Why go it alone? There's a group for you
Open-mindedness, flexibility, a little research, and the right size party make for a successful tour
Gathering for the first time at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing, 18 jet-lagged travelers were filled with nervous excitement. Tentative small talk mixed with curious glances. My family dared ask a few prodding questions of the honeymooners from Miami and the retirees from rural Wisconsin.
It was the start of a 14-day trip across China. For my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and me, the meeting also began a journey into the great unknown of group travel.
We are fiercely independent travelers with different ideas about what makes a good vacation. Would awkward group dynamics ruin the trip of a lifetime? Would we be stuck dining with people we couldn't stand? We looked around the room and wondered about the strangers who would be our companions. Would they share our interests? Would they be on time? Would they linger in souvenir shops and rush through historic sights?
With the economy struggling, group tours can provide a cost-effective alternative. Many companies are renegotiating contracts and passing the savings to customers. But finding good group tours involves more than searching for deals.
"There's a tour for everybody out there," said Brian Stacey, manager of new product development at Tauck World Discovery in Norwalk, Conn. "You just have to know how to choose the right one. If you fall into the wrong group, you're not going to have a great time. You won't mesh with the people you meet. So, you need to do your homework in advance."
Some of my family's thoroughly enjoyable experience was due to luck. Much of it was my mother's thorough research and everyone's open-mindedness.
Travelers can increase the odds of a good time by seeking the right information, setting realistic expectations, and arriving well prepared for all that groups do and do not offer.
To decide whether a group tour is your best option, ask a few key questions. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do when you get there? How much responsibility do you want for managing logistics? The answers will push you toward either a tour group or a more independent itinerary.
Group travel can take you anywhere, from the Old South to Southeast Asia. If you want to travel to a faraway place where a foreign language and local transportation will slow you down, a group offers a good solution. It is not surprising that India and China rank among the most popular group destinations.
But don't dismiss group tours of the United States or more easily traversed foreign countries. If you want something more than standard sightseeing, specially targeted packages can take you inside the culture, history, and cuisine of a particular place. There are trips for boomers, singles, grandparents and grandchildren, gourmands, and adrenaline junkies. When you consider your travel style and budget, certain destinations will fit better than others.
"If you said you wanted to go on a budget safari, we'd have to discuss it in depth, because what you need to get out of a safari you might not be able to get on a budget," said Nancy Greenfield, director of leisure sales for Boston-based Garber Travel. "You might want to pick an area where you get more bang for your buck. You might want to pick South America because the dollar goes further there."
Look for reputable companies with long track records. If possible, deal with companies that specialize in the area you plan to visit. The United States Tour Operators Association (www.ustoa.com), travel agents, and word of mouth can be valuable resources. Use the same common sense buying a group package as you would any other big purchase, especially when exploring on the Internet.
If you prefer a particular group size and price, that can eliminate some options. Smaller groups typically cost more and come with smaller pools for finding like-minded travelers, but they operate more efficiently.
Once you narrow the list, look at sample itineraries, paying special attention to pacing. Does the daily schedule cram in one sightseeing stop after another? Do lunches last two hours? Do nighttime entertainment options end too late? If you find a trip that suits your desired balance of activity and downtime, chances are you will also find like-minded group members.
"It's really important customers are realistic about what they want to see and how much they want to achieve," said Stephanie Parr, director of contracting at Globus. "There's nothing worse than getting on a tour and realizing you're skimming the surface when what you really wanted to do was spend three days in Rome or Paris."
With itineraries in hand, read the fine print. Do you stop at a specific attraction or drive by? Is transportation to and from airports covered on multi-city trips? Are hotels centrally located? If a company doesn't specify its hotels, that's a red flag.
When brochures and itineraries don't address your concerns, contact the company directly or ask your travel agent. Jerry Pi, president of Pacific Delight Tours, suggested travelers learn if tour operators are destination management companies that handle all ground arrangements or wholesalers that delegate to a third party. Ask how they handle contingencies such as missed flight connections. The way tour operators fix problems reveals a lot about them. Find out what expertise companies have and what qualifications they require for guides.
Preparing for arrival
Never worrying about luggage, securing hotel rooms, or locating a restaurant sells group tours. But all-inclusive doesn't mean you should depend upon the tour company to take care of everything.
Research your destination and see if non-included attractions interest you. If you hope to take short excursions, tell your tour manager in advance. In Shanghai, Guilin, and Hong Kong, my family's tour manager helped arrange side trips for us. In Beijing, one person's request to visit a special pearl shop led to an unscheduled, yet interesting, group detour.
"It's very important to have faith in your tour company," said Jeanne Edwards of Weston, who has taken more than 15 trips with General Tours of Keene, N.H. "In Egypt, I really wanted to ride a camel. It was not a regulated thing, but they were able to put it together in very short order."
On a more practical level, if you have dietary restrictions or concerns about physically handling the trip, inform your tour company ahead of time. Nothing creates tension in a group like issues that could have been averted or accommodated with advance notice.
Enjoying the adventure
Despite a multigenerational mix, a few stragglers, and a couple of shoppers determined to support the Chinese economy, my family found the group experience offered added value. Without the group, we would have struggled with the language barrier and wasted time on logistics, probably missing out on many attractions.
Our tour manager played an important role from the first meeting at the Peninsula Hotel to the moment she secured harbor-view rooms in Hong Kong. She set the ground rules and, for the most part, everyone listened. She reminded us to have patience and use common sense. She warned us about dangerous areas and scams targeting tourists.
"Guides should be knowledgeable about the destination and sights and they should assist you in solving a problem," said Joan Andresen, who has worked for Pacific Delight for more than 20 years selling packages and escorting groups. "It's pretty easy to tell the chef if someone is allergic to MSG or vegetarian. You want someone who pays attention to those things."
Group tours don't always conform to the cliched depictions of regimented travel by the busload. If you know what you're looking for, tour groups can take you and your fellow travelers to unexpected places.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.