There's a world of tours out there from Antarctica to the Zambesi for backpackers, botanists, beer drinkers, businessmen and balloonists and a lot more. And there are also people who, having tried a guided tour once, have sworn never to go near one again.
How can you choose your personal tour and expect to enjoy it?
Initially, there is the cost saving. Most tours are good values. Second, there is usually some preferential treatment afforded to established, respected tours in the allocation of hotel rooms, attraction seating and airline reservations.
Most importantly there is the tour escort/guide, who will see you through those annoying routines of travel such as luggage check-in and retrieval, customs clearance, hotel registration, sightseeing arrangements and help with the language and currency.
They are also there, with their experience and connections, if illness or emergency strikes.
In addition, there is the opportunity to meet new people in a different and exciting environment. To share the travel experience should be part of the tour enrichment for everyone.
But to get the right tour for you, you need to play an active part in the selection process for the idea to work.
How much time can you afford to spend? Do you prefer large groups or smaller gatherings? What age group are you most comfortable with? Are you a smoker or nonsmoker? Are you a serious photographer or a snapshot type?
Do you have any health problems that might limit your mobility or stamina? Do you have special interests or hobbies that you want to pursue on a tour? How much emphasis do you place on the quality of hotels and meals?
Now think about the where and what. Where do you want to go and what do you want to see? Do you like to frequent the great art galleries in the grand cities or do you prefer to concentrate on folk art in quaint villages? Do you want to tour French wineries or see the battlefields of Normandy?
If you don't know enough about your destination alternatives and options to ask these questions, the next cardinal rule is do your homework. Visit a library. Buy at least one inclusive guidebook about the areas you hope to visit. Fodor, Fielding, Birnbaum, Michelin will all have something to tell you about what's available for you to choose from. After screening travel books at a library, get a new edition at a bookstore.
Next stop, the travel agency. Now you can give them something to work on. You have your requirements firmly in mind and have decided on destinations and activities. The agency should be able to provide you with an assortment of tour brochures for your examination and comparison.
As to the brochures, skip the pretty pictures and the flowery adjectives. Start with the tour operator's history. If they have been in business a long time, the odds are that they are doing something right. You may also ask your travel agent for names and phone numbers of others who have taken the tour.
Ratings of the Hotels
Next, look at the ratings used to describe the hotels to be used on the tour. The grade of hotel will almost surely tell you the grade of food you will be eating, because most meals will be eaten in the tour hotels. Compare the ratings used by the tour promoter with those in your guidebook.
Next, analyze the total number of dinners provided (not total of meals). As it is usually the most expensive meal, this will help your analysis of the true costs of one tour versus another. You can readily see when or if you can slip away from the group for a quiet dinner alone occasionally.
Examine the itinerary. Using an atlas or map of the tour area, chart the distances between overnight stops. This will give you the length of each day's travel time and a good idea about the difficulty of the schedule. The "afternoons at leisure" may be on the AutoStrada or in the airport customs area.
Figure the number of consecutive nights spent at each tour stop. This will tell you about the pace of the tour as well as giving you some clues about wardrobe. Changing hotel rooms every night might be the only way to see all the sights, but it is exhausting and doesn't leave much time for laundry duties.
Subtract the time spent flying to and from the tour from the total tour days, and you will have the useful days. Arrive at the per diem cost and you can compare one tour against another with considerable accuracy, noting the services and attractions provided on each.
Pay particular attention to the condensed type section, usually in the back of the brochure. This lists the legal bargain between you and the tour operator, including cancellation fees, etc. Be sure you read and understand this, and take the brochure with you when you go. It is a great argument settler when the boats come for you in the Blue Grotto, for instance, and you are crammed in six abreast instead of the promised four persons each.
At the end of your packing, ticking off your final checklist, be sure you have included your best smile, your sense of adventure and the happy anticipation of events to come.