“It’s usually a jolly good trick to pick up a local tour guide. They can tell you all the anecdotes that make a place interesting. I’m one for rushing off to museums at the crack of dawn, eating fabulous things on terraces for lunch, and enjoying long dinners on balmy evenings.”
Tips for Finding the Best Guided Tours for You
If you’ve done your homework, you can easily find guided multi-day tours that offer the best value for you.
Here is a list of things to consider to ensure which guided multi-day tours are the best fit and value for you before booking:
- Is there much free time, and, if so, how far are the sights from your hotel? Some low-cost escorted and guided tour 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 high-end and mid-range hotels. I don’t think staying in the fanciest hotel in every city is necessary since you will spend most of your time on a tour visiting places. However, I appreciate one or two days in a fancy place, mainly if it is an all-inclusive beach resort. (A nice feature of Caravan’s Central America tours).
- How much will you have to spend out of pocket on your tour? Most meals and activities are out-of-your-pocket. 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 include bus transportation, hotels, and guides. 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, mainly if the guide is knowledgeable and courteous.
- Are you expected to provide the guide with a tip at the end of the trip? Guides in most companies (including Overseas Adventure Travel and Caravan) make most of their money through tipping. Some mid-range guided multi-day tours’ have relatively high costs (Rick Steves, Road Scholar) because the guide’s tips are included.
- 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 they particularly want to visit, as 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 primarily 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 will not stop to see something for more than enough time to take a picture.
- Many tour companies charge you a single supplement to have your room. In the past, I avoided group tours partly because I did not want to pay for the supplement. As I have aged, I treasure my privacy and am willing to pay for a 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. You will get your room by default if no one else exists. Overseas Adventure Tours offers 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.
- There is a tour company for every type of traveler. With most tour companies, you can tell quickly what age group is their primary clients by looking at 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).
- You can often find cheaper, better-quality optional tour add-ons independently. I generally don’t book additional hotel nights (before or after the trip), airport transfers, or airfare through the tour company. In addition, I usually plan my multi-day tours as part of much longer trips and therefore arrive for the tour alone. 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 stop 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 tour with many shopping-related stopovers, be careful sometimes; the prices and vendors are pushy.
Tips for Finding Specialty Escorted and Guided Tours
Hundreds of small-scale multi-day tours, called specialty tours by the tourism industry, encourage travelers to learn about and participate in life in different parts of the globe.
Want to Learn More about Small Escorted and Guided Specialty Tours?
Check out these magazines for listings and reviews of multi-day specialty tours:
- International Travel News: This contains hundreds of travelers’ reports about their experiences with 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 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, which takes care of the details. These companies offer guided, small-scale (usually 6-12 participants) trips to remote parts of the globe. Some even visit tribal areas allowing you 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. It would help if you were careful to find an agency that arranges tours that allow you to interact with locals and respects the local culture and environment.
- Museums, notably the Smithsonian, offer highly specialized, expensive tours that provide 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 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 both the staff and the passengers cook together,
- 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 that can be removed so passengers can see the countryside. The trucks are set high off the ground to ford streams and travel on 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–