Tips

Group & Independent Tour Packages

Yes, seriously. Veteran travelers are often loath to admit they resort to package tours and join clueless newbies who trail behind the guide like sheep. The stereotypical bus tour is odious to backpackers at hostels as well as the wealthy at the Ritz Carlton. Yet, the sheer convenience of package tours makes them an efficient and often economical way to travel.

Sure it's fun to be a snob about bus tours, but even seasoned travelers ought to sometimes consider packaged tours for several reasons:
  1. Some good companies confine their groups to fewer than 15 people and some packages may have as few as two or three people.
  2. Some companies offer fine independent tours (usually with private guides and drivers) as well as small group tours.
  3. A few countries (like Belarus, Bhutan, Iran) require using an approved company.
  4. Some expert help may be useful in places with little tourist infrastructure.
  5. Some tours offer quite special events. Examples from my trips include:
    • VIP access to the Xian warriors,
    • a lavish dinner in a historic Belgrade home,
    • a top astronomer's talk about the solar eclipse,
    • a chamber duet after a picnic on a Tuscan hillside.
  6. Your friends and family may not be as daring as you. They may think you're crazy to go to Kurdistan or Katmandu or Canada, and you'd like some company.
  7. And we don't always have time to do the homework necessary to construct that dream Machu Picchu trip to squeeze into the upcoming eight-day travel window.
Back in the day, I backpacked and hitchhiked around Europe. Now, while a majority of my trips are self-arranged and self-guided, quite a few — for the reasons above — involve a tour company, usually for independent travel when affordable but including some group tours.

With any group tour, the big gamble is always interpersonal dynamics — the unpredictable ratio of congenial, simpatico fellow travelers to sometimes inconsiderate, incompatible, obnoxious ones. With that caveat, below are my reviews.

Undiscovered Destinations: One favorite is this British team that constructs group and independent tours to novel places. I'm a big fan after they crafted a great sweep across three tricky countries for me ― Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia (Somaliland). When I was hit with big flight schedule changes, they quickly worked out solutions. Their local partners, all reliable and eager to please, had been well vetted. They trailblaze trips in places like Equatorial Guinea and East Timor. HQ: UK.

MIR: Extraordinary attention to detail in arranging a private tour around Belarus. Offers both group and independent tours. Wish I'd discovered MIR years ago. Specialty: Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia, China. HQ: Seattle.

Wild Frontiers: Group and independent tours to countries throughout the world. WF helped arranged nice independent trips for me to the Caucasus countries; to western Egypt oases; to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan; to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan. So far my only small group tour with WF was in Ethiopia and it was pretty good. HQ: London.

Bestway: Bestway offers a many destinations. They had the (then) only tour covering all Persian Gulf countries. They were the first to assemble a swing across all the former Yugoslavia, plus Albania. Moldova tours are rare, but Bestway had a good partner there and I got to visit breakaway Transnistria too. Most tours only need two people and a few can be done solo. Bestway tailored good independent versions of its group tours for my travels to Rwanda and Uganda, and to Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho. HQ: Vancouver.

Innovations in Travel: This boutique conducts a couple of tours each year, often to see solar eclipses. They did an amazing job with a tour to see highlights of Libya and view the 2006 eclipse in the Libyan desert. They did an equally meticulous job out in the Uyghur region of northwest China to see the 2008 eclipse. HQ: Annapolis.

Explore!: I've only used this UK company for my trip to Iraq, but I was impressed and plan to use it again. Explore! has a loyal following among savvy British travelers and offers affordable prices by using carefully chosen three-star hotels.

Travcoa offers expensive tours that may not live up to the price. I used Travcoa three times. Iran, with a brilliant guide, was worth the big bucks. Yet, in Mongolia we got a cranky guide in a shabby school bus while tours costing half as much had new coaches. The west Africa tour was uneven with a novice guide. At their steep prices, I never recommend a Travcoa gamble. HQ: Los Angeles area.

"Active travel" is a special category. And the best companies — such as B&R and Backroads — make it their whole focus.

Butterfield & Robinson: B&R spoiled me with its small-group, upscale, biking and hiking tours, usually with three guides and details flawlessly planned in Vietnam, Nepal, Morocco, Turkey, China, Japan, Tuscany, Cinque Terre. In six of these eight, tour leaders were superb. HQ: Toronto.

Backroads: If you check out B&R, be sure to look at Backroads too, another solid biking and hiking group, usually less expensive. I've been a bit luckier with B&R than with Backroads in terms of guides and guests, but Backroads did an fine job in Patagonia and in Ecuador, and was OK for biking in Bali, despite a poor job in a Thailand biking trip many years ago. HQ: Berkeley.


Destination Inspirations
Brainstorming about where to go next?
National Geographic and others have published handsome books with creative travel ideas:

For more recommendations,
click here for my page on trip planning.