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Ten years ago, on my first overseas trip for work, I fell in love with traveling. I really wanted to see more of the world but lacked the experience and confidence – as well as a traveling companion – to strike out on my own. A few other international work trips followed, but I always had handlers making sure I wasn’t jailed or bridenapped.
When you think of “TOURS,” you might envision overcrowded buses unloading Bermuda-shorted masses at buffet restaurants and tourist sites. But small group tours are different. If you want to travel but don’t know where to start, small group tours are a great option. In my case, they gave me the skills I needed to travel solo. And I’ve kept taking group tours because of the great experiences!
Usually limited to 12-18 travelers, small groups have an experienced tour leader as well as local guides who are experts on their region. The tour, including lodgings, overland transport and other details are arranged for you. Often, there is no additional “single supplement” fee if you’re OK with being matched with a same-gender roommate. The smaller group size allows you to get a more personal, local experience. But one of my favorite aspects of small group tours is the opportunity to bond with and learn from other travelers.
There are tons of tour providers out there, but I’m going to focus on a few who I think offer options that have a range of tour destinations, styles and price points that make them affordable for most travelers. First, though, I want to give you my tips for choosing a tour operator.
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What Should You Look For?
Luckily, you have the entire internet at your fingertips! Get your Google on and do some basic research that could save you serious travel traumas later.
- Check out the company’s story on their website. If it’s important to you (and I hope it is!), 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 trips they offer. Do they offer upgraded options or “travel on a shoestring” 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 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 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 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!
My Recommended Small Group Tour Companies
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Intrepid Travel. I’ve done several trips with them, and I think their itineraries, guides and overall model are great. They commit to responsible travel and support a number of non-profit programs through their Intrepid Foundation.
Intrepid offers a few different travel styles: Basix, Original and Comfort. They also have “Urban Adventures,” day tours that promise to connect travelers with more authentic local experiences. Their tour selections have additional sub-categories for different activities like cycling, sailing, foodie, etc. And as a new feature, Intrepid has started offering trips for only solo travelers. During my Intrepid trips, there has been a good mix of ages, nationalities and personalities – which I personally enjoy.
One of the best things about Intrepid is that they typically offer a $1 deposit deal in January! Reserve a trip departing that year for just $1, and 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 or their sister brands, they give you an $1800 credit towards your 10th trip!
Intrepid currently has $1 deposits on most departures – book by February 8th. Click below for more info!
Another disclosure: my first small group tour years ago was with G Adventures (then Gap Adventures) in Cambodia, so they’ve also got a special place in my heart. G Adventures, like Intrepid, focuses on sustainable tourism and authentic experiences, and they both have similar tour itineraries.
G Adventures has a wide variety of trip styles including Yolo, Classic, Active, Family and Local Living. Through a partnership with National Geographic, they offer a line of branded Nat Geo trips with upgraded service levels in unique destinations. I think this is one of the edges that G Adventures has over Intrepid: more travel styles, and more trip itineraries and departure dates overall.
One very cool thing about G Adventures is their new “lifetime deposit” policy: if you pay a booking deposit but have to delay your plans, you’ll get a credit to apply your deposit to any future booking. AND the deposits are even transferable to another traveler.
Check out G Adventures’ list of “Insanely Affordable Tours” or their last-minute deals:
Peregrine is part of the Intrepid brand family with a more 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 include more: 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.
Geckos Adventures is another member of the Intrepid family, but their trips are for the 18-29 age group. (If you’re over 29, don’t worry, the Basix-style Intrepid trips are also affordable and open to everyone). Geckos offers the chance to see the world and learn about local cultures, while traveling with people your own age.
Geckos is a great alternative to tour companies like Contiki, whose itineraries can encompass many different countries with larger group sizes. Itineraries with Geckos will offer a smaller group and more immersive experience like local homestays.
Most Geckos trips can be booked with only a $100 deposit, plus they count towards Intrepid’s loyalty program. So for those with a plan to see the world, you could switch to Intrepid or Peregrine itineraries later and keep accruing the loyalty benefits.
Ready to Go?
With thousands of tour itineraries to destinations all over the world, chances are there’s an affordable small group tour out there for your interests, budget and travel style. I’ve traveled more with Intrepid, because their itineraries and departure dates fit better with the parts of the world I’ve wanted to see. But any of the options above would be a solid choice for your first travel experience, or an option to help you check places off your bucket list!
Got a question about affordable small group trips? Leave me a note in the comments!