Group tours come in all shapes and sizes -- geared towards students, luxury travelers, adventurous spirits, those over the age of 65, the list goes on. Usually led by one or more directors, tours are a great way to experience a new destination. Along with the guide (an invaluable resource -- even for the most experienced travelers), group travel usually includes other perks like completely pre-planned itineraries, all-inclusive prices for flights, hotels, meals, and cultural experiences, and endless opportunities to socialize with your tour group. However, the perks that make group travel great are also some of its biggest drawbacks. As a member of a tour group, you usually won’t get to choose what you do, where you stay, or what you eat...not to mention you’re basically stuck with your group for the majority of your visit. Whether you’re new to group touring, or have done it more times than you can count, here are eight essential tips for making your trip run smoothly.
1. Pack Lightly
Almost any list of travel tips will tell you to pack lightly, but when embarking on a group tour, we find this advice especially pertinent. From the time you arrive at your destination until the time you depart, you'll likely be responsible for handling your own luggage. Chances are, you’ll have to hoist your own bag onto a tour bus, fit it into an overhead train compartment, or find a spot for it in a tiny hotel room. Imagine having to lug a heavy suitcase up four flights of winding, narrow stairs at your historic, elevator-less hotel in Florence, or having to navigate the notoriously crowded Tokyo metro with a giant suitcase in tow. Trust us, when you’re the one doing all the heavy lifting, lighter is better.
2. Be Patient
Group travel is no easy feat (although, we'd argue, it's often worth it). With a group in tow, it could take 20 minutes to walk to a destination you could have reached on your own in five. You’ll have to wait for someone who’s taking too long in the gift shop, or end your museum visit early because someone needs to use the bathroom. There’s bound to be that annoying group member who asks too many questions/thinks he knows everything/is impolite/chews with her mouth open/[insert annoying habit here]. No matter how large or small your group, there’s going to be someone or something that really tests your patience. In these situations, all you can do is learn to go with the flow. Know that traveling with a group will require a different mindset than traveling on your own. No matter how hard it might be, try not to let one person’s annoying behavior ruin your experience.
3. Be Open-Minded
Any time you travel, it’s always a good idea to keep an open mind. Sometimes experiencing a new culture may require you to step outside your comfort zone, and that’s okay. Be prepared to do things you’ve never done before, try new foods and styles of dining, and interact with people who may look or sound completely different than you do. Remember, you are a guest in a destination -- whether it's a U.S. city or a foreign locale, so it’s important to respect the area's customs and ways of life. Luckily, when traveling with a group, your tour director will be able to provide you with tips on what to expect and how to act in wherever you may be visiting.
4. Be Flexible
Along with being patient and open-minded, it’s important to be flexible. No matter how hard your tour director will try, something on your itinerary will likely go awry. A city-wide strike might shut down public transportation. A protest might block a museum entrance. Or unexpectedly bad weather could cancel flights or cruise departures. Usually, these circumstances are out of your control; and while it may be frustrating to have plans turned upside down, learn to view your situation as a new opportunity rather than a detriment to your trip. Paris metro is closed? Walk instead, and discover the city’s gorgeous architecture. The entrance to The National Gallery is blocked by a protest in Trafalgar Square? Visit another one of London’s incredible museums. Your Mediterranean cruise is stuck in port due to bad weather? Now you have an extra day to explore Athens/Rome/Barcelona/Wherever you may be docked. Unexpected changes to your itinerary are only day ruiners if you let them be. In a positive light, they can add an unexpected element of adventure and excitement to your trip.
When it’s 7 a.m. and you’re sitting on a bus anticipating an hour-long drive to your next destination, chances are that falling asleep will sound like a much nicer option than listening to your tour director as she rambles on about the history of the Great Wall of China. When you’re jet-lagged after your 13-hour flight to Athens, you’ll stare at your tour director in horror when he suggests climbing to the top of the Acropolis. And at the end of a long day, when all you want to do is sit down in front of the Trevi Fountain and pig out on gelato, you tour director will use this as an opportunity to test your Italian language skills. We know traveling can be tiring, but do your best to take in all of the historical and cultural significance around you. Listen to what your tour directors have to say. Their knowledge and advice is invaluable...remember, they do this for a living. Plus, when else are you going to receive a history lesson at an actual historical site, or be able to practice a local language in the country of its origin?
6. Assign Responsibilities
Learn your group members’ strengths and use them to your advantage. Is someone really good at reading maps? Put her in charge of directions. Does someone speak a foreign language? He's in charge of communication. Pick out the responsible one to keep the group together, the artistic one to take the photos, and the comical one to keep the group entertained along the way. If everyone in the group is made to feel like they’re an essential member, the group will become a cohesive, well-functioning unit.
7. Remember to Tip
Naturally you’ll want to tip your tour director, group leader, local guide, bus driver, and anyone else who made your trip possible and -- for the most part (hopefully) -- seamless; but it’s also nice to leave a little extra cash at restaurants, hotels, or other service establishments, even if tipping isn’t customary in that country. Remember, groups can be a hassle to accommodate, so if you encounter an especially attentive server or hotel staff person, leave a little something to show your appreciation.
8. Get to Know Other Group Members
Getting to know your group members may be one of the most important tips on group travel. Whether you know them already or not, sharing a travel experience will definitely bring you closer together. When you look back on your trip, you won’t remember what went wrong, or who annoyed you the most -- you’ll remember how you and Sally climbed all the way to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral or how you and Dave shared all those tapas in Madrid. Traveling can be a magical, and making the most of it with the people around you can turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.