WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A TRAVEL TOUR
This is Part 2 of 4 in the Everything You Need to Know About Travel Tours series. Part I gives an introduction of my experience with travel tours. In this post, I will go over what to look for in a tour.
There is a common misconception that travel tours will take care of all the details for you. I would amend it to say that a tour is only as good as the tour operator you pick and the tours you choose. In other words, you still need to do some homework to optimize your chances of having a good tour experience.
One of the notable difference I experienced with travel tours is the set schedule, which may be considered a positive or a negative depending your travel style. As an independent traveler, I like that I can change my plans on a whim. If I am jet-lagged and want to sleep in, I can. If I am not enjoying an attraction, I can just up and leave. If I am tired, I can cab it back to the hotel. Meanwhile, a group tour is more rigid. There is a set time for everything, including free time.
Because of how most travel tours are structured, it is often ingrained in people’s mind that they need to follow the tours. I differ on this mindset; I want the tour to work for my needs and not the other way around. This only works if the goals are the same on both sides, so I would say that the tour selection process is one of the most important parts to getting a great travel tour experience.
CREATE A SHORTLIST
Once I decided that I want to do a tour (see Part I on how I decide if a travel tour is worth it), I start out with these 2 preliminary questions:
1. What attractions do you want to visit?
For any given destination, I usually browse through the top list of attractions on major travel sites and come up a shortlist of places that I want to visit. Travel sites like Tripadvisor and Expedia are often a wealthy source of information.
2. Are the attractions easily accessible?
Once I have a list attractions I want to visit, I’d google-map them to get an estimate of how far it is from the base location. If the attraction is nearby and easily reachable by walking or public transport, it’s off the tour shortlist. If the directions are time-consuming (i.e. multiple transfers), it would still be considered a good tour candidate even if it’s nearby.
At the end of this process, I’ll have a shortlist of places that I want the tour to include and those I can do on my own.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A TOUR:
With the shortlist in hand, you can now narrow down the tour choices based on four key areas:
1. PAST RATINGS
How did past travelers rate the tour?
Obviously, highly rated tours are rated highly for a reason, so it deserves extra consideration.
PRO TIP: I am a firm believer that ratings should be used to provide guidance. I look at the positive reviews, but I tend to focus on the negative ones to see if there are red flags to watch out for.
Does the tour provide enough value for the cost?
Since I travel on a budget, I am always on the lookout for the “best value”. While it’s an easy mistake to make, it’s important to not equate value with the number of attractions you get to visit (“quality over quantity”). Value is also highly subjective. For me, a tour delivers value if it is well-planned, and it gets me safely and comfortably to all the places I want to visit.
In terms of monetary costs, tour prices can vary widely. For tours that include transport, they generally fall into the $40-180 USD range per person. The lower range tends to be for a half-day tour, and the higher range for a more inclusive full day tour.
PRO TIP: Paying more doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be a better tour. It just means your wallet will be lighter. Focus on finding the right fit.
3. ADDED CONVENIENCE
Does the tour provide pickup and drop-off from the hotel?
Most non-walking tours include a pickup from the hotel, or a pickup from a central point. Many tours will only offer drop-off at a central location.
PRO TIP: Assuming all things equal, choose the tour that includes the pickup from hotel, especially if it’s a morning or all-day tour. It’s a relaxing way to start the day.
4. MATCHED TO YOUR TRAVEL HABITS
What type of tours do you want?
There are different types of tours. Walking tour. Bus tours. All day tours. Half day tours. Multi-day tours. Food tours. The best part is, you already know your habits. If you know that you can’t get up early, pick an afternoon tour. If you want to visit all the main attractions, go for a highlights tours. If you are exercise-inclined, pick a hiking tour. There are many tour operators at popular destinations, so you’ve got plenty of choices.
PRO TIP: Don’t overdo it with tours. Opt for a half or a full-day tour. Remember the list of attractions that didn’t make it to the tour shortlist? Those are places you could still visit leisurely on your own.
To be fair, there is an element of luck when it comes to making any choice. Not every tour will be perfect. Sometimes you end up with a phenomenal tour guide and an awesome experience. Other times you won’t. As with all things, doing the preparation work will significantly increase the probability that you’ll pick the right tour — one that would hopefully meet or exceed your travel needs and expectations.
In Part 3 of this series, I will focus on where to find tours and walk through a practical example.