Monday, 24 April 2017

Travelling with a Tour Group - My Personal Experiences

This time last week, we were talking pros and cons of tour group travel (here, if you're interested!) and so this time I figured it was about time I wrote down more personal experiences of the tour groups I've traveled with. I've traveled with four different companies and so for obvious reasons I'll be going into more in-depth descriptions of those ones - however, my tours have often crossed paths with other groups, sometimes taking more or less identical routes in places, and so I've included a little bit of my interactions with those groups as well.

Before I go any further I should make it clear that I'm specifically talking about groups such as Intrepid and Contiki rather than a tour group that you'd join for a couple of hours!

I'm going to be posting the groups in the order that I first toured with them, and then adding some extras to the end.

Trek America
Trek America, unsurprisingly, is a tour group that primarily focuses on trips across the United States - although I've also gone with them to Canada and by the looks of things they will now also take you to Central and South America. Trek America is for ages 18-38 and in my experience the age range is pretty well spread out throughout this. They use their own vans - in my experience these are tiny and a bit cramped, but they were comfortable enough, and your stuff is U-Hauled along behind them. This may have changed a bit since I went as it was a fair few years ago that I last used them, but their trips are primarily camping based with a few hotel stops. This is one of the tour groups that uses a food kitty, which takes a non optional amount of money from you on your first day to put into buying the ingredients that the group are going to eat throughout their time on the trip. Trek America uses the passengers to sort of take different shifts when it comes to the cooking and it's not optional - you'll be taking your turn helping out with it. Some people really didn't enjoy this, but I quite liked it. There's a certain novelty to having to put up your tent, helping cook the meal, and then air drying your plates by waving them around wildly afterwards!

I felt that my Trek America trips offered a lot of variety. They allowed me to see a lot of different areas, and I actually really enjoyed the camping aspect. Because it is primarily camping, this is also one of the cheaper companies that you can tour with, but obviously if the idea if sitting in a tent and having to cook is horrifying to you then this is not the company you should go with! However, what I would say is that this company probably offered the least personal experience of any of the groups I have done. I didn't discover anywhere really off the beaten track, I didn't at any point feel like my tour guide had any personal attachments to the areas we were visiting aside from the one time when he took us to some beer party at a friends house somewhere in Connecticut. For me, this isn't a problem, but if you'd like a more personal experience and would like to experience more of the culture of the area, I would suggest Trek America probably isn't for you. As a general rule, Trek America doesn't offer included activities either. This is both a good and a bad thing - if you'd prefer to work things out for yourself and don't want to pay extra for activities you're not really all that interested in, this won't be a problem for you. If you'd like to do more with the group, then again, perhaps look elsewhere. These trips are probably the ones where we were kinda left to our own devices the most often, and again, it's up to you whether you consider this a positive or a negative.

Africa Travel Co
I traveled with Africa Travel Co on a cross continent trip - I traveled through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania (including Zanzibar) and finally Kenya. You travel on a big overlanding truck as you can see from the picture above (I'm the one fifth from the right, if you were wondering!) and it is most certainly not a comfortable experience. But it's Africa, and I actually wouldn't change the way we traveled around. I saw people on ordinary buses and it didn't look much fun at all, and people using public transport that looked even less fun. The group didn't have any age limits to it and as you can see above, there was a big variety of ages on this trip. Despite this, this trip was actually the one that I left feeling like I'd genuinely made some friends - I haven't met up with any of the people since leaving, but there are a fair few that I still keep in contact with. Any cross Africa trip will include an awful lot of driving and spending hours and hours staring out of the window, so this is something to consider if you're interested in any longer trip across Africa regardless of what company you're considering going with.

This group works with three members of staff - you've got a driver, a trip leader, and a cook - although you do still help with the cooking, similar to Trek America, only this time you have someone helping you out and telling you what to do. Like Trek America, people essentially work in shifts as some of you will be helping to cook and some of you will be responsible for cleaning the truck and other tasks. This was sometimes a bit irritating when you were very tired at the end of the day, but it's part of the experience and if an experience like this is something you'll enjoy then you'll just get on with it! Also like Trek America, this trip was primarily camping based and so again was one of the cheaper tours available - however the camping grounds here tended to be in much larger places and you could quite often hear music which was really disturbing at night - sometimes the music would just be tribal African music which I was okay with - and one included us camping in basically the car park of a club, which I was less okay with! Here the tour staff were all from Kenya, and they offered a limited amount of discussion about their experiences and their culture. The staff were lovely, but weren't all that involved in the group. Africa Travel Co did not include any experiences or activities to my knowledge, however they did offer a selection of choices each day. Though you obviously paid an additional amount for these, having the suggested options listed out for you did allow you to discuss with each other and you ended up much more likely to attend the activities with someone else from within the group.

This trip was hard work - but I wouldn't change any of it! It was a good experience, and to my surprise Africa is an incredibly expensive continent to travel, so if I was to return I would still do the camping option. I did come across other tour groups that were going the very fancy route including having people put their tents up for them - but this just wasn't for me! Having someone sort your visas and helping you with the money exchange is very useful in Africa too!

G Adventures
G Adventures is the company I'd say were somewhere in the middle when it comes to pricing, though going a bit more expensive. It is also responsible for the best trip I ever went on - my trip to Ecuador!

G Adventures do not have an age limit (though some of their tours do) and I found that ours had a good mix though most people tended to be either younger or older with very few in the middle. We all got on well though, and many of us would stay up all night playing games around the campfire. My trip with them included the biggest range of accommodation - some was absolutely amazing and some was very questionable, but I enjoyed staying in some very beautiful places. G Adventures did not include that many activities although some were, but had a list of suggested activities that many of us would pair up for to go and attend. We traveled on a private bus that was very comfortable, and our guide was Ecuadorean himself, meaning he was able to recommend personal favourites and was able to help us with suggestions and responses when we would discuss further places we were interested in visiting. He also taught us a little bit about the culture, and made himself a big part of our group by joining us for various activities and staying up chatting with us.

This trip also offered me some unique experiences that I would probably not have been able to arrange on my own, such as staying with a family within the Amazon rainforest. The picture above (that's me second from the right!) is us wearing our face masks that we made ourselves from picking up clay at the bottom of the Amazon river! I feel like this trip offered a lot that I would not have been able to do myself and I have found that G Adventures trips include probably the biggest amount of variety. G Adventures is also one of the groups that offers similar experiences in different budgets, allowing you to choose the level of comfort that you'd like to have on your tour. For the most part, evening meals were not included in the price but in general the group would eat together.

Intrepid are the tour group that I would say is probably the most well known of them all, and for good reason. They do not have an age restriction on their tours, however in my personal experience I have found that the age range is primarily 30s-40s though there is a mix to it. Intrepid are another tour group that uses local guides, and I have found that they do this the best of all of the group tours - my guides have taken me to their churches, to meet their families, and to see their hometowns - and I LOVED this as these aren't things you'd typically do but it's great to be able to go and take part in such interactions and feel really welcomed to be doing it.

They are priced in a similar bracket to that of G Adventures, although I would say are more expensive for the most part. HOWEVER, this is because Intrepid also includes a lot of activities in the pricing which is of course great if you're interested in doing them - if you're not wanting to do the activities, then of course it's going to be a bit of a waste of money from you. I've enjoyed this, as there are some things that I didn't really want to do and begrudgingly participated in purely because it was already paid for so I might as well - however, for the most part I really enjoyed taking part in them and I definitely wouldn't have done so otherwise! In my personal experiences, the Intrepid groups have been a bit less social and though everyone was friendly enough in general the nights didn't end up with people talking for hours in various locations - people tended to go back to bed at a more reasonable time, which can be good or bad depending on your preferences. I have found that Intrepid trips are probably the best for immersing you in the local culture. They offer a lot of tours which are specifically based around local living or food tours, and this is something that you really feel in all of their tours. This means that they can end up taking you to some very seemingly random spots - it's up to you whether this is something you like the sound of, or if you'd rather visit the better known places.

Other Tour Groups I've Come Across...
Contiki are a group that I personally wouldn't travel with. They have the reputation for being the party buses, and I have found that to be very much true. They have done very similar routes to us in the past and were always the groups that were up all night being loud and looking absolutely dead in the morning. If you'd like to go on a trip to meet lots of people and have lots of fun then perhaps this is something that would appeal to you - but it never looked like they were enjoying actually seeing the sights as they were too hungover to appreciate it!
Dragoman are a group that often take similar routes to Intrepid, in my experience. I think of them like Intrepid's cooler brother. They are similar, but a bit edgier, and they always seem to have very cool tour leaders. Their tour leaders aren't likely to be from the country that you're visiting, however I have always found them to be absolutely lovely and very helpful people.

There are also plenty of tour groups you'll find catering for a traveler with higher tastes - and of course, a higher budget. This isn't really something I'm interested in, and I haven't had enough interactions with the people who take them to be able to give you a full review!

Have you traveled with a tour group before? What were your experiences?

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