Travel tips: how to pick the best group tour

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Most of us only get a few weeks of holiday each year. When time is of the essence, it can feel good to delegate all the travel planning to someone else. Slow, independent journeys will, of course, always be the cheapest form of travelling, but they're not entirely practical if you don't want to quit your job and hit the road for an unspecified amount of time.

Recent years have seen a marked rise in the group tour phenomenon. Fuelled by increasingly busy lifestyles, and a growing interest in emerging destinations once considered the sole terrain of hardened backpackers, the market for group tourism has expanded rapidly. Today an ever-growing number of tour companies offer a portfolio of trips in nations from Guatemala to Greece, and Thailand to Turkey.

With so many brands now competing for your tourism dollar, choosing a good value tour has become nearly as complicated as planning your own adventure. You've picked up the brochures. You've scanned through the websites. But how do you cut through the advertising gloss of smiling, sun-kissed travellers posing in front of exotic backgrounds to really find out which tour operator offers the best deal?

A group of tourists ice-trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina. Image by Rachel Lewis  / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images .A group of tourists ice-trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina. Image by Rachel Lewis  / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images .

Compare like with like

There is no point trying to choose between a 30-day bus trip, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, and a small group adventure tour operator who utilises some public transport. Settle on the type of tour you want before anything else.

If you're using a travel agent to book, don't go in without having done some prior research. One of the main reasons people end up on a tour they dislike is because they've been sold a tour that's wrong for them. All the big travel agencies have agreements with one or two tourism operators to push their tours above any other option. Don't be bullied into buying the one your travel agent suggests first.

Once you've decided on the type of tour you'd like, check the fine print. Even if three different operators run similar looking tours that seem to include the same sights and activities but differ in price, it doesn't mean the cheapest choice is the best value. There will be differences reflected in the price. One may provide a sleeper berth on an overnight train, and the other may only include a seat. Are there local guides included at the major sights on all the tours, or does one just provide entry fees? If this kind of scrimping is worth the saving for you, go for the cheapest. But do your homework first so you know what you're paying (and not paying) for.

Cheapest on paper isn't always best on the road

Don't mistake trips labelled 'budget', 'backpacker' or 'basic' as automatically better value than that tour company's standard trips. These 'cheaper' versions are sometimes used as a ploy to capture more of the traveller market. Look closely and you may find that the standard trip offers better value.

If you're counting your pennies, the cheaper trip can seem to yield a very decent saving. Take into account that these budget versions might involve not only much simpler accommodation and transport, but also fail to include much in the way of sights and activities.

The tour operators spin this fact by saying less inclusions give you the freedom to choose what you spend your money on. The question you've got to ask yourself is, for example, would you go to Siem Reap without actually visiting Angkor Wat, or what about a trip to Jordan without paying to see Petra?

Unless you intend to go on holiday to sit in your hotel room all day, you might end up spending more money fleshing out a budget trip than you would on the same company's standard trip, as the cost of the tour hasn't been reduced enough realistically to cover what is excluded.

Bikers sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. Image by Heinrich van den Berg  / Getty Images.Bikers sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. Image by Heinrich van den Berg  / Getty Images.

Say no to extras

To save extra cash, don't book any pre-and-post-trip accommodation or airport transfers through your tour company. It's always cheaper to book additional accommodation independently, either through a hotel directly or by using an accommodation booking website. The same goes for airport transfers. Private taxi transfers booked through your tour company will be more expensive than a regular airport taxi, or an airport shuttle service. Of course, a pre-booked private taxi transfer gives you peace of mind on arrival so if you judge this to be good value then go for it.

A word about commission

Face it. Commission is rampant within the travel industry. For tour leaders and guides, particularly working in developing nations, it's often how they supplement small wages. Even the tour operators who claim they have a 'no commission' rule usually take commission for certain activities, or shopping, on the trip. They just make sure the commission goes directly to the company (hence they can advertise that their leaders don't take commission). So how do you figure out if you're being ripped off?

The rule of thumb is never do your shopping with the group, and don't be corralled into optional activities set up by the tour leader if you think you can get a better deal by yourself. But if the price seems reasonable, there's no point wasting a couple of hours running halfway around town just to save a few dollars.

The whole point of going on a tour is so you can leave responsibility for organising the boring day-to-day details to the tour leader while you relax and enjoy the experience. If you've done your homework before leaving, and worked out which tour offers you the best value, you won't be worried about the odd five bucks of commission.

Jess Lee specialises in writing about the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. She has co-authored Lonely Planet's travel guides to Egypt, Turkey and Israel. And she harbours a major obsession with hummus. Follow Jess's adventures at @jessofarabia.