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Savvy Travel: The Scoop on Group Travel

Which type of travel is right for you? Fifi LaMode, The Budget Babe's International Travel Advisor, gives us the scoop on traveling with a group. —BB

by Fifi LaMode
Never have so many opportunities been available for people to see just about any place in the world. Not long ago, in the 50's, an economy ticket to Europe cost about 4 months' wages and people dressed up to go on planes because it was such a big deal. Going to Florida in the winter was for the well-off and if you did a family trip to California from the Midwest, it was by train, or you drove. Now, even with rising airfares, travel is still a bargain. To get the most from your travel dollar, it's important to decide how you want to travel, whether in a group or on your own.

Group travel has its advantages:
  1. Once you are met at the airport by the group representative, you don't have to schlep luggage. It's delivered to your room at each hotel. It's picked up in the morning and placed on the bus. All included in the price of the tour.
  2. You get to meet people from all over the place who share your interest in the places you're visiting.
  3. The research is done for you. You don't have to look for hotels on your own and negotiate prices. Some of the meals are usually included, breakfasts almost always.
  4. Once you've paid upfront for the tour, in US dollars, you don't have to worry about exchange rates or budgeting except for non-included items, like tips for the guides and incidentals and lunches/dinners.

Here are some of the disadvantages:
  1. The hotels are usually large sterile chains, albeit the rates are better than booking on your own. The higher the quality of the tour, the more central the hotels generally.
  2. You may have annoying people in your group. If there's a bus with 40-odd people, you can bet on at least one or two to get on your nerves somewhere along the way.
  3. You become institutionalized after a few days, i.e., you don't think for yourself as the guide has everything planned out. Of course if you're like me, you wait for those moments when you have free time to break away from the fold to sneak off to the nearest cake shop.
  4. You don't have a choice once the itinerary has been decided. If you want to stay a couple of hours longer in a particular place, that's not an option. However, if you use the group tour as a 'starter' tour to a place (to get an idea of what a country has to offer), it's a good way to figure out which places you want to visit in depth. This has worked for me in Southeast Asia, for example, where I knew nothing about any of the countries. I took a highlights tour visiting Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Penang, Malaysia. I fell in love with Malaysia and returned a couple of years later for 3 weeks on my own.

The best way to find a group tour operator is to get a reputable travel agent and discuss your preferences. A good agent will be able to recommend a tour for your budget and interests.

For general travel, some well-known operators are Globus Journeys (I took them to France - well-organized, great guide, good itineraries and decent hotels, mainly 3 and 4 star), Trafalgar Tours (a bit down-market from Globus, but cheaper, they do a bit of a hard sell telling you along the way what a great deal you are getting), General Tours (pricier than Globus but smaller groups and more personalized), Abercrombie & Kent (when money is no object), Caravan Tours (in North America only - they advertise tours for $999).

When looking at prices, be careful to note what's included. For example, a Caravan tour to Mexico is advertised at $999, but you have to add travel insurance, a fuel surcharge/tax, and a single supplement if you are travelling alone, plus airfare. So it will actually run you about double that, depending on where you're flying from. They do include all meals, however, which will save you a few hundred dollars over a week. My Globus trip to France included 5 dinners over a 10-day period, which was ok, because you don't always want to eat in a group, especially when you're joined at the hip in a bus day after day. Also don't forget the travel insurance - it's a small price to pay for peace of mind in case you have to cancel for any reason.

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