I am a huge advocate of small group travel, and it is something I have been doing for many years. I also find that, more and more, friends are asking my advice about taking the plunge. But is it right for you?
What is small group travel?
Small group travel generally means joining a tour run by a European, American or Australian company, with a total of around 14-16 travellers per group. These travellers come from all walks of life and many different countries, and may have signed up for the tour alone or with another person. But rather than being a predominantly couples’ holiday, small group tours often see pairs of friends travelling together, or even parents and adult children, and roughly half the group will be made up of travellers who have joined the tour alone. Everyone mixes in together, so if you are travelling solo you are never on your own.
What is it NOT?
If you are travelling in a couple or with a friend, bear in mind that the principle of this sort of travel is that everyone is part of the group. So if you are there for some quality alone time, it’s probably not the trip for you.
Small group travel is also not a singles’ holiday. Some companies or tours may be aimed at solo travellers only, but there is no suggestion that people are there to hook up. Many solo travellers are already in relationships at home, and the rest are far more focussed on the travel than the dating opportunities! Of course, though, it’s not impossible that you will meet that special someone in such a like-minded group!
What sort of people go on small group tours?
All ages and walks of life. The trips I have taken have generally seen an age range of anywhere between late 20s and 70+, so it pays to be able to mix with all ages! (If you are looking for a younger set, those tours definitely exist as well, but that’s not my style). You may be at a different stage of life from some of your travel companions, but all of you have chosen the same trip out of an interest in the same country and culture, so you will have far more in common than you think! And I always get a kick out of the travel stories of some of the older tour members, who are often ridiculously well-travelled. Long evening discussions over the dinner table or around the camp fire inevitably centre on travel, so be prepared for some serious travel envy.
Can I take my children?
Children aged approximately 14 years and older are able to join the adult tours, but are likely to find they are the only young people in the group. Alternatively, some companies run special tours for families, covering more or less the same locations but in a more child-friendly environment.
What will we do on the tour?
That depends on your destination, but the focus is normally on seeing as much as possible. Activity levels can vary – on some tours you will be driven round in a bus, on others you will hike for 8 hours a day – it’s up to you. But you will get to see the highlights of every city and region you pass through. I have spent days on the beach, cruising islands, climbing volcanos (ok, part of a volcano!), walking snow-filled river gorges and exploring tropical waterfalls. On most tours you will travel from place to place, spending 1 or 2 nights in each location, so it’s not a lazy holiday. But you get to see so much.
But I hate tour groups!
There’s no denying that these tours involve going around in a group. However, they are not your average tour group, and you won’t find stuck with any loud-mouthed, disrespectful tourists. The numbers are small enough not to be overwhelming, and every person I have travelled with (and there have been hundreds!) has been sensitive and respectful to the local culture. A cruise ship excursion this is not.
Why is a small group tour better than going it alone?
Well, to be honest, it isn’t always. I love to travel solo as well, but some countries lend themselves to solo travel better than others, especially if you have limited vacation time. In more developed countries I prefer to do my own thing and immerse myself in the culture independently, but in more challenging locations it is better to have the support of an experienced tour guide who will get you from A to B, act as interpreter, deal with local bureaucracy and make sure you stay safe.
Another bonus for me of group travel is that someone else does the planning. I love to plan my trips, but it takes a lot of effort and sometimes you just want someone else to take up the slack! Group travel can be an intense experience as you encounter new sights and cultures at every turn, so it’s great to have someone else take the decision-making off your hands. On many days on tour, the biggest decision I have to make is what to wear or what to have for dinner. When you have a busy life at home, it can feel wonderful to shrug off all responsibility for a week or two.
Isn’t it more expensive to travel without a companion?
Not necessarily. Most tour companies will happily arrange for you to share a room with another traveller of the same gender, and in fact this is normally the default arrangement. However, if you like your own space you can book a single room, and these can often be fairly cheap depending on the country you are visiting. You can also leave it to chance; on one particular trip I had booked to share, but all the other women on the tour were either travelling with someone or had paid the single supplement, so I got a single room without paying extra. A risky approach, but if you’re prepared to share you might just get lucky!
OK, so group travel is right for you. Will it be right for me?
If you want the security of travelling with a group, want people to bounce off and share your trip with, and are happy to get to know new people, group travel might very well be for you. I love my own space, but I’m also outgoing and can find solo travel gets lonely at times. With a group tour and my own room, I still get an hour or two of “me” time each day, but plenty of company as well.
However, group travel might not be for you if you need your own space most of the time. You will find that you are spending every day with your travelling companions, so this could feel claustrophobic if it’s not your thing. You will also be travelling with strangers, so if you are socially anxious this could be difficult. Mind you, the strangers normally feel like friends within an incredibly short space of time!
Group travel is also not for you if you want to spend alone time with your partner. Yes, there will be opportunities to go off alone – for a start, dinners are rarely if ever compulsory and you can easily do your own thing – but you will risk isolating yourselves from the group in the process. I have travelled with couples who have done this, and it was awkward for the whole group. I have also travelled with a couple where the wife was desperately jealous of any other woman who spoke to her husband! Again, not a great recipe for group travel – you will mix as a group, so possessive partners are not helpful.
Can I not do anything on my own, then?
Despite what I’ve just said, you will definitely get the chance to do your own thing some of the time. There will be days when the whole group is travelling to a new city, and of course on those days you need to remain with the group. But most other days are optional; you will have usually already paid for the day’s sightseeing in your tour cost, but it’s not compulsory to attend. Some activities will be optional, and operated on an opt-in basis. So if you want to take a breather, you are more than welcome to do so.
So what companies would you recommend for small group travel?
Personally, all my small group tours to date have been with Explore!, a UK-based company who I discovered many years before I was in a position to travel with them. I took my first trip with Explore in 2009 and been on many, many tours with them since. Exodus Travels is a similar company, and I will be travelling with them for the first time next month. I should point out that none of the businesses I mention in this post have paid me to promote them!
Both Explore and Exodus are UK-based, but their travellers come from all over the world. There are many other companies offering similar trips, so shop around. And of course, always read the reviews before you book!
You will find tours to the four corners of the earth, and at a range of prices depending on the trip duration, the activities included, and the cost of living in the country you will be visiting.
These tours can be pricey. How do I get the cost down?
Because of the destinations they visit, group tours are not always budget affairs. However, neither are they luxury travel. Hotels will normally be 3* (in some countries this can be open to interpretation!), but you will almost always have air-con and a private bathroom. Nonetheless, travelling to remote and far-flung countries carries a price tag. Here are a few ways to get the cost down.
- Book your air travel independently. Most tours will include flights from a major city (in the case of Explore and Exodus, this will mean flights from London), but they can arrange travel from anywhere in the world on request. But you can sometimes get the flights a little cheaper if you book yourself, shop around and are prepared to accept a non-refundable fare. The downside is that you will have to pay for the flights up front, but if you have the money available you can save a quite a lot on the overall cost.
- Share a room. As I mentioned earlier, you can arrange to be paired up with a fellow traveller of the same gender, thereby avoiding a single supplement.
- Be loyal! Most companies will offer you a discount of between 5% and 10% if you book with them repeatedly.
- Get smart with your visa application. If you need a visa for your destination, the tour company will often recommend the services of a visa agent. But if you are comfortable with the process, you can apply direct to the embassy. This is a little riskier and you need to know what you’re doing, but it can save $70 or $80 per visa.
- Look for discount vouchers or cashback. You won’t find a plethora of “10% off” discount codes for group travel companies, but it is sometimes possible to get cashback if you do your research. Another possibility is to pick up a discount voucher, often from travel fairs such as the Adventure Travel Show in London, or from subscriptions to magazines such as Wanderlust Magazine. It’s worth seeing what you can find before you book.
So I hope I have given you a little more insight into the possibilities of small group travel. Have you tried it yourself? What companies would you recommend? And do you have any advice for anyone hoping to book a similar trip?