Group tours aren’t for everyone. But they suit more of us than you might think. Chief among their attractions: convenience and companionship – two things most would agree make for a great holiday. Even I’m a convert. For someone who loves nothing more than wandering solo around the world, it turns out I’m also quite social and enjoy the company of random humans.
I discovered this on my first escorted trip, a food and culture odyssey through central Italy. Besides making some cherished friends, I ate the finest lasagne of my life (sorry, Mum), tasted days-old olive oil, and almost trod on a viper outside a remote hermitage. Every moment was unforgettable and, while not everything about group touring is perfect (eg, poisonous snakes), I reckon the pros easily outweigh the cons.
1. Sometimes, in a busy life, it just makes sense to outsource the responsibility for your next work break. On a guided tour, someone else handles all the planning and logistics. All you need to do is show up. No stress.
2. Related to that, the lack of hassles generally. Entrance fees? Already taken care of. Beggars and touts? They’ve got this. Need to haggle for a purchase in the market? Let your local guide take care of that for you. Tipping? Likewise. Just relax and let your handlers look after everything.
3. Specialist itineraries allow you to experience places you – or I – mightn’t be brave enough to visit on your own. Somalia is a good example. I imagine it would be terrifying as a solo traveller (ie, me), but tagging along with adventure experts like Travel Directors on a recce to Somaliland, the safer, northern part of Somalia, felt completely fine. Not least because we had armed guards the entire time. Afterwards we hopped the border to Ethiopia, bypassing an insurrection in the Harari region before travelling deep into the Omo Valley where I had some of the most incredible, indelible human interactions of my life – such as a surreal initiation ceremony involving a drugged youth leaping naked over six cows to prove his maturity. I could never have organised such extreme experiences alone.
4. Remember how thrilling it was as a young solo traveller to connect with like-minded souls on the road? That’s essentially what group travel allows you to do, only with less chance of you missing your train, battling bed bugs or hooking up with someone undesirable. But the binge drinking’s still very much a thing.
5. It’s economical. At a time when travelling costs are spiralling out of control, splitting expenses on a shared journey not only makes sense, it’s more appealing than ever. The dreaded “single supplement”, where solo travellers pay substantially more than couples for precisely the same experience, is another incentive to swallow your pride and bunk in with a stranger.
6. Contrary to popular belief, group travel offers independence. Perhaps you’re younger and living at home because buying a house is impossible. Or you have your own family but fancy some time alone, or simply crave the strength and confidence in numbers that permits you to visit parts of the world you wouldn’t dare go alone. Joining a group doesn’t mean giving up personal freedom. On the contrary, it can enhance it.
7. The cultural escorts on organised itineraries are often exceptional. I’ve written here before about how important guides are to getting the most out of a destination. Some of the most engaging ones I’ve come across did their best work in groups.
8. Travelling with strangers will always take you out of your comfort zone (this is a good thing) and invariably involve you trying something you’d never even contemplated before. Eating sheep’s head in Calabria? Did it on a tour. Likewise, diving into the Arctic Ocean for a polar dip, and crash-landing a hot-air balloon in the Swiss Alps. I wouldn’t advise trying any of this at home.
9. If, like me, you and shy away from organised activities, tours don’t seem such a smart idea. Primarily because there’s no escape. What if you hate everyone? The thing is, I never do. One thing I’ve learned from travelling en masse is you can never judge a fellow tourist by the way she or he looks. Most strangers are totally lovely. And there’s a lot to be said for having new friends to relive the day’s excitement over drinks and a meal each evening. Solo adventures are all very well, but who remembers them apart from you?
Group tours aren’t for the faint of heart. Days tend to be packed with activities to make sure participants get the most out of a destination. You want intense cultural immersion? Prepare to be exhausted afterwards.