy. Tours require early morning starts and energy. If you want to maximise free time or hit the nightlife, choose a tour with centrally located hotels. The hotel standard depends on your tour budget, but if you don't like your room, ask to be moved. Tour companies are repeat customers, and hotel staff aim to please.
Study your tour inclusions, which should list which meals are covered. Generally, some lunches are excluded, usually because there's limited time between sightseeing, so a quick snack will suffice. Some evenings might also be free, providing an opportunity to enjoy a neighbourhood restaurant and time separate to the group, though new friends might get together to dine out.
Hotel breakfasts are a given, as well as many regular meals and likely a special dinner that highlights regional cuisine, fine dining or local culture such as folk dancing. Luxury tours might also provide bespoke experiences such as a Michelin-starred restaurant, meal in a family home or dinner in a particular location such as a chateau, cellar door or panoramic terrace.
Feel free to skip a meal; no one will mind. Many worry that group meals will be tedious and awkward, but that's rarely the case. You'll probably find company in like-minded travellers who share an interest in the destination and its food. Mealtimes can be convivial and enlightening.
GOING IT ALONE
Very few people want their entire holiday structured, and very few tour itineraries now occupy you for every hour. A good tour always supplies free time. You'll need some, because being on the move every day gets tiring.
How much free time you have depends on your itinerary. Some tours are loosely organised, taking care of basics but leaving you to devise your day. Some are designed at a slower pace. Others might give you an introductory city tour, then free you up for an afternoon of spontaneous exploration. Companies sometimes offer optional half-day activities at add-on cost, which you're under no obligation to sign up for, and which (if you don't) provide another block of free time.
You can of course opt out of any daily activity, there's no pressure to do everything. Guests will sometimes excuse themselves because they have a burning desire to see a particular museum or sight that isn't on the itinerary. Or they just want to sit in a cafe.
THE TOUR'S END
There's an ambivalence to the last day of a tour. Relief, because travel can be tiring, and home beckons. Slight panic, because who doesn't like being looked after? You'll find yourself in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with your tour leader, as if you can't survive without he or she.
A decent company will ask for feedback, and now is the time to supply it if things weren't to your expectations. Not every tour suits everyone, so consider what you did and didn't like, and bear that in mind when researching your next journey. Somewhere out there is a great tour for you, well suited to your travelling style.
Like any holiday, you won't have seen and done everything. If an organised tour leaves you wanting more, then it has been a success. Consider a post-tour extension since tours, like cruises, often finish in major cities without providing time for a comprehensive visit. A couple of extra days allows for a personal, languid pace and a chance to unwind before the final journey home.
ORGANISED TOURS: MYTH VERSUS REALITY
GUESTS ARE TIMID TRAVELLERS
Many people believe coach touring is for unadventurous retirees who can scarcely navigate around the block unaided, are suspicious of foreign food and dislike walking. In fact, touring requires stamina, plentiful walking and (in some destinations) a major sense of adventure. Many retirees have travelled extensively as younger people and retain an inquisitive attitude. They're looking for convenience, not mollycoddling.
THE PACE IS HECTIC
A common misconception, especially in Europe, is that you're rushed around 10 countries in as many days and, if you fall asleep on the coach, you'll miss Switzerland. In fact, there are plenty of relaxed tour options with a slower pace and more downtime, such as Trafalgar's At Leisure tours, Insight Vacations' Easy Pace, and Collette's Spotlight Tours, during which you stay in a single hotel.
TOURING IS POOR VALUE
Tot up the inclusions and see if you can do better as an individual, without the benefit of a tour company's purchasing power for airline tickets and hotel rooms. Don't forget to cost in extras such as petrol, road tolls, guides and booking fees. It's hard to anticipate what you'll spend on holiday. Tour companies provide an upfront fee that allows you to set your budget.
DO-IT-YOURSELF IS BETTER
Certainly, there's no tour individuals can't replicate unless they're venturing into Arctic ice. But the value of an escorted tour isn't just monetary. You'll save weeks of research and organisation, stress on the road and time, since nothing is as time-consuming as the logistics of getting from A to B. Most tour groups also offer queue-jumping access to sights, behind-the-scenes experiences and professional local guides.
TOURING MEANS COACHES
Many escorted journeys are coach tours, but certainly not all. You can do guided walking and cycling tours with UTracks or Intrepid Travel and luxury journeys by rail with Great Rail Journeys or Belmond. Other options? Barging on French canals, felucc sailing down the Nile, or horse-riding adventures in Mongolia. You can even tour the world by chartered jet with Captain's Choice and Crystal AirCruises.
TOURS: THEN AND NOW
Escorted journeys have changed enormously over the last 20 years. Here's how.
THEN: Most touring offered unimaginative, middle-of-the-road itineraries that took rather unsophisticated travellers around mainstream tourist highlights.
NOW: Although tours still take in the icons, itineraries are no longer devised on the one-size-fits-all principle. They can focus on particular regions or interests such as gardens, food or photography. Adventurous tours explore the Earth's far reaches.
THEN: You toured like a Soviet gymnastics team: strictly controlled, tightly timetabled and rather regimented.
NOW: Tours offer more varied choices that allow individuals to branch out, whether on optional excursions or during free time. Few tours structure every hour or meal, recognising a desire to go it alone at least some of the time.
THEN: The emphasis was on observation, whether staring out coach windows, driving past famous monuments, or squeezing in the five-minute photo stop.
NOW: Passive sightseeing is increasingly abandoned for participation and greater interaction with local culture. Immersive experiences might include dining with locals, browsing markets, or meeting experts in pottery, wine or dogsledding.
THEN: Although upmarket touring has been around since British Raj days, most tour companies promoted bargain travel at rock-bottom prices.
NOW: Luxury touring has boomed and expectations are higher. Premium escorted journeys offer five-star hotels, sophisticated dining and add-on options such as helicopter flights. You don't have to rough it – or even lift a suitcase.
THEN: You took a tour on a barebones bus with limited legroom, risking discomfort and deep-vein thrombosis along the way.
NOW: Not all coaches are fancy, but choose the right company and you'll find yourself aboard a $400,000 Mercedes-Benz with business-class legroom, spare seats, complimentary Wi-Fi, and large panoramic windows.
EXPERT ADVICE FROM THE OPERATORS
DENNIS BUNNIK, BUNNIK TOURS
Touring has evolved and now there is a tour for everyone, from those who want every minute organised to more independent types who want the convenience of a tour but also value free time to explore. The choice of tour company is therefore as important as the itinerary in ensuring the best experience. See bunniktours.com.au
SUJATA RAMAN, ABERCROMBIE & KENT
Look for itineraries with enough time, space and flexibility to discover places for yourself, and which suit your interests, but with an expert tour director on hand to assist. On many small-group journeys you can choose from a range of curated experiences, because one size shouldn't have to fit all, even when on a shared adventure. See abercrombiekent.com.au
HARRY SARGANT, INSIDE JAPAN TOURS
Check details. Price too good to be true? You'll probably be joining 50 others on a whistlestop fortnight, staying in vast hotels closer to motorways than city-centre sights, and eating in mediocre tourist restaurants. Find smaller group tours offering authentic accommodation, local meals, and experiences that are hard to arrange when travelling solo. See insidejapantours.com
AMANDA McCANN, COLLETTE
Always ask your tour leader for advice on navigating local transport, as they have experienced your destination city numerous times and will give you tips on moving about like a local. Downloading our tour app takes the guesswork out of where to go in your free time. It also provides detailed information on tour options. See gocollette.com
ALEXANDRA O'CONNOR, INSIGHT VACATIONS
Stress-free travel with an experienced, knowledgeable travel director is always one of the first ways to ensure an unforgettable holiday. You should consider travel directors as a friend in a foreign country – the person who takes care of all day-to-day logistics, suggests activities or restaurants and makes the journey hassle free. See insightvacations.com