Beth Mansfield wasn’t late to the bus on the first day of her group tour. She just got there a little later than she wanted.
The Ohio-based personal chef climbed the steps and found herself facing a busload of people who chanted, “Good morning, Beth!”
“I knew I was doomed, Mansfield says.
She was already nervous about joining this New Zealand hiking tour. She wanted to meet other people, but wasn’t a hardcore hiker and didn’t want to be the weak link.
“In a split second I assessed my options,Mansfield recalls, which were to “slink into a seat quietly or face them all down. I chose the second and retorted back ‘I'm not late! Ya'all are too early! There's still time for a quick cuppa!’ And they all laughed and turned to each other and commented that that was true. They were all early and I just happened to be the last one on the bus and the tour guides were calling my name looking for me.”
At that point, since everyone already knew her name, Mansfield took pains to learn everyone else’s. She hiked and ate with different people throughout the trip and “by the end of the tour I had gotten to know everyone in the group.”
Mansfield’s experience could have gone either way during that moment on the bus, and her decision to good naturedly put herself out there is one of the keys to tour group success. “You do need to be fairly open minded and willing to accommodate other people,” says former tour leader Richard Hanson, sales director for Trek America. “The more you put in, the more you get out.”
Along with a good attitude, here a few other things that may help you get more out of a group tour.
Are you a groupie?
Tour group travel can eliminate many of the curveballs and surprises that can come with poking around destinations on your own, says tour leader and Trip Chicks co-owner Ann Lombardi. Further, if you’re strapped for vacation time, as many Americans are, tours can “cover lots of ground very efficiently and often cost-effectively,” she says. “Certain routes, like the Romantic Road of Germany , are much more easily covered on a tour bus than on a train independently,” and likewise, destinations with more challenging language barriers, terrains, or comforts like the Balkans or certain parts of Africa or Asia might be good tour candidates, she adds.
However, “if you are extremely independent and want to avoid structure at all costs, you should probably avoid tour groups,” says Patrick Evans, spokesperson for STA Travel. “If you have plenty of time to wander, know the area reasonably well, and want to be stop at a moment's notice, you can probably get by without a tour guide," he adds.
If you’re unsure about what kind of traveler you are, consider rolling the dice. “I am not generally an extrovert and prefer one on one interaction,” Mansfield says “But [my tour group] experience galvanized me to reach outside of myself and as a result I met so many interesting characters, learned so much about their lives, and made lifelong friends.”
Size does matter.
If a more personal experience is what you’re after, a smaller group size may be your thing, Hanson suggests. Travelers booking smaller tours “see value in paying a little more, getting more attention from the tour leader, and being able to interact with the other members of the group,” he says.
On the other hand, says Evans, if you’re concerned about a few bad apples spoiling the trip, a larger group increases your chances of finding people you like. Breaking away becomes easier, too, he says, noting that “in a group of 20 or 30 people, it is relatively easy to break out on your own without too many people noticing. Plus, larger groups contain a mixture of interests, so during free time, a handful of people will head to a museum, some to a monument, and some to grab a bite to eat. You'll easily find a group the fits your interests."
Just don’t go too big, Lombardi says, because if there are enough of you to warrant a “second departure group” of the same tour on the same date, that could mean bad news if you’re actually in the second group. “The second overflow bus is always playing ‘catch up’ with the first bus and travelers on the second tour may miss out on some of the sites due to time constraints,” she says.
Focus your group.
Aside from asking how big your tour group will be, ask the average age of your fellow group travelers, Hanson says. “You’re more likely to be traveling with like-minded people if you’re all within 20 years of each other,” he suggests. Likewise, Lombardi says, find out if children are allowed on the tour and if so, what the minimum age is, important not only for parents but also for “older travelers or school teachers trying to escape a classroom-like scenario while on vacation,” she says.
Ask how much time “is spent traveling between stops and how much time is spent at each stop,” Evans says, as well as how much free time is allowed overall. Since some tour companies slap size or weight limits on luggage, you’ll be able to pack more efficiently and lightly if you know precisely how time will be allocated.
Find out if the price of accommodations and tourist attractions are included in the tour group price, says Evans. Also ask your tour operator what their change or cancellation penalties might be, Lombardi says, as well as whether “the tour price is locked in or can the tour company collect a currency surcharge based on the dollar rate of exchange.”
Both Evans and Lombardi suggest finding out how often optional, extra-fee activities are offered throughout the tour as well as their costs, as alternate companies in the destinations your group is visiting may offer the same tours for less.
One of the more important questions you shouldn’t be afraid to ask, Lombardi says, is whether you can contact a traveler who has already taken the tour you want to book. If the tour operator won’t give up a name, look elsewhere.