Anyone who has hung around a hotel lobby or waited in line at an attraction will have experienced the onslaught of the tour groups, where what seems to be an unending line of individuals tumble off a coach and spill out onto the footpath. Often they will be talking loudly, laughing and elbowing each other out of the way, taking photos for each other in front of their new destination. To all appearances these are a bunch of old friends who have decided to travel together; however, they were most likely strangers from different countries who only met a few days ago. You might have looked on these groups with dread, wondering whether to run upstairs to catch the Mona Lisa before they all get there, or to leave them to it and go and have a coffee.
To hurry up the bonding process, there is the mandatory ‘first night reception’ or some other kind of experience (this sometimes happens at the end of the first day of travelling, though, which makes it a little less interesting for me, as I have always talked to everyone by then.) However, I have found that tour group guests tend to bond quickly anyway, for obvious reasons. They will only be together for a week or two (give or take), so there is no time for coyness. These people will become your family, with all the usual eccentricities, for the duration, so you might as well learn to get along.
(This little bus was just for a day trip in Vientiane, Laos – we called her Priscilla because she was actually pink, not red like this photo shows.)
If you have ever been on an organised tour you will recall that within hours you had introduced yourself to at least half the group and probably forgotten most of their names. (That’s OK, everyone does this and will happily repeat their names as many times as it takes.) You will have already checked out where several other guests live, countries and places they have been to, and where they are going next.You will have swapped photos of the people and pets back home, and shared travel stories.
If you are a seasoned tour groupie you will happily hold the hand of someone who is a first-timer until they develop their ‘tour legs’; you will provide more personal space between you and the person who is a bit more on the introversion side; you will notice the person who is struggling with a personal issue; you will have found the guest who is a doctor (there is always a doctor!); and you will have sorted out the joiners from the independents.
(When you are on tour, these day sheets are your bible!)
You will also have quickly worked out who disembarks from the coach in a rush (usually the smokers and those with small bladders), and who prefers to be last off (often these are less mobile and/or the ones who seem to be constantly rearranging their personal items), and you will have organised your own place in the order of things in synchronisation with the rhythm of movement that is becoming established.
Of course, a tour is not a tour, and there are so many different kinds that it is impossible to be too general when it comes to describing them. There are tours geared towards under 35s; some are exclusively for women; some cater more for couples while others attract solo travellers; some are for the more ‘intrepid’, while others focus on comfort and ‘free on-board wifi’. You can also choose tours that hit the tourist hot spots, or ones that take you off the beaten track. There are tours that are ‘fully escorted’ which means a tour director is with you from the minute you arrive at your home country airport until the minute you return; other tours provide TDs who appear at the ‘evening briefing’, stay with you for the duration of the tour, and then magically disappear before the final night’s sleep, having confirmed onward travel arrangements for each guest. Some tours only provide local guides who change on a day-by-day basis, or are only with you for a single city or region. It is important to do your research before choosing your tour company and/or style of touring (note that some companies offer a range of comfort levels and escorting styles) in order to make sure you are getting the best one for you.
In addition to the general tours, which generally offer a mix of sightseeing and activities, there are also ‘themed tours’. Some of the larger companies offer these, and there are also boutique companies that focus on particular areas or interests; these include tours of gardens, art tours, bird-watching tours, chocolate tours (yes, really!), Northern Lights tours, Christmas market tours, and those that focus on major sporting events (you can even follow the World Cup on a specially organised tour, if that fits your bill). The list of possibilities is ever-growing, you might be surprised to find there is one that feeds into your own weird hobby or interest.Tour companies also welcome suggestions and new ideas, so why not talk to them about organising a special interest tour tailored for you and your community of philatelists, escargot cooks, or whatever?
One of the best things about touring, as I mentioned in my previous post, is that you save a lot of time and energy in the planning stages. You are also likely to waste less time while on tour, because travelling on your own in a strange country invariably means delays and interrupted schedules, and the ‘getting lost’ factor which, although not a bad thing in itself, can make you miss out on seeing or doing something you really wanted. (This happened to us on a day-trip to Florence, due to a whole host of transport issues we didn’t make it in time to see the Ufizzi, for which we had pre-booked, and had to forego the visit and the price of the three entrance ticked we had purchased online. If this had been part of a tour itinerary, we would have been able to swap them for a later time).
The other thing I really like about touring is that, before you leave home, you have already spent most of the money for your trip. This means you don’t need to worry about exchange rates, carry cash in local money, find a working ATM in each new place (not always simple, as I found in Vietnam), or spend valuable sleep time at the end of each day going over your budget – you can just relax and enjoy your trip. Some tour companies even allow you to play for gratuities in advance, as well as pre-booking any optional experiences you want to include during your tour.
Having done a fair number of tours over recent years, here are five things that I didn’t really understand about the tour industry before I started, but which seem obvious to me now:
- You are not always on a bus (or coach – some tour companies have taken offence when their guests talk about ‘the bus’, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it, ha ha). There are usually a number of days when you are not ‘on the road’ (this depends on the tour length and the distance you need to travel). Also, many tours are a combination of road, rail, air and sea travel, which adds interest to the journey and helps avoid the longer, more tedious drives. For example, as part of our Scandinavian tour in 2015 we cruised from Stockholm to Helsinki overnight, the road/ferry would have taken about the same, but we got to see and do things we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, plus there were great duty free shops on board.
- Even though all the tours I have been on have been filled with great activities, there is also time to do my own thing (even on fully escorted tours); so if you really want to see or do something, tell your TD and he/she will advise (although I did plan to visit the ethnological museum in Ha Noi, only to find out it was closed on Mondays when I planned to go! See earlier point). You might decide you just want to relax by the pool, catch up on your journal or hit the shops – all these things have been possible on my trips.
- Most, if not all, tour companies have excellent loyalty programs which save you money on subsequent tours; generally I have found this to be 5%, but you also get email information about specials which can save you quite a bit more.
- Tour companies often don’t own the buses (er, sorry, coaches), rather they hire the bus and driver as a package for each trip. Drivers and vehicles must meet their stringent safety and cleanliness standards; I think this is a good thing. Depending on the country, drivers must also have decent rest brakes during the day and overnight, and must take a day off occasionally (usually one day per week in Europe, but I was surprised to learn that no such rules exist in the USA, our driver had worked for 60 days straight, I was a bit concerned about his mental and physical health when I learned that).
- Likewise, often tour companies will purchase tours from local companies, and if you can work out which one this is, you might get the same tour cheaper by going direct to the company that runs it (I first realised this when I was looking at Greek island tours that were add-ons to other tours I was doing, and found out that I could save a lot of money by purchasing the trip through the Greek shipping company). This is not always the best option, though, and I am not advocating it generally – it is just something that every traveller should at least be aware of. You have to work out whether paying the extra carries other benefits.
If this topic interests you, and you want more – don’t despair! There is a Part 3 coming soon, in which I will definitely talk about a few of the companies I have toured with and/or know a fair bit about from my own research.
See you on the bus!