Choosing the Best Tour Company

By Samantha Scott
May 3, 2019

Choosing the best tour company for your travel style can mean the difference between amazing travel and just ok travel. There are thousands of options, so how do you find the one that is right for you?

Here are our top tips for deciding on which tour operator you should travel with:

1. Consider the Tour Group Size

Group tour companies are separated into two broad buckets: Large Group and Small Group. Each has pros and cons, and your preferences for how you like to travel will help determine which one you ultimately choose.

Large group of travelers photographing sunset in Europe

Large Group Tour Companies

Average tour size: 25-60

Ideal for: social travelers, budget minded travelers, travelers seeking comfortable westernized accommodation and transportation

Tour companies that specialize in Large Groups tend to be global operators with extensive experience traveling in numerous countries. On a large group tour you can expect sizes anywhere from 25 to 60 people. 

These tours often utilize large comfortable coaches, mainstream hotels (though not always) and are between value and premium. The price range of a large group tour is extremely variable - depending largely on the company, the destination, and the time of year.

The specialization aspect may be hit or miss if you choose to go with a large group. So if you’re really wanting a unique travel experience, visiting off the beaten path locations and local gems you may be disappointed on a large group tour.

The pros of traveling with a larger group are the opportunities you’ll have to make many new friends with similar interests. This an especially attractive option for extroverted and social travelers. You’ll be able to meet people in a full range of ages, nationalities, and backgrounds.

The con of a larger group is you’ll probably not be able to get to know your guide as well, and may find yourself craning to hear sometimes as they take you through various attractions.   

Small Group Tour Companies

Average tour size: 10-24

Ideal for: travelers who enjoy being around less people, travelers seeking a more in depth experience

Happy older couple visiting Southeast Asia on a small group tour

On a smaller group tour you have more access to the “hidden gems” in each destination. Smaller groups are more manageable for restaurants and unique accommodations such as bed and breakfasts in Ireland or a homestay in Italy. There are also more opportunities to engage in unique cultural activities as a group.

The size of a small group tour can be anywhere between 10 - 24 people, typically between 10-15.

One con to consider is on a smaller group tour there may be fewer excursions or extras provided, with the full day on the itinerary somewhat packed with group activities.

Smaller group tours are often a great choice for travelers seeking to dive deeper into the destination - you’ll be able to get to know your guide, often a local or an expert in the destination.

Of course a small group tour also means you’ll be around the same people for an extended period. This can mean your enjoyment is very dependent on the group you happen to get. For shyer more introverted people, this can be a great way to get to know your tour companions on a deeper level, and if you’re less comfortable around a bigger group it’s the perfect option.

2. Tour pace

Relaxing afternoon in a cafe in Europe

Another important factor to keep in mind is the tour pace. Are you looking for a lot of free time or would you rather see as much as possible with your guide and tour mates?

If you enjoy lingering and finding your own spot for lunch, doing a lot of souvenir shopping, or simply love wandering around at your own pace to take photos, then be sure you find a tour operator that makes a point of providing ample free time during the itinerary.

Be careful though. Free time may sound like an obvious “yes I want that” during your tour, but remember that you’re traveling for a finite amount of time. Once you’re there, you may find your free time annoyingly ample, when what you really want is to spend as much time as possible exploring the country’s history and culture through arranged activities.

On Stride we sort tours into 3 Itinerary Paces

1. Relaxed - Lots of free time to explore on your own. Often these tours focus on one or two countries providing travelers with a deep look into the culture and local life. Activities included on the itinerary are usually optional, allowing you to have a lot of personal control over your travel experience. Cruises usually fall into the Relaxed category

2. Mixed - Most tours will fall into this category. Mixed tours have a nice balanced mix of free time and planned (included) activities on the itinerary. Some days will be more flexible than others. At least 1 or 2 meals will be included.

3. Full On - These tours are for those who really want to maximize their sightseeing time. If you’re looking to check off a lot of sights and countries, a full on tour is for you. This is not the ideal choice if you want to linger - there will be a lot of 5-10 minute quick photo stops, and a lot of travel time to get from place to place.

3. Are you the tour company’s audience?

Touring Europe on a group tour

Don’t accidentally end up on a YOLO (you only live once) cruise in Greece with young travelers looking to party, when what you really wanted a luxury Mediterannean tour. Or wind up trekking the Ugandan jungle insearch of silverbacks when you really wanted a glamping safari.

Your travel experience can be dramatically different depending on the age range, budget range, and travel style the tour operator is known for.

Some tour companies - like Topdeck and Contiki, are specifically designed for travelers in the 18-39 range. These tours emphasize the social aspect as much as the travel aspect, and often focus on a full on tour pace - maximizing the country count over an in depth approach.

Other tour companies - like Tucan, Intrepid, and G Adventures - are open to all ages (and have a wide range of tour types to choose from) but still tend to attract younger travelers eager for an active or culturally immersive tour. Accommodations are usually comfortable but basic.

The same goes for older travelers. Tour companies like Road Scholar and Eldertreks are specifically geared toward active 50+ travelers and seniors. Road Scholar is perfect for travelers who love learning and are seeking a class-like environment. Guides with Road Scholar are often experts in their field - activities and tour themes cover wide ranging subjects from Fall Foliage photography to

Adventurous and active baby boomers will love Eldertreks, a tour company specializing in hard core hiking, trekking, and other outdoor travel experiences around the world. They are an especially good tour company to consider for more exotic destinations.

3. Physical requirements of the tour

Active traveler on a hiking tour

Always make sure the tours physical requirements are a good fit. Most group tour companies include at least 1-3 hours of walking time during the day.  

Some tour companies focus on using local transportation almost exclusively, which might sound exciting, but remember that on these tours you will usually be carrying your own luggage.

Additionally, be realistic about how much walking you really want to do. Most tours include a little bit of walking, so make sure the distances and gradations seem manageable. Also consider the surfaces. If you’ll be traveling in Europe, castle visits will most likely be on the itinerary.

For cycling tours or hiking tours, be sure to ask if alternate modes of transportation are available if you’re worried about keeping up with the group. Often times a support van or something similar will be able to help, but not always. Also be sure to look at the accommodations.

Young bodies may be far more forgiving of a basic hostel or guest house - able to grab some shut eye and hop on the bike or trail the next day no problem. Older bones may require more premium digs in order to remain shipshape throughout the tour.

4. Global Operators vs Local Specialists

Depending on your destination and your travel style, you will select either a global operator or a regional or local specialist. The common denominator is your tour will be designed by an expert - but the scale on which the tour company operates is the main differentiating factor.

Global Operators

If you are looking for a tour from a company with several years of experience, offices worldwide, and classic expertly led tours, then a Global Operator could be for you. These tours are sometimes led by local guides, but not always.

Even if you have a local guide during the trip, as a professional guide, they may not live in their country full time. So, while authentic, you’re definitely getting a polished tour experience.

For multiple tour choices, itinerary lengths, and travel themes in any given destination, global tour operators are the way to go. Usually there are several options for large or small groups, and sometimes private guided options are available.

Regional or Local Specialist

For those travelers seeking to explore deeper into the culture from a local point of view with an itinerary designed by experts in the region, we recommend looking into a regional specialist.

Many global operators may tout the idea of “cultural immersion” and many follow through, offering some activities that introduce you to the culture and history of the country. However, regional specialists take it a step further.

Usually your guide and itinerary planner will be from the country or region, able to imbue it with local flavor. This is a fantastic option for travelers who want a more unique and authentic view. These tours are often customizable as well - so you can cater the experience to your interests.

5. Read Reviews for Tour Companies

One of the surest ways to choose the best tour company is to check out their reviews! You can learn what other travelers have thought about their experience with the operator, the guides, and what their travel companions were like. 

When reading tour operator reviews, it's of course important to keep in mind that everyone is different. Someone's 5 star experience might be someone elses 3 or 4 star experience depending on personal expectations and basic outlook on traveling. 

But never fear! Stride has you covered with editorial reviews of each tour company to help you decipher if you will enjoy traveling with them.


 

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