What’s better, sharing a guide or having one to yourself? Katie McGonagle weighs up the pros and cons
Most people know what going private means in schools or hospitals – smaller class sizes, shorter waiting lists and posher magazines in the waiting room.
But when it comes to escorted tours, the difference isn’t as clear. Does a private tour still include a guide and driver? Is it just for honeymooners, or can big families book out a departure? Wouldn’t a group tour be better value?
To get the answers to those questions and more, we asked operators for the lowdown on group and private tours.
Group Tours: Social networks
Almost every escorted tour operator promises the chance to mix with ‘like-minded travellers’ and, despite being a well-worn cliché, it’s also true. If passengers were attracted to the same itinerary, chances are they’ll have something in common.
That’s important on active tours – Explore says the camaraderie on cycling and trekking trips encourages everyone to keep going – and family tours, where kids can make friends the same age.
Tim Winkworth of The Family Adventure Company says: “We are seeing more single-parent families and families with one child. Group trips work well for these clients as they provide ready-made friends for only children and adult conversation for single parents.”
They’re not the only ones who want company: solo travellers make up more than half of passengers for 18-35s specialist Contiki and activity operators Intrepid Travel, Exodus and Explore.
Growing demand for Saga’s solo departures shows the same is true of older clientele, with companionship from fellow passengers making travel a less daunting prospect.
Group Tours: Go further
The added security of a group means less familiar destinations and more-adventurous styles of travel seem altogether more manageable.
That’s why Riviera Travel’s most popular long-haul trips are to South Africa, India, Vietnam and Cambodia, and why Cosmos Tours & Cruises introduced small-group touring to the same destinations, to attract a younger, more-adventurous audience. Travellers are keen to explore, but they want the reassurance of fellow passengers.
Even adventurous types take comfort in a group: Journey Latin America saw such success with off-the-beaten-track tours to Aisen in Patagonia and the Guianas region of South America that it now has six more group options in remote parts of Nicaragua and northeast Brazil.
Group Tours: Price promise
It goes without saying that splitting the costs of transport, guides and excursions among a group is more cost-effective than a private tour, but the reality is more nuanced than that.
Certainly, with greater numbers comes better buying power: high-volume operators such as Riviera Travel secure more competitive rates compared with tailor-made trips, and 18-39s operator Topdeck says group tours work out 15%-20% cheaper than going it alone.
But according to Cox & Kings, the situation varies by region, so it’s always worth pricing up a private tour for comparison.
A 13-night trip to northern India, for example, starts at £2,295 for a group or £2,545 if taken privately – just £250 more for the benefits of a private departure. Yet in Japan, where the cost of private guides and vehicles is considerably more, a private tour would be nearly twice the price of a group option.
Group Tours: Access all areas
Fancy learning to cook in a family home, or seeing the Sistine Chapel without the crowds? Behind-the-scenes tours and exclusive activities often feature on group itineraries, yet can be difficult to recreate on an individual basis.
The perks range from saving time at popular attractions – Funway always books queue jumps for tour groups – to accessing areas off-limits to the public such as the unusual Bramante Staircase at the Vatican, included on Insight Vacations’ Best of Italy trip, or the private estates which form part of Collette’s Royal Horticultural Society garden tours.
It also extends to the local experiences that bring a trip to life: whether it’s Leger Holidays drafting in historians for expert insight on battlefield tours, or Trafalgar organising Be My Guest dining so passengers can try local specialities.
Similarly, guests of Insider Journeys (formerly Travel Indochina) highlight its signature ‘Insider Experiences’ – think eating with a family in Laos or at a nunnery in Burma – as the highlights of the trip.
Private Tours: Alone time
For honeymooners seeking seclusion, families who want quality time together, or couples who just don’t fancy sharing holiday memories with others, some clients want the structure of an escorted tour but hate the idea of travelling in a group.
Pitching itself between the two extremes, Intrepid launched Independent Journeys last year, a 21-strong collection with the upsides of a group tour – transport, accommodation and local guides at each location – but a small vehicle and the flexibility of choosing a departure date.
Explore’s Private Journeys offer a similar level of freedom, with either a driver and local guides, or a guide throughout, but Explore also added Self-Guided trips late last year for those who want more independence.
Aimed largely at first-time tourers, these provide accommodation, luggage transfers and (if applicable) a bike, and are expected to account for at least a tenth of the operator’s cycling and walking trips within the next two years.
Nonetheless, the expertise offered by a professional guide should not be overlooked: Anatolian Sky finds private tours outsell group trips, with 75% of clients taking up the option of a private guide and tailor-making a route to suit their own interests.
Private Tours: Strength in numbers
Of course, a private tour doesn’t just have to be for two. Exodus has seen strong sales from small groups – a family climbing Mount Toubkal to celebrate a 40th birthday, or a fitness club training together in the UK to climb to Everest base camp, for example – who want their own departures.
With sufficient numbers, these can be arranged for a similar price to standard tours.
G Adventures reports similar success in sailing trips, with groups chartering their own boats in Greece, Croatia, Cuba and the British Virgin Islands, and is starting to work more with school and military groups on arranging active trips. The operator has a starter kit offering guidance on booking private group tours (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Private Tours: Be flexible
Forget being tied to a timetable – private tours let clients choose their own departure date and duration, and tweak the itinerary to add or remove excursions, spend longer at the sites that interest them, add time on the beach or adjust the accommodation along the way.
Wendy Wu Tours has seen its tailor-made business grow by 40% year on year by allowing clients to build their own itinerary, while China Links Travel finds many of its private clients take the chance to upgrade their accommodation to five-star hotels, or travel to remote spots such as Zhangjiajie in Hunan province.
Ask an Expert
Lucy Evans, Back-Roads Touring
“Private tours are great for people who want bespoke or specialist itineraries, whereas group tours are sociable and a good choice for single travellers or couples looking to meet other like-minded people.”
Greg Thurston, Cox & Kings
“An older, single traveller is likely to feel safer and more comfortable with a group, whereas honeymooners are unlikely to want to be part of a group. With single travellers, it’s also useful for agents to know which companies offer supplement-free tours.”
Jae Hopkins, Exodus
“Often a few couples, two families, or a group of friends aren’t aware that between them, they make a large enough group to choose a private tour. That opens up a host of exciting adventures they may never have considered.”
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