If the phrase “group tour” makes you envision a crowd in matching windbreakers lining up behind a flag-wielding trip leader, think again. Guided vacation companies embrace the notion that 21st-century travelers want unique, engaging experiences that go beyond merely viewing a destination’s iconic highlights.
“It’s about authentic experiences,” says Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Worldwide Guided Vacations, a 68-year-old guided vacation company. “It’s very clear that the new generation of traveler wants to connect with insider experiences.”
That’s great news for people yearning to travel, and you can choose from a host of engaging tours to explore the world.
Why take a guided trip instead of going it alone? The United States Tour Operators Association explains that group trips can save time, money and hassle. They also offer the chance to connect with other like-minded globe-trotters.
But what really distinguishes guided tours are the expert guides who lead these one-of-a-kind journeys. You'll visit places off the beaten path that you’d never find on your own, and you'll experience travel that will connect you with the locals.
What kind of guided tour should you take? There are hundreds of trips available, so you’ll want to narrow down your choices to the types of tours that will give you an experience that caters to your personal preferences.
Ask yourself these eight questions to select the best excursion for you:
1. Where do I want to go? In total, tour companies such as Trafalgar, and your newest member benefit, NEA Adventures, travel to all seven continents, with trips to more than 100 countries. The possibilities are endless—and seemingly overwhelming. Take some time to explore the maps, itineraries and videos on tour operators’ websites to determine where your wanderlust will lead you.
2. What’s my travel style? Guided vacations are tailored for widely different interests. Choose from classic journeys (London, Paris, Tuscany), active itineraries (biking and hiking, or high-adrenaline adventures in Alaska), leisure trips (a more relaxed pace with upgraded comforts) and family tours (age-appropriate activities and food for the fussy).
3. How many other people do I want to travel with? Picture your ideal companions before choosing your trip. If you’re celebrating an anniversary, you might not want a group with lots of young kids. But if the journey is intended to open your children’s eyes to the world, traveling with other families could be ideal. A smaller group builds camaraderie and blends in at the destination more easily, but a larger group has its own benefits. You have the chance to get to know more people, and prices often are less expensive.
4. What activities do I want to experience? This is where guided trips really shine—with the unique, hands-on activities curated for your group. Cooking with an Italian chef, dude ranching in Montana, whisky tasting at a Scottish distillery, biking in British Columbia, hiking with a knowledgeable local guide and salsa dancing in Guatemala are all possible on a guided vacation. All you have to do is consider what kinds of excursions speak to you.
5. What am I hungry for? Exotic cuisine can be one of the most memorable parts of your trip, but everyone has different tastes. Are you an adventurous eater (fried scorpions), a locavore (farmstead cheese) or more traditional (cheeseburger, please)? Weigh a trip’s dining options with your culinary preferences.
6. Where do I want to sleep? Your lodging can offer so much more than a good night’s rest. It’s an experience in its own right. Options range from a boutique hotel in the heart of the city to a renovated lakeside palace or a homestay in the country.
7. How do I want to get around? Think about how the tour will navigate at the destination. Maybe you’d prefer the comfort and reliability of an air-conditioned bus. Alternatively, taxis and trains (or camels and rickshaws) let you rub shoulders with the locals and reduce your travel footprint.
8. How spontaneous do I want to be? Some trips offer more flexibility than others. Consider whether you’d like downtime with the chance to explore on your own or if you’d rather stick with your group 24/7 and adhere to a preplanned schedule.
So what’ll it be? Viewing exotic creatures in the Galápagos or cycling in Central America? Cooking in Charleston or paddling California’s Pacific Coast? Sipping sangria in Spain or trekking in Tibet? Guided tours can take you anywhere—from the United States, Caribbean and Mexico to Europe and the Arctic. Pick your pleasure, and leave the rest to the professionals.