“Sell-out!” jeered a cyber-heckler when I posted my article about going on a 3-day Florida-Bahamas Cruise.
So I can only imagine this heckler’s horror when he learned that this “brave solo world traveler” (a.k.a. me) super “sold out” and accepted a free 40-person teacher travel tour to Spain over New Year’s through EF Tours.
Why are many hip travelers so against the idea of large-group travel?
“Ugh– It’s like being in a bubble of America, and you don’t get to really experience the culture.”
“In a tour group, you’re always waiting around if people in the group are late.”
“Group tours become a whirlwind as you rush from sight to sight. There’s no time to relax or just take it in.”
“I’m a smart person. Why would I want to turn off my brain and follow like a sheep all day?”
So, as miraculous as it was to have the opportunity to go to Spain with other teachers, I must admit that I was nervous that a 40-person group for 5 days would drive me bananas. I do, after all, have a very big ego, along with a penchant for both idiosyncratic wandering and alone time.
But you know what? The 40-person tour was actually great! We saw sights through Madrid, and (as you can see in these photos) we toured gorgeous and historic Toledo, which is an hour from Spain’s capital.
Here is why and how travel in a giant tour group can rock:
1. Tour group travel can be an extremely economical, safe, and easy way for newbie travelers to start seeing the world. A lot of the teachers on our 40-person Spain tour had not had many opportunities to travel before, due to family or finances, so the group tour was a giant treat… and perhaps a launching pad for many more travels to come.
2. Sometimes you just want to turn your planning mind off and focus on other things. It’s relaxing to simply hop onto a bus, be taken to all the big sights, and be told what they are!
3. Ticketing for major attractions is usually much more efficient for tour groups than for solo travel. At the Prado Museum in Madrid, our group cut the line of hundreds of waiting tourists, because our guide had pre-purchased our tickets through his connections.
4. In tour groups, you meet interesting people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. While I didn’t get a chance to hang out with many local folks on our Madrid-Toledo tour, I DID meet teachers from across the U.S. whose perspectives were fascinating. One Tennessee teacher was an Agriculture instructor and had just finished a Dairy-Judging competition! What a world apart from Boston, and funny it took a trip to Spain for me to see it.
5. Group travel is sometimes beautifully inexpensive. As you probably know from Costco shopping, things are cheaper in bulk, so tour groups can often finagle more economical hotels, flights, meals, and guides.
6. On a tour, you see a LOT of famous and amazing things in a short period of time. You cut right to the chase (that is, the biggest sights) without spending a minute of your own time on coordinating the itinerary or transport.
One of the teachers on our tour joked, “These five days in Spain feel like three weeks!” because of how much we packed into so few hours. Of course, this whirlwind pace is both a positive and a problem with tours, but as our tour guide explained, “It’s not every day you’re in Spain. Let’s make the most of it!” Particularly for people with limited vacation time, this is key.
7. Established tour companies have improved over time through trial and error. This means you will often get a positive (though usually breathless) experience due to all the tour group-ites before you who gave feedback to the company on what they should keep and what they should change.
8. There are customizable aspects to big group tours. In other words, you are not a prisoner, and you do have choices. During the evenings of our Madrid and Toledo tour, we had the option to continue staying out on the town, or to go home and sleep. I often slept, so tired was I from all the sightseeing! Other times we would have a two-hour block in which we had several options to choose from, such as shopping or museum sights. You can make the trip your own.
In total, I felt much more like an individual on the 40-person Madrid tour than I expected, and I had fun, too!
Readers, what other benefits or downsides of large tour groups have you experienced?
This question is particularly on my mind, because, after years and years of solo world travel, I’m taking not one, but FOUR large-group international tours this year.
- In February (in 1.5 weeks!), I fly to China for 8 days with 42 Boston students.
- In April, I will tour Greece for a week with the “Teach Greece” curriculum group.
- In July, part of our Honeymoon will likely be a group safari in Tanzania, as it’s far cheaper to go with a group than with a solo vehicle. Romantic!
The way I see it, I love solo travel, and I now know very well how to do it after so much practice. This means that the current unexplored frontier is investigating the other forms of travel that folks (especially teachers and students) experience.
There will be moments of ego flare-up as I sit on these tour buses (“I run two travel blogs! I want to plan the trip, not just sit and listen!”) but this experiment will be worth it.
I shall go back to solo travel soon, but first I feel a duty and an interest as a thorough travel blogger and world explorer to mix things up. That is to say, it’s time to read my own article, “100 Different Ways to Finally Start to Travel!”
Ultimately, especially as I am starting a new era of life with our upcoming wedding (woo hoo!), I will likely create a hybrid form of travel which combines unstructured, “let’s figure it out as we go” travel with structured day-long tours, with larger and longer group tours.
So, readers… I am highly curious to hear from YOU:
Which mix of structured, group, unstructured, and solo travel have YOU now embraced, and why?