The six dirty little secrets of group tours

By Pauline Frommer

Every week, my father and I host a call-in radio show about travel. Inevitably, in the course of the two-hour program, someone calls in with the following question: Im thinking of going to destination X, Y or Z. Since Ive never been before, Im wondering if I should take a guided group tour?

Of course, group tours have their plusses: Theyre convenient, in that the major needs of the vacationer, from luggage transport to choice of hotels, restaurants and sightseeing stops, are handled by the tour company. The overall cost is paid in advance, allowing travellers to better control their vacation budget. And many travellers enjoy the social aspects of joining a group.

But mass-market, motorcoach tours have some serious downsides, which no one in the travel industry ever seems to discuss. Im breaking that taboo today by listing the six reasons to give independent travel another chance.

1. The primacy of the parking lot: Many travellers see group touring as a safety-net strategy. They expect to be able to leave the hotel on their own, when they wish to escape the group, and have a few solo adventures. Problem is the darn bus. Because bus tours use 40- to 50-person motorcoaches, the tour companies need to pick hotels with large enough parking lots to accommodate these big boys. Often, these types of big lots are found only on the outskirts of cities or in the suburbs. Getting to the historic core, to the sights one wants to see, may require a lengthy public bus ride, or an expensive taxi trip.

2. Foodie-free restaurants: Youll eat worse than you normally would when you take a trip that includes meals. Thats because the tour can only use the restaurants that locals have abandoned, and are thus empty enough to accommodate 40 to 50 tourists at a time. These need to be places that are expert in banquet-style service, and are able to get tour groups in and out efficiently. So expect food that is pre-prepared, and (often) a bit generic, as the chefs have learned over time that if they serve food that is too spicy or unusual it will spark complaints from the less-adventurous eaters (and every tour group has some of those).

3. Age-appropriateness: The majority of travellers who take bus tours are in the 60-plus category. Thats great news for seniors, but not so good for folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s who might prefer travelling with peers. This is not the case, obviously, for more active tours; or those specially geared to travellers under 35 and families with children.

4. LCD: No, not light bulbs, but lowest common denominator. The group member who lingers for 40 minutes in the gift shop, who doesnt listen to the tour guide and then asks basic questions about material shes already covered, who chats incessantly about his life at home while those around him want to be concentrating on the sights theyve come to see its this individual who will set the tone for the tour. And the schedule: These feckless folks force their companions to spend precious vacation time waiting for them on the bus, while the tour director frantically counts heads and wonders aloud who is missing.

5. Jaded guides: Most group tours make use of stables of local guides, along with a tour director who accompanies the trip from start to finish. The tour company will train the tour director, who is a direct employee, and (usually) these folks are stellar. Companies have less control over the quality of local guides, who are hired on an ad-hoc basis, based on availability. Sometimes these local guides will be fine, other times theyll be complete bores men and women who have become numbed by constantly repeating the same bits of information over and over. Worst are the predator guides who make a bit of extra money by shop steering leading tourists into stores where they get a commission for every tacky souvenir sold. If you find that youve been rushed through the museum so that you have enough time to tour a local factory, or see a nearby store, youre probably in the company of one of these bad eggs.

6. Greatest hits, no more, no less: Tourists choose guided tours because they want to make sure that theyll see the most famous sights in each destination, and tours certainly deliver on that. But some of the most powerful travel experiences happen when one least expects them when you meet a local and learn about his daily life; or wander into a small church and encounter an altar piece or stained-glass window that is unsung but transporting. By concentrating just on the greatest hits sights usually created centuries ago group travellers dont experience enough of the current culture. And they miss out on the frisson of feeling like an explorer, like theyve found a hidden gem that no one else knows about.

So do all group tours hold these nasty surprises? Of course not. Some companies use only real experts for their local guides, or travel in smaller groups (so theyre not held hostage by the needs of the bus). The important thing is to ask a lot of questions before you book, so that youre getting the type of tour thats right for you.

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