I was a travel snob — the worst kind.
It was the first evening of my first tour, after traveling mostly solo for 50 years. My teeth ached from smiling. Like many independent travelers, I longed for the freedom of making my own decisions about where to wander and how long to stay, leaving if I didn’t l like a town, and meeting the locals. But I had always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore.
South Dakota did not seem like the best place for me to wander alone in the winter. So, for the first time in my life, I had joined a Road Scholar group tour.
An intrepid female rancher spoke to our group about the challenges of raising cattle for beef, and I heard a Native American man talk about growing up in a school that prevented him from speaking his family’s language. I also found out the true story of Captain Dunbar while visiting the filming location for Dances with Wolves in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota.
The following year I joined another group traveling off season to Portugal, again with Road Scholar. I learned about the importance of cod to Portuguese culture and how far afield the Portuguese have gone to find their favorite fish.
Some tours, especially educational ones, can provide illuminating background information about a destination, often told by local historians and other people familiar with the culture.
Besides history, group trips also feature writing, photography, art and craft workshops, or cooking classes; they’re a great way to experience what living in a place means as well as meet both local people and fellow travelers. For active travelers, there are group hiking, birding, kayaking, and sailing trips. These are just a few reasons why traveling with a group can be eye-opening.
1. Safety In Numbers
Traveling with a group can provide an extra feeling of security, especially during these times of health challenges and transportation obstacles. When I travel solo, I am sometimes unsure about where I can walk at night. However, a guide not only speaks the local language but is familiar with safe neighborhoods and places to visit, as well as the best times to see popular spots.
Pro Tip: Do Your Own Research, And Ask For Help
You can and should research travel advisories before going abroad. The U.S. Department of State has loads of information (and sometimes restrictions) on international destinations.
When you’re abroad, be aware that local guides will be more able to gauge last-minute changes in a country’s health status, as well as potential civil unrest or natural disasters. When my daughter and I were in Istanbul several years ago, we would have welcomed some information about political protests rather than walking into one outside our hotel.
Having access to the latest information can be difficult in remote places; while you’re abroad, local guides often have better internet connections and can assist you.
Group rates and hotel deals can cut the price of your tour. And your upfront travel costs usually include guides, some meals, tips, and entrance fees. Solo or independent travelers can probably find cheaper places to stay and eat, but after traveling for 50 years I now prefer to choose safety, comfort, and location rather than just the least expensive accommodations and food.
3. Hands-Off Navigation And Increased Access
When you no longer need to worry about how to get from point A to point B, you can sit back and enjoy the journey. Your guide will know the best way to reach your destination and the amount of time you need to see everything. You may even get to skip the lines at the Louvre or the Colosseum or the Sistine Chapel (or at least visit them at hours when they are the least crowded).
Pro Tip: Skip The Pain Of Driving Abroad
When you travel with a group you don’t have to find a parking space — or figure out the difference between liters and gallons, or read road signs in languages you don’t understand, or feel panic when you are approaching a toll.
Group travel does have some negative stereotypes, from the frenzied “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” fast tour to images of hordes of tourists converging on a shop or café. And I must admit that I was not crazy about wearing a name tag. I have found, however, that traveling with a group can help to form some unexpected bonds and may nourish friendships with people you might never have met.
Plus, you won’t need to take selfies! When you are traveling with a group, someone will always be there to take a photo of you in front of that gorgeous vista.
It is sometimes pretty scary to travel solo; you often face fears of the unknown. Group travel eases this fear with experienced guides, but it can spark some discomfort in other ways. Will anyone sit next to me on the bus? Will anyone join me for dinner? Who will be my friend? But my friend, a Tibetan monk, has said that challenges are an opportunity to overcome obstacles.
5. Life Changes
I find that I am more comfortable traveling with a group as I age. I am not able to walk as far as I used to nor carry as much. Our needs change, and group travel is a satisfying way to rely on others for what may challenge us about travel. There is no shame in facing these changes and discovering a plethora of other pleasures.
Pro Tip: Find What Suits You
There are many different group travel possibilities; take the time to research a group with whom you have at least some interests in common. If you don’t like giant tours, make sure that the ones you sign up for are smaller. If you don’t want to shop, make sure that you find a tour that doesn’t make many stops at stores. And if you want privacy, make sure that you can get a room by yourself and that the cost is not prohibitive.
6. The Best Of Both Worlds
You can always incorporate group travel into solo travel or trips with friends or family. You have choices! Here are some ways in which you can balance your travel to be just what you want and need.
- Take some time for yourself in a new country, then take a tour, and afterward go exploring. I am doing this in India in the fall — I’ll have solo time, a tour with a small group, and then I’ll travel with a friend living in Delhi.
- Go alone and join day trips. I last did this in Iceland. It is a perfect way to have alone time and do what you want and then have company to visit the sites.
- Travel with someone, split, and then meet up. You’ll be happy to see each other after your individual adventures.