I am an independent traveler, through and through. I enjoy crafting my own itineraries, sorting out my own accommodation, braving a foreign bus station and waking up some mornings and deciding to do nothing but sit in a sunny park all day. That’s the joy of traveling on your own: everything you do is your doing, including the missed connections, the overpriced dinner, the aching feet and ensuing headache.
Even though I love traveling on my own, sometimes I love taking a break and placing all the responsibility in someone else’s hands. I kicked off my first-ever solo backpacking trip around Europe with a 10-day Contiki tour: it eased me into traveling on my own, and opened my eyes to what I loved and hated about group travel. Since then, I like to supplement my trips with day-long tours—especially on bikes or Vespas!—and the occasional short cruise.
Signing up for a day-long bicycle tour of a new city or opting to find holiday cruises to enjoy a country’s beautiful archipelago is a brilliant way to see all the sights with fewer headaches and many new friends.
Meeting new people
I met one of my favorite travel buddies on a bike tour in Munich in summer 2009. We’ve since taken on the Great Ocean Road, beached it in Sydney and tasted wines in Margaret River—and we’re planning on tackling the ultimate American road trip this summer. Even if you don’t meet your new BFF, group tours can be an awesome way to force an introverted solo traveler into potentially fun social situations. I’m totally guilty of hiding behind my laptop in hostel common rooms and sticking my nose in a book in cafes, but group tours have a way of fostering small talk and bringing like-minded people together.
No worries, mate
Every once in a while, it is glorious to hand the decision-making power over to someone else—preferably to a local expert who knows the ins and outs of the area. It’s nice to have lunch served promptly at noon instead of waiting for my stomach to grumble at 11:58 a.m. and then start a hunt for a restaurant or street cart. One of the best things about my Contiki tour was staying in actual hotels: I opted for Contiki to set me up with a roommate, and it was super luxe compared to the cheap hostel dorms I crashed at the rest of my trip.
Sometimes on a bike tour, I’ll spot a brilliant sun-splashed square, an adorable café, a shop with a dress than I simply must try on: but I can’t stop, because I’m with a group. It’s even more intense on longer, more intense group tours: your itinerary is packed solidly, with limited “free time” for you to explore a city on your own. Depending on your comfort level and personal travel style, you’ll either love or hate this: take that into account when picking a trip.
You can’t choose your friends
As a solo traveler hopping on a group tour, you just have to cross your fingers and hope that the other people are cool. If not, you don’t have a best friend or significant other to turn to—and it’s hard to be anti-social when so many of the activities are group-based. Plus, there’s always “that guy” on a group tour: the weird one who everyone is hoping they don’t have to share a room with (I almost always end up getting stuck with him).
I’ve had some awesome group travel experiences and other that were less than stellar: it all comes down to the stars aligning for a cohesive group, a helpful and fun tour guide and having an open mind. Of course, sunshine and cheap beers don’t hurt either.
What’s been your experience with group tours?