How to decide if a tour is right for you

For some travelers, the mere sight of a tour bus is enough to make them cringe. Heck, I don’t enjoy seeing large masses of humanity spilling out of a humongous vehicle and mucking up my “unique” travel experience. But that’s not to say that all tours are wastes of your time and money.

There are some phenomenal tour operators all over the world offering myriad types of guided excursions. Many are even geared towards seasoned travelers who don’t need their hands held the entire time. So, rather than discount all tours as wretched experiences best left to novices, spend more time finding a tour that meets your needs and you may be surprised to find that you, too, can enjoy a guided experience.

Finding a tour that matches your travel aesthetic is easier than you think. You simply need to ask a few important questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour?
You can read reviews on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, but there’s no way to know for sure that you’ll share the same opinions as the commenters on those sites. But you know your friends. You trust them. Reach out to family, friends and colleagues to see if they can recommend tours before you book anything. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to crowdsource opinions from people you know and who know what you like.

Will the tour help with a language barrier?
Sure, you can point at menu items and gesticulate your way to the bathroom, but, at some point, your inability to speak the local language may inhibit your ability to see something that you truly want to visit. That’s why finding a reputable tour operator can become the difference between having the trip of your dreams and going home disappointed. Gadling’s Darren Murph has mentioned in the past how a tour in Central America was his favorite guided travel experience. One key reason was his guide’s ability to expedite his border crossing – something Darren would not have been able to do on his own. Darren told me that the tour “literally made the impossible, possible.”

Does the tour solve transportation problems?
In the developed world, even novice travelers feel comfortable renting a car and heading off on their own adventures. Sure, driving on the left may feel awkward at first, but awkward is better than dangerous. In the developing world, transportation can often be the single biggest challenge that you will face. Whether it’s because the roads are dangerous, difficult or non-existent, it’s perfectly respectable to prefer that someone else do the driving. Other times, a car is not even an option. Paying for the boats, camels and helicopters needed to reach a remote location can be prohibitively expensive. Booking yourself on a tour can mitigate that problem and cut your transportation costs immensely.

Does the tour operator share your ideals?
While traveling should expand our minds and challenge our beliefs, there may be nothing worse than being on a tour led by someone who operates their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities. When Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel, was planning a trip to Morocco, she sought out tour operators who shared her “same ideals about sustainable and authentic travel.” This is particularly important if you are seeking out cultural tourism. Forced cultural experiences can leave you feeling uncomfortable, which is a topic we have covered before on Gadling. Finding a tour that meshes with your ideals will prevent you from wanting to jump out of a moving bus at any point on the trip.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook?
Sometimes wandering on your own and supplementing your own knowledge with a guidebook is all you need to immerse yourself in a place. However, guided tours can often provide a deeper understanding and local expertise that no amount of self-directed research could unveil. Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer took a free walking tour in Reykjavik with a guide who predicted Iceland’s economic problems well in advance of the news hitting the front pages of newspapers around the world. Whether it’s an Art Deco tour in Miami, a private tour of the Vatican or a prophetic walk around Reykjavik, a guide will be able to tell you much more than a book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide?
Darren Murph’s Central American tour was led by the owners of the tour company. Small operations like that have more of a vested interest in creating a positive experience because they can’t afford to develop a bad reputation. Massive tour operators with transient, part-time staff may be cheaper, but they probably don’t care about their product as much as a small business owner does.

How big is the tour group?
When it comes to tours, size matters. Small groups allow for personalized and intimate experiences. Large groups keep costs down and allow you to meet more people. Janelle Nanos wanted to avoid being part of a herd. She chose an operator in Morocco who kept the groups small. “That meant no big buses, no crowded tourist restaurants, no walking through a city like a group of four-year-old soccer wannabees following a ball.” Know your preference before you put down that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have?
Even travelers who always prefer tours to independent travel want some time to themselves. Before booking yourself on a tour, find out how much free time you’ll have to explore neighborhoods, wander through ruins or just have a meal by yourself. Local knowledge and expertise are wonderful things, but so are customizing your trip and hearing your own thoughts.

Where will you be staying?
If your tour will involve overnight stays, investigate the level of accommodations. If you want to rough it, be sure that you won’t be at hotel chains every night. If hostels aren’t your thing, avoid finding yourself on a budget tour.

Many of you will continue to eschew tours and that’s certainly your prerogative. But, that may not always be an option. Some parks and historical sites only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group. Gadling’s Kraig Becker noted that hiking the Inca Trail is limited to those who are members of a guided tour. There are plenty of places with similar policies and even the most stubborn independent travelers will have to suck it up and ask themselves the above questions.

What questions do you ask yourself before booking a tour? What has made your tour experiences positive (or, unfortunately, negative)? Do you agree that it’s OK to take tours? Share your tour tips and tales in the comments to help us all get the most out of our travel experiences.

Special thanks to Janelle Nanos and all of the Gadling writers who shared their advice.