Group Tours: The Good, The Bad & The Sleepy
I've now been on two group tours in the last two years, and I'm going on another one (to Georgia) in May.
So that makes me an expert, right? Maybe not, but I think I've gained some insight for the good and bad that go along with such endeavors, so I'm here to share them with you. First of all, I'm going to start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed both my group tours with Intrepid so far, both 2017's tour around Cuba and 2018's adventure into Morocco. Even the negative things I'm going to say here are really no fault of the company. Their job is to get me around and show me a bunch of things in a short amount of time safely and easily, and on those accounts, both tours have passed with flying colors. But if, like me, you are a fan of independent traveling, there are things you give up when you sign up to go traveling with a group of strangers. So here they are, based on my "vast experience": The Good - Getting Around Cuba and Morocco are two countries where it might not be all that easy to 'get around'. Sure, there are taxis that will get you from point-to-point in Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Havana, and Trinidad, but how do you get between those cities? The headache of trying to find trains, buses, or other ground transportation completely disappears when you join a group tour. This wouldn't be all that important in places like Western Europe or Japan, but if you're going to an unfamiliar place with spotty infrastructure, it can save you a lot of time and hassle. The Bad - Someone Else's Itinerary Had I been on my own in Cuba or Morocco, there are places from the tour I would have wanted to linger and places I would have skipped. More Marrakech, less Casablanca. More Vinales, less Cienfuegos. To another person on the tour, it might have been the opposite. The point is, there's no choice for anyone. You go where the group goes, when the group goes. The Sleepy - Early Wake Up Calls
In theory, companies earn their reputations by showing you the best and most of a destination in a short amount of time. In practice, that means getting up a lot earlier than most people want to rise during their 'vacations'. There were times, both in Cuba and Morocco, where the alarm went off and my brain went 'DEAR GOD PLEASE JUST LET ME SLEEP UNTIL 9 A.M. JUST ONCE!'. On a group tour, that's not an option. It is often wake up early or get left behind.
The Good - Camaraderie
One of the best things about group tours is the chance to meet like-minded adventurers from around the world and have shared experiences, whether they be an evening of local cuisine and libations or a camel ride in the Sahara. It's a good way to get to know people outside of your regular social circles, and I still keep in contact with several fellow travelers from both of my previous tours.
The Bad - Differing Agendas
There are several different kinds of travelers. There are some people who want to hike every trail. There are some people who want to shop in every market. There are some people who want to party in every club. There are some people who want to sip coffee in every cafe and watch the world go by. There's nothing right or wrong about any of that, but when you're traveling in a group, those agendas can sometimes clash. An example: the Morocco tour spent what felt like hours (to me) looking at, haggling for, and purchasing rugs. Personally, I just wanted to GO. OVER. THERE. Going on a group tour sometimes means spending time doing things you're not at all interested in.
The Sleepy - Long Bus Rides
Group tours tend to cover a lot of ground, and that can sometimes mean spending long days in small buses and/or passenger vans. Loooooooong days. Some seats are better/more comfortable than others, and people on both of the tours I've been on were pretty good about switching things around on a daily basis, but still, I found myself nodding off and hitting my head on a bus window on more than one occasion.
The Good - Vetted Attractions, Dining, Lodging, and Side Tours
One time, a few of us on the Morocco trip gave our tour leader a little good-natured ribbing about a particularly bland lunch stop in Rabat (I believe our term was 'Chef Boyardee'). He replied that at the very least, no one was getting sick. He's right. Food-borne illness can be a big problem in developing or third-world countries, and tours from reputable companies with local guides are a really good way to minimize that risk. The same goes for pre-arranged lodging or side trips like boat trips or camel rides.
The Bad - Little Independence
One thing I really enjoyed about my trip on Peru Hop in 2019 is that it contained some of the elements of a group tour (transportation, group meals, attractions, etc.) with a dose of independence. I was able to get off the bus in Arequipa, hang out on my own for a few days, and then hop on another bus a few days later. You don't get any of that on an organized group tour. You get there when they get there. You eat where they eat. You leave when they leave. There is always some independent time included in the tour, but all the 'big' decisions have been made for you.
The Sleepy - Roommates
If you're a light sleeper traveling solo and can afford it, I would highly recommend getting the single supplement on any group tour that you book. Everyone I've been paired with has been great personality-wise, but dear God, there are snorers out there, some of whom made me feel like I was sleeping next to the runway at JFK. If you can sleep in that situation, more power to you, but I sleepwalked through a few days of my Cuba tour because I got literally no sleep at night. It's a little less severe for women... but there are guys out there whose nasal passages can make the walls shake. Be forewarned.
So there you have it - an honest assessment of the group tour experience from someone who's been on two (soon to be three) of them. Again, Intrepid has done it's job admirably on both of the tours I've been on (which is why I'm using them again in Georgia), but if you're used to independent travel there are things you'll have to get accustomed to. My new trick is to book a few days of independent travel either before or after the group tour (I went to Portugal after Morocco and am going to Istanbul after Georgia). To me, it gives you the best of both worlds.