123rfCamel riding in the Sahara desert.
Touring isn’t watered-down travel, nor for the timid or unsophisticated. It has become more varied and adventurous, active and intelligent. And in these turbulent times, when we’re looking for the reassurance of curated travel advice, clearly established cost and back-up plans, there are even more reasons to consider a tour.
A tour holiday provides an up-front price, which avoids unhappy surprises in a world where travel costs are projected to rise thanks to inflation, staff shortages and post-Covid restructuring. Some of the nations with the highest inflation – such as the US, Italy, Switzerland, Greece and Turkey – are big tourist destinations. Lock in your package cost now and it’s a good financial bet you’ll be pleased come tour time.
Among persistent furphies about tours is that they’re overpriced, but big tour companies leverage their purchasing power for good deals on airfares and hotels. Add in meals, guides and (depending on small print) airport transfers and gratuities. Don’t forget the not-so-obvious inclusions that add up as an independent traveller: petrol, motorway tolls, entrance fees. Price the journey yourself and you might reconsider.
You pay not just for the product but peace of mind. One-stop bookings are an advantage if things go haywire: travel with a reputable company and you’re in good emergency hands, and can access refunds more easily. Even a missed or cancelled flight in these times of airport chaos isn’t something you need to stress over: let a stressed-out tour director deal with it instead.
Even in the best-case scenario touring takes the trouble out of travel. Everything is organised for you and the nitty-gritty of travel practicalities banished. Some might say that’s exactly what a holiday ought to be.
Those used to individual travel don’t get the welcome relief of not having to think about anything, except about enjoying the sights. They don’t get that enjoying the sights accompanied by an expert guide adds another layer of appreciation.
TOURS ARE FOR THE LAZY
BROOK SABINOpt for a serious trekking adventure in the Himalayas.
Oh, that old trope. It’s surely the stereotypes that indicate lazy thinking. Upgrade your outdated view if you imagine tours are filled with couch potatoes gazing at monuments from moving windows. Tour-goers aren’t nearly dead nor early to bed.
Even mainstream tours require considerable stamina. Expect an early wake-up call, full day and several hours’ walking; the best tour companies keep “gentle walkers” aside to explore at a slower pace. You might be offered activities such as biking or kayaking. Then it’s a quick change at magician’s speed and a convivial dinner before someone inevitably suggests a nightcap at a local wine bar.
Meanwhile there are endless options for walking, hiking, camping, cycling and other active tours. Among the most extreme is World Expedition’s Great Himalaya Trail: 150 days of serious trekking, occasionally with crampons and an ice axe – laziness not an option.
YOU TRAVEL WITH THE BORING
BROOK SABINUniworld is Europe’s river cruise for millennials.
Of course you do. Heaven knows travellers who want to see the Golden Eagle festival in Mongolia, swim with South African sharks or visit rock-hewn Ethiopian churches must be utterly devoid of curiosity and spark.
Okay, the over-50s form the bulk of some tour markets. But don’t assume they’re timid travellers. They aren’t looking for blandness in tours but rather convenience, sociability and security. Get chatting and you’ll find inquisitive minds, friendliness and stories about how your fellow travellers once volunteered at orphanages in Ethiopia or hitchhiked the hippy trail to India.
Do tours still exist that cater to the unimaginative looking to tick off buckets lists while fretting about local food? Maybe. But plenty of tours offer adventure, nightclubbing, culture, history and remote landscapes – and sometimes all five.
NOBODY LIKES COACHES
Says the backpacker happy to squeeze into a tuk-tuk and overnight on an Egyptian bus while being screeched at from loudspeakers by an ululating pop starlet. But whatever. And is a hire car better than a coach? Not if you’ve tried self-driving in Mexico City or Mumbai or European old towns with slippery cobbles and narrow one-way alleys.
Coach touring saves you the energy and stress. Relaxed in an elevated seat, you can enjoy passing scenery and chat to your companions. No worries about parking or the price of petrol, and top-range coaches have good legroom, wi-fi and an on-board toilet.
Not convinced? You don’t have to tour in a coach. You can walk, cycle, barge, ride a horse or tour by luxury train or yacht.
TOURING IS A COOKIE-CUTTER EXPERIENCE
123rfExplore a destination through its food.
Well it can be, but if someone with limited time wants to see the South American highlights they’d never otherwise experience, good on them. Moreover, anyone who can’t find a tour that they think is interesting has lost their zest for travel.
A proliferation of flexible, small-group, culturally immersive and adventurous tours has emerged over the last decade, and all the Earth’s crannies can be explored. Stay in Buddhist temples in South Korea. Visit Roman ruins with an archaeological expert. Take a culinary tour of Thailand.
Themed tours can be as esoteric as the hill-tribe textiles of Laos or the Jewish history of the Czech Republic. Rather than middle-of-the-road, follow the footsteps of poet Matsu Basho around Japan. Even an abundance of more mainstream tours focuses on photography, food, wine, spring blossoms, Christmas markets, music or encounters with wildlife.
YOU SEE 10 COUNTRIES IN 10 DAYS
THE TRAVEL CORPORATIONTake a tour of Europe’s Christmas markets.
Everyone knows the joke about the tourists who aren’t sure whether they’re in Belgium or France. Still, if you have limited time off work and crave an overview, the multi-country tour isn’t a bad thing.
Actually, few tours of any sort these days are go-go-go; most have become less regimented and provide leisure time for rest or for the chance to follow personal interests. Many tours focus on a single country or even region and, if you’re looking to limit travel time, you only have to pick the right itinerary.
Companies such as Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and even the once super-speedy, do-it-all Contiki now offer slower-paced tours that feature fewer stopovers, double nights in one place, more free time, a more relaxed pace and optional add-on excursions.
TOURS AREN’T ECO-FRIENDLY
JUSTINE TYERMANTrains are an eco-friendly alternative to flying.
Travel in groups gives the impression of a big footprint, but compare it to individual travel and that ain’t necessarily so. On a coach tour, you’re responsible for five times less CO2 than in a car. The truly committed can look for the (still admittedly few) companies that use coaches such as the VDL Futura that runs on biofuel.
Trains are particularly eco-friendly and, with train touring undergoing a renaissance, you have plenty of choice, such as Journey Beyond Rail in Australia, Amtrak Vacations in the US or rail journeys in Europe with APT.
More generally, look for green credentials properly certified by bodies such as Green Tourism, Ecotourism Australia or The Rainforest Alliance. Companies such as Adventure World Travel, Intrepid Travel and Natural World Safaris support sustainable tourism projects, conservation, carbon offsets and voluntourism.
YOU CAN DO IT ALL YOURSELF
INTREPIDSee the Middle East with Intrepid.
Sure you can. Go right ahead. Squeeze hours of planning time into your busy life. Book all those hotels, restaurants, transfers and tickets. (What happens if your trip is cancelled or disrupted?) Work out how to get from Beijing to the Great Wall, or how to queue-jump at the Vatican Museums.
Set off. Get stressed in your hire car. Walk around Ephesus without a guide, in ignorance of what you’re looking at. Spend precious hours on the logistics of getting around and finding your hotel. And to think you could have been sitting in a mellow café instead.
Okay, individual travel isn’t that much of a pain. That said, part of a tour’s value lies in the headaches and hassle it saves. Although there isn’t a guided tour that can’t be copied, it would be difficult to achieve the same journey in the same well-organised timeframe.
TOURS ONLY VISIT MAINSTREAM DESTINATIONS
The bread-and-butter of tour companies is popular journeys around western Europe, the south-west US and south-east Asia. Still, if you haven’t seen Grand Canyon or the Alhambra, you should.
If you think other compass points are overlooked, you haven’t looked hard enough. There’s nowhere tours don’t go except Antarctica, and you can get there on an expedition cruise, which is a tour afloat. Even mainstream companies like APT take you to Botswana and Bosnia, Madagascar and Ecuador.
Niche companies up the ante: climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba-dive in Belize or enjoy a foodie tour through Armenia. You can also see stereotyped destinations in a different way by cruising the Maldives on a traditional fishing boat, taking a wellness tour of Iceland, or discovering New Zealand from a Māori perspective.