Group travel and tours. So frequently discussed. So many of the same conclusions, every time. You have the “do it yourselfers” the “I hate groupers” the “what do I do without a tour guide I think I’m goingtofreakouters” and those that travel in a group because it’s easy and they are busy people without time or desire to organize every detail. And there are definitely those places where it is hard to do it independently or without a group.
I’ve written about group travel before, too.
My mom and I went in a group to Machu Picchu. While I probably, usually, would have planned a trip Machu Picchu independently, we decided to go pretty (very) late and during high season. This meant little was available–trains, accommodations, and even tickets to Machu Picchu started to look really complicated and less than ideal. Plus, I was incredibly busy at the time and didn’t really have hours to spare organizing the weeklong trip. We were both happy to go the group route with a highly reputable company.
I’ve been on enough group tours now to know the pitfalls and benefits to group travel. Choosing the right operator and the right trip can make a huge difference in your experience, obviously. But there are other things that are harder to judge in advance. These things can really make or break a trip. Sure, reading online reviews helps, but I find that online reviews of group trips are generally 1) written by the company, 2) written by people who only travel in groups, or 3) written by people where something horrible, terrible, very bad happened (like that one review where the two teenage children refused to leave a hotel because they got in a fight with their parents and the parents blamed the tour guide…that’s one of my all-time favorites).
But here are five things that you only find out during the group trip that I think make a huge difference in overall trip enjoyment:
Un-Annoying, Non-Difficult Group Members
Given the groups we’ve had in the past before, this group was pretty easy going and did not have a single attention-needing, loud, obnoxious person. Serious relief. While we’ve always met some truly wonderful people in the past, we’ve also had our share of helpless, ridiculous, rude, ignorant, and seriously freaking annoying. This group was a bit less sociable than others we’ve had, mostly due to lots of families, but I’ll take that over annoying any day.
The Itinerary Meets the Expectations Set by the Promotional Materials
Mostly, this trip fit the bill. There were a few misleading things, like “we’ll enjoy a walk to the Sun Gate” (was totally optional and not really suggested). And that we would have a free afternoon in Lima. Apparently that meant just for dinner? Traffic in Lima is awful, and it took us about 2 hours to get to our hotel. But traffic is always awful in Lima, and to not plan this into the schedule is a bit silly. In general, the itinerary was pretty straightforward, lectures on schedule, and everything as advertised. That said, this company was one of those that had 2 sentences, maximum, to describe each day. When that’s all you have, it’s pretty easy to not oversell anything. Some companies send about a page for each day–I guess each has their preferences for their clientele.
Accommodations that Are the Level Advertised
In addition to the itinerary, it is critically important that hotels are the level they are purported to be. You know, not the whole “well, five stars here is like two stars in the United States.” While so many places we’ve stayed have been wonderful, we’ve also stayed in some (well, perhaps just a small handful) of dark, dank, dirty hotels that were advertised as luxury. Ha. Sousse Palace I’m looking at you.
This trip’s accommodations were in the other direction–extremely, extremely nice. All of them. Better than I was expecting. You can only learn so much from TripAdvisor, and things I value–cleanliness primarily, comfortable pillows that don’t smell, and nice bath products don’t hurt–were all excellent. While I don’t know if bad accommodations can totally “ruin” a trip (as my mom would say, “only if you let them”), they can certainly make showering an effort in how to be a germ-avoidance ninja. Thumbs up.
Good Trip Leaders
Oh dear. This is one of those things that is so variable and can make such a huge difference. A tour leader that doesn’t handle conflict well, one that clearly doesn’t want to be there, and those that are so enjoyable you want to take them home with you and show them wherever you live…we’ve had the full gamut.
This one totally missed the mark on our trip. Besides refusing to speak a word in Spanish to me which I found overly offensive as my Spanish is not that bad (this includes basic greetings like good morning), his English was subpar. We got in a few arguments, including why I needed to just grab something from my luggage, that left a bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention he treated our bus driver like pond scum. Yea, yea culture and all, but if you have a client that understands Spanish, my feeling is you need to make damn sure you at least pretend to be polite, particularly in a small bus of only 12 people.
The saving grace, really, is that we had 2 other guides for Cusco and Machu Picchu that were great. They were knowledgeable, personable, acted like they actually wanted to be there. If it wasn’t for them, this trip probably would have been a dee-sas-ter.
Organization and Scheduling
One of the big keys, to me, of a good tour is ensuring that people generally don’t feel rushed or overscheduled. I hate being herded and hurried through museums, archaeological sites, cities, etc. Often, having lots of “free” time in a place is my preference. If I want to go for a run, I go for a run. If we want to go see another museum, shop, whatever–we can do those things at our leisure. It’s hard to have back to back to back activities and enjoy each of them.
On the trip to Peru, I never felt particularly rushed at Machu Picchu, or in Cusco. During our time at the Sacred Valley, however, it did sometimes feel we were scheduled like sardines. Our time in Lima, until we were dropped off at our hotel, was awful. Rush, rush, rush, rush. The other thing that was particularly annoying was that our Tour Leader wouldn’t tell us anything about our schedule for the next day until the night prior (like what time our flight was), when we all sat down and discussed “what we would do tomorrow”. That made me feel like a kindergartner. I hated kindergarten.
(Do you know how absolutely tormenting it is to spend an entire day learning the letter H when you can already read full books? It’s awful. Just saying).
Overall Verdict on Peru
We definitely enjoyed the trip. I mean, I think it’s hard not to enjoy Machu Picchu and not to enjoy Peru. The rudeness of the trip leader did take a toll after a while, as did his inability to tell us anything you can’t find on Wikipedia (actually, I take that back, there is WAY more to learn on Wikipedia than what he told us about Peru). But we enjoyed the time we spent with our other guides in Machu Picchu and Cusco. The accommodations were wonderful, unique, and the food was fantastic. While there are definitely certain places I’ll go on group tours again (i.e., Antarctica and the Galapagos), I’ll be avoiding tours in cities where we prefer to explore on our own time and own pace.