How to Choose the Right Organized Tour

How to Choose the Right Organized Tour

Tour operators that offer multi-day trips will arrange almost everything for you: accommodation, sightseeing, meals and transportation. But group size, trip type and budget are among the considerations travelers should take into account before choosing a tour. Read on for tips.

Before you begin your research, consider how many people you want to travel with and how much tolerance you have for the social demands that group size brings.

Smaller groups have more flexibility to move around and potentially see more, but they can also be more social as you spend a lot of time with the same people walking and eating.

Larger groups tend to require more time to get around, but they also offer more social variety—you can change your lunch partners more easily, for example.

“Large groups offer anonymity and allow travelers to determine the level of interaction,” says Deborah Miller, travel consultant and owner of Edge of Wonder Travels Unlimited in San Francisco. “Conversely, smaller groups promote familiarity between travelers, guides and the destination itself.”

Think about the demographics of your travel group and consider whether you can find a travel company for that.

Tour operators often segment their tours by age, assuming that people of a similar age have more in common or prefer the same pace. Road Scholar, for example, is aimed at an intellectually curious audience over 50.

At the other end of the spectrum, G Adventures offers a travel category for “18-30 year olds” and Intrepid Travel offers trips for 18-35 year olds.

Due to the different age ranges, it can be difficult to fit families into larger travel groups. This is why companies tend to divide their family packages by age group.

Active travel company Backroads offers families three age segments, including trips for groups with children ages 4 to 19, for groups with older teens and younger adults in their 20s, and for groups with children in their 20s and older.

“By definition, this also leads to some age segmentation among parents,” said Tom Hale, founder, president and CEO of Backroads.

A popular option for first-time visitors is a general tour that takes in the highlights of a destination, such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre in Paris or major attractions in Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan.

Beyond the general approach, there are numerous alternatives based on themes, types of travel or hobbies.

Themed tours include a culinary tour of Sicily, a deep dive into literary England, the battlefields of Europe in World War II and the lives of women in India.

In addition to themes, travel often revolves around the mode of transportation, such as traveling by train, on foot, or by boat (a category that can be further divided by size, from cruise ships to barges or kayaks).

Tours also allow you to pursue a hobby such as swimming or knitting in a unique destination.

Once you have decided where and how you want to travel, prices range from cheap to luxurious.

“For travelers on a budget, large group tours are often the best solution because they can see the major attractions at a lower price,” says Cheyenne Schriefer, travel consultant and owner of All Travel Matters in Golden Valley, ND.

However, not all tours are created equal. To compare them, consider what they include.

For example, G Adventures offers a 10-day hiking trip to Switzerland starting at $1,799 per person and a 10-day hiking trip in Portugal for $4,499. The latter is billed as a luxury trip, so accommodations are more expensive, but most meals, transfers and activities are also included. The Swiss tour offers simpler accommodations, transfers, optional activities for a fee and fewer meals.

“Sometimes fewer inclusions are better than more,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of Frommer Media, which publishes Frommer's guides. She pointed out that restaurants that can accommodate busloads are unlikely to attract local traffic and that independent sightseeing allows you to “stroll through local neighborhoods and get a feel for local life.”

The expertise of the guide or tour leader can also affect the price and experience. Expect to pay more for a tour led by a specialist, such as an Egyptologist leading a group along the Nile.

Would you prefer to follow a strict schedule so you don't have to look for a restaurant for dinner, for example? Or do you value some structure – like knowing your hotel reservations are covered – but also want free time to explore on your own?

Tour companies come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Before booking, read the itineraries carefully to find out if the schedule is tight or loose. If that's not clear, call the company and ask.

For truly independent travelers, there are self-guided tours from companies like Inntravel, Exodus Adventure Travels and Macs Adventure, which will make the arrangements and create an itinerary. Popular in Europe, these routes are typically inn-to-inn walking or cycling tours with luggage transport included.

“Self-guided travelers are independent but appreciate the support of an organized trip and no longer want to hike with a large backpack,” says Jasper Verlaan, US sales manager for Macs Adventure.

If, after completing your research, you are still unsure about making a deposit, ask the tour operator if you can speak to a previous customer.

“Ask for references,” said Lynn Cutler, senior vice president of travel at Smithsonian Enterprises, which operates the Smithsonian Journeys travel company. “We'll find a traveler who has made that trip in the past and put them in touch.”

For more travel tips, check out our collection of travel tips and tricks for beginners.