Small Group Tours are very much in fashion but are they for you?
Here the Travel Insider (me) examines the pluses and minuses and explains what makes them tick. Then I come up with advice on how to evaluate them so that you avoid any pitfalls, and choose the right one for you.
This is quite a detailed examination, so if you are not interested in group tours of any kind then best you move on. 🙂
So what constitutes a “Small Group Tour”?
“Small” I would define as a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 paying passengers, and most operators of these types of tours would agree. Below 10 it becomes unprofitable unless run without a tour leader, and for me the absolute maximum would be 25. I know of one respected tour operator who calls his tours with maximum 30 passengers “small group”, but I think he is pushing it!
Small Group Tours – Pluses and Minuses
1. Less waiting so you see and do more. With larger groups you spend so much time just getting on and off the coach, waiting for stragglers at comfort stops, waiting for slow eaters etc. It’s amazing how much more you get to do with a small group.
2. More room on the coach. This of course depends on the size of the coach, as some small groups do use smaller vehicles. With a group of 20, I would use a 30 seater so people could spread out and move around. Also it gives people a better chance of securing a window seat and hence better viewing.
3. More attention from your guide/s. With large groups, you sometimes have trouble hearing the guide let alone being able to interact and ask questions. With smaller numbers, you should have much more of a chance to get real value out of your guide/s by interacting with them.
4. Get to meet more people. In large groups it is often difficult to meet more than a few other passengers, as small clicky groups can sometimes develop after a few days. With a small group, everyone generally gets to know everyone else and have fun together.
5. More choice of hotels. Larger groups simply need larger hotels to accommodate their numbers, so are limited as to where they can stay. Small groups can still access the large hotels, but also the smaller, more intimate properties, which may in desireable picturesque locations.
6. Access to more off the beaten track locations. Large, full sized touring coaches are unable to access some fascinating places simply because of their size. And in some countries, it is illegal for them to travel on narrow country roads designated unsuitable for coaches over a certain size. This is where a smaller coach definitely has the advantage in reaching out of the way places and getting off the tourist trail.
7. More flexibilty. Small groups can sometimes spend a little longer in a place if the group is having a good time, or move on quicker if necessary. However a tour operator should always keep to the itinerary as supplied to the passengers – after all that is what they expect – and have paid for!
8. Less likely to be cancelled. This is a topic that many tour operators, large and small, avoid mentioning. But tours can be cancelled if booking numbers fail to reach the required number for the tour to financially break even. Tour companies large and small cancel tours for this reason.
Cancellation normally happens several months prior when the lack of numbers becomes evident.
With larger groups of 40+ the minimum number may be 20, but with small groups it is more likely to be 10 and sometimes even fewer. Minimum number is not something that is normally disclosed, but you can sometimes gauge it from their advertising. Yesterday I saw one well known small groups operator stating that 75% of all tours for 2017 were now guaranteed and that all tours are guaranteed with just 10 passengers.
So in theory, small groups are less likely to be cancelled because they aim at smaller numbers. I say more about this in my conclusion.
1. Very small numbers. A small group can also be a minus if some of your travelling companions are not your type of people. Imagine touring with a group of 10 where one or two persons are seriously annoying, loud, rude etc. Here you are in a mini coach, stuck listening to them for many hours a day, and then again at mealtimes. To be on the safe side I prefer a group of 15 or 20 where you can avoid them more easily..
2. The Hotels. I am looking at the website of a highly regarded, well known, small group operator. They claim “boutique” hotels (popular word) and when I look at their 7 day West of England tour they are not all 4-star, but yes you could call them “boutique”. And importantly they are telling you where you are staying – but also says “or similar”. More about that later.
Then I look at the site of another well known operator who operates a number of tours including a small group tour of country France. They claim that accomodation is “luxury boutique heritage” in “stately country villas, manors and chateaux”. But nowhere do they name them – beware! I know of someone who travelled on this tour last year, and was very disappointed – no manors, stately villas or chateaux but very “ordinary” 4-star accommodation.
Any operator worth his salt will tell you the names of the properties being used on the tour.
3. The touring coach. If the numbers are 10 to 20 many tour operators will use a mini-coach, often a 20 seater Mercedes. I have travelled in them on day trips from London, and they are uncomfortable for longer trips – seats are narrow and hard, and the ride is very choppy because of the short wheel-base. These vehicles are people movers for short distances, not proper touring coaches. Yes they get you into out of the way places, but that can also be done with a 30 seater with far more comfort. If you are travelling in a smaller vehicle, take a pillow at least and hope they make regular stops so you can stretch your legs.
4. Tour guides. Small group tours often utilize driver/guides and that is fine if you get a good one. But it is a grey area with small group tours – how good will the guiding be? So in major centres, especially in Europe, I would like to see local guides with specialist knowledge also being used.
5. Cost. Here I need to go into some detail, so please stay with me if this type of tour interests you.
The retail price of a tour depends on many factors. These include how much has been spent on advertising the tour in the media, the standard of accommodation, whether there is a professional tour manager accompanying the group, whether there is a tour escort – and of course the built in profit margin.
But a major cost factor is the number of passengers on the tour. The fewer people on the tour, then the higher the cost per person because all of the expenses must be spread across fewer people. And tour prices are always based on a minimum number, so a tour price based on a minimum of just 10, will cost far more than a tour based on 15 or 20 – it’s just mathematics. So what should you expect to pay for a quality small group tour?
If you travel on a tour with a standard large group (normally 35-45) expect to pay up to about $300 a day per person twin share for something with good 4-star hotels and plenty of inclusions – Insight, Globus, Trafalgar etc.
But with a small group, if it is good accommodation and lots of inclusions, then you can expect to pay $400 to $450 a day. I do see some tours which are charging as much as $600 a day and I would be wanting a lot for my money at that price! I hope this helps.
Before booking –
1. Check out the tour operator very very carefully. See if you can find a review site with independent testimonials. Don’t be fooled by a fancy website.
2. Read the itinerary very carefully to see what is included. ” View” means you see it from outside and “Visit” means that you do just that – a visit. See how many meals are included, and if there are special highlights which add value because they normally cost money.
3. Look out for lots of “padding” which many tour operators large and small indulge in – “see the Rockies”, “drive the Romantic Road”, ” watch the sun go down over Skye” – all are great but cost NIL to the operator.
4. Look closely at the hotels being used. If none are mentioned ask for their names. If you get vague replies, give the tour a miss. Accommodation can make or break a tour. The operator knows what they are using – why not tell you? And if the hotels are named but “or similar”, then ask what the alternatives are. You may not be popular asking this but you have a right to know.
5. Size of the group. Ask about the minimum/maximum size of the group, how many are already booked, and how many are expected.
6. Ask about the size of the coach and who is doing the guiding – the driver or are there other guides. Once a tour gets to a certain size, there may be a tour guide accompanying the tour.
6. Cancellation. Ask their cancellation policy and at what point will you know that the tour is guaranteed. This is vital. Some tours will still go if minimum numbers are not met, but with reduced inclusions. Ask.
7. Tour cost. I have already given you guidelines, so it is up to you to decide whether you think the tour is well priced and worthwhile. But one more thing – ask if tour price will increase if the AUD drops in value against other currencies. It can happen, but should not occur after final payment.
Finally, if you want to understand more about how group tours operate, and some behind the scenes humour then see my book – THE TOAST IS COLD – Hilarious Tales and Insider Stories from a Tour Operator.
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