My Love/Hate Relationship with Group Tours
It seems like a lot of travelers fall into one of two camps when it comes to group tours: love ’em or hate ’em. If group tours and I were in a relationship on Facebook it could only be labelled as “it’s complicated.” I’ve taken them in Canada, the US, Ireland, Costa Rica and Croatia. Those who hate them tend to eschew them for being too touristy and not being authentic. Those who love them appreciate having their activities and transportation taken care of and having someone explain what they’re seeing.
What I Love
When I travel solo I have so many decisions to make that sometimes it’s nice to relinquish control and let someone else plan a few hours of my life. Just tell me when and where to meet the bus. It can also be a more convenient way to see attractions that are just outside of town. While visiting Ireland, I had a rental car but for the scenic drive around the Ring of Kerry I opted for a group tour instead. That way I could relax and enjoy the view instead of keeping my eyes on the road.
Every time I board a tour bus I cross my fingers and hope to get a fun and knowledgeable guide. I’ve had some great ones and also a few duds. These folks are the local experts so I love learning as much as I can from them. Best guide so far was the one in Wicklow who handed out shots of whiskey (passengers only) to warm us up after a chilly photo stop.
Meeting New People
It can also be a good opportunity to make new travel friends. There’s something about these group activities that makes small talk easy, even for shy folks. You’ve all got something in common and you’re going to spend the next few hours or days together so why not get to know a bit about your busmate?
What I Hate
I hate the feeling that I’m on a tourist conveyor belt. I hate making stops where it just feels like a tourist cash grab. Often the bus will stop at a restaurant at mealtime rather than letting your explore an area and choose your own. Often the food is overpriced and not that great but they have a captive audience. In Northern Ireland I had one tour guide who made no attempt to hide his dislike that our stop at a distillery was only for the souvenir shop since there was no time for a tour and they didn’t offer samples or tastings.
Less Freedom and Deadlines
When I’m spending a day on my own I’m free to take as long as I want to explore something, linger over lunch or just sit with a drink and soak up the view. When you’re on a tour, everything is timed so I find that it’s always in the back of my mind. “How much time before I have to be back at the bus?” Operators have done these tours so many times they have a good idea of how long most people will want at each place but it’s still a limitation.
You Can’t Pick Your Busmates
The flip side of the coin of being able to meet all kinds of new people? You may end up as part of a group that’s a bit of a bust. This is more of an issue when you’re on multi-day trips so you need to be prepared and have fun regardless.
In general, I prefer to plan most of my own itineraries and stick to day trips rather than multi-day tours, though I would consider those for more difficult locations that I was traveling to solo for the first time. I hope that I get lucky with a cool, cohesive group of folks and a likeable guide but I can roll with the punches if it’s less than stellar.