All Reviews Based on Personal Experiences Gleaned From Spending Nearly 8 Months on Nearly 35 Tours with these Companies Worldwide
“Sharing adventures means enjoying them 100% more.”
This post is the second part of a series. The first part is 15 Tips for Finding Incorporating Multi-Day Tours Into Your Long-Term Round-the-World Travel.
Note: These multi-day tour reviews all feature my impressions from tours taken with these companies before COVID.
Reviews of the Best Known Guided Tour Companies
Until 2011 when I could travel around the world full-time, I didn’t consider multi-day guided tour companies in my travel plans. As many other travelers do, I believed that multi-day guided tours were only for persnickety seniors who traveled around like the travelers depicted in the movie If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.
After researching, I realized that tours come in various styles today. Many go to one place (like Road Scholar’s signature city tours), feature interaction with locals, and cover everything from bicycle tours of Vietnam to hiking tours of Ethiopia to cigar tours of Cuba to luxury camping trips of Kenya’s and Tanzania’s National Parks.
Armed with this knowledge, I took 50 multi-day guided tours primarily with the six large tour companies listed in this post between 2011 and 2019 and spent nearly nine months in total taking tours.
I really enjoyed Overseas Adventure Travel and Road Scholar Tours and took them frequently to different destinations around the world. I also enjoyed Rick Steves, Caravan, Intrepid, and Trafalgar tours but unfortunately have not been able to go on as many of these tours as OAT and Road Scholar tours. Nonetheless, I recommend using these companies wholeheartedly.
Keep in mind when you read these reviews that all these companies provide excellent service; however, some may be better matched to your personal needs and interests than others.
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT)
I have been on three tours by Overseas Adventure Travel:
- Crossroads of the Adriatic: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia (including an extension trip to Budapest);
- Ultimate Galapagos, Ecuador Exploration, and Amazon Wilds
- Route of the Maya: Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras.
All the tours had outstanding guides-extremely knowledgeable, personable, organized, and accommodating- among the best guides of all my tours. (In fact, the Crossroads of the Adriatic tour, Milan, is in the running for the two best guides of all my multi-day guided tours!).
OAT spends considerable effort on guide selection and training, and their investments have paid off. OAT ensures that guides are willing to answer questions about their destinations with frankness and honesty.
OAT also does an excellent job at integrating short experiences like:
- Market visits.
- Public transit rides.
- Visits to schools and other non-profit projects (that are funded in part by OAT),
- Meals hosted by locals in their homes help participants to get a little taste of the everyday life of residents in the places they visit.
OAT also encourages participants to get to know each other by limiting most tours to approximately 15-20 participants and using vans that give the tours an intimate feel.
OAT also has several features that allow people to make the price of the tours fit into participants’ budgets, including:
- Up to a ten percent discount for early prepayment by check;
- Deals for past tour participants and a credit if you refer someone to OAT who signs up for a tour.
- OAT has also won several awards for offering some places on most tours without a single supplement. I have always taken advantage of this benefit and will remain loyal to OAT partly because of this policy.
While I generally prefer tour companies that include all the tours in their upfront price, I have always taken the additional tours offered by OAT, which were all well done, enjoyable, and worth the price. OAT also does an excellent job of ensuring that the participants know that these tours are additional and accurately describe what is and isn’t included in their tours.
While OAT is open to all ages, its guests tend to be over the age of 50, partly because:
- Its parent company, Grand Circle Tours, has been primarily oriented toward the senior market.
- Most of their tours last at least two weeks, which tends to dissuade younger travelers who cannot take off so much time from work.
Road Scholar Tours (formerly known as Elderhostel)
I have been on twenty Road Scholar tours. All but one of these trips was in the USA or Canada. The trips I attended usually were 3, 5, or 7 days (though I did have one 9-day tour).
Perhaps more than any other tour company (except Intrepid), Road Scholar does a great job of offering a wide range of different types of tours and price points, particularly within the US and Canada, including all of the following options:
- Short and long trips (from three days up to several months).
- Traditional bus tours that visit several places for 1-3 days each in a given region. I enjoyed their tours of the Maine coast (no longer offered), from Asheville to Nashville (no longer offered), and northern New Mexico. (the tour now includes a visit to Los Alamos to learn about the Manhattan Project)
- Many tours concentrate on exploring one place or small region in-depth. The majority of my Road Scholar experiences are ¨signature city¨ tours, which spend five days in one city and visit many of the cultural attractions in the given city. I particularly enjoyed their ‘signature cities’ tours of Philadelphia; San Antonio, Texas; Burlington, Vermont (not offered currently); and Detroit, Michigan. They also have some tours in one hotel and feature day trips from that hotel. I have been on these tours of the Saguenay and Charlevoix regions of Québec, Amelia Island, Okefenokee Swamp, Cumberland Island, Florida, and Georgia.
- Visits to attend special events (like film and theater festivals and significant events like the Kentucky Derby),
- Special tours for grandparents and their grandkids,
- Volunteer programs (also called service-learning projects-I attended one of these for 12 days- where we helped repair a high school and provided brief English lessons near Cochabamba, Bolivia while visiting the tourist attractions as well).
- Tours developed around a specific theme. I, for example, have been on Road Scholar tours featuring:
- The civil rights movement (with visits to Atlanta, Birmingham, and Montgomery. (One of my favorite of their tours. While I knew that African Americans were poorly treated in America’s history, I didn’t realize how genuinely insidious and cruel the treatment was until I went on this tour),
- Julia Child’s life in Santa Barbara, CA (great tour, but Road Scholar does not currently offer it).
- Christmas music, lights, and decoration (mainly at historic plantations) in Charleston, South Carolina. (The tour currently stays in a fancier hotel and is more expensive. When I took the tour, we stayed at a church retreat; thus, the trip was cheaper than most other Road Scholar tours. I am glad I went on a tour that remained at the retreat. The place had a fun, informal feel that couldn’t be captured elsewhere).
- Tour about Franklin Roosevelt’s life in New York’s Hudson Valley. The tour was hosted at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh. The campus accommodations weren’t fancy, but the tour only cost around $600 for five days and included all meals, and the lectures and activities were very informative and well-organized. (Road Scholar doesn’t offer this tour now):
In keeping with their origins as Elderhostel, Road Scholar offers many tours and classes (though overall, most tours stay in relatively upscale hotels) at college campuses, church retreat centers, and other similar accommodations. (I have done several of these tours and enjoy the home-like atmosphere and low costs, around $100 a day per person; my only problem with these tours is that many are not accessible without a car).
While most Road Scholar tours have a single supplement, it is usually only around 25-50% additional. (Some tours charge single travelers the same as a couple).
What distinguishes Road Scholar trips is their use of outside speakers who give performances and lectures related to the topic or place. Many of the lecturers are top-notch professors. (Sometimes, they impersonate famous people in history- for example, in Montgomery, all the civil rights tours feature an excellent impersonation of Rosa Parks).
I have never been on Road Scholar tours outside the USA and Canada, but I have heard almost universal praise for these tours. My only qualm is that the tours generally are pretty pricey, particularly if you, like me, have to pay a single supplement. (This is why I usually choose OAT for overseas tours). However, Road Scholar is one of the few tour companies offering Cuba tours.
Since Road Scholar was originally Elderhostel, it is somewhat rare to find many participants under 60. (I have almost always been among two or three participants under sixty years old).
That said, I universally enjoyed my fellow participants on these tours since most have had an exciting life (many former professors and teachers), are well-educated, and, most importantly for me, they enjoy learning.
Caravan typically has large tour groups, around 40 or more participants per tour. They use their extensive tours very effectively to work out deals with their suppliers, allowing them to get good quality food and hotel accommodations for their guests.
I have been on three tours with Caravan Tours. Two were in Central America: Costa Rica Natural Paradise (June 2015) and Panama Canal Cruise and Tour (January 2014). The third tour was in Canada: Nova Scotia and PEI (July 2016).
While the tour prices do not vary between Caravan’s tours in Central America and the US/Canada, the included feature differs significantly. All the Central American tours include all three meals daily, while tour participants must pay for most of their meals in the US and Canada.
All the hotels in Central America are attractive and modern; some of the Nova Scotia and PEI accommodations were reasonably simple. (Though, to be fair, I doubt Caravan had much choice in small towns like Cheticamp, Nova Scotia). Caravan provides a one-night stay in a top-notch beach resort in Costa Rica and Panama.
All three tours had knowledgeable, personable, and hard-working guides. While most of their guides are not as well trained or knowledgeable as OAT or Road Scholar, the guides were professional, competent, and committed to their guest’s satisfaction.
I also was very pleased with Caravan’s responsiveness to a problem on my Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island tour. Somehow, I did not receive notification of a flight change to Halifax from Montreal. I arrived too late for the flight and had to start a day after everyone else came. Caravan arranged for a shuttle van to take me from Halifax to their hotel on Prince Edward Island the next day for free. They offered to let me take the tour I missed on the first day of their next scheduled tour.
Rick Steves’ Tours
In 2014, I went on Rick Steves’ nine-day tour of Sicily. (Sicily is the cheapest of all the trips he offers. The tour is now 11 days. The extra two days include a new stop in Trapani. I wish my tour had included Trapani).
The guide, Tomasso Panté, was outstanding (extremely personable, knowledgeable, and accommodating). I loved Tomasso’s stories about life with his Italian mamma and his life as a tour guide worldwide.
The tour featured a lot of opportunities to interact with Sicilians in off-the-beaten-path places. (The first day’s visit to a local Count’s home was something you couldn’t do any other way). However, the highlight for me was a visit to the Villa Romana del Casale, the largest selection of Roman mosaics anywhere in the world. The mosaics look almost new and detail many fascinating aspects of ancient Roman life.
Rick Steves’ tour was well planned and an excellent way to get to know Sicily in a brief period. The hotels and restaurants reflected the style of Rick Steves’ books- rustic places patronized by Sicilians.
However, Rick Steves’ tours require more walking than most other tours. Additionally, while the hotels and restaurants are pretty good, they may be a bit too basic if you are used to more traditional tour companies like Trafalgar tours.
My fellow tourgoers were primarily middle-aged, extremely personable, and intellectually curious. In other words, they are the perfect travel companions!
Even though Rick Steves’ tours are relatively expensive and require a lot of walking, I would happily go on more of his tours and recommend the tours highly to my fellow long-term travelers over 50.
Intrepid has an incredible array of tours.
Intrepid is the only company that offers tours to nearly every country on Earth for varying budgets.
Tours vary from “basix¨ to “premium.” “Basix” tours include basic accommodations or camping, a few included meals, and group tour activities. Basix tours also use buses or specially designed overland vehicles for transportation. Most basic tours cost between $100 to $200 a day.
The majority of Intrepid’s tours are either original or comfort level, which include features of the basix and premium level tours. Premium tours have higher-level accommodations, more included meals and activities, and are led by the most qualified group leader. Premium tours usually cost between $200 and $400 a day.
Intrepid also features tours around specific themes like food, cycling, active travel, and short retreats. Intrepid is also a prominent worldwide provider of urban day tours (I have been on their night food tour in Istanbul (worthwhile) and their neighborhood tour, including slums, in Rio de Janeiro. I don’t think they offer tours in Rio anymore).
I was on one Intrepid multi-day tour in 2013: The Best of Turkey (I think they added a night on the boat in Kas since 2013; otherwise, it seems to be the same itinerary as my 2013 tour).
The group leader was young but knowledgeable, personable, and concerned about the group’s well-being. (I would give him a 9 out of 10 points, one of the five best guides, out of 25, I had on my worldwide travels).
My group only had four participants. Along with myself, there was a couple about my same age from Australia and a 20ish English young woman. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember the guide or guests’ names, but they were all good people, and we got along well as a group).
Since we were such a small group, we got around by public transportation. Intrepid is designed for more active travelers, and there was a lot of walking. I did not attempt the included trek in Kayakoy but enjoyed just a quiet day alone. I scheduled the optional balloon trip, but the balloon trip was canceled right after we began our ascent because of the high winds.
Turkey is surprisingly cold in late March, and I got a bad cold on the trip. The guide was very attentive and helpful and helped me get some antibiotics.
I decided to forego the return trip (by bus, it now seems to be by plane) from Goreme to Istanbul and instead traveled by myself to Ankara. The group leader bought the bus ticket and accompanied me onto the bus. He also helped me find and reserve a nice business-class hotel in Ankara. (The first day, I slept and recuperated from my cold. The hotel was ideal for rest and recovery).
My impressions of Intrepid are strong enough, so I would love to go on one of the other tours, especially to Ethiopia, Madagascar, Northern India/Nepal, or the Caucuses (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).
Four large traditional tour companies have tours worldwide, operate tours of 40 people or more, and specialize in providing accommodations and food that is comfortable for upper-middle-class Americans: Collete Tours, Tauck Tours (more upper-end), Globus and Trafalgar Tours, (Caravan Tours is similar but specializes in less expensive and more local experiences).
Many people criticize these types of tours, mostly unfairly. My experience is that these companies do an excellent job for their clientele.
However, many of their clients would probably never embark on a trip, particularly to a third-world country, without using these tour companies. I am glad these companies exist. They provide a way for many people to explore the world. I believe that the world would be a better place if we all had the opportunity to see life from different perspectives,
That said, I haven’t been to many of these tours myself. They are too costly for me, and I am perfectly comfortable staying and eating in places that are a bit more local and less fancy. In addition, I like to stay alone and have to spend a lot of money on a single supplement on top of these tours.
I did, however, splurge on a tour of Mexico’s Copper Canyon with Trafalgar Tours (unfortunately, Trafalgar does not seem to be offering this tour any longer) during Christmas 2016. Trafalgar Tours is the only large company that provides a tour visiting all the places I wanted to visit in Northern Mexico: San Carlos, Alamos, the Copper Canyon, and Paquimé. I also know that the region this tour covers can be a bit dangerous, and I decided to join a tour rather than travel alone. I also recently moved to Merida, did not know many people, and did not want to spend Christmas, my birthday (December 28th), and New Year alone.
I am glad I took the tour. To my surprise, I loved the Copper Canyon and found that Alamos, though small, is one of Mexico’s most charming and magical small towns. I also count our visit to the pearl manufacturing facility near Guaymas as one of my favorite manufacturing tours in Mexico.
Though the guide was knowledgeable and informative (though, honestly, a bit condescending at times), he didn’t play anywhere near as central a role in the guest’s experience as the guides I’ve had on the other tours on this list. (Even Caravan tours which also feature large, less expensive tours, had better guides.).
My biggest surprise was how well Trafalgar integrated local, hard-to-find experiences into the trip. I was pleasantly surprised by our lunchtime visit to a wealthy local family’s home in Navajoa and spending New Year’s Eve in a loc
As usual, I was impressed with my fellow tour companions– almost all friendly, intelligent, curious, and pleasant companions.