These days I do much of my travel “solo”. I plan my own itinerary and book my own accommodation and activities.
Whilst I enjoy solo travel, small group tours, that is those with less than 16 people, are also a good vacation option. I have been on four small group tours, three with Intrepid Travel (Italy (2007), Thailand (2012) and Vietnam (2015)) and one with Peregrine Adventures (Myanmar (2006)). I have booked a small group walking tour with About Argyll Walking Tours for my upcoming (2019) trip to Scotland.
Intrepid and Peregrine are run by the same parent company and while I have nothing to compare them with (yet) I recommend them both as tour operators. (BTW this post is NOT sponsored by any of the tour companies mentioned.)
Small group tours are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they offer a good balance and as you can see from my pros and cons table, the pros outweigh the cons.
Pros and cons of small group tours
I think it’s the “new and interesting” people that puts most people off small group tours. If you are travelling alone and you don’t pay the single supplement, you end up sharing with someone you don’t know. Luckily, this has only happened to me once as most people travel with a friend and I have been the odd one out on all but one of the tours, so I get to listen to my own snoring and not someone else’s! 🙂
I suggest that you make careful choices about the tours you book and the companies you travel with, so that you end up with the “right” sort of people. The price will dictate the sorts of people you share your time with so don’t expect the jet-set on a budget tour.
Also make sure you pay attention to the ratings the tour company makes in relation to physical activity and the theme of the tour (family, active, foodie etc, Peregrine’s themes are here) . In my albeit limited experience, high levels of physical activity and the active themes puts me with “my tribe” more closely than those with lower levels. It will be different for you.
Burma with Peregrine Adventures
It’s hard to believe my first small group tour experience to Burma (Myanmar) was more than a decade ago. Back in 2006, the country was only just starting to embrace tourism and things did not go smoothly, even for the tour operators.
A scheduled overnight train trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay had to be substituted at the last minute by an internal flight because of some undisclosed problem.
The tour leader was on the phone for hours trying to sort things out. It would have been difficult to manage this as an independent traveller. He also warned us about where we could and couldn’t take photos. His entreaties not to take photos of certain buildings seemed very genuine.
Intrepid Travel Walking Tour – Amalfi Coast
I wrote about the interesting dynamic that developed on my trip to Italy in my post about “Footpath to the Gods”. In this case, an international group of eight – comprising three husband-wife couples from Scotland, America and New Zealand and a single Aussie female and myself, joined up for a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Although the trip was rated for very high levels of physical activity, the two Americans were morbidly obese and not regular exercisers. They struggled with the walking and this caused issues. They clearly did not heed the advice about the activity level. While most of trip was harmonious, tempers flared on the last night, almost resulting in a fist fight.
Tribal Thailand – Intrepid Travel
The Tribal Thailand tour included a 3 day trek through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Slashing vines, clambering over fallen trees and hearing the lonely calls of gibbons made it a truly enjoyable experience. The combination of heat, humidity, the weight of our packs and biting insects made it a physically challenging experience. Sleeping on wooden floors and eating with local families in their simple kitchens made it a humbling experience. Despite the fact that, on reflection, I am pretty sure we walked around in circles not far from a main road for the three days, I would heartily recommend it! I was the second oldest on the tour (but not the least fit I am pleased to say). I still keep in touch with two younger women from this group via Facebook. We even had a reprise trip the year after, where 6 of the 7 of us did a hiking trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.
Vietnam – North to South with Intrepid Travel
The trip to Vietnam had six people – two couples and a single, elderly man. It was rated with low levels of physical activity and the people were much older than the Thailand tour. On this trip I was the second youngest and at 52 that’s saying something! It was still fun and I spent most of my time with Debra and Phil from Wales. On this tour, the “interesting person” was a barrister from the UK travelling with his lovely wife. Even though he was probably the wealthiest amongst us, he owed us all money by the end of the trip because he didn’t ever seem to have “the right change” when he needed to pay his share of the taxi/hotel/restaurant bill. It was funny at first but became a bit of a sore point by the end of the 12 day tour. Debra and Phil, by the way, run a pub in Wales. It looks pretty good and one day I’ll visit them!
All these these small group tours have given me great memories and photo books full of images. Overall, they have been very positive. Even the negatives are positive, in that they give you some great dinner party stories.
My advice is to keep an open heart and open mind, know that it’s only for a short period and be friendly and easy going. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if worse comes to worse, treat it as an interesting social experiment. That way you can sit back and learn about the world both from the country you visit and the people you share the bus with.