These days, if you ask someone why they selected a tour package, destination, or travel operator, one word trumps all others: Value. However, value can mean different things to different travelers. For some, it implies a good deal or considerable savings. For others, the value is in the experience of visiting a new or exotic destination, or fulfilling a lifelong dream. Many travelers excitedly reserve a group tour based on the value of all of the above. The affordable price and enticing inclusions - international airfare, deluxe hotel accommodations, and comprehensive touring - are certainly tempting.
Many, including myself, appreciate the value and camaraderie of what a group tour offers. It can be a vibrant experience and affords travelers the opportunity to explore a new destination. However, as the saying goes, "If it sounds too good to be true.." When reserving a group tour, it is important to research the details and read the fine print before placing a deposit. Here are 5 elements to consider before booking a group tour:
Number of Travelers: I recently had a friend return from a group tour to South America. She was very disappointed to land in Buenos Aires and find that her tour was with 48 other guests. Her expectation was somewhere between 20-25 people, and a full bus with double that amount felt impersonal and crowded. Her biggest complaint was during the touring. Unless she rushed to the front of the group, she had difficulty hearing the guide and also had limited time to ask questions. If you are not keen on sharing space with a large group, consider a smaller, specialized tour. Some agencies offer packages with a maximum of 20 people and are comparable in cost without traveling with the masses.
Departure Date: If you compare popular group tours from different companies, the departure dates are often the same. This is because airlines usually offer the lowest bulk rates when departing mid-week and/or on only one or two days a week. Since many companies follow a similar itinerary, the result is crowds of tourists on the same days at the same destinations. Reasonably, you can never tell exactly how many tour groups from around the world will be visiting a site the same day as you, but if you prefer to have less people crowding your view, consider alternate travel dates.
Time of Year: Similar to the departure dates, also research the best time of year to visit your destination. Sometimes the tour prices are low because the weather is unfavorable. However, if you don't mind a little more rain or heat, this can actually be a cost benefit. A few years ago, I selected a group tour during the off season, fully understanding the weather would be a bit toasty. Since I don't mind the heat, I saved $350 off the price and enjoyed less crowds.
Additional Expenses and Optional Excursions: Since the inclusions appear alluring, I strongly encourage all travelers to read the fine print and exclusions before placing a deposit, which is usually non-refundable. Most tours do not include additional airline taxes, hotel/government taxes, or visa fees. Some do not include airport transfers, domestic airfare, or a full touring package. In fact, the optional tours can be quite costly, so be sure to ask which tours and entrance fees are included in the advertised price. When approximating the final cost, also consider any additional meals, beverages, travel insurance, personal expenses (phone calls, laundry, WiFi) and gratuities. Last year, my friend and I were contemplating a very tempting group tour to Asia. However, after adding the additional expenses and desired excursions, the price almost doubled!
Customized Options: If you prefer to travel with a smaller group of friends and family, ask the agency for a price comparison. Many times, the international airfare is what makes the group tour price so affordable. When 40-50 seats are reserved, the airlines offer fantastic bulk rates. However, the land package is often comparable in cost when booking for 4 people or 40 people. If you have air miles accrued, consider traveling on a private tour. The affordability may surprise you and there is the added benefit of customizing the travel dates, excursions, and even the destinations.