A small group tour is an excellent way for many people to travel internationally. Experts who know an area well design the perfect itinerary and select the ideal accommodations and eating places. They handle the decisions, details and arrangements, introducing you to places and experiences you wouldn’t find on your own. You don’t have to worry about driving or communicating in a foreign language. Onsite leaders provide guidance and support and ensure an easy, enjoyable and memorable trip. And you travel with a small group of people with similar interests, which also enhances your experience.
A highly-positive experience on a small group tour depends on much more than the tour organizer or leader—it also depends on you! We’ve been leading our European Experiences small group trips for seven years; we’ve hosted 36 groups and over 380 travelers. In this post we want to offer some tips that will help you ensure the best possible experience on your small group tour.
Choose the best trip for you
Although you won’t have too many decisions to make once your tour begins, your first decision is the most critical: to choose a tour that is the best possible match for you. This means much more than matching up the desired destination, trip dates, and price. You also want to ensure that the focus and style of the trip, the daily activities, the pace and physical requirements, the level of accommodations, and the amount of free time are all ideal for you.
Read the trip materials carefully to understand the trip’s approach. Contact the tour operator by phone or e-mail to ask questions and get more information that will help you make the right choice. You can also talk with other people about their experiences on the trip; you can always ask the tour operator for references if needed. Collect as much information as possible, and then carefully consider how the trip matches up with your interests, needs, and preferences and your vision of an ideal vacation. Our earlier post Choosing a Small Group Tour provides a detailed list of questions to consider.
The physical requirements of a tour are especially important if you have any major health issues or personal limitations. If you join a tour and have physical or health problems, this can be a major risk to you and also detract from the experience of other participants. Be sure you understand what’s involved and be honest with yourself about your abilities. We strongly recommend communicating with the tour operator before booking the trip to discuss any health issues or physical restrictions and to understand if and how any special needs can be accommodated.
Make the right preparations
Most tours provide detailed information before the trip to help their participants get ready. This should ideally include information on meeting and departure plans, the expected weather conditions, what to wear, packing guidelines and more. Be sure to read this information carefully and follow the tour operator’s guidance. For example, our materials for our Luberon Experience trip in Provence emphasizes casual clothes and recommends bringing a jacket or sweater in case of cooler weather, along with a pair of closed toe walking shoes. We once had three travelers who arrived with only dressy summer clothes and sandals… they admitted they hadn’t read the information before the trip. They all ended up purchasing more practical clothes and shoes, expenses that could have been avoided.
Your tour operator may also provide valuable information that helps you know what to expect in terms of accommodations, food, meal times, and other cultural differences. Study this carefully so you have realistic expectations for your trip. You can also do your own internet research or buy a guidebook about the area, ideally one that provides background information on history and culture.
Learning a few basic phrases of the language is great preparation for your trip. You don’t have to take language classes, but it’s very helpful to know the basic terms of courtesy (hello, thank you, please, goodbye) and some emergency phrases and questions (How much? Where is the bathroom? Do you speak English?). Even a bit of the language enables you to be more independent and develop good relationships with local people… and is especially helpful when you’re making purchases at shops and markets.
One of the most important preparations for your trip involves packing. We always recommend limiting the amount of luggage you bring on a tour—or any European trip. Most experienced travelers can be away for a month or more with just one week’s worth of clothes. Try to travel with only a moderate-size rolling bag (24 inches max) and a small backpack. Plan to wear most of your clothes at least twice each week and do laundry or hand-washing as needed.
Packing light has several advantages. You should be able to manage your own luggage, especially important if you travel by train. (I can tell you from personal experience—and from watching a few of our travelers: if you have too much luggage, train travel is extremely stressful.) Your luggage will take up less space on the train, in your group’s van, and in your room. If you enjoy shopping, bring a small collapsible bag you can carry home with your purchases. See our posts Packing for a European Vacation and How to Dress for a European Vacation for more suggestions about this aspect of preparation.
Take care of yourself
It’s no fun to get sick or injured on any trip, especially a long-awaited trip to Europe. And if you’re traveling with a group, you don’t want to spread an illness to others or create a problem for everyone else. Some illnesses and injuries are unavoidable, but others can be prevented. Do your very best to arrive healthy and stay that way!
Make sure you’re well rested before the trip begins, get several hours of sleep on the overnight plane trip, and limit the effects of jet lag. We always recommend at least one “jet lag day” before meeting up with the group to begin our week together. During your tour, be sure to get plenty of rest… afternoon naps can be great!
Be aware of your personal reactions to travel, stress, and changes in your diet. If you tend to pick up colds on airplanes, be sure you stay warm and try preventative measures like extra Vitamin C or an over-the-counter medication like Airborne. If you sometimes have an upset stomach or heartburn when you eat certain foods or drink more alcohol than usual, be extra careful about what you eat and drink. You will likely have the opportunity for three large meals a day, but remember that you never have to eat and drink everything you’re offered. And if you’re subject to certain reactions, be sure to carry a small supply of over-the-counter medications with you.
You may be walking in the countryside, the mountains, or on cobblestone streets. Always wear the right shoes for each day’s activities, and be sure they’re well broken-in before the trip. Watch your step to avoid an unexpected slip or fall. An accident will disrupt more than just your vacation—it will demand special attention from the trip leader and may alter plans for the entire group. Similarly, watch out for other group members and help each other stay safe and healthy.
Be flexible, open-minded and positive
International travel is about much more than sightseeing—especially when you join a small group tour. For a week or two you’ll experience a different way of life than you’re used to at home. You’ll have the opportunity to experience different languages, customs, foods, lifestyles, and schedules.
The people who seem to enjoy our small group trips the most are flexible, open-minded, and positive about these differences. They want to learn about other cultures, they eagerly sample new foods, and they’re happy to set aside most of the daily patterns of their normal lives. They see these cultural differences as part of the adventure of travel.
A few travelers do seem to expect some aspects of life in another country to match what they’re used to at home, whether it’s English-language television stations, on-demand wireless internet, bacon and eggs for breakfast, unlimited diet Coke with lots of ice, or dinner available at 6 pm. Every once in a while we encounter someone who gets frustrated when something important to them isn’t possible. But the best travelers are open-minded about other cultures, and they truly enjoy this aspect of the experience.
You’ll also enjoy a small group tour more if you’re flexible. For various reasons, things may not always go as planned. The weather may be too cold, too hot or too rainy; the plumbing in your 17th century hotel building may falter; the service may seem slow in a restaurant; and the trains may go on strike. This is all part of the travel experience, especially in Europe.
Our family’s motto is “It is what it is.” When we travel, we try not to stress out about things we can’t change—like the weather. Instead we try to stay positive and adjust plans when needed… and we always travel with a wardrobe we can layer up or down—and an umbrella!
Enjoy the interaction with fellow travelers– and local people too
Almost everyone who joins our trips really seems to appreciate the camaraderie with other travelers and the feeling of traveling with friends. (If you’re highly introverted or easily frustrated with other people, consider whether an independent trip may be better for you.) Sometimes the best memories of a trip involve the shared experiences with others. Many of the people who meet on our trips end up staying in touch, visiting each other, and even traveling together again.
Your group may include people of all ages, from several different countries… brought together because you all have a desire for the same type of experience in the same part of the world. This is something very important you have in common! We’ve found most of our groups to be extremely compatible, especially when the members are open to one another and recognize that the group interaction is a very special ingredient of the trip.
Don’t rely your trip leader to single-handedly create a positive group experience… do your part to help make the trip a great experience for everyone. You’ll spend a lot of time with your fellow travelers, so ask questions and get to know them. We’ve found that everyone who has joined one of our trips has an interesting personal story.
On a small group trip, it’s also important to be sensitive to others and how you impact the group. Be sure to pay close attention when details like the meeting time and place are communicated— and always be on time so others don’t have to wait for you. And the little things matter too, like taking turns riding in the back seat of the van or offering to take a photo of another traveler with their camera.
A small group tour may also provide more opportunities to meet local people, often in their own homes or businesses. This is when you can make real cultural connections. Be attentive, ask questions, and express appreciation… your local hosts will respond to your interest, and these moments will also become some of your most important memories.
Do you have other suggestions for getting the most from a small group tour? We’d be interested in your comments and ideas!
Kathy and Charley Wood lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
Kathy and Charley host Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 30 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 120 Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.