Even as an independent traveler who's backpacked through more than 60 countries, there are times when I've opted to join a guided tour. Doing the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru or crossing the better part of Shan state in Burma would be reckless without a knowledgeable local. Safaris in Africa are almost always done in groups for cost-saving purposes and doing a trek through the Amazon would be difficult (if not dangerous) without safety in numbers and a local to guide you back out of the jungle.
Joining a tour is also a great way to meet people and add another layer of information and understanding about a place that you simply can't get from a guidebook. Not to mention it's sometimes the only way you can access some hard-to-reach places. I opted for a group tour when I explored the Mongolian countryside and a Nigerian shantytown.
Once you've decided to participate in a group tour, it's critical to select the best company and experience possible. Here are seven critical factors to consider before booking.
What is the Tour Provider's Reputation?
You want to travel with a reputable, ethical tour company. Check to make sure it's an accredited organization in the country where you're traveling and that their guides are licensed by the Board of Tourism or other relevant institution.
It is especially important to make sure your tour provider is reputable and licensed if the guides will be taking you into any remote or potentially dangerous areas, such as with adventure travel tours, hiking and trekking, or animal safaris.
Look at reviews from previous customers of the specific tour you're looking at doing, not just for the company as a whole. However, keep in mind that it's usually customers who had an extreme experience (for better or worse) who write reviews, so take them with a grain of salt and look for reviews that offer details supporting their experience.
Who is the Tour Provider's Target Customer?
There's always the 25-year old who winds up booking a tour of Europe with a group of retired couples. Unless that's your style, don't be that traveler!
Make sure you check directly with the provider to see who their usual participants are, or look at photos on their website or Facebook page. You can also make an educated guess that fancier accommodation will be on tours catering to older folks and accommodation that consists of guesthouses or hostels will be for a backpacker crowd.
This is critical because these are the people you'll be traveling with for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, so you want to make sure the chances of you meeting likeminded people are high. Friends made traveling can become friends for life!
How Do You Perceive the Cost and Value of the Tour?
As you compare tour providers, ask for a breakdown of the tour cost. Here are some high-level questions to keep in mind:
- How much is going to hotels?
- Are they four-star hotels or just two-star guesthouses?
- Is there an extra charge for being a solo traveler? (You want to avoid this charge by asking to be paired with another solo traveler of the same gender -- or some companies will offer a single room without making you pay more.)
Also look carefully at the quality of what's being offered in terms of accommodation, food, and activities.
You also want to understand without a doubt what's included in the cost: Are admission fees to museums or park entrance fees included? Extra activities like white water rafting? Is the night safari an extra $200? Depending on what's included vs. extra, a package tour might end up being much more expensive than what you'd pay on your own. On the other hand, often times tour companies negotiate high-volume rates so you get to stay at amazing hotels for much less than you'd pay as an independent traveler.
Lastly, what's the cancellation policy? If something happens, it's good to know if you'll get your money back or not.
What is the Average Group Size?
This boils down to individual preference, but tours can range from a group of 12 to a group of 60.
If you're looking to meet a lot of new people, you might love a big tour of 50 people your age. If you're looking to get to know a few people more deeply or have more time with the guide, then a group of a dozen may be more personalized -- and even more mindful of the environment.
With smaller groups, you may get different types of experiences: eating at smaller more local places where a large group wouldn't be able to be accommodated or perhaps cooking classes with an expert or shopping in a local market without causing a scene. Just know what you're signing up for so you don't find yourself overwhelmed or bored by the group you've joined.
What is the Quality & Expertise of the Tour Guides?
The guide can really make or break your experience on a tour. Before you sign up, check that the company is using guides who are local to the area, speak the language, and have a professional certification to be a tour guide. See what the reviews say about the guides specifically: Were they personable? Fun? Well-informed? Easy to understand?
If you're traveling to many places across a country, check to see if the company provides just one guide for the whole country or if they work with guides specific to the city or landmark that you're visiting.
For example, you may have a Jordanian guide pick you up in Amman and show you much of Jordan, but your experience of Petra would be completely different if it's guided by the city guide or by a Bedouin guide who's native to the area near Petra.
Does the Tour Itinerary & Schedule Match Your Travel Style?
It's important to first think about the kind of trip you want to have: do you want to move at a relaxed pace and not be concerned with seeing so much or do you want to focus on fitting a lot of activity and new experiences in?
The best tours offer a healthy balance between personal exploration time and guided activity, but your personal preference will probably direct you more towards one or the other.
Ask the company for a schedule of that tour before you book and pay attention to the pace. Are there a lot of organized activities? Are lunches and dinners planned at certain restaurants or are you left to explore on your own at meal times? Be wary of tours that take you to 5 cities in 7 days -- that kind of pace can be downright stressful (and you won't really have a chance to experience anywhere you visit!).
It is important to maintain balance between an exciting trip and idle trip. If your tour travel company has so many tasks allocated in a single day, you will be exhausted before the end of the tour, and you will barely enjoy the significant part of the tour. On the other hand, if the schedule does not have many activities, you will have a boring tip. Therefore, it is important to balance between boring and over-exhausting. Check the travel and tours schedule before you sign up.
What Do Reviews of the Tour Provider Say?
At Go Overseas, reviews are an incredibly important part of the process to choose a meaningful travel program abroad -- and this includes guided tours!
Reviews from previous tour participants provide valuable insights into the experience provided. Use them to tease out specific information about the above-mentioned categories: Did they like the group size and tour guides? Was accommodation as advertised? Was it good value for their money? Look at the reviewers themselves -- is this the demographic you belong to, too?
Check online reviews with a grain of salt. Remember that usually people are writing reviews if they had an absolutely amazing time or if something went terribly time, so they tend to fall on two ends of the spectrum. That said, they can still offer you a perspective of the tour that you can't find anywhere else: one from a traveler who's been there before.
Choose Your Tour Provider Wisely
Even for independent travelers with a lot of experience, group tours are a respectable option, but they are also a good choice for helping people who haven't gone overseas before (or maybe haven't traveled on their own) get their feet wet.
Traveling on your own for the first time can be intimidating, not to mention a logistical hassle, so going with a group for your first big trip can also help alleviate some of those initial challenges. It can also provide a great opportunity to meet like-minded people, deepen your knowledge of the destination you're visiting, and perhaps reach a more off-the-beaten path destination.
The most important thing, in addition to selecting an experience based on the above criteria, is to take time to reflect on what you want to get out of this particular trip overseas and then make sure that the specific company you're considering addresses those priorities. Follow this process and you will certainly have a life-changing adventure!