You guys know me: I plan all my own trips, possibly even to a fault. I read, research, and ask questions. I keep detailed notes in Google Docs and keep reading until I’m all-consumed with information overload.
It’s not that I think I know every destination better than the experts, just that I’m a little obsessed. And for that reason, I’ve mostly avoided group tours (even adventure group travel!).
But package travel has changed a lot over the past few years (or at least, their marketing has). There are companies popping up left and right that do more than the large bus drive-by. They actually incorporate sightDOING into their trips and even arrange experiences that you as a solo traveler would have a lot of trouble setting up for yourself, at least at a cost-effective pricepoint.
And, to be honest, the few times I’ve joined small group tours, I’ve walked away with new friends. There’s an undeniable social aspect that really appeals to me, especially now that I work from home and don’t get the water-cooler chat every day.
So I’ve started looking into group trips as something to strongly consider for 2020. Something different; an experiment, if you will. There have been quite a few that caught my eye, and I thought there was a chance this research might be helpful for some of you, too, as you look into your future travel.
If you’ve actually traveled with some of these companies and can chime in with a comment or review, that would be great too!
What I Look For in Group Tours
Small Groups – “Small” is relative, but ideally I’m looking for 20 people or less (or in the case of larger tours, smaller break-out segments). Anytime you have more than that, I think there’s a recipe for spending too much time corralling everyone between stops and I am not a particularly patient person.
A Price I Can Afford – Let’s face it: I want to travel more than once a year, so that means I can’t blow my entire travel budget on a single tour. Am I willing to splurge a little? Sure, if I get good value out of it and still have a little leftover for something else.
Reasonable Transport Time – This is where I see a lot of package tours fail. They pack in so many places that you spend half your trip on a bus. I would rather see half as much, twice as deeply, and without seeing the inside of 4 airports and 13 coaches.
Decent, Private Accommodations – I like being social, I really do, but at the end of the day, I want my own room where I can totally ignore everyone else, decompress, and get a good night’s sleep. No one likes a cranky Becky and I’m sure my family will vouch for that.
Schedule Balance – There’s a fine line between including enough activities that you feel like you got to experience a destination and doing so much that you’re exhausted from 18-hour days. A lot of the cheapest tours are so low-priced because 80% of your trip is “free time” which makes it worthless to me; others cram so much in that I don’t think I’d enjoy myself.
Memorable Experiences – This is another category where everyone will have a different definition, but I want a company that offers me something I can’t replicate on my own, or at least not easily. By the end of the trip, I should leave feeling like I truly got to explore the destination.
8 Small Group Tour Companies that Mesh With sightDOING
I stumbled upon Flashpack on Instagram and have been eyeing their trips ever since. The company leads small group adventures geared toward solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. They stay in nice hotels (hence “flashpacking” and not backpacking) and include sightDOING like waterfall swims, nighttime hikes to search for nocturnal wildlife, and cooking classes.
All of their trips include quite a bit in their bottom-line price, although the markup seems to be all over the place. Some seem like great value while others are on the high side. Check prices before you fall in love with a particular itinerary.
What I’m Looking At: The Wild Frontiers of Oman, a weeklong trip roadtrip through mountains, canyons, and coast in a county I probably wouldn’t tackle as a solo female.
Yes, a cruise for non-cruisers (although admittedly, I like cruises). These small ships of ~100 passengers hit ports that big ocean liners can’t even dream of squeezing into and they include lots of physical adventures like kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking on-shore.
I don’t ever think I’ve seen a tour company with so many overwhelmingly positive reviews, but I think it’s because they attract a very specific type of traveler: someone who wants adventure, off-the-beaten-path places (with 1 or 2 more popular spots), and natural beauty.
What I’m Looking At: Hawaiian Island Hopping. Uncruise is admittedly expensive, but so is planning your own trip to Hawaii. I spent a LOT independently snorkeling with manta rays, whale watching, getting from one place to another, and eating at restaurants. Uncruise bundles it all into one price.
This is the only company I’m including that I’ve actually traveled with. They make my repeat list because yes, it was that good! Competitours is an “Amazing Race” through Europe for real people: your destinations and route are a surprise, every activity is a competition, and you’ll never know what twist is coming next.
As a bonafide control freak, it’s actually nice to not know what’s coming because it forces you to live in the moment. Since I can vouch that the trip includes some pretty incredible sightDOING, I can guarantee you’ll have fun no matter where the next trip takes you.
What I’m Looking At: The flagship Competitours trip happens just once or twice a year and it’s a big mystery until you’re deep into it. I love that they’ve shortened it to just one week: all the fun at a price easier to digest (and giving you the optional chance to extend your trip for more traditional European sightseeing without using up all your vacation time).
G Adventures / National Geographic Journeys
I think G Adventures is the only mainstream group travel company that appeals to me. All their trips incorporate several things that I love: keeping money in the local economies, focusing on genuine interactivity with the destination, and realizing that you need a little wiggle room in the schedule to let spontaneity happen.
That said, they have like a dozen different trip styles and not all of them are what I’m looking for. I’m most intrigued by their “National Geographic Journeys”, which include more hands-on exploration and unique interactive experiences (aka sightDOING). They also upgrade their hotels — which does NOT mean luxury, just that it’s not the barebones rooms they use on a bunch of their other trips.
What I’m Looking At: Wonders of Bhutan, a trip through a country that isn’t easy to arrange on your own anyway. They’ve combined some obvious highlights like Tiger’s Nest Monastery with other activities like eating with local families and visiting crane conservation centers.
If you’ve ever wanted to volunteer on an in-depth research project, this is the company for you. Unlike a lot of programs where you barely get to make a difference, you’ll be working side-by-side with scientists to track animals and monitor their activity.
This isn’t a glamorous vacation: you can expect to work hard, be outside for long stretches of time, and stay in basic rooms in remote locations. But there’s also the chance to witness animal behavior that most people will never see and ask the experts your questions
What I’m Looking At: Transylvania Without the Vampires, a week in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania where you’ll document bear and wolf tracks, set cameras in the woods, and collect fur or scat. Even if you never spot an animal, you get to spend a week hiking in the mountains, which sounds good to me.
Yomadic Iran Tours
I don’t think my husband would be thrilled for me to visit Iran, with or without a tour, but I am beyond fascinated with their country and culture and personally think it’s much safer than you’d expect. Still, I think it’s a place where someone knowledgeable would completely enhance my experience.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Yomadic blog, Nate has been traveling the world for years now, with a focus on lesser-visited destinations and Iran in particular. His philosophy on travel is very inspiring and he has the experience and expertise to create what looks like a life-changing trip.
What I’m Looking At: The Iran “Untour”, which visits Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd, Persepolis, Shiraz, and the “middle of nowhere”. When possible, they allow time for special events and unplanned experiences, while also weaving in a great variety of must-do’s. Sign me up.
U by Uniworld
Remember when river cruises used to be for retirees looking for the easy button? Not anymore! U by Uniworld is trying to shift perceptions and bring in the young at heart with ships that have more onboard activities (think wine and paint nights or yoga on deck).
Like most river cruises, these itineraries still replicate routes that would honestly be pretty easy to do on your own by train. The appeal here is that you can unpack once and be entertained with onboard activities or meals while you’re cruising from one city to another.
What I’m Looking At: The Danube Flow, which sails from Budapest to Regensburg, Germany. This is a pretty classic route, but with included pub crawls and bike rides and optional add-ons like paddleboarding and geocache scavenger hunts.
I don’t remember how, but I ended up on the Heartland Japan email list and instead of unsubscribing, I started paying attention. They specifically advertise offering “culturally immersive adventure tours to off the beaten track locations across Japan” and every single word in that sentence is right up my alley.
If you just want to see Tokyo or Kyoto, by all means, go do it yourself. But these are highly-specialized trips that include sights and activities I never knew existed and that most tourists probably never see.
What I’m Looking At: The Izumo, Iwami Ginzan & Gonokawa River Trail, a weeklong itinerary that leans towards the arts — something you rarely see. The trip has everything from forging katana iron swords, pottery classes, kagura theatre, mask making, paper fan workshops, wadaiko Japanese drumming, costumed dancing, and more.
I’m Thrilled to See Group Travel Changing
Even if you aren’t a fan of group trips, and even if I don’t get to try all these companies out in real life, I’m really excited to see the trend toward more immersive travel. People who aren’t comfortable to plan things on their own (or who don’t have the time) can still find insightful looks at culture and see parts of the world that used to be difficult to reach.
I know I’ll never be able to squeeze all these trips into my agenda, but I’m really hoping to include at least one — something new and different — to my upcoming travel.
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Any of these sound good to you?