Group tours are usually synonymous with big buses and camera-clicking tourists racing through a country. It’s about being taken to tourist destinations, cheesy attractions, inauthentic restaurants, and a whole host of other non-authentic travel experiences.
That idea of tours being bad is an old and outdated perception.
These days tour groups have become more adept at the changing landscape. They feature smaller groups, more authentic experiences, a better environmental impact, and more local guides.
I love group tours.
Even though I am an independent traveler, I find group tours super fun, a great way to meet people, learn more from an informed guide, go to places you normally can’t, and wet your feet in travel. My first trip overseas was on an organized tour. I didn’t know the first thing about travel and that tour gave me the confidence to travel on my own. It was the taste test I needed to become hooked on travel. Tours give a lot of people time to adjust to the “travel lifestyle.”
Unlike in the past, today’s tours are eco-friendly, cater to all travel styles, over cheap, and make a point to use local transportation and guides. And many destinations (like Halong Bay, the Galápagos Islands, the Serengeti, Machu Picchu, Antarctica, Everest) are virtually inaccessible without an organized group tour!
In this article, I am going to tell you how to find the best tour company so you get one that is inexpensive, eco-friendly, provides local guides, and gives back to the local community:
1. Research the costs
With tour companies, it’s not always true that you get what you pay for. Many tour companies nickel-and-dime you, while some are really good at maximizing value for your every penny. Ask how your money is spent to find out if you are really getting the best value for your money. How much of your fee is their overhead? Are you paying for top-notch hotels but staying in two-star guesthouses? You want a company that is transparent with why prices are the way they are.
Moreover, make sure you ask if there are added fees to pay when arrive. Many companies require you to pay additional money when the tour starts or don’t include park or attraction entrance fees. That cheap tour won’t be so cheap if you have to pay for everything while you’re there!
2. Make sure you are the audience
Is the tour geared toward older couples? Young people? Families? You don’t want to end up on a loud Contiki tour full of drunk twenty-year-olds when all you want is a quiet holiday.
There’s a tour company for everyone — just make sure you don’t end up on one that isn’t yours. Most tour companies list their guest demographics on their “About” page, and you can usually see from the photos of their tours who goes on it.
You can also tell the audience based on accommodation: if it’s hostels or guesthouses, it’s usually for backpackers and budget travelers; if it’s fancy digs, it’s for older travelers and families.
This is very important because these are the people you’ll be traveling with so you want to make sure it’s the kind of people you are traveling with. I’m still friends with the people from my first tour in 2003 because they were people like me. The tour in Japan that was filled with older families? Not so much. We didn’t have much in common. Wonderful people but we didn’t connect.
So, I always look for tours that have my demographic in them.
3. Get local guides
Guides can make or break your trip. They are going to explain everything to you and keep the flow of the tour going. I don’t want them hiring some young kid, non-expert, or someone who doesn’t know the place well. I’ve been on tours where the guide was a walking encyclopedia, and on somewhere the guide was a glorified timekeeper.
Make sure the company uses knowledgeable, local guides. The guide should be a local or at least a long-term resident, know the local language, have travel experience, and know life-saving techniques.
If you are unsure about the guides, call the customer service line and ask them about their guides.
4. Safety record
Make sure the company follows all the proper safety requirements and is accredited by the local government, the government where they are registered, and any other appropriate trade organizations.
5. A balanced schedule
You’re paying for them to fill most of your day. How do they do that? Are they doing that? Do they have a lot of activities organized, or do they leave you to your own devices?
That said, you don’t want a schedule that is crammed with things to do. Make sure you get a schedule of all the activities and pick a tour that is balanced. Running around will leave you wishing you had a holiday from your holiday, but you don’t want to be sitting around all day, either.
I love taking small group tours because they generally have a good balance. Any tour that requires you to be on a huge bus and hits 6 cities in 5 days is not a tour to take!
6. Environmental impact
There’s a growing trend among travelers called ecotourism. It’s about more responsible travel, not only toward the environment but also toward the locals in an area. This means using local guides, hotels, and services, and making sure to reduce waste and your footprint on the local habitat.
Moreover, these companies tend to offer better and more interactive tours that also give you a good degree of autonomy.
I think it’s important to pick a company that provides great value and gives back to the place you are visiting. After all, did you go there to ruin it for others? Doubtful.
Check with groups like the International Ecotourism Society for a list of companies that have been certified “eco-friendly.” With so much money pouring into the industry now, you have a lot of companies fraudulently saying they practice ecotourism but end up being involved in terrible labor practices, animal abuse, and waste.
7. Group size
Tour companies that have smaller groups tend to be much more mindful of the environment and the impact they are leaving. It’s a lot easier to meet people in a group of 10-15 than it is in a group of 60. I don’t like to go on tours with more than 15 people on them. However, I have friends who love Contiki tours with 40-50 people. Know what you are getting yourself into, so you don’t find yourself with a group too small or too large for your tastes.
Just remember larger groups tend to stay at bigger, more impersonal accommodations (they can only accommodate the numbers), eat at more touristy restaurants, and tend to travel to more destinations quicker.
In my expert opinion, small group tours are the best.
8. Check their reputation
How have other travelers enjoyed their time? Look for online reviews to see what a company’s reputation is. It might not always be what they claim, and it’s important to find out the truth before you book.
Remember that MOST people only write a review if something goes wrong. Someone might give a tour company one star just because their eggs were runny. Find the average. Someone might hate a tour because the weather was hot. Seriously. These are actual negative reviews from the tour operator company, Thomas Cook:
“On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”
“We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”
“We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price.”
“No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”
“Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”
“When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”
“We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”
So how can you trust the reviews you read online?
Take them with a grain of salt. You can read reviews on websites TrustPilot. The approval rating should look like a bell curve but with more A’s and B’s than C’s. I look for companies that average 85% or higher (or 4 out of 5 stars). If a company is that highly rated, the negative reviews are probably just outliers.
My Recommended (Best) Tour Companies
Here are some of my favorite small, day-tour, or backpacker bus tour companies:
- Take Walks – This is my favorite walking tour company. They run a wide variety of insightful and entertaining tours around Europe and the US. What makes them so good is they get you inside access to attractions and places you can’t get elsewhere. Their guides rock too!
- Get Your Guide – A massive marketplace for tours, activities, and excursions. If you’re looking for something niche, you’ll find it here!
- Devour Food Tours – My go-to tour company for tasty food tours around Europe and the US.
- Kiwi Experience – A hop-on, hop-off bus tour company in New Zealand for backpackers!
- Baz Bus – A hop on, hop off again bus tour company in South Africa for all travelers.
- New Europe – Free walking tours throughout Europe.
- Free Tours By Foot – Pay-what-you-like tours throughout Europe and the United States. They are one of my favorite free walking tour companies in the world!
THE #1 COMPANY FOR MULTI-DAY SMALL GROUP TOURS
When it comes to multi-day and multi-week tours (think trips through Morocco, city-hopping around Europe, etc.), I highly recommend The Nomadic Network.
It’s the tour company I created for people who want to travel — not simply vacation.
These itineraries were crafted by me and use my local connections around the world to introduce you to friends and favorite tour guides, destinations, experiences, and restaurants so you get a sense of what it is really like to live in each destination.
TNN takes you way beyond the typical tourist traps. You’ll get to do bucket-list-worthy activities, have meals in locals’ homes, and see hidden, out-of-the-way spots not normally found on other group trips.
Our group tours are for those who want a deeper, more nuanced, and authentic travel experience.
If that sounds like you, click here to check out our current itineraries and book your next adventure today!
I love tours. They are a great way to meet people, get a local to add value and knowledge, and see places you can’t get to alone! I don’t take them often but I do take them. And, since I follow the above rules, I always have a good time. Some of my favorite travel memories were when I was on a group trip. If you follow my tips above, you’ll never go wrong either.