Group tours are a popular way for many travelers to visit Europe. The research, planning and driving is turned over to someone else. These experts select ideal accommodations, design the perfect itinerary, and handle all the details, especially important when a foreign language is involved. In addition to arrangements and transportation, tour leaders provide guidance, support and expertise and hopefully ensure an easy, enjoyable and memorable experience.
A small group tour offers a much more personal European experience, particularly to focus on a specific region or interest. Small group tours allow more spontaneity and flexibility, and usually include the opportunity to connect with locals. Travelers who prefer small group tours like the camaraderie with other travelers and the feeling of traveling with friends. The best small group tours offer access to unique experiences, small eating places, and intimate surroundings that aren’t possible for larger groups and that travelers couldn’t find on their own.
A European tour represents a meaningful investment of time and money. There are hundreds of options for small group tours in Europe, and the internet makes it easy to identify a variety of possibilities in the areas of Europe that interest you. But how do you choose between small group tours? Which tour is right for you? Less-experienced travelers may not even know what questions to ask. The following list of questions should help all travelers think about their criteria for a small group tour and then evaluate several possibilities.
Important Questions to Ask When Evaluating Tours
- Where is the tour based? Is this a locale that has a strong appeal for you? What most interests you about the area?
- Will the group be based in one place for the entire tour or move to several locations?
- What is the typical weather at the time of year the tour is scheduled?
- What are the transportation and schedule logistics for the first and last days of the tour?
- Is the tour based in an area that is convenient to a major city or another interesting place you could visit on your own before or after the tour?
- Does the tour have a general focus with broader exposure to an area and its culture, or is it a specialized tour that focuses on a specific interest (e.g. art, food and wine, music)? Which approach is right for you for this vacation?
- Is the focus of the trip something you would really enjoy?
- How important is food to you? Are you open to experiencing local cuisine? What emphasis does the tour place on food and wine and how does this match your own interests?
- What will you do each day during a typical tour? Can you envision enjoying the itinerary, the places you’ll visit, and the activities described?
- How structured is the tour? How much free time is there and how important is this to you?
- How flexible are the arrangements? Are there any options for differing participant interests?
- Is the tour offered by an established company? Who are the owners? What is their reputation?
- Is this a larger company that hires guides/leaders or is it a smaller business where the owners are also the leaders?
- Does the company have affiliations? Can they provide references?
- What are their policies for cancellations?
- Does the company offer support or suggest resources for travel planning?
- Who will lead your group? What do you know about their personality and style?
- How much experience do they have leading tours? How much expertise do they have in the area where the tour is based and in any specialized focus the tour involves?
- Does the leader seem like someone you’d enjoy spending time with?
Pace and level of activity
- How much physical activity is involved, and how does this match your abilities and interests?
- Can any physical limitations be accommodated?
- How long is a typical day? Is this compatible with your needs and preferences?
- What are the accommodations and where are they located? Will you stay in a large villa, a large hotel, or a smaller guesthouse? Are you based in a village, a town or in the countryside? How will the location impact the tour experience?
- What level of accommodation do you prefer? Are the accommodations more upscale or somewhat rustic, and how does this match what you’d prefer? Will you have your own bathroom?
- Is there a pool or other amenities that are important to you? If you have special needs (e.g. no stairs, internet access, twin beds), can these be met?
- How large is a typical group?
- Is there a specific target audience? Who are the typical participants (ages, nationalities, male/female, interests)?
- Do people typically come as a couple or with a friend or family member? Is it a trip that welcomes singles and what are the arrangements for solo travelers? Are there specialized trips for certain types of participants (e.g. women only, families)?
- Is there a minimum size for a group and what happens if the minimum isn’t met?
Price and Inclusions
- What’s included in the price of the trip? What’s excluded? Will you have some meals on your own?
- Is the price competitive with similar tours, considering number of nights, level of accommodations, types of meals, and special activities?
- How much will you likely have to spend for transportation, meals, and other expenses that aren’t included in the price?
- Is there any special pricing (e.g. single supplements, different prices for different accommodations, discounts for small groups or repeat travelers)?
Getting answers to your questions
This list should prompt ideas of other aspects of a tour that are important to you. Once you’ve identified all your questions, there are several approaches to finding the answers. The best evaluation process will draw on multiple approaches.
- Examine the website carefully to see how the tour is presented. Most of the questions on this list should be answered on the website. How does the company describe itself and the tour? What is their approach? How do they describe their typical participants? What are their policies?
- Send an e-mail to the company with detailed follow-up questions. These initial communications offer a valuable preview of the company’s approach. Do they respond promptly? Do you receive a personal response or more of a “form letter” response? What personal involvement does your contact person have with the tour?
- Call the company and talk to someone, ideally the person who will lead your trip. A personal conversation can also be very important. Is this a person you’d enjoy spending a vacation with? Are they knowledgeable and experienced? Does this seem like someone you can trust?
- Google the company name, the tour name and the leader’s name. It’s really easy to do detective work and get some independent information about the tour. Can you locate articles or websites that provide more detailed information (not just a link)? Are the owners/leaders credible, established people? Can you find trip reports, postings or photos from people who have gone on this tour?
- Talk to other people. The best information often comes from people who have been on the tour, especially people whose style and preferences are similar to your own. Do you have friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-friends who have personal experience with this tour-or do they know anyone that has? Can the company provide you with several references of people who have gone on this tour recently? Call or e-mail these individuals and ask questions that will help you learn more about the tour, beyond what you can find out on the website.
Charley and I hope your research on small group tours will lead you to consider The Luberon Experience or one of our other European Experiences trips. Now in our fourth year, we offer unique small group tours in Provence, France and other special places in Europe. Learn more about our trips on our websites, then contact us with other questions. Check us out on Google and let us know if you’d like references you can talk to. If one of our trips is right for you, we’d love to have you join us.
Please also consider the wonderful small-group tours developed and led by the other members of Slow Travel Tours, a group we helped organize in 2008. Slow Travel Tours is an informal affiliation of nine small group tour operators who share a common philosophy and work together to ensure high-quality tours. Although we each take a somewhat different approach, we all believe in traveling more slowly, seeing what’s around you, and immersing yourself in the local landscape and culture. We all lead our own tours, and you’ll find every owner extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the areas where they host groups. You’ll definitely experience the uniqueness of a specific area in Europe in a very personal way!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Kathy and Charley Wood lead The Luberon Experience, a week-long “slow tour” in the most beautiful area of Provence, France. Their popular trips are offered five weeks a year, in May and September. They also now lead two or three trips a year to other special places in Europe. Their other 2010 European Experiences tours will be based in the Salzkammergut area of Austria and the Cotswolds in England.
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 20 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with others travelers. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.