Group & Independent Tours

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:
    • a walk among 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 many 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 small 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 offered expensive tours, but in Mongolia we got a cranky guide in a shabby school bus while tours costing half as much had new coaches. Its Iran journey was worth the big bucks. But its west Africa tour was uneven with a novice guide. At their steep prices, I never recommended a Travcoa gamble. Update: Travcoa has closed down!

    Undiscovered Destinations: One favorite is this British team that builds group and independent tours to novel places. I'm a fan after they crafted me a sweep across three tricky countries ― Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia (Somaliland). 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: MIR gave extraordinary attention to detail in arranging a private tour around Belarus. I 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. Most tours only need two people to operate. 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 website worth perusing. And I've never had better group tour leaders than my trips with Chris in the South Pacific, Pam in Switzerland, and Jonathan in Macaronesia. (Alas, the Morocco trip was OK but not executed with the upbeat charm of the other three.) 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 and the Amalfi Coast. 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 good independent trips to the Caucasus countries; to western Egypt oases; to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan; to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan; and to Pakistan. (My only small group tour with WF was in Ethiopia and it was "uneven.") HQ: London.

    Untamed Borders My newest favorite is this fearless operation from unflappable James Willcox offering small group and independent trips to places as risky as southern Iraq. Thanks to insider contacts and strings pulled by James, I was able to see my last three unvisited (and wartorn) countries in 2021 — Yemen, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Under the circumstances, it is surprising that I only encountered issues (untimately solved) in CAR.

    A Classic Tours Collection
    This outfit has been a complete disappointment. Avoid at all cost. They will not give full refunds when they decide to cancel an astronomy tour at the last minute.

    "Active travel" is a special category.
    Some companies focus entirely on active travel.
    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, and 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.

    Spafari: Kristina Hurrell's offerings are not mass market but are more like those of a boutique with a select number of personalized and holistic trips. I loved her "spafaris" to Kenya, Dominica, and Lake Como. Definitely worth checking out to see the latest offerings. HQ: Colorado.

    Destination Inspiration

    Brainstorming about where to go next?
    Click here to look over some of the big handsome books filled with creative travel ideas from National Geographic and others.

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