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.


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


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 me a sweep across three tricky countries ― Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia (Somaliland). When I was hit with flight schedule changes, they quickly found solutions. Their local partners, all reliable and eager to please, had been well vetted. They trailblaze trips to places like Equatorial Guinea and East Timor. HQ: UK.


MIR: Extraordinary attention to detail in arranging a private tour around Belarus. Also highly recommend MIR for booking the great Trans-Siberian Express. And we really liked the post-train trip they organized to Kamchatka. MIR offers both group and independent tours. Specialty areas: Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia, China. HQ: Seattle.


Bestway: This Canadian outfit covers lots of ground. It had the (then) only tour covering all Persian Gulf countries. It was the first to offer a swing across all the former Yugoslavia, plus Albania. Moldova tours were rare, but Bestway had a good partner there; I got to visit breakaway Transnistria too. Most tours only need two people but 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.


Adventures Abroad: Yet another good Canadian company with some clever itineraries that make its web site worth investigating. And I've never had better group tour leaders than my recent trips with Chris in the South Pacific and Pam in Switzerland. (Alas, the Morocco trip was OK but not executed with the upbeat charm of the other two.) HQ: Richmond, BC.


Explore!: I first used this UK company for my trip to Iraq. I was very pleased and used it again, happily, in Sicily. Explore! has a loyal following among savvy British travelers and offers affordable prices by using carefully chosen three-star hotels.


Wild Frontiers: Group and independent tours around the world. WF helped me arrange nice independent trips 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 "uneven." HQ: London.


Audley Travel offers a wide range of generally more upscale "tailor-make journeys." I've not yet used Audley but I've met many well traveled Brits who praise the company so I'm adding it to this list as worth checking out. HQ: Oxfordshire, UK.

"Active travel" is a special category.
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.