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In summer 1863, 130 intrepid travellers, led by pioneering travel agent Thomas Cook gingerly made the voyage across the English Channel to embark upon his company’s new-fangled escorted tour to the Swiss Alps.
For the next fortnight, this bunch of hardy souls – who had all forked out the princely sum of £10 for the experience – rode mules over Alpine ravines and lumbered up glaciers in asphyxiating crinoline dresses.
As antiquated as it may seem, those two weeks were the beginning of the escorted tour as we know it. Of course, escorted tours have changed beyond all recognition since then.
Today, itineraries don’t take weeks to complete (Cook later launched a ‘222-day trip to Egypt’), it’s quicker to get around on trains rather than mules while toilets are invariably more hygienic too.
There’s also more diversity, with escorted tours available to suit seemingly every interest, from horse-riding to history, including one tour that follows in the footsteps of those 1863 Victorian travellers.
Still, many misconceptions remain around escorted tours. Many believe them to be whirlwinds of 5am wake-up-calls, hours stuck on stuffy coaches and being shoved around ancient sites by aggressive tour guides.
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Times they are a changing!
But looking at some of the latest wave of escorted tours (such as those offered by Saga), it’s clear to see how they’ve evolved, with many letting customers travel at their own pace or offering free-time to explore.
Moreover, escorted tours are launching a comeback, fuelled by increasingly busy lifestyles (large chunks of your life can be spent attempting to book on complex train websites) and a growing interest in previously ‘difficult’ destinations.
Types of escorted tour
Here, we provide a brief primer on what escorted tours really entail, while debunking many of the myths mentioned above…
An escorted tour allows you to sample the best of a country or region without fretting over hotel bookings or missing travel connections.
They work particularly well for large countries, such as Australia, enabling you to visit such far-apart destinations as Sydney, Alice Springs, the Great Barrier Reef and Perth – often within a matter of a fortnight.
They also throw in experiences such as whale-watching or wine-tasting, often a logistical nightmare for holidaymakers to organise (especially anal travellers who spend hours ploughing through booking websites trying to find the right deal/tour).
Special interest escorted tours
There is a plethora of escorted tours to suit most interests with an expert guide usually on hand to provide insight into the places you’re visiting. Into country music, blues or jazz?
Why not try a deep south tour of the USA. Or perhaps a walking tour?
That’s not all – there are escorted tours for equine enthusiasts, bird-watchers and painters – all allowing customers to indulge their favourite hobby.
Combine your favourite hobby with a holiday with Saga's selection of Special Interest trips. Find out more here
Whether it’s sailing the Norwegian fjords or drifting down the river Nile, escorted cruises are an excellent way to view changing scenery and landscapes.
Saga also offer escorted ‘Cruise and Stay’ options, which combine stays on water and land, giving you more time to explore a city in or relax on a beach.
From Croatia to the Seychelles, see it all on Saga's escorted cruises. Find out more here
Escorted rail tour
One of the best ways to view dramatic scenery is from the comfort of a luxury train carriage.
Saga has escorted rail journeys through the Rocky Mountains, the jungles of Malaysia, the Australian Outback and one epic journey traversing five African countries – Ethiopia, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
What better way to see the world than by taking a scenic train journey? Find out more here
It’s not just the usual haunts you can experience on an escorted tour. Holiday companies are starting to venture to lesser travelled lands, including the Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
These fascinating destinations give travellers an insight into the historic Silk Road and learn about the history of the countries. A far cry away from the beach resorts that have previously symbolised a holiday.
Turquoise domes, towering minarets and more…discover Uzbekistan on a 10-day tour Find out more here.
Escorted tours: why do them?
Perhaps the biggest allure of the escorted tour is that somebody else has organised everything for you. There’s no staying up into the small hours navigating complicated foreign train websites, no kicking the computer with frustration at flight baggage fees and no arguments over where to eat. Instead, escorted tours allow you to relax and enjoy the experience.
They’re perfect for emerging or less well-trodden countries
Escorted tours work well in those countries where tourism infrastructure isn’t so well-developed. Take Iran for example. With the lifting of travel restrictions and new air routes, tour operators have flooded in to offer guided tours (at the moment Britons can only visit the country on organised trips) to the ex-pariah state’s many attractions such as the mosques of Isfahan or the ruins of Persepolis. See undiscovered-destinations.com, secretcompass.com, wildfrontierstravel.com for more.
They help ease travel anxieties
Travellers wary about navigating the Cyrillic signs of the Moscow metro would find succor in an escorted tour. Likewise, travellers who might find the challenges of travelling around a developing nation such as India, would also find an escorted tour around the country a godsend.
They stave loneliness for single travelers
Many single travellers would appreciate the companionship that escorted tours can provide. Some tour operators cater well towards this market, offering single rooms and cabins at no extra cost.
Discover a selection of holidays designed specifically for solo travellers. Find out more here
Escorted tours: the myths
I’ll be shunted around from site to site with little time to explore
Not necessarily. Saga offers tours at different ‘paces’, with tours ranging from ‘Pace 1’ (travelling for three-four hours a day with a few days for you to relax) to ‘Pace 3’ (action-packed adventures with some long but essential journeys so customers can experience the best of a region).
I’ll be stuck on a coach for days
Maybe this was the case for escorted tours in the 1970s. Today, the variety of transport used on escorted tours is staggering – cruises aboard Turkish gulets, luxury train rides through American national parks, even horse-riding trips through Uzbekistan.
Escorted tours are expensive. I’m better off booking everything myself
Escorted tours mostly have transport, entry fees for major sights and sometimes meals included. Operators often manage to negotiate special rates for these, meaning escorted tours are often cheaper than booking independently. You’re also not at the mercy of dramatically surging prices for flights or hotels.
Escorted tours always include a mandatory ‘souvenir shop’ stop, where I’ll be corralled into buying something.
Most activities on escorted tours are optional, meaning you shouldn’t feel forced into doing things you’re not interested in. If your tour guide does attempt to tack on a souvenir shop stop, you could always shop elsewhere or inform the guide you’d like more time to explore.
I’m limited to eating in the tour’s restaurants every night
If there is a choice of restaurants nearby, you should be free to sample local cuisine independently – at your own expense, obviously.