Do the words “package tour” conjure up images of a crowded bus filled with dozens of fanny-pack wearing vacationers and a harried, whistleblowing guide? Shake off that picture. Today, a guided vacation is more likely to bring you to an off-the-map winery, where you’ll gather in the kitchen of the family who’s farmed there for generations. Or it will treat you to an intimate after-hours dinner with a museum curator, explains Terry Dale, president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). “Our members have networks in places that open doors to experiences you’d never have access to otherwise,” he says.
From being treated like a VIP to insider experiences not available to most tourists, here are five ways a guided vacation can beat traveling on your own:
1. It’s planned—but not overplanned. Even in the Internet Age, putting together a multiple-city itinerary—domestic or overseas—is an arduous task that takes a lot of time and research. A prepackaged vacation removes the hassle while preserving your sense of adventure. “Travelers want to hit the major attractions, but they also want free time to explore on their own,” says Michelle Lukk, marketing manager at Trafalgar Worldwide Guided Vacations. Many tour operators keep this in mind.
2. You’ll have experiences you couldn’t get on your own. There’s only so much you can arrange as a stranger walking into a foreign country—or locations across the United States. Tour operators have the local connections that give people what Dale refers to as “authentic and credible” experiences.
“Travelers want to rub shoulders with historians or artisans or chefs or craftspeople. Or go to someone’s home and cook dinner with them!” Dale says. “You want to feel like you really understand the people who call this place home. And you can only do that if you have access to the locals.”
A chain hotel is going to feel pretty similar wherever you go, but isn’t the point of travel to try something new? “We’re able to arrange stays in authentic accommodations on many of our itineraries,” Lukk says. “These are culturally significant venues that give the traveler a true sense of the destination. And some of these places people probably wouldn’t be able to find on their own.”
3. You’ll get VIP access. You know how long the average wait is at the Sistine Chapel? “Up to 8 hours!” Lukk says. “You’ll end up spending more time waiting in line than enjoying the site itself.” But when a guided travel company like Trafalgar prearranges specialized entry, visitors save hours and hours of wait time, she explains. “With Trafalgar’s VIP entry, travelers can use the saved time to expand on what they’re able to see in a single day—or relax, if they want.”
4. The extras are built in. “Meals are often part of the cost, and gratuities and entertainment may be included too,” Dale points out. “If you’re looking at the price alone without considering everything that’s included, that’s a little shortsighted.”
Guided tour companies also are able to contract in volume, so you can get more bang for the buck—a nicer quality hotel for a lower price, for example. “We negotiate with hotels, attractions, transportation companies,” Trafalgar’s Lukk ticks off. “We negotiate overseas and translate that into savings for our guests. If a consumer were to try to rebuild the exact same itinerary, it would cost up to 30% more.”
5. You’ll meet people from around the world. That includes locals and other members of your tour group. Travel is exhilarating, but it also can be somewhat lonely, especially if there’s a language barrier. “Members of a group tend to have a shared interest in a particular location. That’s why they’re going,” Dale says. Visiting places together creates room for a dialogue that might not happen otherwise, and tours can draw participants from diverse regions of the U.S. or a variety of countries. Lasting friendships can be made on group tours. And you can’t top that for a souvenir.