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.
November 20th, 2012 at 2:09 pm (#)
We like a combination of group tours and seeing a place on our own. We really like a hop on/hop off kind of thing where they will tell you about the area and you can hop off and take as long as you like, then just catch the next bus/trolley, whatever. We have also done escorted tours in Ireland and in Hawaii with Brendan Vacations and loved them. We had enough free time to do things on our own but we never had to worry about hotels, food or taking care of our suitcases. But we have also gone completely on our own and made all our own arrangments – as I said, a combination works for us!
November 21st, 2012 at 1:17 pm (#)
I hear you! I love travelling solo, planning my own adventures and controlling every aspect of my schedule, but I do go on group trips every now and then, for many of the reasons you identified above. One of the craziest benefits of group travel, for me, is personal growth. On my most recent trip to South Africa, my roommate was a 69-year old woman. Not necessarily ideal, but I just dealt with it and had a great deal of fun with her and my tour mates over the two weeks.
November 23rd, 2012 at 8:27 am (#)
Got directed from ‘thatbackpacker.com’ and really love your blog…
December 3rd, 2012 at 5:27 pm (#)
I only have one word… anxiety. I don’t think I could ever do one!
January 20th, 2013 at 11:30 pm (#)
I share the exact same feelings! I love exploring independently, but recently went to Thailand on a pre-organised tour, as it was so much easier after a busy term of teaching to just show up and be provided with lots of background information. We went to places that I never would have known about, or had the time to research otherwise.
It’s definitely complicated!
October 20th, 2015 at 11:48 am (#)
The huge variety of group tour packages means there’s something for almost everyone; small groups, large groups, educational or cultural focus, and target demographic all matter, so group tours can’t be lumped together as a single entity. Two weeks of hiking, actively participating in cultural activities and engaging with locals isn’t the same as a quick, superficial bus ride, but they’re grouped together under the same heading. I’m a fan of the type of group tour that’s classed as “learning travel” — it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it can greatly enhance a visitor’s understanding of a place.
October 20th, 2015 at 11:56 am (#)
Fair point! If you don’t want to go solo/independent I think it’s super important to research and find the group tour that’s most likely to fit your personal interests and style.
For me personally, it’s group activities and day tours.
September 14th, 2017 at 11:39 pm (#)
Have been on two tour groups. Will not go on another. Too restrictive and touristy. Need more freedom to do my own thing including more down time. Hard to get away from annoying people. I have always enjoyed planning my own itinerary and I think I will stick to that. Meeting fellow travelers along the way can be fun though.
September 15th, 2017 at 8:50 am (#)
Yeah, I think it’s the strict itinerary with not enough time for personal exploration that holds me back from a group tour. So I stick with my independent travel with a few group day trips sprinkled in for fun and to meet people.
July 9th, 2018 at 11:07 pm (#)
I hate group tours as well. I think half day tours are easier to digest. I don’t chit chat, I dislike tour guides who just chit chat to fill in the blank. I like the tour guides who are genuinely interested in the topic that they are talking about. I can tell if they are taking it. Don’t expect a tip from me.