Solo Travel

Ultimate Guide to Your First Small Group Tour

By
Jared O'Toole
on
February 26, 2021

Never been on a group tour before? Then you’ve come to the right place. Over the past 8 years, Under30Experiences has run thousands of small group tours all over the world. We’ve seen and heard just about everything a traveler can encounter during that time. Group travel is not a new concept but if you haven’t been on an actual group trip before it can be intimidating. 

In this guide, I will break down everything you need to know to prepare for your first group tour. When you are finished with this guide you will be able to confidently book and attend a group tour knowing you made the right choice. 

In this guide to group tours you will learn:

  • What to know before booking your group tour.
  • What to do after booking your group tour.
  • What to do when you arrive at your destination on your group tour.
  • How to keep in touch with travelers and stay involved in a community after your grouptour is over.

What is a group tour?

The term “group tours” refers to any organized, multi-day trip that you pre-book and meet a group of other travelers who booked the same trip. Group tours are popular because they involve very little planning, you get to meet new people, there is safety in numbers, and you will have a dedicated trip leader with you. Group tours and group travel are often used interchangeably so don’t be alarmed if you see a company use either term. 

It’s not that group travel is necessarily better than other types of travel, but it’s unique in its own way. People often incorporate group travel into their annual travel plans along with other types of travel, like solo travel or traveling with friends and family. 

Group tours are a great way to go from a beginner traveler to a confident and experienced traveler. Many people start out taking international trips with groups and as they become more comfortable they start to take more trips on their own. It’s a really great way to experience the world and get out of your comfort zone without being completely on your own. 

Further reading: Group Travel vs Solo Travel. What’s Best? 

What to know before booking your group tour:

When researching trips it can be overwhelming to pull up trip pages that have hundreds of images, words, reviews, videos, and marketing materials for the trip. This is more information than you would ever need, but there are a few specific things you should always double-check before booking. 

Length of your trip 

While this seems obvious, it’s important to think about just how long you want your trip to be. If this is your very first group tour, I recommend a trip no longer than a week. Even in small groups, the social aspect of the trip can be overwhelming and exhausting! Testing out the experience with a shorter trip is helpful to better understand how you feel about group travel before booking a whirlwind month-long trip. 

Further reading: The Introverts Guide to Small Group Travel.

Cost

Make sure you look at the exact departure dates you are considering and the price associated with those dates. Many companies will advertise a price for a trip, but this might be the lowest rate they offer at some point during the year. If you are looking at a trip departure during the high season or on a holiday weekend, you might find the departure is significantly more expensive! 

The easiest way to compare trip prices with different companies is to calculate the “cost-per-day” of each trip. For example, a 7-day trip that costs $1500 would be $214/day. It can be difficult to find trips across different companies that are the exact same length but by calculating the “cost-per-day” you can quickly see if the prices are similar. 

What’s included vs not included

It’s crucial to read this section of any trip you are looking at. Often, you will find that things like lodging, transportation to and from activities, breakfasts, and some lunches or dinners are included in the costs. Here are some questions to ask or research:

  • Are the accommodations camping? Hostels? Or boutique hotels?
  • How much free time is there during the trip?
  • What are the costs of the optional activities in the area?
  • How many dinners are NOT included? This is the most costly meal of the day. Remember that the cost of a dinner in London is very different from the cost of a dinner in Thailand. 
  • Is transportation to and from the airport included?
  • Are you supposed to tip your guide?

Pro Tip: Bring cash in the local currency. Most tours will suggest an appropriate amount of cash to bring for food and optional activities. Keep in mind that, in many countries, not all vendors will accept credit cards, especially American Express.

Bonus Pro Tip: Sign up for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for international travel. 

Location

Where you go can have a big impact on your experience. For example, an English-speaking country like Ireland has a lot less culture shock compared to Southeast Asia. You should also consider how long it takes to get to your destination and the jet lag you may encounter. It can take three layovers over the course of two days to get to Southeast Asia from North America. It’s part of the adventure but just understand what your travel time will look like before booking your trip. 

If the travel times seem intimidating, know that there are always more reasonable options. You can get to Costa Rica or Iceland in less than six hours from most US airports. In Costa Rica, you may even be in the same time zone as at home. 

If your travel times are longer than six hours you will have to think about how to deal with your jet lag. Many group trips will hit the ground running on day one! 

Style of trip

Are you looking to spend time at the beach or the mountains? Outdoor adventure or city exploring? Maybe a combination? Most companies will label their trip styles, in some fashion, to help guide you to what you are looking for. Just keep in mind that your group might also reflect the style of trip you choose. A city trip will probably have more partiers looking to stay out late and explore the local nightlife. The outdoor hiking trip will likely have more people going to bed right after dinner to prepare for another big outdoor adventure. These rules don’t always apply, but it’s a good guideline to go by.

Group size and demographics

You will find that group trips range in size from 5-50 people, depending on the company. Some will focus on similar ages, like Under30Experiences, while others will be open to anyone. If it’s your first group trip, smaller group size is generally better, so you’ll have more individualized attention from your guide. I recommend ten to fifteen other travelers, which is a nice size to meet people and make friends, but not too overwhelming. 

You can also reach out to the tour company and ask about the demographics currently booked on the trip. Are you the only female traveler joining an all-male trip, or vice versa? If the company doesn’t target specific age groups you may want to know how wide the age ranges are on the trip. If you are traveling solo you will want to know if the group is made up of other solo travelers, or if it is primarily friends or couples traveling together. Tour companies should be able to tell you the basic makeup of the trip, and you can then decide if it’s right for you or not. 

Pro Tip: I think it’s important to find out how many other solo travelers are on the trip before you book. Groups of friends or couples tend to isolate themselves more than most solo travelers on a typical group trip, and it can be difficult to connect with them. It’s fine if there is a handful of people who already know each other on the trip but just make sure you have at least a few other solo travelers in the group with you. They are the ones most eager to make new friends and go out of their way to connect with others in the group and make friends. 

Travel insurance

Travel insurance protects against things like lost luggage, canceled flights, medical costs while overseas, trip costs if you can’t travel last minute, and many other trip-related issues. What some people don’t realize is that almost all tour companies will require some level of travel insurance for the trip. Each company has its own requirements, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $50-$200 for the insurance plan depending on the length of your trip. 

My best advice is to make sure that you understand the insurance coverage you are purchasing. If something happens on your trip you will be dealing with the insurance company and there are always things that are not covered in the policies. One of the most common questions to ask the insurance company is how they deal with flight delays or cancellations, especially if you miss the start of your group tour. 

Refund & Cancellation Policies

This is one of the more important policies to find for any company you are researching. Some companies offer a lot of flexibility while others, not so much. A relatively normal policy will usually give you a deadline of 1-3 months before your departure to let them know if you are canceling your trip. At this point, you may lose a set percentage of your deposit or with more flexible policies, like at Under30Experiences, you will be able to put your funds on hold for use at a later date. 

It’s also important to read these cancellation policies in full. Most companies have different policies for specific locations that are stricter than their general policy. This is usually due to permits and government regulation for certain places like the Inca Trail or Galápagos Islands. 

Rooming

If you’re joining a group tour you should expect to have a roommate, or multiple roommates, for the entire trip. It’s important to find out how many roommates you will have and if travelers are grouped by gender or not. If you’ve ever stayed in a hostel, you probably know that some rooms can be big, sleeping 8-12 people at a time. This can be cost-effective for the tour operator but is not always a great experience for a traveler on a long trip. 

You will also find that some tour operators use houses or villas during the trip where you will have a roommate and share a bathroom with the house or floor. This is just personal preference, as some of these houses can be beautiful, but always find out how many bathrooms are in them. It can be difficult for a dozen travelers to all get ready in the morning if there are only a couple of showers. 

Is it possible to get a private room? Most tour companies offer this option for an additional fee. It’s almost always dependent on the exact trip and availability. If the single rooms are already taken, or there is only one seat open on the trip, you may not have the option. The fees can range from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands depending on the trip. The costs are usually higher than it’s worth.

Pro Tip: It’s never a guarantee, but if you are signing up last minute for a trip you may get a room all to yourself without an extra charge. If there is only a single room available or a double room, but you are the only person in it, there shouldn’t be an extra charge. You can always ask the tour operator about their trips to see if you would be the first person in a room or if you are joining another traveler in the room. 

It’s like buying a last-minute plane ticket and picking a seat where the one next to you is also open. Another traveler may sign up at the last minute and fill that seat, but sometimes it just stays empty! 

Arrival & Departure Times

Seems simple right? Not always! When researching flights to a destination, there is usually a cheap option that can look very attractive. But does that flight's arrival or departure time align with your group's arrival? The cheapest options usually have the most obscure travel times which might mean missing your group's airport pickup. In some locations, airport pickup may be available all day if your destination is close by. 

For example, in Costa Rica, we have a set time to meet at the airport because it’s a 3+ hour ride to the trip's destination. If you miss that van, you will have to pay for a taxi for that 3-hour trip. In other destinations like Thailand, you can arrive in Bangkok at any time because your first night is at a hotel in the city, so we can easily arrange transportation. 

It’s a small detail but don’t assume that the cheapest flight you find on Google Flights will automatically work for your trip! 

Looking for a flight deal? Check out our Flight Hacking Guide before your next trip! 

Traveling vs being a tourist 

I always recommend finding a company that makes an effort to highlight the true local culture of the area you’re visiting. We all love to see the popular tourist sites and Instagrammable spots but there is so much more to these areas. There is history, local traditions, cultural norms, foods, and hidden spots that are a little too far off the beaten path for the big tour buses to reach. You should strive to be a responsible traveler and come away with an understanding of the people and places that you visited. 

Some of the best days of traveling are eating at small restaurants, finding the “locals” bar, or finding that hidden beach that was a hell of a hike to get to but worth it in the end. 

Pro Tip: The bigger the tour group size, the less likely you are to have the “local” experience. Small restaurants, bars, and charming places only the locals go to can’t accommodate large groups. Small group tours will often focus on the hidden gems a little more. 

Read reviews 

Reviews are the best way to see some honest opinions about other people’s experiences with the company and on their trips. Try to find a review that mentions the exact trip you are considering. It’s important to understand that comments in reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. Many people don’t do enough research before booking something and then end up surprised when they get there. But that won’t be you!

Keep in mind that things like the weather, flight delays, and numerous other factors that are out of a tour company's control often influence a traveler’s overall experience. 

Most companies will have reviews on Facebook, Google, & Yelp. Third-party review sites are always your best bet vs reviews published directly on a company's website. 

What to do after booking your group tour:

Booking your flights 

Depending on when you book your trip, you may not be able to book flights immediately. Tour companies will usually send out flight information a set number of months before your trip letting you know the arrival and departure details. 

When you are ready to book flights, pay close attention to the arrival & departure details. Things to consider: 

  • Look for flight deals that arrive a day early or depart a day late. Use this time to extend your stay in the country and explore somewhere new. 
  • Almost all airports have airport hotels that are nearby. This is a popular choice for travelers who arrive a day early or depart a day late. 
  • The optimal time to book international flights is 3-4 months before departure and 2-3 months for domestic flights. 
Further reading: Travel Hacking: Saving Money and Finding Cheap Flights.

Join any pre-trip groups that are available 

This is something that everyone should take advantage of. Many companies provide a way to contact your fellow travelers before your trip. Not everyone will participate, but it is a good way to see if anyone is traveling from your city, arriving early, or is even on the same flight. 

Even if the group seems quiet, speak up and lead the way. Introduce yourself and let the group know where you are traveling from and what you are looking forward to doing on your trip.

Pack like a pro 

You will have to do some research here depending on the country you are going to, the time of year you are traveling, and the style of your trip. The most important thing to remember is that less is more. The #1 packing mistake we see are travelers who bring too much and struggle to move their bags from buses to hotels to ferries to flights and so on. 

Remember, all cities around the world are not created equal. Be prepared for dirt or cobblestone streets, long walks, hikes, no elevators, boats, planes, and small vehicles. 

The bag of choice for almost all of our travelers is a travel backpack. There are a ton of options that meet carry-on requirements, but even ones that you have to check are a great option. You’ll find that a large backpack is still easier to manage than a small suitcase in unknown areas. 

If this is your first time packing for a longer trip, it’s best to start the process early. Begin packing a few days before your departure and test ways to organize your bag and slowly eliminate items that you realize may not be necessary and take up a lot of space. 

If you prefer a roller bag, this one is most popular with our travelers.

Further reading: The Essential Guide to Packing Like a Pro.
Further reading: How to Pack Your Life in a Backpack.

What to do when you arrive on your group tour:

Have an open mind

Group travel can lead to some of the best memories of your life, but it will, no doubt, test your patience a few times as well. Be ready to meet new people and try new things. Go into the trip expecting to be uncomfortable. Know that your roommate may not be your first choice and that’s okay. Join in on conversations and games when they happen. Keep a positive attitude and go with the flow. 

This is a group trip, so the more you get involved and get to know your fellow travelers the more fun you will have. 

Participate. Participate. Participate.

Stay with the group as much as possible during the first few days of the trip. Join others if they go out at night or wander around during free time. Connections happen early on these trips and if you wait to participate with others, you may find they have already formed small cliques. 

If you are tired a few days into the trip, just remember that everyone else is too. When travelers skip out on activities or time with the group they often regret it later. It’s your choice, but you are only in your exact location for a short time before moving on. Use the group’s energy to your advantage!

Pro Tip: Trip leaders will often sit next to different people at meals, on the bus, and during activities to help connect with everyone. I highly recommend that you do the same at least a couple of times. While seated during meals and on buses are the best chances of having really in-depth conversations with other travelers. If you stick to the first couple of people you met, you may miss out on other great friendships!  

Get to know your tour leader

Your tour conductor is your best resource while you’re on the tour. They will be happy to help you with any questions about the local area, provide suggestions on what to do, or just have a friendly conversation. 

They have, most likely, grown up in the region and have run group trips before. Tour leaders love talking about their country and are proud to educate others about it and show off all that it has to offer. Your trip leader probably has some funny stories about other groups or travelers they have come across while on the job. Asking about these stories is always a great way to connect with them. 

Remember, they are part of the group so don’t be shy about engaging with them and getting to know them just like you are getting to know your other travelers. They are there to help so take advantage! 

Pro tip: You will be able to connect with your tour leader more on a small group tour. Even if your trip has 50 travelers on it there will still only be one tour leader. 

Smile 

This is more important than you might think. Smiling brings good energy to you. It helps other travelers feel that you are approachable. It will also keep your mind focused on the positive. 

As I have mentioned in this article, group travel, and honestly, any type of travel, can present all kinds of challenges that might make you uncomfortable. It’s important to stay positive and realize that it is all part of the experience. 

How to stay involved after your tour is over:

Use your new friends for local trips

A great thing about meeting new people who have traveled from different locations is that you now have friends in cities around the world. Use this opportunity to travel and explore these places while staying or meeting up with your new friends. They’re great resources to have and make solo trips a lot more fun. 

Plan reunions

We’ve seen a lot of Under30Experiences groups plan awesome reunions after returning home. Entire groups have gotten together in places like Lake Tahoe, Asheville, Austin, and many others. These are usually quick 3-4 day weekend trips to anywhere the group agrees on. Not every group clicks at this level, but when they do it’s a lot of fun to see these things come together. 

Don’t be afraid to take charge and help plan a reunion trip like this. You’d be surprised how many people are interested and are just waiting for someone to take the lead.

Leave a review or provide feedback

Every travel company works hard to provide a great experience for their customers. It is extremely difficult to control everything that happens while exploring foreign countries for days or weeks at a time. A company needs its travelers to provide feedback to know how things went on the trip itself. Companies will collect this feedback in different ways but at Under30Experiences we ask travelers to fill out a trip feedback form and leave a review online. 

We also ask travelers to contact us directly with both good and bad feedback. It’s how we improve, and we love hearing from everyone. 

It’s Time to travel! 

You’ve done the research, and now it’s time to book a small group tour. Remember, start small and work your way to longer and more expensive trips. Wherever you decide to travel it will be a memorable experience, and you won’t regret it. 


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Jared O'Toole
Co-founder Under30Experiences

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