In Praise of the Small-Group Tour

In Praise of the Small-Group Tour

May 20, 2011

Lounging in the pool, staring out into the darkening tropical jungle, I contemplated my difficult choices.  A drink before dinner, or stay in the pool?  Decisions, decisions.  On a small group tour, that was about the toughest one I had to make.

I consider myself an independent traveler.  From my first trip as an adult, backpacking across Asia and Australia, to current jaunts with my family, I like to do it myself.  But a recent trip to Costa Rica reminded me of the pleasures and advantages of small group tours.

I was in Costa Rica for business, so was traveling alone.  I had an open weekend, but only the weekend – I had to be back in San Jose on Monday morning. I decided to maximize my time by signing up for a tour to Tortuguero National Park.  And I, super independent traveler, had a fantastic time.

As we drove across the countryside, listening to our extremely knowledgeable tour guide tell us about the history, plants, and animals of the area, I was struck by the many advantages of a small group tour.  Just a few of them include:

– they maximize your time.  You don’t have to sit around waiting until the connecting bus shows up 3 hours later – the tour company has worked out all the connections for you.  Your time is spent seeing and doing things, not waiting around for transportation.

– you learn far more than you would on your own.  A high-quality small group will have a helpful, knowledgeable tour guide who helps you really understand what you are seeing.  I learned far more on the guided tour than I would have on my own, and it was great to have someone be able to answer my questions on the spot.

– you meet people.  While I enjoy solo travel,  it’s also fun to be with other people.  You have people to dine with, have drinks with, and to share your amazement at what you saw.

– it’s relaxing.  Face it, sometimes travel can be kind of stressful – figuring out the bus system, arguing with taxi drivers, realizing that the hotel is a dump so you need to find a different one at 5pm.  Tour companies have all that figured out for you.  All you have to do is show up and have a good time.

– they show you things you wouldn’t find on your own.  Sure, you can get from point A to point B on the public bus on your own, but then you wouldn’t stop at that lovely little waterfall along the way.  Nor would you visit the workshop of the amazing potter.  And you wouldn’t know about the inspiring work of that nonprofit, if your guide hadn’t taken you to see some of their projects.

– a group tour can be more eco than solo travel. Yes, it’s true.  Of course, it depends on the tour company, but many tour companies are extremely concerned with both the environment, and with their impact on the local community.  And a tour company, which sends several groups per year to an area, has more financial clout than you or I individually.  If a tour company refuses to do business with a hotel that dumps garbage into the ocean, that has more of an effect than if I personally refuse to do business with them.

Many small group tour companies were started by an individual who fell in love with a special place.  Because they truly love that place, they work hard to make sure they help it, not destroy it.  That dedication shines through in the choices of hotels, modes of transportation, and places they take you.  They put their money where their heart is, and because it’s a lot of money, it has more of an impact than just you on your own.

The key to finding a group tour that is a good match for you is to ask lots of questions.   Different tour companies emphasize different things, or cater to different clienteles.  Don’t be afraid to ask about their policies on guide pay, recycling, or if they contribute to any local or international nonprofits.  A good tour company will be proud of their efforts and track record, and happy that you care enough to ask.

My trip to Tortuguero reminded me of a long-ago revelation.  After years of working for a tour company,  I finally took one of their trips as a passenger.  I still remember my sense of amazement – “No wonder people sign up for these.  All you have to do is show up and have fun. This is GREAT!”

Try it.  You too might be a convert.


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