The Pros and Cons of Group Travel

Have you ever traveled with another couple? Or maybe with a group of family members? If you have, you’ve most likely been frustrated with waiting for others to get ready or for small children to be dressed and packed up for the day ahead. It’s just harder to move from place to place with a large group. But it’s more fun to be with family and friends sometimes, than just going it alone or with another person.

“I love my family and friends. But, it can be hard to travel in big groups. It seems to take exponentially longer to get going when so many people are traveling together.”

As we get older, we get used to doing things the same way – our way. Other people may like to get up and go quickly, without eating or having a cup of coffee first. I always like to have enough time to be punctual for an event. I also like to have time for coffee. If you like to be early, you shouldn’t plan to travel with someone who is always late. You will not enjoy yourself at all, and will probably be miserable the whole trip. People are all different, and you MUST take this into account before you agree to travel with others.

Group Tours

Have you ever been on a group tour where 40 or more people are all traveling on a bus? There are advantages to traveling with a big group. The most obvious is the money you can save by being a part of group buying power. Most tour operators make their money by selling you a way to see a lot of sights, by booking rooms cheaper because of the volume they bring a hotel, and by providing transportation so you don’t have worry about how to get to each place along the tour route. Tours can be a very good deal and I don’t want to discourage anyone from joining a tour. They have allowed me to squeeze a lot of sights into a single day that I wouldn’t be able to do myself. You just need to be aware of the “pros” and “cons” of the tour group dynamic. Whenever you get people from different countries on a tour bus, it can be a lot of fun. Meeting people is really one of the nice things you will experience when taking tours. We’ve had a great time talking to all sorts of people on the tours we’ve been a part of. I definitely recommend it if you prepare yourself for it properly.

Tours are set up to whisk you away to the most interesting places to be found. Because of that, they are on a very tight schedule and have to keep people moving. As you can imagine, some people keep up just fine, while others can’t seem to maintain the pace of the group and are always falling behind, forgetting that they are part of a big group and keeping everyone waiting. These folks are usually dealt with in one of two ways. Either the tour guide says something to the “habitually late” people, or they drive off and leave them. We were on a tour to the Vatican once. The tour guide had warned everyone that they would need to be back to the bus at a certain time. One person who was traveling solo with us did not make it back to the bus in time, so we left her. We were all shocked and wondered what would happen to her. It turned out that the tour guide called her and gave her directions to the sight we would be stopping at next. She caught up with us later that afternoon. She also didn’t seem the least bit concerned about being left behind. Apparently she wanted to climb to the Vatican Cupola more than she wanted to be back to the bus on time.

The stairway to the cupola at St. Peter's Cathedral.

The spiral stairway through St. Peter’s Cathedral dome to the cupola at the top.

It’s an interesting thing to observe how people react to being in a group with others. Some people are very concerned about following the rules and keeping to the schedule (that’s me!). I don’t want to be the person that is keeping the bus from leaving. But some people don’t seem to care that they are always last to return to the bus. I don’t know how many times we’ve sat and waited for the same people over and over again. They are told when to be back at the bus, and yet they constantly fail to return on time. I’ve seen it so bad that people start making loud comments at them when they finally get back on the bus (“the bus was supposed to leave 10 minutes ago”, or “better get a new watch”). And even then, some just don’t seem to care that others are getting tired of the delays and getting vocal about it. Before you travel with this type of tour group, ask yourself if you can tolerate this kind of thing. Many people can’t and have a terrible time dealing with this type of group dynamic. If you’ve never taken a bus tour, I recommend that you find a short two or three day trip to try it out and see if you are OK with it. You don’t want to join a European tour for 12 days and find out that you can’t deal with the people you’re traveling around with!

Note: I don’t take long group tours any more. When we want to join a tour, we ask the tour company to let us join the tour where we want to start and stop. That way, we can arrive and spend a few days or a week looking around on our own. We plan our trip so that we can join the tour at a major city (usually at the airport) and continue with them for a number of days. Then we leave the tour where we want to stop and continue on our own again. We usually get a decent price quoted from the tour company (like $$70.00 per person per day with double occupancy). This allows us to take advantage of the tour discounts on hotels and transportation. We also get a guide and admission to various attractions that we want to see. We don’t spend the entire vacation with the same tour group, and we have more than half of our trip to ourselves. This works really well and can save your trip if the tour group you ride with is difficult or there are a number of annoying members. Go only on the part of the tour that you really want to join and skip the rest. For example: We joined a tour that was already in progress starting at the airport in Nice, France. We traveled with the group to Monte Carlo, Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice and then we went to Lucerne, Switzerland where we left the tour and spent time looking around the Swiss Alps. It was great because we got a whirlwind tour of Italy. We loved it so much that we’ve been back there on our own three more times.

Murren, Switzerland

An outdoor cafe in Murren, Switzerland. Large chunks of ice would occasionally break off and go crashing down to the valley below.

Family and Friends Traveling Together

It’s great fun traveling with family and friends. When you have grandchildren, it’s even more delightful. But family travel comes with unique challenges, especially when small kids are involved.

Daydream – taking my grandchildren to Italy and exploring the streets and sights, riding the trains, buying them their first gelato, and ordering a big pizza pie to share.

I have five grandchildren and I would like to take all of them to see Europe and Asia. Do you have a similar dream? One day it will be my pleasure to travel with them to some wonderful places abroad. We’ll have all summer to look around and experience the culture of the cities we visit. No hurrying for me. Just relaxing and enjoying a wonderful trip. After a lifetime of work and worry, this is something I look forward to every day.

But, traveling with family can be just as difficult as traveling with a tour group. When small children are involved, there are a million things that can go wrong. Diapers need to be changed, the kids need a nap or they get the sniffles and don’t feel well. Lots of challenges to overcome. Mom and Dad have to constantly be aware of the children and tend to their needs. It can be frustrating when you are ready to go and something always seems to stop your forward progress. It’s easy to get annoyed to the point where you wonder why you agreed to travel with family at all. That is, until you sort out the real reasons for going. Because you love and cherish your family. That’s the reason why.

Let me offer my viewpoint on traveling with a group. I came to this way of thinking a number of years ago when I realized that my friends and family deserve the very best life can offer. I came up with a Golden Rule of Travel that I live by, because it makes so much sense for me that I couldn’t possibly do anything else where travel is concerned.

Steve’s Golden Rule of Travel:

1. When traveling with a group of people that have been thrown together (as in a bus or walking tour), I like to be pleasant and get to know them as much as possible. We’ve made some friends over the years while on tours. However, the purpose of the tour is for my wife and I to visit something new and special. We’ve paid for the experience. The tour is first and foremost. We want to get our money’s worth. The trip is all about me and getting what I want from it.

2. When we travel as a family, we often fly or drive to some destination and spend time together. A favorite activity is going to a nice restaurant. With all the interest in food and wine these days, it is fun to try restaurants run by famous chefs. The grandchildren are a joy to be around and we like to watch them so the parents can get a break for a few hours to go out on their own. I don’t expect to see or do a lot, because the focus of the trip is not me. The trip is all about my children and grandchildren. The same is true when traveling with friends. I try to make it about them so we all work together to get the maximum enjoyment out of the trip.

If this is obvious to you, then we think alike. But I’ve seen people over the years who seem to be annoyed by the inconvenience of having small children to deal with as they want to play golf or visit a museum or what-have-you. By applying the Golden Rule of Travel, you can get your priorities straight before leaving the house. When you focus on what is important, you’ll enjoy yourself much more on your next trip. And you’ll prepare for it mentally so that you place the importance where it belongs.

Here’s my list of Pro’s and Con’s when traveling with a group:

PRO’s (or advantages) to group travel:

  • When with an organized tour, you can just follow the tour guide’s lead and go from place to place. No hassle with driving, parking or getting to the next sight.
  • Tours provide a hotel, transportation and some meals, plus entrance to some of the sights you will be visiting. Most tours are generally a good deal, and can save you money over what it would cost to take the same trip on your own.
  • Tour operators try to fill your day with all of the things you want to see on a whirlwind trip. This allows you to see a lot more than you could do on your own.
  • You have a group of people who want to see the same things that you do, so the potential for common interests is high. Many people make good and lasting friendships by going on tours.
  • Tour operators usually hire experts at the sights you will see to provide insight and background to the sights on the agenda. Most of the people are local, and have a very good understanding of the history and the culture of the area.

Here are the CON’s (disadvantages) to traveling with a group:

  • Organized tours are on a very tight schedule. The tour guide will want the tour to be complete on time each day, especially if they live in the area and plan to go home at night. If the tour is supposed to end at 6 pm, then your guide will want to finish on time. Wouldn’t you want to finish on time if this were your job? Expect to be hurried along, especially if the tour leader starts falling behind schedule because of delays.
  • When you book a tour, you generally don’t get a choice of the hotel you will be staying in. In order to get a good price on the rooms, the tour operator has to make an arrangement to book all the rooms at one hotel so they can get a discount. Many hotels keep their rooms full by accommodating tour groups. Most hotels I’ve stayed in have been adequate, but they’re usually just nice enough so that people can tolerate them. I have heard of people who, upon seeing the hotel they would be staying in, insist on booking into another, better hotel. If you have a high standard for hotel rooms, be sure to check with the tour company and do some online investigation of the hotels where they are planning to put you up.
  • Transportation is provided by the tour company (most often a 40+ passenger bus). Most tours I’ve taken have had nice, clean, modern buses. But, be aware that you might not like being packed into a bus with so many people for a week or two. It can get to you after awhile if you have other people on the bus who are annoying. And be aware that you will be spending A LOT of time on the bus. A LOT!
  • Tours very often start early in the morning. If you are not an early riser, then be prepared to get up early, pack your suitcase and hit the road at some ridiculous hours. I went on a three day trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas a few years ago with my wife. One morning, they got us up at 4:30 am. They told us they wanted to get to the Grand Canyon right when they opened the gates so that we could beat the crowds that start rolling in soon after that. We spent 40 minutes at the Grand Canyon, and then got back on the bus to go to Las Vegas. We hardly saw anything except the visitor’s center and a look over the edge. It wasn’t hardly worth it. But, we had to stay on schedule. On to Las Vegas (and another 4 or 5 hours on the bus).
  • Because tours are designed to pack a lot of sights in each day, the time allotted for stops at any given attraction is miniscule. Some people just want to see a famous tourist attraction so they can say they’ve been there. They are fine with that. I want to see it, go in, and learn something about it. Organized tours don’t make allowances for people like me who want to linger and take in the sights, rather than just “do a drive-by”. If you want to have the time to really see something, you’ll want to think hard about whether you can tolerate being herded along on a fixed schedule.
  • ALERT! Be aware that just because a travel tour brochure says you’ll be stopping at some famous place, don’t assume that you will actually be going IN to this famous place. It costs time and money for the tour operators to purchase admission to these famous places. So while you might actually go there, you need to check with the tour company and see if you will actually be going inside. I once went on a tour bus to Rome. One of the stops advertised was the Colosseum. They took us there all right, but we just stood around outside for awhile, before heading back to the bus. We didn’t go in! I was so disappointed that I was at the Colosseum, but couldn’t see what it looked like on the inside. That’s when I realized that we were on a tight schedule and that the tour was aimed at getting us to as many places as possible in the short time we had. We had the same experience at the Eiffel Tower. We went there, but didn’t actually go up to the observation decks. We just got a look at the outside and we walked around underneath it. Buyer beware! Ask your tour operator to provide details on which tour stops will include admission and how long the group will be staying there before moving on. You’ll avoid the frustration that comes with not being able to actually go inside!
Lion Gate at Mycenae, Greece

The Lion Gate at Mycenae, Greece. We took a bus tour here and got to spend an hour looking around. Awesome!

So there you have it. My take on group travel. It can be fun and it’s definitely an adventure. Know what you are getting into before you sign up and you’ll have a much better time.

I would really like to hear from you on this subject. Do you agree or disagree? And what do you think the Golden Rule of Travel should be?

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About Steven

Living and traveling is my goal. Why stay in one place when there are fantastic beaches, mountains, cities and wide-open spaces to see and enjoy? I can't wait to stop working and start living....!
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