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How to Choose the Right Organized Tour

Tour companies that offer multiday trips arrange most everything for you: lodging, sightseeing, food and transportation. But group size, style of travel and budget are among the considerations travelers should assess before picking a tour. Read on for tips.

Start your research by thinking about how many people you want to travel with and what your tolerance is for the social demands dictated by group size.

Smaller groups can move more nimbly and possibly see more. But they can also be more intensely social as you spend a great deal of time with the same people touring and dining.

Larger groups tend to require more time to get around, but they can also offer more social variety — for example, you can change up your lunch partners more easily.

“Large groups offer anonymity, allowing travelers to choose their level of interaction,” said Deborah Miller, a travel adviser and the owner of Edge of Wonder Travels Unlimited in San Francisco. “Conversely, smaller groups foster intimacy among travelers, guides and the destination itself.”

Think about the demographics of your travel party and consider matching that to a tour company.

Operators often segment their trips by age under the assumption that similarly aged people have more in common or prefer the same pace. Road Scholar, for example, caters to an intellectually curious 50-plus crowd.

On the other end of the spectrum, G Adventures offers a category of trips for “18-to-thirtysomethings” and Intrepid Travel has trips for 18-to-35-year-olds.

With their inherent age spans, families can be a tough demographic to fit into larger group departures, which is why companies tend to break up family offerings by age group.

The active tour company Backroads has three age segments for families, including trips for those with children 4 to 19, those with older teens and younger adults into their 20s, and those with children in their 20s and beyond.

“By definition, that creates somewhat of an age segmentation among parents, too,” said Tom Hale, the founder, president and chief executive of Backroads.

A popular option for first-timers, a general tour will hit the highlights of a destination, like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre in Paris or major sites in Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan.

Beyond the general approach, alternatives abound based on themes, styles of travel or hobbies.

Themed trips include a culinary tour of Sicily, a deep dive into literary England, Europe’s World War II battlefields and how women live in India.

In addition to topics, trips often revolve around the means of travel, such as going by train, on foot or by boat (a category that can be further segmented by size, from a cruise ship to a barge or a kayak).

Tours can also allow you to pursue an interest like swimming or knitting in a unique destination.

Once you determine where and how you want to go, prices will range from budget to luxury.

“For travelers on a budget, large group tours tend to be the best fit because it’s a great way to see major attractions at a lower price point,” said Cheyenne Schriefer, a travel adviser and the owner of All Travel Matters in Golden Valley, N.D.

But not all tours are built the same. To compare them, consider what they include.

For example, G Adventures has a 10-day hiking trip in Switzerland from $1,799 a person and a 10-day hiking trip in Portugal for $4,499. The latter is billed as a luxury trip, so the accommodations are pricier, but it also includes most meals, transfers and activities. The Swiss tour offers more basic lodgings, transfers, optional activities available for a fee, and fewer meals.

“Sometimes fewer inclusions are better than more,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of Frommer Media, which publishes Frommer’s guidebooks. She pointed out that restaurants that can accommodate busloads probably don’t attract local traffic and that independent sightseeing allows you to “wander through local neighborhoods to get the feel of local life.”

Expertise of the guide or tour leader can also alter the price and the experience. You can expect to pay more for a tour led by a specialist, such as an Egyptologist guiding a group along the Nile.

Do you prefer to follow a strict schedule that relieves you from having to find, say, a restaurant for dinner? Or do you appreciate some structure — like knowing your hotel reservations are covered — but also want free time to explore independently?

Tour companies run the gamut. Before booking, read the itineraries carefully to find out if the schedule is tight or loose. If that is not clear, call the company to ask.

For truly independent travelers, self-guided tours offered by companies such as Inntravel, Exodus Adventure Travels and Macs Adventure make your ground arrangements and provide an itinerary to follow. Popular in Europe, these itineraries tend to be inn-to-inn walking or cycling trips that include luggage transfers.

“Self-guided travelers are independent but love the support of having a trip arranged for them, and they don’t want to hike with a big backpack anymore,” said Jasper Verlaan, the U.S. sales director for Macs Adventure.

If you’re still unsure about putting down a deposit once you’ve done your research, ask the tour company if you may speak to a past client.

“Ask for references,” said Lynn Cutler, the senior vice president of travel for Smithsonian Enterprises, which runs the tour company Smithsonian Journeys. “We’ll find them a traveler who has done this trip in the past and put them in touch.”

For more travel advice, visit our collection of Travel 101 tips and hacks.

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