It’s a question as old as time (or at least as old as the introduction of discount airfares): how do I know which group tour company to choose? Peregrine Adventures is one of the original tour operators, but we’re not the only ones out there. We like to think we offer something special – expert local leaders, a more adventurous experience, lots of little moments that add up to an amazing tour – but we’re wise enough to know that we won’t be for everybody. And that’s okay.
So what factors should you take into account when picking a tour company? What questions should you be asking? What research do you need to do beforehand? In the interests of transparency and full disclosure, this is our advice on picking the right group tour company for you.
1. Group size
The first big point of difference. Not everything described in marketing materials as a ‘small group tour’ is particularly small. In fact the term is probably used to cover everything from a few people to well over 50! We find an average of 10 travellers works best for us. It’s a big enough group to allow easy socializing, but small enough to fit into a little Buenos Aires bodega, or a Parisian hole in the wall. If you’re after something much larger (think 40 people, big buses and large, generic hotel chains), we’re probably not for you. Operators like Scenic and Trafalgar have that market covered. There are advantages to travelling in bulk (it’s usually a bit cheaper), but we reckon you get a much less bespoke experience. At the end of the day, with 49 other travellers, you’re just another face in the crowd.
With so many group tour companies crowding the market, a lot of itineraries start to look familiar. When you’re doing your research, you’ll notice that the big companies visit most of the major highlights. What you want to look for is a) an operator that visits a few of the more out-of-the-way destinations, and b) one that includes interesting and original highlights in each of their itineraries. There are plenty of tour group operators out there who can show you The Louvre or the Trevi Fountain, but there aren’t many who will take you into the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan, or let you stay with a local family in their Mekong Delta home (another advantage of having a small group). If you’re a less-experienced traveller, it’s easy to find a company that fits your needs. If you’re a little more adventurous, big operators like APT might leave you feeling unsatisfied with their level of cultural immersion. It’s all horses for courses.
3. Local leaders
Twenty years ago we became the first tour company of our kind to exclusively employ local leaders. It’s something we’re pretty proud of. And since then the industry has caught up. A lot of companies like Intrepid and Geckos now also employ local leaders. It pays to read the fine print though. A lot of the ‘big bus’ operators will only employ local guides from place to place – your permanent guide will still be an outsider. Not only that, but there are companies out there who are using the word ‘local’ to spruik their tours, without investing in the people themselves. Make sure the tour company you choose has a history of training their leaders well, paying them properly and giving them opportunities for growth. There’s too many examples in the industry or poorly trained and paid guides being exploited so a company can put the word’ local’ on their brochures. Avoid these people.
Not a bad way to start comparing companies. It’s naïve to assume price won’t be a factor, especially with itineraries that are sort of similar. But price doesn’t always tell the whole story. Large tour companies that pack their tours full of 40 or 50 people can secure bulk rates for their accommodation and activities – so although they’re cheaper on the surface, you’re getting a less personal experience (you’re probably getting a lower standard of overall accommodation too). We always aim for a competitive price, not necessarily the lowest price. Do your research before you book – does the company offer a lot of inclusions? Is there an airport transfer? What are the hotels like? (Search them on TripAdvisor to make sure). A lot of the time in travel, you get what you pay for, and something that’s markedly cheaper is probably an inferior experience.
5. Responsible travel policies
‘Greenwashing’ is a popular practice in travel, as it is in all industries at the moment. It basically means travel companies using words like ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ as a nod to doing the right thing, without actually changing anything fundamental about the way they do business. At Peregrine, we don’t do greenwashing. Responsible travel was part of our DNA from the beginning. It’s why we carbon offset all our trips (as well as our offices around the world). It’s why we invest money back into not-for-profits and community groups through The Intrepid Foundation. It’s why we took a stance on banning elephant rides and orphanage tours from our trips. If being a responsible traveller matters to you, do your research before you book. A lot of companies will spell out their policies loud and proud on their websites. Pick the one that resonates best with you.
6. Online reviews
When you’re booking a hotel, or a restaurant, you automatically go online to read what people are saying. Why should booking a small group tour be any different? We include reviews on all our trips online, so you can read what passengers are talking about, but if you want a more external opinion, have a look at sites like TourRadar. They’re like Tripadvisor for tour companies. You can read passenger reviews and see what’s actually happening on the ground. Have a look at a company’s social media accounts too (don’t forget their hashtag): they’ll help you get a feel for the type of travellers on the tour, the places they visit, the standard of accommodation. At the end of the day, it may take a few tries to find a tour company that fits you just right, but when you do, the search will have been worth it.
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