Tips for choosing a group tour, so your holiday is the magical experience you deserve
Once upon a time, I was an independent traveller who thought I preferred planning my own holidays over joining a group tour. You might have heard the saying: When you know better, you do better. Now I know better: there are so many reasons that a small group tour can be ideal for women who want to travel.
Organized group tours offer an efficient itinerary that maximizes your vacation time, and the opportunity to get to know fellow travellers. But the most important reason for me, is the mental freedom that an organized tour allows.
I’ve learned that having someone else take care of the logistics, allows me to fully immerse myself in the travel experience. And travel immersion is a marvelous thing for midlife women. It’s the best way I know to feel inspired and free. I don’t want you to miss a minute of that feeling on your next trip.
If you are considering joining a small group tour, there are the obvious details to weigh such as the destination, trip length, cost and reputation of the company.
And there are the less obvious ones. A little extra research before you book, will save you headaches later, and help ensure your trip is as magical as you deserve it to be. Here are some things I’ve learned through my own group travels, talking to other women and lots of research.
Tips for Selecting a Small Group Tour
“Small” is the keyword here. I prefer groups of 16 or less and think around 12 is ideal. The smaller size allows for staying at more interesting accommodation types, rather than huge hotels, and you will be able to get to know everyone in the group. Trips in this size range have become very popular, so there is lots to choose from.
Demographics of the Travellers
I’ve heard some women say they hesitate to book group tours because they think most of the participants will be much younger than they are. Definitely not the case. The tours I’ve been on included travellers from their late twenties to their seventies.
One lovely South African woman named Betty (photo above) turned 89 on my trip to India. It was an absolute delight getting to know her over fifteen days together. I think a broad age range is more fun and interesting than travelling with people who are all close to my age.
If you prefer a group of midlife travelers, typically the more expensive group tours will attract older guests, but not always. Information about clientele is available on company websites and if you are unsure, ask. The tour company might even tell you the age range of the people who have already booked the tour you are considering.
Small Group Tours for Women
For group travel for women I like REI’s Women’s Adventures, which are geared to active travel such as backpacking, hiking and kayaking.
Purposeful Nomad and Lotus Sojourns both emphasize empowering women travellers and women in the places they visit. Lotus Sojourns also explores spirituality as part of the travel experience. (A story about women-only tours is coming soon, check back for that.)
I do think there is something wonderful about travelling with only women: I’ve done big overseas trips and weekend breaks. They are always special. And I plan to take my first organized tour for women only, as soon as it’s safe to travel internationally. (During coronavirus I’ve been dreaming about where I will go. If you are also travel dreaming, you might like this cute Midlife Travel Bucket List as a place to keep your ideas.)
For me, part of the fun of group travel is the chance to get to know people from around the world. One of my small group tours with G Adventures, had participants from seven countries, which I loved.
But not all tour operators attract a geographically diverse clientele. An American girlfriend of mine joined a two-week tour of eastern Europe and was surprised to arrive and find that every other traveller in the group was also American.
Think about whether you would rather travel with an international crowd, or have no preference.
Private Rooms & Single Supplements
Some companies will promote the fact that they do not charge a single supplement for solo travellers. While that may be true, it does not necessarily guarantee you a private room. It usually means if there is another solo woman on the trip, you will share a room. If not, you will get your own room for no extra charge.
It can be an adventure rooming with someone you don’t know. I had only met my roommate Clemencia twice, years earlier, before we shared a room in India. I loved it – it made me feel like I was back in university. And I made a dear friend, and travel companion, in the process.
If you want the guarantee of your own room you may have to pay a supplement. Some policies are changing because of coronavirus and an increased demand for private rooms. Be sure you are clear on what’s guaranteed and what isn’t.
Pace of a Group Tour
Most organized tours move at a fast pace in order to maximize what you see and experience. On a group tour of India, I stayed in nine hotels in 15 days. It was an incredible trip and we saw many fascinating places, but I got tired of unpacking and packing.
I would have happily skipped one of the destinations on our itinerary, in favour of a couple of extra nights to stay put. But that’s me: I love travel but hate packing. (You can read about that in my Travel Packing Guide)
Think about whether you are content to move quickly, or prefer a tour with fewer stops and more time in each place. When I plan my own trips, which I still do, despite loving group travel, I try to stay at least two nights and ideally three, in each place. I just find it more enjoyable and relaxing.
I recommend you read the detailed daily itinerary of the trip you are considering, before you book. It gives you an idea of the type of accommodation you can expect. It also tells you what your travel days will look like.
Do you mind spending 10 hours on a bus travelling from Marrakech to a Sahara desert camp? You might enjoy a single long drive through a beautiful country, but several days in a row might feel like you’ve joined the Partridge Family tour bus. (A 1970’s reference for my midlife cohorts. I actually wanted to be on that tour bus: One-part crush on David Cassiday and one-part my burgeoning wanderlust.)
Modes of Transport
Related to the above is the type of transportation between destinations. Will you be on a private coach or an overnight train? Some group tours include domestic flights. Companies are also changing policies to adapt to coronavirus. Private coaches with designated seat assignments are replacing other modes of transport, to allow for safer distancing and cleaning protocols.
For me, the best part of travel with a group is the dedicated guide who remains with you throughout the trip, showing you their country, acting as translator and managing all the logistics. They check train schedules, and confirm dinner reservations, so you can relax in the garden, sipping a gin & tonic and watching the peacocks. Exactly as it should be.
Sometimes the guide is from the country you are visiting, which gives you the unique opportunity to learn about the culture, history and customs from a local. I’ve heard many people say it was their guide that made the trip exceptional. That has also been my experience.
Many tour companies use guides from a western country and then have local guides join the group for individual parts of the tour. Be sure to ask about this, if you have a preference.
In addition to the primary guides, some group tours (typically the more expensive ones) will include other experts: archeologists, astronomers or professional photographers, for example. National Geographic and Smithsonian are tour operators which do this in some cases. Inquire, if you have a particular interest you would like to pursue while you travel.
Check that the activity level on the tour is what you are looking for. A Uganda adventure to see the mountain gorillas can involve hours of strenuous hiking through dense jungle. Conversely, some people are disappointed when a tour with a focus on culture and historic monuments does not include any hiking. (Tell me all about the mountain gorillas if you go… Uganda is high on my bucket list!)
Look at what the itinerary includes, beyond visits to typical attractions. More group tours are including opportunities to interact with local people in a meaningful way. That could be attending a cooking class in someone’s home for example. These are always among my most memorable experiences.
Some guided tours will have you almost fully scheduled and others will build in time for exploring on your own. Knowing what you prefer is helpful, and it’s another reason to read the itinerary, before you book. My feeling on this is, if I am paying for an organized tour I am happy to have most of the time scheduled for me. If I ever feel like I need down time, I just tell the guide I am skipping the afternoon outing to read a book by the pool.
If you want to experience a particular festival, check if it is a part of your itinerary. In most cases the tour company will list this on the detailed itinerary, but not always. For example, the Festival del Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico takes place over a couple of weeks with different cities holding festivities at different times, so you can’t just assume your tour will include it.
Or you may want to avoid a festival because of crowds, higher prices, or even pollution. In northern India during and just after Diwali in the fall, the air quality is the worst of the year.
I am finishing this story with something you may want to begin with: the cancellation policy. This is always important, and is now crucial, given how quickly things are changing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most companies have more flexible cancellation policies, due to coronavirus. Even if you are booking far out into the future, you should still read the fine print and ask questions.
It might seem like a lot to consider, but group tours can be a significant financial investment, and even with thoughtful planning there will be surprises. Hooray for that, because surprises are a part of the thrill of travel.
If you want to explore specific destinations, I’ve written a story about wonderful destinations for midlife women with suggestions of a specific tour for each country: Dream Destinations & Tours for Women.
If you are having trouble finding a small group tour that meets your criteria, you can ask a tour operator if they can plan a bespoke tour for you. Alternatively, a travel agent can customize a trip to your exact requirements. Use one who is very familiar with the destination you are choosing.