Are you thinking about booking a small group tour but unsure what to look for?
Then you’ve come to the right place. Although I am an independent traveller, I have taken small group tours close on 20 occasions and now have a pretty good system for sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Group tours cater to a range of travel styles and budgets. It’s just a case of finding the right group tour for you.
In this article, I will share my top tips for choosing a small group tour to meet your needs.
1. Tailor the small group tour to your budget
There are group travel companies to accommodate all budgets and it’s important to determine the total cost before handing over your credit card details.
Check if there are fees that you will need to pay on arrival. Is everything that you want to do included in the baseline tour price or are these subject to an additional fee?
A group tour that appears cheap may not be such a bargain once you factor in everything.
Try to figure out if the group tour represents good value for money. You don’t want to pay over the odds, so ask yourself if the price of the group tour reflects the standard of accommodation for example.
2. Check the availability of single rooms if this is important to you.
On a group tour, you can share a room with a fellow traveller of the same sex to avoid paying a single supplement. If you crave privacy, check that single rooms are available.
I have always opted for a room to myself but that’s just me. A close friend, who has been on multiple group tours, always takes a chance on it and has never had a bad experience.
However, on a group tour of Guatemala, a fellow traveller had the roomie from Hell. Caveat emptor.
If you choose to share a room and there’s no one available on the group tour with whom to share, you get a single room without having to pay a supplement
Place your bets now.
If you want a room for yourself, how much are you prepared to pay for a single supplement?
As there is a wide variation between operators, it is tricky to generalise. Typically, the single supplements run between 20 and 30% of the base cost.
The high-end operators have been the most responsive at waiving the single supplement. However, the baseline cost of these group tours is more.
Although the majority of mid-range group travel companies charge a single supplement for sole occupancy, in many cases this is quite modest and it won’t break the bank to pay extra for a room to yourself.
3. Establish how many people you will be travelling with
Group size is a huge consideration for me. Ideally, I look for a group size of between 8 and 16.
If there are fewer than eight, the impact of any difficult people in the group is magnified. Once the group size starts to exceed 20, it’s more difficult to get to know people and the tour leader opts for more touristy restaurants purely to accommodate the size of the group.
Smaller groups also tend to be much more mindful of the impact on the environment.
4. Check who you will be travelling with
The demographics of your fellow travellers can be an important consideration. Is the tour geared toward gap-yearers in their 20s or young professionals? Families or retirees?
As a traveller in her 50s, this is another important criterion for me. My ideal group travel experience is not ending up on a Contiki tour bus with partying Generation Z’ers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Contiki or Gen Z’ers. Far from it.
When I used Contiki for a few days in New Zealand they were absolutely fine. But that was 25 years ago when I was much younger and wanted a different group travel experience.
But group travel preferences go a little deeper than simply a desire for a quieter holiday. Ensuring that the group demographics reflect your own gives you more of a fighting chance of finding common ground with your fellow travellers.
There are a few quick ways that you can check if the group travel company will be a good match for you.
Check out the “About” page on the tour companies’ website which usually list their guest demographic. Images from their tours are also a good indicator.
Another clue is to look at the accommodation.
If the tour uses budget accommodation – hostels or guesthouses – it is likely to be geared towards younger backpackers. Tours featuring fancy hotels are more likely to attract older travellers and families.
If all else fails and you are nervous about who your fellow travellers might be, pick up the phone and call the tour company. I’ve done this in the past, and they were able to provide basic demographic information without falling foul of data protection issues.
5. Consider if the accommodation fits your travel style
As fancy-schmancy hotels push up the price of group travel, these are more commonly offered by high-end operators. At the opposite end of the spectrum, low-budget group travel companies use dorms, guesthouses or tents.
Mid-range companies in my experience tend to use a mixture of accommodation styles. For example, I went on an excellent group tour of Sri Lanka which housed us in luxurious hotels.
6. Examine the itinerary carefully
With small group tours, it’s all about balance.
On the final day, you want to feel like you’ve seen the key sights and got the best bang for your buck. However, you don’t want to feel like you need another holiday to recover.
For me, the ideal group tour is one which covers the bases with respect to attractions and activities but builds in a little free time. Whilst activity scheduling is part of what you are paying for, going from place to place can seem relentless, especially on a long tour.
7. Establish the transport arrangements
When you are reading the tour itinerary, drill down on how you get from A to B.
Broadly speaking, companies use land transport or flights to get between destinations. Trust me; rising at the crack of dawn for a bumpy 8-hour bus journey is not a joy. And if there is more than one of these journeys in your itinerary, you may be dreaming of a tropical beach holiday.
8. Ask if the travel company uses local guides
Your tour guide can make or break a trip.
For example; Roshan, my guide in Sri Lanka was excellent. Not only did he have exemplary organisational skills and explained everything clearly, but he was also committed to giving back to his local community.
However, I’ve been on other group tours where the guide was disinterested (Cuba) or nursing a crashing hangover from celebrating Chinese New Year whilst showing us around the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.
In my experience, local guides are the best. Many companies now use local guides but if you are unsure call the customer service line to check.
9. Examine the refund and cancellation policy
One thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught us is the need to introduce as much flexibility into our travel arrangements as possible.
When booking a group tour, check their cancellation policy carefully. Any group travel company worth its salt will allow you to cancel or transfer to another trip free of charge for any reason. It goes without saying that if they are the ones that cancel your trip, they should issue a refund.
10. Check the company’s approach to sustainable travel
With the growing ecotourism trend, tour companies’ approaches towards sustainable travel are increasingly important. This applies to the environment but also extends to initiatives to help local people and economies.
Any small group company worth its salt will display how it supports sustainable and responsible travel on its website.
Thank you for reading my tips for choosing a small group tour
I hope that it makes it easier to make the right choice for you.
If you remain unsure of the value of group tours, take a look at my assessment of the pros and cons of group travel. Or if you are a midlife solo traveller, here is my pick of the best group travel companies for the over-50s.
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.