Last Updated on September 15, 2020
Ten years ago, on my first international trip for work, I fell in love with traveling. I really wanted to see more of the world, but lacked the experience and confidence to strike out on my own. I also didn’t have a traveling companion! A few other international work trips followed, but I always had “handlers” in my destinations who made sure I wasn’t jailed or kidnapped for ransom. I never traveled on my own until I discovered small group tours!
When you think of “ESCORTED TOURS,” you might envision overcrowded buses unloading masses if people at buffet restaurants and tourist sites. But small group trips are different. If you want to travel but don’t know where to start, small group tours are a great option for inexpensive vacations and meaningful travel experiences. In my case, they gave me the skills I needed to travel solo later. And I’ve kept taking group tours because of the great experiences!
Small Group Tour Basics
Usually limited to 12-18 travelers, escorted small group trips tend to be focused on authentic travel experiences. They have an experienced tour leader as well as local guides who are experts on the region. The tour, including lodgings, overland transport, and other details are arranged for you and included in the price. Often, there is no additional “single supplement” (added fee) if you’re OK with being matched with a same-gender roommate. The smaller group size and local leaders allow you to get a more personal, genuine experience. One of my favorite aspects of small group tours is the opportunity to meet and learn from other travelers.
If you’ve heard of tours like Contiki or Top Deck that target young travelers, I’ve got recommendations for all age ranges that offer a range of destinations, styles, and price points that make them affordable for most travelers. All are committed to responsible tourism and authentic travel experiences. They also offer frequent departure dates on their most popular options, which means that it’s easier to fit it into your vacation time.
Organized small group tours also tend to draw adventure travelers! Each tour will list a detailed day-by-day itinerary. You’ll want to check all of the activities and pay attention to the “physical rating” of each tour to be sure it’s for you.
Whether you’re looking for backpacker tours, trips with upgraded amenities or something in between, there are affordable tours for you!
Before we talk about specific companies, I want to give you my general tips for choosing the best affordable tour operators.
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Choosing the Best Small Group Tour Company
Luckily, you have the entire internet at your fingertips! Always do research about the escorted tour company you’re considering.
- Check out the company’s story on their website. Look for info on sustainable travel efforts and how they give back to communities where they operate.
- Make a note of the different styles or levels of organized trips they offer. Do they offer upgraded options or more “backpacker” trip itineraries? What’s the target age group or audience of each? Is there a guaranteed maximum group size?
- Look for photos of other travelers — are they people you’d want to be friends with and swap travel tales with over a drink?
- Do a little research to be sure you’re getting a good value. Is the guided itinerary full, but with a little time to explore on your own? What’s included, and what is listed as optional? What level of hotels will you be staying in, and is the transport public or private?
- Check out tour company reviews, both on and off their site. Keep in mind that on-site, the comments could be curated; and off-site, they could skew more toward people that want to voice something that went wrong. Look for trends and use your good judgement.
- Remember, unexpected things can happen during travel, so you want a company that has its travelers’ safety as a priority.
- Read blogs! Especially if you’re deciding between guided tour companies that have similar itineraries, look for posts by other travelers to see what stood out for them.
- Read the full trip itineraries carefully. Are you seeing just the major highlights, or are there more unique stops too? In off-the-beaten path destinations, you might experience hotels and services very different than what you’re used to. For me, this is an acceptable trade-off for an amazing experience – but it might not be for everyone!
Recommended Affordable Small Group Tour Companies
I’m a huge fan of Intrepid Travel. I’ve done several trips with them, and I think their authentic itineraries, tour leaders and overall model are great. They commit to responsible travel and support a number of non-profit programs through their Intrepid Foundation.
If you’re interested in traveling to a particular country or region, you can search for all Intrepid Travel tours that include that destination.
Intrepid offers a few different “trip styles,” which pertain to the level of service and activities included: Basix, Original, and Comfort. On the most affordable option, Basix, you’ll use public transit and less activities will be included, so you can choose to add on activities that fit your budget. Original tours are balanced, with tourist-class hotels and more included activities, including a few meals. Comfort tours are slower, with upgraded amenities, and even more meals and activities included.
Intrepid Tour “Trip Themes”
Intrepid also groups their tours by theme so that travelers with special interests can find them more easily. If you’re looking for a small-group family tour or are into sailing, cycling, local cuisine, hiking, or want to visit Antarctica, they’ve got tours just for you! And as a newer feature, Intrepid has started offering groups trips only for solo travelers. This can take pressure off new solo travelers, since everyone in the group is traveling on their own!
One of the most notable tour themes is the “18-29s Adventures” category. This is geared to young adult travelers who want to experience socially-conscious tours with others in their same age range.
Intrepid also offers “Urban Adventures,” day tours that promise to connect travelers with authentic local experiences. The day tour options have additional sub-categories for different activities like cycling, sailing, foodie, etc.
During my Intrepid trips, I’ve always experienced a good mix of ages, nationalities and personalities – which I personally enjoy.
What Sets Intrepid Apart
One of the best things about Intrepid is that they typically offer a $1 deposit deal in January! Reserve a trip departing that same calendar year for just $1. You’ll pay the balance about two months before the start of the trip. Intrepid also as an awesome “Legend” loyalty program – if you take 9 trips with them, you can get an $1800 credit towards your 10th trip!
Check out Intrepid Travel’s latest deals and save 10% off all remaining 2019 departure dates.
My first international escorted group tour years ago was with G Adventures (then Gap Adventures) in Cambodia. So of course they’ve also got a special place in my heart! G Adventures, like Intrepid, focuses on sustainable tourism and authentic travel experiences, and both offer similar tour itineraries.
G Adventures tours have four service levels: camping, basic, standard, and upgraded. These basically correspond to Intrepid’s, except that they break out camping as a separate level from basic.
G Adventures “Travel Styles”
G Adventures offers an even wider variety of travel styles including Wellness tours, trips by Rail , Marine sailing tours, Polar adventures, Active tours (biking, hiking and multisport), Family trips and Local Living.
Targeted to young adult travelers, G Adventures offers “18-to-Thirtysomethings” tours. These are faster-paced, budget tours for active travelers under the age of 40 that still offer an authentic experience.
Through a partnership with National Geographic, G Adventures also has an exclusive line of National Geographic Journeys. These trips feature upgraded service levels in truly unique destinations.
What Sets G Adventures Apart
One huge G Adventures plus is their “lifetime deposit” policy. If you pay a deposit to G Adventures but have to delay your plans, you’ll get a credit you can apply to any future booking. And G Adventures deposits are even transferable to another traveler!
I think G Adventures also has more travel styles, more trip itineraries, and departure dates overall.
Check out G Adventures’ list of “Current Promotions and Specials” or their last-minute deals:
Peregrine is part of the Intrepid brand family with an upgraded experience. Their website touts their focus on “premium adventures”: a slower travel pace, immersion in local culture, and intimate smaller groups.
Peregrine’s tour prices are higher, but also have more inclusions: airport transfers, many meals, private transport, upgraded hotels, gratuities and all sightseeing. With an average of just 9 travelers, Peregrine also has a very small average group size.
Peregrine Adventures is a great option for travelers who want a unique local experience with a slower pace and more creature comforts. I’ve currently got my eye on a Peregrine itinerary for Day of the Dead in Mexico!
Booking Your Small Group Tour
Some tour aggregators or third-party websites (like TourRadar) offer trips by G Adventures, Intrepid and other companies. I always recommend booking directly from the tour company, rather than a third party, so that you can be clear on what terms and conditions apply. Also, this way you know that you’re eligible for promotions and perks they offer, like Intrepid’s $1 deposit seasonal promotion, and G Adventures’ lifetime deposit policy.
Deciding between tour companies
Because Intrepid and G Adventures often have similar itineraries and both are great companies, it can be difficult to decide between the two. Sometimes the dates you can travel might make the decision easy for you, with one of their departure dates matching with your time off!
If not, I recommend checking the detailed trip notes and compare them side-by-side. For example, one itinerary might offer a home stay night with a local family. This can be exciting for travelers who want to have a true local travel experience! For others, it might be too close for comfort to stay in a private home or share a bathroom.
Read blogs and forums to see if other travelers have specific feedback on the trip itinerary and company you’re considering. You can even check Instagram tags to see other travelers’ experiences with #intrepidtravel and #gadventures.
Pros and Cons of Small Group Tours
When deciding if escorted small group trips are really right for you, you should weigh the positive and negative factors of each.
Consider the following “pros” in favor of small group trips:
- Most things will be arranged for you after arrival in your destination. You can even request airport pick-up for an additional charge.
- If you’re a new traveler or have never traveled solo before, it’s a great way to travel with a “safety net.” Along the way, you’ll also learn from the others on your trip.
- It’s not just solo travelers on small group trips – lots of couples, friends and families book these tours for their vacations.
- If you’re short on time, you won’t have to do a ton of research and planning to be ready to go.
- You can really focus on having an authentic travel experience. Spend your time learning about history and culture, trying local foods, and getting great photographs.
- You won’t have to worry as much about tourist traps, scams, and safety. Your tour leader will brief you at the start of the trip. They’ll also brief you each day or activity with things to consider.
- On all of my small group trips, I met other travelers I genuinely liked. I’m still Facebook and Instagram friends with many of them including two tour leaders!
Conversely, some of the negatives of guided small group tours:
- You will be traveling with a group, and there will be a lot of different ages, nationalities, and attitudes among them. This can mean interesting travel companions… or people you just don’t get along with. Luckily I’ve found that most people who choose these tours are like-minded souls!
- You’ll need to stick to the schedule. For example, you might not be able to see a site at sunrise for photos, unless it’s in the itinerary. But you can talk to your group leader to see if modifications are possible, especially if your traveling companions agree.
- The itinerary is set, so you won’t have the freedom to stay longer in a place you want to explore more. However, you can arrive early or tack on extra days at the end of the trip.
- Many of the mornings will include an early start. If you like a more leisurely pace, consider an upgraded travel style; but these trips might just not be for you.
- Some of the tours might include physical activities beyond your ability. Be sure to check the detailed itinerary and physical difficulty rating.
- You won’t have the thrill and options of customizing your own trip. I know for some people (like me), sometimes half the fun is in the planning!
Ready to Go?
With thousands of tour itineraries to destinations all over the world, there are affordable group tours for your interests, budget, and travel style. Any of the options above would be a solid choice for your first travel experience, or a way to check places off your bucket list!