Nothing makes me happier than pondering and planning the details of our next trip or adventure. Plan a ski trip for 5 families? On it! Take 12 moms and 20+ kids to Hershey Park? Put me in charge. Monthly Theater Group for 240 and growing? Bring it on! That being the case you would think I would run screaming away from any kind of pre-organized travel managed by a tour group. While it is true that by selecting this type of trip you do relinquish control (cringe) and an opportunity for nuts and bolts learning about a destination (you will always learn more if you throw yourself into the details of planning) – I think the below three upsides outweigh the downsides.
THE UPSIDES OF GUIDED GROUP TRAVEL:
1. They will organize experiences that would be very difficult for you to mastermind.
From our adventures through Ecuador with the Thomson Group to the Backroads bike/hike through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, our family has enjoyed many adventures managed by a travel company. All of them included experiences I could never have planned on my own. One of the most memorable of these experiences occurred on our trip to Africa last summer.
Our guides from Nomad Tanzania thoughtfully considered every aspect of our experience. One afternoon on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater they organized a sunset hike. Along for the hike, for knowledge, was a Masai Warrior and, for safety, a park warden and his rather imposing artillery. Off we went from our house with soft walls into the bush.
It was exciting to finally be on foot rather than rolling around in the four wheels that had been the custom thus far. As we walked we learned about the flora and fauna that surrounded us. Off in the distance we spotted quite a few giraffes. Our guide adjusted our path such that we would intercept the herd on our excursion. For about 30 glorious minutes we were surrounded by giraffes of varying heights and spotted colors. These gracious and long necked beasts quickly became my favorite animal on the journey.
To be so thoroughly ensconced in nature surrounded by such gentle creatures at the time of the day where the light is just so, was a memory I will never forget and one I never could have created on my own.
As we climbed the final hill to catch the sunset overlooking the Serengeti we came upon a full bar set up and snacks and chairs and blankets. We all munched on the snacks while the adults enjoyed gin and tonics and the children sipped on fruit juice. Food and drinks always taste better after a hike and when enjoyed in the magnificent outdoors. It was a lovely and welcome surprise, making the always sublime African sunset was that much more magical.
2. The Planner in the Family (probably YOU if you are reading this) will get an actual vacation on multiple levels.
As mentioned I love planning, but there some aspects of being the planner that I don’t love. Let me explain… One summer our family traveled to Greece. I organized all of the hotels, the tours, the flights, the meals, the ferry rides, and other excursions for this trip. I had fun doing it but it did take up a fair bit of my time. Before we left I spent half a day organizing and consolidating our itinerary and creating our trip folder with necessary tickets, meeting times, and confirmation numbers. When going on a guided trip, someone else does this for you.
Everything went as planned in Greece, though there was always that worry in the back of my mind that I wrote a time down wrong or forgot something. That made me a little on edge while island hopping. There is very little fanfare for the planner when things go well, but LOTS of noise when a mistake is made and all fingers get pointed at you. It is such a relief to have these downsides to being the group planner thrown asunder for a trip that someone else has arranged.
When a tour guide is leading the charge, the planner doesn’t have to be the cajoler, the cheerleader, or the motivator. Maybe you have kids and a husband that are all gung ho for your ideas – I don’t. As the planner I get push back. “You’re packing too much in!” or “I don’t want to do that.” For instance, if I suggested we all get up at 5am to give alms to the monks in Chiang Mai, my family would have been aghast and slept right through the morning wake up call. Whereas when our cheerful guide Chai suggests it – they are up and ready to go.
It is quite magical really – for that reason alone I can’t recommend group trips enough!! Everyone, even the planner, comes back both energized and relaxed which is not always an easy combination to achieve.
3. You will make new connections and strengthen the connections you have.
As mentioned in the Year of Yes post: Opportunities to connect with people are ALWAYS a good idea. Going on trips with new people will inevitably lead you to make new friends and/or deepen connections with the ones you’ve got – this includes family members. Sharing experiences and adventures brings friends and families closer. Remember that time we swam with Whale Sharks in Cabo? Remember that time we rode the Gondola in Alaska and hiked down after dinner? Watching the group dynamics change during a trip is always entertaining to me.
Getting to know people is much easier and more comfortable over the course of a shared activity than during the the semi-awkward stand around, introduce yourselves and chit chat part. Get me on a bike ride with the group and that couple from Ohio and I are going to get to know one another.
Huffing and puffing up a hill in the Tetons as you ooh and ahh at magnificent scenery brings folks together! Shared experiences give you an immediate bonding point to further expand your relationship from.
Get out there and get connected. I always, always leave a group trip with multiple new friends and with social media it is now easy to remain connected.
Things to consider when contemplating a Guided Group Trip:
First and foremost how many people total can go on the trip? I like a group that maxes out at around 20. Small enough to be nimble, but not so small that you find yourself always interacting with the same people. We went on one trip to Alaska where there were 40 people! While I am grateful for the people I met and the friends I made on that trip, that was too big of a group for me. But some people have had great success on trips with lots of people so keep an open mind. And more people sometimes translates to lower costs overall.
What is the activity level? On the same trip with the 40 people it was considered an “active trip,” but I found the activities too tilted towards the children. While it was nice that the children were entertained, it left us adults standing around a fair bit. Not ideal. It is our vacation too.
Also, the activity level, if selected properly to match your family, will pair you with other liked minded people. On the Backroads trip – everyone was ready to go for any and all of the activities that came our way. It is through these activities that the group gelled together as one and had us planning our next trip by the campfire at night. STILL have my eye on Croatia!! Croatia 2019?
How much moving around will you do? And what kind of movement is in your comfort zone? Some people do not find it relaxing to be unpacking and repacking every two to three nights. Some people can’t wait to throw their things in a bag and move on to the next adventure. It’s important to know which group you fall into.
What is the quality of the lodging? We have been happy with our lodging on the trips, but not always ecstatic with the choices made my the tour company. Since we are never really in our rooms it was not a big deal for us. But it may be a big deal for others. Be sure you understand the quality of the lodging before signing on the dotted line.
How many guides will there be? More guides means more opportunity for custom experiences. This is key in a group. The Backroads camping trip had three guides, two vans, and two cooks. They were able to nimbly juggle the children and shepherd them off for a scavenger hunt or games at the campsite while the adults tackled a more difficult part of a hike or pedaled more mileage.
If the guide to guest ratio is higher, they are more able to make adjustments to the trip based on the requests of individuals in the group. If there is just one guide, everyone will be doing the same activities.
How much will it cost and what extra costs will there be? Be sure you understand what is included and what is not included in the price. Are there air transfers? Most of the time this is an extra cost. What is the tipping policy? Will you be tipping people along the way or just the guides on the last day? I prefer the latter so things are simplified and you are not constantly handing out cash.
What meals are not included? You will want to know this from a cost stand point, but also from a planning standpoint. If you have a dinner free you may want to start looking into restaurants and get an advance jump on the PLANNING of your evening.
So, maybe I can’t put away my planner role completely, but I can recommend using a tour group for your next family vacation. Just going back in my brain thinking about the unique experiences we’ve had on these trips makes me smile. Maybe your family is active and you want to hike and camp in the Great Smoky Mountains, maybe you want less active and prefer a roof over your head, so a canal tour through Europe it is. Whatever your activity level, wherever you choose to go, there is sure to be a tour operator that can plan the details and allow the planner to relax and enjoy the ride.
Grab Your Group and GO!