Before starting this blog, I had never been on an all-encompassed group tour. I was a travel snob who loved independent travel and hated the idea of whistle-stop tours.
Back then, I thought of tours as hoards of tourists cramped into a big coach, hopping on and off at typical sightseeing spots, and eating at tourist traps. But not all tours are like that, there are so many alternatives these days that you can easily choose one that is tailor-made for your needs.
The fact is that tours can come in different forms: some are daytrips like the ones I did in the Galapagos Islands; others are expedition voyages such as my trip to Antarctica; or camping/overland journeys including my Silk Road tour.
Tours aren’t all that bad — they can be great value for money, they get you to places that are otherwise difficult to reach, and most importantly, they connect you with like-minded travelers. I still am an advocate of independent travel, but I also do enjoy certain aspects of tours.
If you’re still on the fence on taking a tour, here’s a look at the advantages (and disadvantages) of traveling with a tour company.
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Going Independently or With a Tour Company
For the adventure traveler, going with a tour company can provide you with safety and technical guidance. In fact, many sports, such as scuba diving or rock climbing, should not be practiced alone. However, traveling independently gives you plenty of flexibility and freedom that guided companies cannot offer. Weigh the pros and cons to decide which style suits you best.
Pros of traveling on a tour:
• Takes care of all details including activities, lodging, and transportation.
• Reduces stress of travel by providing you with a pre-arranged itinerary.
• Packs in as many activities as possible for time-crunched travelers.
• Ensures safety in numbers and provides companionship.
• Reduces your expenses, as activity costs and taxi fares can be split with group mates.
• Allows you to reach remote places (such as Antarctica) that are difficult to access as an independent traveler.
• Provides emotional support and camaraderie when faced with physical challenges such as long treks.
• You will have to follow the group and may not be able to explore on your own.
• You need to compromise with travel mates when it comes to making decisions.
• You have less chance of meeting other people and locals.
• You may have to endure traveling with people whose company you don’t enjoy.
• You may need to pay a single supplement if traveling alone.
• You don’t necessarily save money
Choosing the Tour Operator that Suits You
Fortunately, most of these cons can be mitigated by choosing the right tour operator, right group size and right tour.
Do your due diligence when researching the reliability of an adventure tour outfitter. Check the reputation of the company and its accident history by reading reviews on blogs and talking to past clients via Twitter or Facebook.
Look around on the Internet and on travel message boards for previous customer comments. Tripadvisor is a good and highly recommended website to find reviews from previous customers about different tours and tour companies from around the world.
Make sure the company’s values are consistent with your own. In my case, I look for companies with an eco-conscious policy and a responsible tourism strategy. I also prefer operators that emphasize cultural authenticity and contributing to local communities.
A good starting point is the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). You can find tour operators sorted by activity or destination expertise, and read traveler reviews and trip listings.
Here are some questions to ask when picking a company to travel with:
• How experienced are the guides? It takes years of experience to become an expert. A professional guide or instructor who is comfortable and confident in his or her element will put you at ease.
• What is the student to instructor or guide ratio? This depends on what activity you’re doing. One-on-one is often mandatory for high-risk sports, although the ideal number for diving is three or four students/divers per instructor.
• What type of equipment is provided? Is it well maintained? Are there any backup systems in place? This will determine how professional the company is, and how much emphasis they place on safety.
• Is the operator affiliated with the country’s official association (e.g. United States Parachute Association) or does it have any international accreditation?
• What is included in the prices and what will cost extra? Check if meals and transfers will be provided.
• What is the cancellation and rescheduling policy? Many extreme sports are subject to weather and other unpredictable conditions; make sure you will be refunded in case of cancellation.
• What type of people usually travel with this company? Is it a YOLO trip or does the company cater to older travelers? You don’t want to be diving with people you cannot trust, or traveling on an overland truck for a month with travelers whose company you do not enjoy.
• What is the company’s environmental policy? Many eco-friendly companies measure your carbon footprint during your tour to minimize your environmental impact by avoiding big buses, fancy hotels, flying, and highly polluting vehicles.
Once you narrow down your options and decide which way to go, you’ll most likely end up with a rewarding and fulfilling travel experience.
If you’re thinking of an all-encompassed tour, I personally recommend G Adventures, a responsible travel operator that offers small-group adventure tours around the world. These insanely affordable tours range from short 3-day trips to 68-day overland journeys and high-end polar expeditions. I also like that they have a conscious approach towards the environment and local tourism of each country.
I am a brand ambassador for G Adventures and I jump on a few trips with them each year — I’ve traveled with them to Antarctica, Arctic, Nepal, Brazil, southern Africa, New Zealand and Mongolia — and each and every trip has been fantastic. I highly recommend signing up to their newsletter to receive special offers and incredible savings on last minute deals. Plus, if you become a returning customer, your next trips can have additional discounts.
If you’re looking for a day tour, I recommend Viator Tours. It has the largest selection of short tours on the internet, and you can book anything from cooking classes and flamenco shows to paragliding excursions and hiking adventures. They cover more than 1,500 destinations worldwide.
Another company worth checking out is Context Travel, which organizes scholar-led walking tours in major cities around the world, including London, Paris and New York. Intellectually curious travelers will definitely love these “walking seminars” as they provide an in-depth alternative to traditional tours. Groups sizes are strictly capped at six, and the group leader is often a Ph.D.-level scholar from a local university.
Have you joined a tour? How was the experience?