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The old image of guided group tours as endless on-again, off-again bus stops is mostly long past. Today's guided group tours may spend days walking the Irish countryside or biking the Greek Islands, boarding a Zodiac in Antarctica, or delving deeply into the cultures of distant lands. Group sizes are often smaller -- as few as 10 to 16 per trip -- guides are better trained, and potential destinations are increasingly far-flung. Guided group tours also allow you to focus on the sights rather than the logistics of travel, help provide companionship on the road, and can save you money as well by securing group rates. They remain the most common type of tour, but they now offer uncommon benefits.
Gone are the days when group travel only meant following your flag-waving guide aimlessly from museum to museum. Sure, guided travel means traveling on a pre-set, multi-day itinerary. If you miss the plane, bus, or train, you’re in trouble! However, these days, guided tour companies like Explore! actually schedule free time into the itinerary, which encourages travelers to explore on their own. For example, you might join your group on an orientation walk around Marrakech in the morning, but then have the afternoon free to explore Djemaa el-Fnaa square. On longer excursions, you might even get an entire ‘free’ day to lounge on the beach or go for a day hike.
While coach tours do exist and are great for some people, they are hardly the only option in the guided travel category. Many travel operators such as Abercrombie & Kent, offer transportation options like private luxury vans that hold only 16 people. Other companies, such as G Adventures and Intrepid Travel, use local transportation, such as tuk-tuk, felucca, and even camels to get you from point A to point B. Not only does this usually result in lower costs for you, but it provides an opportunity to mingle with locals vs. being stuck in a stuffy coach with your fellow travelers.
You’ll find that you actually have a lot in common with your travel companions. Most group travelers are like-minded and choose group tours for the same reasons: to get an authentic taste of a destination without having to worry about planning the logistics of an international vacation. Whether you’re in a group of 10 or 20, chances are you will connect with someone who you share something in common with. And you never know, maybe you will make a few life-long friends along the way!
These days, many guided tour operators are offering ‘small group’ tours. This means traveling under the radar with groups as small as 10 travelers. And, if you choose the right tour operator, traveling in this intimate style doesn’t need to equate to high prices. Small groups mean you can be more nimble and flexible, and they make the group feel more accessible to the local people. It’s also much easier to make true connections with your fellow travelers.
A group tour can be just as authentic and eye-opening as independent travel; perhaps even more so if you’re lucky enough to have a local tour guide. Think of your guide as a friendly local who can ‘unlock’ the destination for you - showing off favorite restaurants, markets, photo spots, boutiques, etc. Some tour operators like Exodus include homestays in their itineraries. What better way to experience France than by staying in the home of a local winemaker? You'll have the chance to chat with locals on public trains, play in a random soccer game with a bunch of children, and learn about local spices from a market vendor. What’s more authentic than that?