The right group tour allows you to leave the details to someone else and just enjoy your holiday
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 many reasons that a small group tour is ideal for me at this stage, for certain destinations and circumstances. And I believe they can be a fabulous option for other women who want to see the world, with some guidance and new friends.
There are a long list of pros: Organized group tours offer an efficient itinerary, expert guides and the opportunity to get to know fellow travelers. But the most important reason for me, is the mental freedom that an organized tour allows. 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 my favorite way to feel more alive and inspired.
If you are considering joining a small group tour, there are the obvious details to weigh such as the destination, trip length and cost.
And there are the less obvious ones. And a little extra research before you book will save you headaches later, and ensure your trip is as delightful as you deserve it to be. Here are some things I’ve learned through my own group travels, in talking to other women and with lots of research.
Tips for Selecting a Small Group Tour
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 are 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 younger than they are. The tours I’ve been on included travellers from their late twenties to almost 90!
One lovely South African woman named Betty (photo above) turned 89 on our 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 only people who are similar 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 usually available on company websites and if you are unsure, ask. I’ve called the tour company and asked about the age range of the people who had already booked the tour I was considering, and they were happy to give me an idea.
Small Group Tours for Women Only
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 hope to take my first organized tour for women soon. Tour groups offering trips for women are becoming more common. Some travel companies such as REI, have offered a line of tours called REI Women’s Adventures. (They are only running in the U.S. at the moment.) Other such as the Women’s Travel Group run tours exclusively for women.
Geographic Diversity of the Group
Whether you choose a tour for women or everyone, 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 six different countries (Canada, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., South Africa, Colombia and India.)
But not all tour operators attract a geographically diverse clientele. An American friend of mine joined a two-week tour of Eastern Europe with high-end tour operator Tauck, 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, and pick your tour operator with that in mind.
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. Having a roommate was fun; 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 Covid-19, 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.
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, I try to stay at least two nights and ideally three, in each place. Even though it means seeing a little less, I find it more enjoyable and relaxing. And I am not spending as much time in transit.
I recommend you read the detailed daily itinerary of the trip you are considering, before you book. It gives you details about accommodation and included activities. And 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 so wanted to be on that tour bus: One-part crush on David Cassiday and one-part 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 Africa safaris, there is a big difference between flying between camps and going overland – both in price and experience.
Your tour leader will check train schedules, buy tickets and confirm dinner reservations, so you can relax in the garden, sipping a gin & tonic and watching the peacocks. Exactly as it should be.
For me, one of 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. 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, so you know what to expect.
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. (Please comment below if you’ve seen the mountain gorillas… that experience is high on my bucket list!) Conversely, some people are disappointed when a tour with a focus on historic monuments does not include any hiking.
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 can 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 now crucial, given how quickly things are changing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most companies have more flexible cancellation policies, due to coronavirus. But not all. Some are giving refunds up to 30 days before. Others offer a credit. Even if you are booking far out into the future, read the fine print and ask questions. Group tours can be a significant financial investment, often starting at around $3000 and many are significantly more.
Beyond the Group Tour
If you are having trouble finding a small group tour that meets your criteria, ask a tour operator if they will plan a bespoke tour for you. Most such as Traverse Journeys, the company I traveled with to Greece, will customize one of their itineraries for your family or group. You pick the dates and they’ll take make all of the arrangements.
Alternatively, a travel agent can customize a trip to your exact requirements or direct you to an in-country outfitter who can do that (more on that option coming soon).
Remember that even with thoughtful planning there will be surprises. Hooray for that, because surprises are a part of the thrill of travel.
More Travel Planning
If you are ready to consider specific tour, I’ve written a story about destinations for midlife women with suggestions of a specific tour for each country: Dream Destinations & Tours for Women.
And of course travel insurance is always eessential; this story takes you through Buying Travel Medical insurance.