¨He who has led you so far will guide you further.¨
Tips for Finding the Best Guided Multi-Day Tours
Myths about Guided Multi-Day Tours
I am amazed at how often I meet Fifty-Plus Nomads who travel independently who believe that multi-day tours are not for them. They have mistaken ideas of multi-day tours that keep them from considering experiences they would love.
These independent travelers imagine that most guided multi-day tours:
- Are made of seniors.
- Contain tourists who complain that things do not function like their home country.
- Travel around in large buses (40 to 60 people)
- Spend an incredibly short time-usually just enough time to take a photo- in one place.
- Listen to guides who spout an extensive list of dreary facts, robotically delivered.
- Spend hours on a bus to get to the next destination without anything to do on see aboard the bus .
- Stay in non-descript international chain hotels.
- Eat at restaurants and attend events that are bland, cliched, and do not reflect their destination.
I never considered guided multi-day tours the wrong way to travel; however, I harbored some prejudices against group travel enumerated above. These prejudices led me to believe that volunteering and learning vacations were the only way to experience another country authentically.
Benefits of Guided Multi-Day Tours
Then I researched and found that the myths noted about guided multi-day tours were no longer valid. With so much travel information and options a mouse click away, group travel companies have had to change by:
- Providing diverse activities and marketing to clients of different ages and backgrounds.
- Offering tours to all sized groups, including some small groups.
- Becoming more involved in the real lives and cultures of people in their destination.
- Offering itineraries that visit fewer sights for more extended periods, with less travel time between destinations than previously.
- Making sure that their customers get good value for their money. Often tour activities rates are often less expensive than if you booked them yourself. Tour operators negotiate cheaper rates because they can ensure service providers with a consistent stream of clients. In additional, many independent travelers underestimate their total real costs. Often, for example, they will just budget for car rental costs but forget to factor in additional costs like fuel, parking, road tolls and permit costs.
My Experiences with Finding the Best Guided Multi-Day Tours
I have seen the results of these changes with my own eyes. Since 2011, I have been on over forty multi-day tours and have spent over a year participating in multi-day tours. Multi-day tours offer options for a wide range of different personality types and interests. Every experience exceeded my expectations.
The following is a list of my experiences finding the best guided multi-day tours that have defied the traditional stereotypes listed above:
- Most of my fellow tourists were well-educated, intelligent, and open to new cultures and adventures. Tours and cruises indeed tend to have more people over the age of fifty than the population in general. However, they also have a more extensive range of age groups and cultural backgrounds than the stereotypes suggest. (Interestingly, they also have an unusually high percentage of participants who were, or are, teachers).
- The guides are exceptionally patient, knowledgeable, and hard-working. They are experts at presenting relevant, detailed information about their destinations in a captivating and meaningful manner. Most are eager to answers questions and to engage in an in-depth conversation about many topics, even if the subject is controversial. The guides are also very personable and care about the well-being of the tourists.
- On most tours, I have stayed in many small, locally owned hotels and some charming and unique upper-end lodgings as well. Besides, the meals often feature tasty, authentic local dishes and ingredients.
- Guided multi-day tours are available for hundreds of different interests and perspectives.
- Most guided multi-day tours allow considerable free time to explore a destination on your own. As a rule, you have one day free for every three or five days spent on the tour. You will also have one meal a day without the group. Some tour companies like overseas adventure tours, offer optional additional tours at reasonable costs during some of their free time.
Benefits of Guided Multi-Day Tours
- Guided multi-day tours are available for a wide range of group sizes. I was on an Intrepid Tour of Turkey with only three other people; a Marina in Mexico tour in 2017 to San Luis Potosi, Mexico with six other people; a Global Exchange Reality Tour of Haiti with eight participants in 2014. (Some companies like Overseas Adventure Travel and Intrepid Tours limit their tours to twenty or so participants).
- Some guided multi-day tours visit a lot of places for short times while others explore one destination in depth. I have been on, and enjoyed both tour types including Caravan Tours in the Canadian Maritimes and Central America, which feature large buses (with 40-50 participants) visiting a new place every day. On the other hand, many of Road Scholar tours I have taken have spent five or more days all in the same place.
- Many, if not, most multi-day tours have integrated many one-of-a-kind and culturally immersive experiences. Road Scholar tours include, for example, talks by professors and non-profit organization representatives, exclusive musical presentations with local artists, and visits to many unexpected places. (I have visited a coop market and organic farm in Vermont and a farm in the middle of Detroit). Overseas Adventure and Intrepid travel make an impressive effort to integrate local experiences into their activities through meals in locals’ homes and farms, market visits, trips on local buses, etc.
- Some of my favorite multi-day tours feature a specific theme or interest. These tours allow participants to see aspects of life in a destination that would be hard to experience otherwise. On a Seasons of My Heart food tour, for example, I visited very humble homes in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, where locals cooked dishes with local ingredients. I also enjoyed some of the best meals of my life and was inspired by the story of the founder of the business, Susana Trilling. While on Global Exchange’s Reality Tours to Haiti and the US-Mexican border, I had a chance to talk to local non-profit leaders, students, and government officials about the politics, economics, and daily life of these countries.
- A well-designed multi-day tour, for me, is like taking a college-level course about your destination. An excellent tour guide offers a chance to quickly see many parts of a country while learning heaps about the place’s history, culture, and society. Taking tours in different countries has given me an informal but precious course on cross-cultural similarities and differences and helped me develop a broader and better-informed worldview. (This is particularly true when I have traveled through a company with a strong educational focus like overseas adventure tours, road scholar, or intrepid travel).
- Many destinations (like Halong Bay in Vietnam, the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Serengeti in Tanzania, Machu Picchu in Peru, Antartica, and Mount Everest) are considerably easier to access via an organized group tour than independently.
Tips for Finding the Best Guided Multi-Day Tours
- Make sure you know ahead of time what’s included in the guided multi-day tours costs. If you’ve done your homework, you can easily find guided multi-day tours that offers the best value for you. Here is a list of things to consider ensuring which guided multi-day tours are the best fit and value for you before booking:
- Is there a lot of free time, and if so, is it easy to get to the sights from your hotel? Some low-cost guided multi-day tours companies book hotels in far-out suburbs so you will have to pay a lot for transportation during your free time.
- Are the hotels luxurious or basic? My favorite guided multi-day tours usually feature a mixture of high-end and mid-range hotels. I don’t think it is necessary to stay in the fanciest hotel in every city, since you wil spend most of your time on a tour visiting places. However, I appreciate one or two days in a fancy place, particularly if it is all-inclusive beach resort. (A nice feature of Caravan´s Central America tours).
- How much are you going to have to spend out of pocket on your tour? The most expensive guided multi-day tours usually include almost everything in the tour. Mid-range guided multi-day tours (like OAT and Road Scholar) include about 2/3 of the meals and 80-100% of all the activities. Cheaper guided multi-day tours often just include bus transportation, hotels, and guides. Most meals and activities are out-of-your-pocket. I prefer the mid-range tours because I like to do some activities and eat some meals on my own but prefer to spend most of my time in group activities, particularly if the guide is knowledgeable and affable.
- Are you expected to provide the guide with a tip at the end of the trip? Part of the reason for some mid-range guided multi-day tours relatively high cost (Rick Steves, Road Scholar) is that tipping is discouraged. Guides in most companies (including Overseas Adventure Travel and Caravan) make most of their money through tipping.
- What is the pace of the guided multi-day tour? One good tip for figuring this out is to read the itinerary and ask them how long they typically spend in any place that you particularly want to visit detailed on the itinerary. If you chose, for example, the Louvre, you can figure that the tour is super fast pace (or that they are mostly a shopping tour, see below comments on commissions), if they answer any less than two hours. The tour description also has clues. If you see the words drive by or drive through something, you are not going to stop to see something for more than enough time to take a picture.
- Many tour companies charge you a single supplement to have your own room. In the past, I avoided group tours in part because I did not want to pay the supplement. As I have aged, I treasure my privacy and am willing to pay the single supplement. However, if you want to save the supplement, many companies will pair solo travelers (of the same sex) together in the same room. If there is not anyone else, you will get your own room by default. Overseas Adventure Tours offer some single supplement free slots on many of their tours. I took advantage of the single supplement free slots on all three tours with their company and would encourage you to do so as well.
- There is a tour company for every type of traveler. With most tour companies, you can tell quickly what age group is their primary clientes by looking at the from the photos in the brochure (some also mention the demographics on their website ¨about us¨ page.
- Make sure the company uses knowledgeable, local guides. The guide should be well-trained and professional. (Note: Rick Steves, Overseas Adventure Travel, and Road Scholar find excellent guides).
- I generally don’t book additional hotel nights (before or after the trip), airport transfers, or airfare through the tour company. You can often find cheaper, better-quality options independently. In addition, I often plan my multi-day tours as part of much longer trips and therefore arrive for the tour independently. Sometimes, I also find cheaper airfare on budget carriers or use frequent flyer miles for airfare. (One of the blessings of the Fifty-Plus Nomad lifestyle).
- Many cheaper tours also encourage the guides to have your shop in stores where they get a commission to supplement their wages. In my experience, most mid-range tours do not include shopping time. The clients who want to shop, use their free time to do shopping. If you find yourself on a tour that has a lot of shopping-related stopovers be careful, sometimes the prices are high and the vendors pushy.
Tips for Finding Specialty Guided Multi-Day Tours
Hundreds of small-scale multi-day tours, usually called specialty tours by the tourism industry, encourage travelers to learn about and participate in life in a different part of the globe.
Want to Learn More about Small Guided Multi-Day Specialty Tours?
Check out these magazines for listings and reviews of multi-day specialty tours:
- International Travel News: Contains hundreds of travelers’ reports about their experiences with various tours around the planet. Many of these tours emphasize an educational component.
- The Specialty Travel Index: Lists thousands of unique small-scale tours, cruises, and other group adventures worldwide, many of which are educational. It also has occasional features with more detailed information and reviews of specific tours.
Prominent established guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Rick Steves, Moon Handbooks, etc.) list local tour companies throughout their books. Usually, the recommended tours in these guidebooks are worth considering. Tour companies stay in business for a while; therefore, the information about tour companies in guidebooks does not age that fast. In addition, since thousands of tourists read these books, the guidebooks will hear about bad tour companies from travelers and put advisories in their guidebooks. A lousy tour can put your safety and health in jeopardy.
These small-scale tours come in a variety of guises:
- Many are offered by tour companies in the united states (easily arranged through your corner travel agent) like Mountain Travel Sobek that take care of the details for you. These companies offer guided, small-scale (usually 6-12 participants) trips to remote parts of the globe. Some even visit tribal areas giving you the opportunity to interact with tribes like the dogons (in West Africa) in some of the world’s remote places. Many of these tours are “soft adventure” tours that provide luxurious, gourmet meals. They typically cost (excluding airfare) between $200-500 a day).
- In more popular areas (like the Inca trail in Peru and the mountain areas north of Chiang Mai, Thailand) you can arrange low-cost walking tours with travel agencies at your destination, either beforehand through the internet or on-site. You need to be careful to find an agency that arranges tours that allow you to interact with locals and respects the local culture and environment.
- Museums particularly the Smithsonian offer highly specialized, expensive tours that offer the following benefits: glimpses of places that are otherwise usually off-limits, tour guides selected for their exceptional expertise (professors, scientists), and intimate accommodations.
- Several small, inexpensive bus, bicycle, and expedition truck tours exist for budget travelers. The cheapest tours are organized through the Green Tortoise. The Green Tortoise takes (usually older) buses and sets them up so that the passengers can sleep on board while the bus is moving. The passengers bring tents for sleeping once they arrive at their destination. The Green Tortoise staff provides food for the passengers which is cooked at the campsite each night. The passengers work with staff to prepare the food.
- Similar longer, and more expensive ($125-150 a day) tours exist using expedition trucks. These tours range from a few days to six months long. The expedition trucks are small (8-12 passengers). Many have canvas tops which can be removed so that passengers can see the countryside. The trucks are set high off the ground to ford streams and travel on otherwise impassable roads. Most of these tours are operated by Intrepid Tours in their ¨Basix tour¨collection.
- I would love someday to go on People to People International’s Cultural Exchange tours–