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Are you considering your first small group tour? Fantastic! The good news is that you have a lot of options. In fact, the only not-great news is that you have so many options it can be hard to choose.
There are small group tours for every age, budget, and personality types. There are small group tours for people who like to hike and camp, and people who like to eat and…then eat some more. There are small group tours just for women, and others designed for families. From African safaris to trekking Machu Picchu, sailing the Greek islands or exploring the great cities of North America, pretty much any trip you can dream about other than an all-inclusive resort stay is on offer.
The two things all these tours have in common is that they organize the logistics to make your bucket list trips that much easier to accomplish, and they connect you with other like-minded travellers. They are perfect for first-time travellers, but have a lot to offer the seasoned solo traveller as well.
I’ve taken several of these trips and they’ve been incredible adventures. So far I’ve gone with Intrepid Travel and highly recommend them. But I’ve also researched many others because I’m now a small group tour enthusiast and planing to try more and different ones. Here are my top questions for you to ask when doing your research to help make your first small group tour experience a great one.
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What is a small group tour?
First off, a confession: I never considered myself an “organized tour person.” I like travelling independently, making my own schedule, choosing my own adventures. I often scoffed at those buses that pull up in front of attractions and let out 40 people and a tour guide with a megaphone. Then I discovered there’s something between doing it all yourself and being shepherded around—the small group tour.
The key word is “small.” These tours are generally 10-16 travellers, plus guide. They also strive to leave a small footprint – using local transportation or private vans, not giant buses.
I love small group tours.
As a solo female traveller, these tours let me go to places I might not otherwise feel comfortable travelling to by myself. I get to meet new and fascinating people from all over the world. They take care of things like booking the hotel, getting the train tickets and figuring out what time the Taj Mahal is open. If it’s a country where I don’t speak the language, or have a medical emergency, a tour guide is there to help. In short, small group tours give me a lot more time to enjoy the journey, and worry less.
This is all different from an organized day tour – where you join other travellers for a specific activity with a local guide, like a food tour of Florence, or hiking up a volcano in Guatemala, but then return to your own accommodations. There is usually one guide that welcomes you and stays with the group the entire time, plus local guides from the different cities who are experts who join to take you to specific monuments or destinations. On camping or cycling trips, there may also be support staff. They can be as short as 4 nights, or as long as a month.
Most of all, small group tours are a communal experience. Travelling with like-minded people—forming bonds, laughing, cheering, partying, exploring together. It’s safe, it’s fun, and it’s a great way to see the world when you don’t have a friend or partner with the same interests, budget or vacation time as you.
Before you book your first small group tour, here are 10 important things to consider:
Who will you be travelling with?
Age is a big factor. On a small group tour, the other travellers may be in their 20s, their 70s, and everywhere in between. Personally, I love this. I get to see a place through different lenses and learn things. Like what backpacking was like in the 70s, or all the good Aussie slang.
If you prefer to be with people your own age, there are a few ways to make that happen.
Young people will have the easiest time choosing a tour for their own age group. Two companies to look at with youth-specific small tours are Intrepid Travel (18-29 trips) and G Adventures (18-39 trips.) These tours are cheaper (they stay at more budget accommodations, including hostels), include more free time, and make sure to take you out at night. They both have youth tours all over the world and a great reputation.
On the other side, there are also small group tours focused on active travellers aged 50 and up. Road Scholar tours are known for educational programmes – you can climb a Mayan pyramid then get a lecture by an archeologist, for example. Canada’s Anderson Vacation specializes in North America and are a bit bigger (groups max at 24 people)—I’ve often seen really happy travellers in airports coming back from their trips.
What about the rest of us? Companies can’t divulge in advance the age of people who signed up for a particular tour. But there are few things to help figure out the most likely age range of a tour you’re interested in.
First, look at the photos on the company’s website or Instagram, that usually gives you a great idea of their typical guest. (Although be aware many are still only using photos of skinny white people, which isn’t a true reflection of the travellers.)
Second, consider the destination. If the country is a Bucket List for a lot of people (Egypt for the pyramids, Italy for…everything) and/or if it’s relatively inexpensive (Thailand, Morocco) the group is likely to be younger, or mixed. If it’s more off-the-beaten-track (like, say, my group trip to Hungary and Romania) or expensive (See: Galapagos, Scandinavia, etc.) it’s likely attracting older travellers – because they’ve been to the more popular countries already or have more disposable income.
I’ve also been on tours where most of the guests are older than me, but have brought their adult children, so there’s a 25-year-old in the mix. You just never know!
How active is it?
Small group tours can involve more walking and other physical activities than a big bus tour. This is a great way to see a place up close, experience daily life like a local, and burn off all the delicious food you are eating.
Most companies will use a physical rating system from 1-5 on their tours so you can gauge how vigorous the adventure is. If you are concerned, read the whole itinerary for details like the length of any hikes, the number of hours on your feet, etc.
Some of the best small group tours are specifically for active adventures, like hiking, cycling, kayaking, etc. Companies will tell you that anyone with an average fitness level can do these trips. And they are not wrong –I did a 12-day cycling tour of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with Intrepid, and I’m not an athlete.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned that they don’t tell you: only fit people sign up for these tours.
Think about it. Who do you know what would choose to spend their vacation mountain climbing? Or rafting? They’re pretty fit, right? There’s a self-selection at play here. On my Morocco tour there were four Ironman triathletes! Now, everyone was super supportive—giving me tips, cheering me on— and I don’t regret going for a second. So don’t let that stop you from training for and achieving a tough fitness goal as part of your tour. But it’s something to consider. And if you’re already fit? You’re gonna love the exhilaration of pushing it to the limit with like-minded travellers.
Is there a single supplement?
Organized tour companies base their prices on double occupancy – meaning two travellers sharing a hotel room. So if you are travelling solo, you may be asked to pay more for what’s called a “single supplement” and this can be a lot, up to 50% more! Screw that.
Mandatory single supplements suck.
A good tour company will give you the option of rooming with another traveller (of the same gender) for the same price. Then you can choose to pay for the supplement if you want or need have your own room, but you don’t have to. If a company doesn’t offer this option, I recommend finding a different tour.
Is it weird to room with a stranger? I’ve done it, and it’s perfectly fine. You’re not spending that much time in your hotel room anyway. Just be courteous and tidy and everyone will get along. You may even make an even closer life-long friend.
There is a chance you might get your own room anyway. On the tours I’ve taken, most of the guests have come with a partner or family member, so you may be the only solo traveller in which case you lucked out. Once, there were three of us single women. The tour leader rotated, so that every third night one person got their own room. It worked out great.
How fluffy do you like your pillows?
While we’re on the subjects of rooms, it’s a good idea to check where you’ll be sleeping. There’s a range of accommodation options on small group tours, from hotels to homestays to camping.
I’ve never had a bad hotel on any of my small group tours – they’ve all been safe and clean. But if you are used to only Western hotel chains or resorts, you may be initially surprised that in other places in the world, there isn’t hot water 24/7, or air conditioning, at many perfectly normal local hotels. A good tour company will advise in the itinerary before you book what kind of hotels to expect, even if they can’t tell you the exact place.
From what I’ve seen the main difference between tours with similar itineraries but different costs is the rating of hotel you’ll be staying at. So if you’re someone who wants your vacation to include the best mattresses and showers, you may want to look carefully before booking the cheapest tours. Intrepid Travel’s Premium tours, for example, book you in upgraded hotels.
Same goes for camping trips. Sleeping outside in the desert has been a highlight of my small group touring. Morocco was more like “glamping” with beautiful yurts set up on the edges of a hotel near the Sahara, so we could use their showers and pool after our camel rides. India was extremely basic – just a cot and a warm blanket, a bonfire and the stars. I loved both but if you need certain creature comforts, know before you go!
Can they accommodate your diet?
I don’t mean counting calories. Most small group tours have some meals included. So if like me you’re a vegetarian, or a vegan, or have an allergy, read the trip description or FAQ to see if that can be accommodated. If you can’t find the info, send the company an email to ask before booking.
In any case, you’ll want to let the tour company know any food restrictions when you book. I’ve had my diet accommodated on all my tours, with advance they were able to ensure the included meals would include me. Unfortunately, most food-oriented tours or cooking classes are still very meat and/or dairy heavy. And even in veggie-friendly countries you may find yourself in a small village, or a homestay. This is another great reason to have a local guide looking out for you and directing you to the appropriate menus or stores.
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On the flipside, I can’t even explain how much I loved being a vegetarian on a group tour in India! It was my first trip where I wasn’t the exception in the group, and I highly recommend India as a destination for any vegetarian traveller.
For vegans, here’s a company that specializes small group tours for vegans of Europe and America that goes beyond food to seek out leather-free hotels and the like. And if you’re willing to take a slightly bigger tour with up to 35 people, Contiki offers a European vegan adventure for those 18-35.
How about a women’s only tour?
If you’re a solo woman traveller looking to join your first small group tour, why not consider going with other women?
I visited India on an all-women expedition with Intrepid, and it was fabulous. We had access to spaces we couldn’t otherwise visit in mixed company, met a lot of local women, and as a bonus the trip supported many women artisans and entrepreneurs. Intrepid’s Women’s Only tours also include Morocco, Peru, and Nepal.
Several companies are owned by women and specialize in small group tours for women only. For a more deluxe retreat-type experience I’ve heard great things about Damesly, who have some unique all-women trips to countries like Oman and Uzbekistan, as well as Morocco, Egypt, etc. And there are small group tours for plus-sized women too.
How much does it really cost?
There’s the price of the tour, and then there’s your total cost for the trip.
A small group tour is rarely all-inclusive. First off, most don’t include flights, since guests are coming from all over the world. Usually the price includes accommodation, local transportation (buses, boats, trains, etc), a local guide, walking tours, attractions, and some (or all) meals (but not alcohol). These are often referred to as “inclusions” – meaning included. The rest is optional, at your expense.
It makes sense. Keeping the tour price low makes them more accessible to more people. Then you can decide how much you want to spend on your food, drinks and special activities.
A good tour company will be transparent about what is and isn’t included each day, and how much it costs for optional activities. For one popular example, a hot air balloon ride may be on the wish list for your tour to Turkey or Morocco – but it may cost you an extra $500 USD. There’s zero pressure to add on, it’s there for the travellers who want to go. You can always choose to do nothing in your free time but relax with a good book, go shopping, etc.
Airport transfers is another cost to check – some small group tours include this, and some don’t. (Although they can all arrange it for an extra cost for you.)
Tipping is also extra. Local guides, your bus driver, the washroom attendants—these local workers live on tips. You’ll perhaps be asked to contribute a certain amount on the first day to a group “kitty” – the tour leader pays them all so that you don’t have to fuss. And at the end of the tour, you’ll probably want to tip your leader. Check the tour company’s trip notes for guidance on what’s reasonable.
Finally, don’t forget the cost for travel insurance and any visas you need to enter the country – these are also your responsibility.
Don’t let any of this scare you! There are still small group tours for every budget. Just grab a calculator and make sure you know the total cost of your adventure before you book.
Do you like shopping?
Most travellers like to shop for souvenirs like local crafts. And most small group tours help guests get the best shopping experience for the least hassle by organizing visits to cooperatives, specific markets or other businesses that are pre-arranged.
There are two sides to this practise. On the one hand, you’re not going to get ripped off—those merchants want the tour company’s repeat business so whether the price is fixed or you’ll need to haggle, it will be fair. And you be getting quality, unique stuff.
On the other hand, these shopping stops can take up a lot of time. The vendors usually have some kind of demonstrations of the quality of their products, not to mention tea or other hospitality. If the majority of people on the tour are enthusiastic about buying, you could be in a shop for a few hours. So… if you definitely do not like shopping, avoid tour itineraries that mention visiting a lot of rug factories, ceramic workshops and the like.
Will you have free time?
What I loved about my first small group tour was the balance of organized activities and free time. Mornings and afternoons were generally for travel to the next city, a walking tour, visiting attractions, or other group activity, and then by evenings we were free to explore. Some nights I joined other tour mates for dinner, and some nights I went off to a vampire film festival in the hometown of Vlad the Impaler. (OK, just once, but it was pretty great!)
I’ve also been on tours with a much tighter schedule – the cycling tour in Morocco for example required us to stay together most of the time. But even then we had a totally free day in the blue city of Chefchaouen — while my travel mates went on a hike I spent it wandering the markets, finding my own perfect lunch spot, and watching local women at the public outdoor laundry. Whereas in India, our women’s tour was go-go-go doing all the amazing things, with early morning travel and shared meals (so nobody got sick with Delhi belly). The only downtime was long train rides really.
Think about your personality – do you get bored if you’re alone too long? Do you need private quiet time to decompress every day? Then look at the tour itinerary to see how much free time is built in and choose what’s right for you.
Does the tour company share my values?
This is a big one, but for me it’s important.
I want my travel dollars to help the places I visit, not harm. I also don’t want to give money to companies that support abusive animal practises (riding elephants, making marine animals do tricks for photos, etc.) For you, it might be more environmental concerns, like carbon neutrality.
One of the best things about small group tours is that they generally pollute less and give more back to the communities than giant bus tours staying at Western chain hotels. But it’s always worth a read through their company FAQs so you can be comfortable with their corporate policies before you book.
That’s it! With these questions in mind, you’re on your way to having an amazing experience on your first small group tour. If these tips proved helpful please drop me a line, I’d love to hear about it. Safe travels and have the best time!