USTOA in Westways

Published Oct 1, 2012 12:00AM

Going With the Group

Discovering the Virtues of "Guided Vacations"

By Paul Lasley & Elizabeth Harryman

Q: Some friends want my husband and me to join them on an escorted tour of Eastern Europe, but we’re reluctant to travel with a group. What should we do?

A: We, too, were reluctant to take an escorted tour, afraid we’d spend hours on a cramped motorcoach, getting only fleeting glimpses of places. On the advice of a colleague, however, we took a 12-day tour of Spain that included strolling the streets of a medieval village by moonlight and chatting with locals over pintxos (tapas) in Bilbao.

The experience taught us that escorted tours can offer advantages.

“It’s the best use of your time,” says Scott Martin, a Brooklyn drama educator who has visited the Galápagos Islands, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan on group tours. “If you were to plan a similar trip on your own, you wouldn’t see as much in as short a time. The downside is you’re on a schedule. I don’t like looking at my watch all the time, but it’s a trade-off for the convenience of having the tour company arrange hotels, transfers, even visas if necessary.”

Here are other things to consider.

Tours can save you money. “You get the buying power of the group rather than that of an individual traveler,” says Bill Sharp Jr., a product development manager for an Indianapolis-based travel company.

Tours offer a sense of security. “If a problem comes up—you’ve lost your passport, or you just want to know a good place for dinner,” Sharp says, “the tour escort is there to help you.”

Tours have evolved in recent years. “Travelers have told us they don’t want to be ‘herded,’” Sharp says. “So operators are swinging to more flexibility, as well as more immersion trips. If you’re interested in horses, you can visit a polo farm in Spain; if you like to cook, you can join culinary classes in Italy.”

To accommodate the growing interest in these kinds of vacations, operators have developed tours—such as Trafalgar’s At Leisure series and Brendan Vacations—that offer free time and in-depth travel experiences.

“Our boutique guided vacations are more intimate,” says Brendan’s Nico Zenner. “There are no more than 24 people on any of them. You can sit in the pub at Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara and sing along with the locals.”

And if you’re not an early riser, there’s good news. On many of these tours, there’s no departure earlier than 9 a.m. Zenner points out.

Today’s tours appeal to a broader range of travelers. When we toured Ireland, three college women joined our group of 30- to 60-somethings.

The trio became the group’s designated nightlife reporters, checking out clubs in each place we visited. Some tour companies, such as Contiki, cater exclusively to 18- to 35-year-olds.

The evolution of escorted tours has even led some companies to dispense with the term “escorted tours” altogether. Trafalgar and Brendan now call them “guided vacations.”

Whatever the term, the human factor remains key. “On my recent Israel tour, I hit it off with a minister from Alabama and her sister-in-law,” says Martin. “They’ve promised to visit me in New York this fall.”

Before booking your escorted tour, keep in mind the following.

Manage expectations. 

Read the itinerary carefully. “See” Germany’s Heidelberg Castle doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually visit it.

Look for industry affiliations.


The United States Tour Operators Association, for example, has a consumer protection plan that can cover you in case of an operator’s bankruptcy. And AAA-preferred suppliers have been researched for quality and reliability.

Get details on what’s included.

Some tours include meals, for example; some don’t. On some tours, you can choose where to eat; others have set restaurants. Work with a travel agent to ensure you book the type of tour that matches your traveling style.


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