Updated: 6/15/2018 | June 15, 2018
Group tours are usually synonymous with big buses and camera-clicking holiday makers racing through a country. It’s about being taken to the 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That idea of tours being bad is an old and outdated perception.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 to 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, Antartica, 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!
Also, avoid the single supplement. Many tour companies charge you a single supplement, i.e., more money to have your own room. They do these because they don’t want to mix and pair people together. It’s outrageous, and it penalizes solo travelers. Never, ever pay it. The best tour companies will pair solo travelers (of the same sex) together in the same room. If there isn’t anyone else, you’ll get your own room by default. If you find a company that charges you an additional fee for traveling solo, avoid them.
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. 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 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? 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 always 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 12 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. You can even use our forum to ask what other travelers have thought.
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 in 2018
Here are some of my favorite small, day-tour, or backpacker bus tour companies:
- Take Walks – A day tour company in Italy, Paris, Barcelona, London, New York, and San Francisco. What makes them so good is they get you inside access to attractions and places you can’t get elsewhere. Their guides rock too!
- Busabout – A hop-on, hop-off bus tour company in Europe for backpackers!
- Kiwi Experience – A hop-on, hop-off bus tour company in New Zealand for backpackers!
- Context Travel – A walking tour company operating in cities around the world that uses experts to give detailed tours on a variety of subjects. It’s one of my absolute favorites and I use them often.
- 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!
- Oz Experience – The Oz Experience is the australian version of the Kiwi Experience. Same thing, different country.
When it comes to multi-day, multi-week tours (think trips through Morocco, sailing in the Galápagos, etc.), I highly recommend using Intrepid Travel.
Intrepid is my favorite and best small group tour operator out there! I really love their guides, their small groups, off the beaten track itineraries, and commitment to the local environment and community. I always have an incredible time on their tours. They are my favorite multi-day tour operator and the only one I use now (the picture at the top of this page is me on their Patagonia trip). Intrepid is environmentally friendly, uses local guides and transportation, doesn’t rush their tours, and are quite inexpensive. I don’t even consider anyone else when it comes to multi-day trips.