Small Group Tours and Travel Guide
Small Group Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Small group tours have some distinct advantages over larger tours: they can generally move more quickly from one place to the next, eat in more intimate dining spaces, stay in smaller hotels or inns, and travel in smaller vehicles, among other perks.
Depending on the tour operator, a "small group" may number anywhere from a few people up to 24, though more traditionally it means a maximum of 12-16 travelers. Biking and hiking tours, trekking expeditions, and other adventurous and exotic tours tend to be small groups, but any type of tour can fall into this ever-more-popular category.
Why Take a Small Group Tour
More Authentic Experiences
In most cases, small group tours tend to offer more in-depth, authentic experiences than traveling on a coach or bus tour. This is mostly a result of the flexibility you have in a small group. For example, you’re walking around a rural area in Brazil and come across a pick-up soccer match (or futbol to the Brazilians).
You and your travel companions stand and watch and are then invited to play! These types of memories are often what turns a good trip into a great one, and are more likely when traveling in a small group.
The smaller a group of people traveling together, the more possible it is for a local guide to get access to behind-the-scenes and off-hours sightseeing (the Acropolis at dawn in Greece - sure!), as well as immersive experiences in local villages, restaurants, family homes and more.
The meticulous staff of your chosen small group tour operator has more leeway and creativity when planning your all-inclusive adventures - that may mean more unique, boutique-style accommodations, hands-on cooking classes that lead directly to a family-style meal and guided sightseeing by luxury vehicle (as opposed to that big tour bus).
Connecting With Fellow Travelers
You may or may not travel in a group to make friends. However, you are almost sure to come away from your trip with at least one or two new “pen pals.” Traveling in this style affords real connections among the group - whether this be chatting around a campfire while on safari in Tanzania or catching up at happy hour on the deck of your small-ship cruise.
You might not relate to everyone but will find that most small-group travelers are like-minded and are there for the same reasons. This creates a convivial social vibe and you’ll feel much less like a face in the crowd and more like one of a group of friends who have chosen to explore the world together.
One of the best perks of small group travel is the fact that most of your vacation is planned for you. Sure, you may love to pore over guidebooks and websites, learning as much as you can about where you’re going. But wouldn’t it be nice to focus on all the amazing things you’re going to see and do instead of worrying about how to cobble it all together in a seamless itinerary?
That’s where your expert small group tour operator comes in. They know these destinations intimately and have curated trips that highlight not only the major sightseeing attractions that you won’t want to miss, but filled in the gaps with immersive, authentic experiences along the way - the kind of moments you most likely won’t find in any guidebook or website.
Small group tours are much less hassle than either a large group tour or arranging your travel yourself. Your in country airfare, train and transfer bookings are all taken care of. Your accommodations are thoughtfully chosen and reserved. Your guides will speak the local language, leaving you to speak and learn as little or as much of it as you’re motivated to. Want to eat where the locals eat? Your local small group tour guide can easily suggest dining options.
They move more quickly from one place to the next - fewer people, easier transport and in likely smaller vehicles. They can dine in more intimate spaces and stay in smaller hotels and inns. It’s easier to hear about where you’re visiting and have one-on-one conversations with your guide. Overall, if it’s a taste of local life and culture you’re seeking, a small group tour is the best choice.
Popular Small Group Tour Destinations
On a small group tour of Italy, your handcrafted itinerary can be just as you always imagined it. From the hilltown of Cortona in Tuscany to the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence, your local Italian guide will usher you to the landscapes, cities, villages, museums, vineyards and more that make Italy one of the world’s top tour destinations.
Experience la dolce vita as you sip limoncello, cycle through vineyards along the Amalfi Coast, visit the ancient sights of Rome, cruise the canals of romantic Venice or sail to captivating Capri. A small group tour of Italy will unveil all this and more, immersing you in local-level culture and cuisine.
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Toast your amazing Ireland vacation with a pint of local stout, surrounded by new friends as part of your small group tour. With so much to see throughout the Emerald Isle, it’s prudent to choose a local, expert guide to show you Ireland’s off-the-beaten-path sightseeing.
There’s character and magic around every corner, from castles and small-town pubs to ancient cemeteries and the Blarney Stone. Your tour of Ireland unlocks the folklore of Donegal, unmissable views of the Ring of Kerry, the less-often-visited Slieve League Cliffs (almost three times as tall as the Cliffs of Moher) and a hefty share of restaurants and pubs where you’ll feel that irresistible Irish craic.
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Only on a small group tour of Scotland will you have the opportunity to tour the majestic Royal Yacht Brittania in the early morning hours, before the crowds. These behind-the-scenes moments and privileged access are among the many perks of traveling with a small group in Europe.
Set out through the Scottish countryside with a learned host and gain a deeper understanding of what makes this extraordinary land tick. Visit Edinburgh Castle and the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town in the country’s capital. Venture to Loch Fyne and Inveraray Castle - you may recognize this setting from Downton Abbey!
Take a privately guided cruise on Loch Ness and take a gander at the perfectly picturesque Urquhart Castle, dating back to the 13th century. Your small group tour of Scotland will unlock the rugged beaches and cliffs, verdant countryside, ancient castles and renowned distilleries of this most endearing country, while immersing you in traditional Scottish cities, from Edinburgh to Glasgow.
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Amsterdam and its canals, markets and cultural highlights is a city best experienced on a well-thought-out small group journey. Let your expert Netherlands guide show you the way through this charming, 17th-century city, from the Anne Frank House to the Rijksmuseum, from a private tasting rooms in a 1679 distillery to its nearby windmill-laden countryside (for more on the Netherlands, see our Netherland travel guide).
Only your local Amsterdam guide can take you behind the scenes in the world’s narrowest house or to her favorite “eetcafe” for local beer and delicacies. From Amsterdam, consider extending your tour to nearby Belgium and Germany, other top spots for small group travel.
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Explore Greece, cradle of Western civilization, on a small group tour and be assured that you won’t have missed a thing. Between the fabled Samaria Gorge, traditional Cretan villages, sunsets on Santorini and the best historical sites of Athens, the best way to see Greece is by going small.
A comprehensive small group tour of Greece can be difficult to plan on one’s own - How to fit it all in? Islands? Athens? Where to start? Thankfully, when you decide on a small group journey to ever-popular Greece, these questions have been answered for you and the logistics taken care of, so you don’t waste one precious moment.
So, sit back and experience the glory of Greece, from a private tour of the Acropolis and Agora to an off-hours visit to Delphi to a pre-arranged exclusive cooking class and meal with a local family.
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Can You Go Off-the-Beaten-Path on a Small Group Tour?
Of course! And it’s encouraged. Small groups tours are designed to explore and discover new places in a way untouched by traditional large group tours.
Your guide is there to make sure the logistics are taken care of and that everyone gets to where they need to be … that being said, if you want to take it easy one morning and sit back in a cafe in Amsterdam and watch the world go by, they’ll not only agree to it, but suggest their favorite spot - and maybe even their favorite barista.
If your group has a particular interest that isn’t being fully met, simply look to your small group guide to change things up a bit. They’re generally flexible enough that a day’s itinerary can shift a bit to include that art gallery, farmers’ market or glassblowing studio you were all intrigued by. The flexibility and freedom afforded by a small group tour allows for less touristy sightseeing and more authentic world travel.
Things to Consider When Browsing Small Group Tours
A few things to think about when you are choosing a small group tour:
- Look for the most all-inclusive small group tour you can find. That way, you can relax and enjoy your trip instead of worrying about additional fees for meals, admission prices, transfers, etc. If you are traveling solo on a small group tour, there are ways to avoid the single supplement. While it is true that some more upscale tour operators will charge a single supplement regardless, many will waive that fee if you are willing to room with another solo traveler.
- Look at reviews from past travelers to ensure that you’re the right audience for this tour operator. If you’re hoping for a quieter, more intimate experience with lingering meals in tucked-away wine cellars, then you don’t want a small group tour aimed at families with young children. If you’re less physically capable, make sure to choose one that has plenty of options for activities, from easy to advanced. There are countless small group tour operators out there, so with a bit of advance research, you’re sure to find one right for you, whether it’s for older couples, younger people, photographers, birders, oenophiles or trekkers.
- Inquire about your small group guides. When travelers reflect on their tours, particularly in Europe, it’s the operators who employ local, expert, passionate guides who are most favorably reviewed. Instead of acting as a babysitter, these knowledgeable individuals aim to take you where the larger tours don’t go, explain everything along the way in an effort to provide the most immersive experience possible and translate when necessary.
- Look for balanced days. No one wants to be running pell-mell from one place to the next all day, being shuffled into vans and herded along like livestock. Good small group tour companies strike a proper balance between sightseeing and physical activity and off-hours, when you may either strike out on your own if you have the desire and energy, or just sit back, have a coffee and a pastry and watch local life go by. Use the "Mixed" Travel Style filter to see the most balanced small group tours »
- Ask about environmental impact. Ecotourism isn’t just another buzzword - it’s a real and growing trend that will make the world more accessible, for longer, for all of us. Small group tour operators often consider it their duty to thank the local community with a service project of some kind, whether you’re bringing in school supplies for local children or cleaning up the very trails upon which you will trod.
- Consider group size. Think about how you picture a small group tour and what you’re comfortable with. Is this five people traveling together? Upwards of twenty? Around 10-12 is typical for a guided tour on the smaller side, a perfectly manageable size for transfers, dining together and accessing sightseeing attractions during off-peak hours.
Small Group Tours in Europe
From Greece to Iceland to Ireland and the Netherlands, Europe is a top destination for small group tours. With a language barrier to overcome, a bucket list of historic attractions as long as your arm and the opportunity to experience several different cultures in one trip, Europe is not only popular but can prove overwhelming.
There are no longer just two ways to experience Europe - either on a large tour bus with 60 of your (not) closest friends, or on your own, with hours of researching to get you there. Instead, take away the guesswork with a guided European vacation package, leaving the planning to a trusted professional.
No one has the expert, off-the-beaten path knowledge that your Europe tour guide will have - having been born and raised or at least having lived for years in the country you’re visiting. Perhaps they have a family friend who owns a winery in Tuscany, Italy, and can arrange a private tasting and tour. Or, maybe it means a tour of rarely visited castle ruins in Scotland, followed by a falconry demonstration.
You’ll see Europe at your pace on a small group tour - choose a guided vacation that encompasses one country or includes a whole region (Scandinavia or the Greek Isles, say).
Everyone’s Europe is different - whether you’re there for the art, the history, the cuisine, the hiking, the skiing, the Northern Lights - so why settle once you’ve made it there? Go with a small group tour operator and the Europe you’ll find can be exactly the one you’ve been seeking.
Things to Know Before You Go
How Many People Will I Be Traveling With?
Just how many new friends will you be making on your small group tour? That depends on the tour operator. We’ve found that there are group tours with intimate groups of 10 to 12 travelers, while some skew slightly larger with between 20 and 25 guests.
The sweet spot seems to be around 16 travelers and certainly no more than 25 if you want to maintain that small group ambience. The size of your group will depend on the popularity of the destination (hello, Europe tours!) and the time of the year in which you are traveling.
These low numbers enable you to connect with other travelers, yet never feel like a face without a name in the group. There’s a great social vibe to that magic number of about 12 to 18 people that allows for a just-right level of camaraderie and energy.
It’s easier to delve deeper into your destination and spend more time in the places of interest to you when your tour size is manageable. Plus, smaller group sizes enable the tour operators to arrange for smaller-scale, boutique-style accommodations, meals in cozier, locally owned restaurants and off-hours visits to popular sightseeing attractions.
Are Departures Guaranteed?
Regrettably, not all small group tour departures are guaranteed. Perhaps there isn’t enough interest in a particular date. In some cases, the tour company will have to cancel that departure date.
This varies widely by tour operator, so read the fine print when researching and selecting your small group tour, even if you’re visiting a popular destination like Europe.
In some cases, the tour company won’t cancel the trip, but will instead collect a “small group fee” when the numbers drop significantly, say, to a group of just one couple. This is a helpful option, particularly in you are traveling a long distance to your destination, perhaps Australia or New Zealand, and are wary about putting down a deposit on an unguaranteed tour departure.
Benefits of a Small Group
- A perfect blend of planned activities and independent exploration time
- A great value, usually including admissions and fees (possibly discounted) that you would have to pay for individually if you planned your own tour
- Just the right number of people to ensure a congenial ambience and enable you to stay in boutique hotels and dine in smaller, out-of-the-way restaurants
- A tour operator specializing in small group tours that will take care of the itinerary, arrange your guides and plan your meals and accommodations
- More time and independence to gain a deeper understanding of your destination with like-minded travelers
- Passionate, local, expert guides eager to share the top experiences in their own countries
- Spontaneous, off-the-beaten-path experiences
Who Are Small Group Tours Good For?
If you have aspirations of traveling to the world’s top destination - from Europe to Asia to New Zealand - yet feel daunted by the planning and logistics, a small group tour is a great choice.
These thoughtfully curated escorted tours to some of the world’s most intriguing places - Europe, in particular - take the guesswork out of your planning. You’ll benefit from the knowledge and behind-the-scenes access a local guide can provide, while still maintaining a level of flexibility and independence that makes this feel like a trip you planned yourself.
When faced with a new destination, far from home, it can be overwhelming to determine how much you can fit into your schedule, which sights are not to be missed (and which ones can just as easily be skipped) and how to get from point A to points X, Y and Z. Don’t fret - just because you’re hearing the words “group tour,” doesn’t mean you’ll end up just another anonymous face on a giant tour bus.
Small group tour operators, from Egypt to Alaska to Italy, make it their mission to introduce you to real life in your chosen destination, taking you off the beaten path and with like-minded travelers with which to enjoy the journey.
I’m Traveling Solo. Do I Need to Pay Extra?
If you have a thirst for adventure, what in the world are you waiting for? Get out there and explore on a small group tour. These days, more and more tour companies aren’t requiring a single supplement fee if you’re willing to room with another single traveler.
And, since you’ve chosen the same trip, it’s likely to be a fast friendship with your new roomie. Don’t balk at the opportunity to travel to a bucket list destination just because you might be going solo. Some of the world’s most intriguing destinations (think Iceland, Machu Picchu and Vietnam) are best explored with an esteemed guide leading the way and like-minded travelers at your side.
This way, you won’t fall into typical tourist traps or venture into an unsafe area. Your small group tour guide has your back! This being said, often the most high-end of small group tour operators still require a single supplement, so do your research in advance.
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