Then you look closer. You’ll be in Lisbon the first day, but then you’ll be traveling to 12 more cities in Portugal in just over a week. Yikes! That’s a lot of ground to cover.
Oh, and you notice the fine print, which says you’ll see it all by motor coach (ahem, that means bus).
Maybe this isn’t as appealing now that you’ve given it a closer look.
Group travel isn’t for everybody. It can be a fun way to let experts take the lead on the vacation-planning legwork and meet people from all over the world.
But for some, it might be claustrophobic. And let’s be honest, you might get tired of that lady who’s constantly asking obscure questions and dominating the tour guide’s time.
“We frequently get asked about group tours versus independent adventures,” states Roshni Agarwal, co-founder of The Vacation Hunt, a surprise travel company based in Washington, D.C. “Group tours can be great for some people and then terrible for others.”
You may also not be getting what you assume you’re getting. “Group tours are a tricky one since many are sold through a few intermediaries, and the language allows for third parties to operate the tour and provide tour guides, plus they can change hotels as needed,” says Suzanne Wolko, a travel blogger and consultant based in Philadelphia.
The fine print of tour offers is a lot to go through, states Wolko, but you should do it. And then you should ask 11 specific questions to gather even more data:
1. What’s the exact daily itinerary?
“Most tours will detail the itinerary outline, attractions scheduled, whether food is included or not, and hotels,” says Wolko.
Get more information. You want to know how busy your days will be and how many hours you’ll spend on a bus or train compared to how many you’ll spend at the attraction or destination..
“It is early days—on the bus at 7 a.m.—and late nights?” asks Wolko. “Are there days off to wander on your own?”
Be sure to specifically ask how much free time the tour gives you, recommends Agarwal.
“Is there a guided visit at every, single stop,” she inquires. “Or do the tour operators just stop and let you wander on your own?”
2. How big is the tour, and who’s in charge?
“This is a critical question to ask,” states Amy M. Gardner, an attorney, professional coach, and co-owner of Complete Cuba, which organizes and leads trips to the island nation.
“The experience as one of 42 on a bus that can stop only at giant restaurants is very different from being 1 of 12 people in a group that can stop at restaurants that locals actually visit,” she states.
“Group size can dictate whether you’re one of a herd descending on an area like an invading army or one of a group feeling as though you’re exploring together,” adds Gardner.
3. Who’ll be leading this group?
Ask if there’s a tour director for the group or if the bus driver serves in that role, suggest Wolko.
Why? That factor alone can make or break your trip, insists Gardner, who notes that her company includes both American and local guides..
“Having a lower traveler-to-guide ratio costs more, but it allows for a more boutique travel experience,” she says. “And it’s far better when something inevitably doesn’t go as planned.”
4. What language will the tour be in?
Find out the languages the tour guide speaks or interprets, advises Agarwal.
“In this day and age, I wouldn’t just assume that the tour will be only in English,” she says. “And I also wouldn’t care to sit through a whole translation at every stop of, say, French, if I didn’t speak French as well.”
5. Who’s going?
Let’s be honest: If you’re looking for a romantic trip with your mate, you may not appreciate the rest of the travelers being families with kids.
Also ask the age range to which the tour caters to determine if you’re a match, says Agarwal. “For example, if I’m in my 50s or 60s, I probably wouldn’t enjoy a tour-full of 20-somethings because the activities wouldn’t cater toward my interests or tastes. Or maybe they would, in which case, case go for it.”
More questions on the group: “Are there solo travelers?” notes Wolko. “Where do the majority of travelers come from? For instance, are they all Americans, or will it be travelers from a mix of countries?”
Also ask how the company screens its travelers, advises Gardner. “When we have people interested in traveling to Cuba who aren’t a good fit for our trips, we tell them we think they’d be a better fit for another company or destination,” she explains. “Rather than experiencing the culture and meeting the people, they want to sit at the beach and sleep in.
“Or maybe they won’t be happy with travel to Cuba in general because they want only truly luxury accommodations and four-star restaurants or don’t want to travel within the U.S. government’s requirements,” Gardner adds.
“Not every company screens travelers—many just have an online sign up process and that’s it,” she states.
6. Where specifically will you be bunking each night?
You want to know the specifics so you can double-check the quality of the accommodations.
But you also want to know whether they’re in the city center or an area accessible to the city center, or whether they’re in a more remote area.
“You don’t want to be stranded with one food option and nothing to do,” laments Agarwal.
7. Speaking of grub, what’s the deal?
Agarwal advises specifically asking how many meals are provided.
And if you have food challenges, Wolko stresses that you should address them beforehand. If you need a special diet, ask how it will be accommodated in the included meals, she says.
8. If you want to meet local residents, can you?
Agarwal recommends that you investigate whether there will be any opportunities to interact with locals outside the confines of the group. “Will you get to see the ‘real’ side of wherever you’re going?” she asks. “Or will you just be visiting major tourist areas?”
9. Can you put me in touch with someone who’s taken this tour with you?
“Ask: Can I talk with a traveler who has gone with you recently?” suggests Gardner. “Speaking to a traveler rather than just going off of testimonials on the website allows you to get a sense of what the experience and the fellow travelers are like.”
Though it’s not necessarily something you ask the tour operator, be sure to check out independent, third-party reviews for this specific tour, advises Agarwal.
“Don’t just read testimonials on the travel company’s own website,” she says. “Check out Facebook, Tripadvisor, and Yelp.”
10. How will you address snafus?
Ask whom you can talk to if there’s a problem on the tour, suggests Wolko. “Also ask for the emergency protocol if someone is injured,” she advises.
11. Can you go it alone?
If you’re starting to think that maybe the group plan isn’t for you, Agarwal recommends asking the cost of the group tour compared to the cost of the travel company putting together a similar itinerary for just you and those traveling with you.
One more tip from Wolko: “The fine print typically allows for changes without notice,” she notes. “So I also always recommend travel insurance and paying with a credit card that provides travel protections.”