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Into the hands of experts
Pick a country. Any country. Don’t tell me the name. But I can guess that you can probably go there on a tour. Of course, you can also go there as an independent traveller.
So why would you choose to travel with complete group of strangers?
The basic reasons to pick a tour remain the same whether you wish to go to Bognor Regis or Bogotá. An expert company can usually find you a better deal on flights and accommodation than you can yourself.
They will also have an itinerary that has been perfected through countless travellers like you. They told the tour company what they want to see or do, and then how they enjoyed doing it or seeing it. You benefit from all those experiences.
There is nothing more comforting than arriving in a completely foreign destination and having a friendly face greet you by name in the arrivals hall.
You can ignore the “taxi” drivers trying to scam you, you don’t need to know a word of the language and can immediately start enjoying the sights, sounds and smells around you.
Whether it’s Hong Kong or Honolulu, Berlin or Benin, the feeling is priceless.
I can remember when you could only visit China in a tour group and that is still true of countries such as North Korea, Bhutan and Iran. In such cases, the experience of a tour company becomes absolutely essential.
For companies such as China or Japan, where language becomes an issue, a tour remains the best and most economical way to have a guide to help you navigate the culture.
Prepare to let your senses explode on a holiday to Asia - find out more here.
Who are these people?
It’s usually at the destination where you first meet the group of people you are going to spend your holiday with (assuming you are not on a private tour).
You soon realise that everyone is as nervous about this as you are. After all, they have the potential to completely ruin your trip –and you theirs.
I actually love this first meeting. We are social animals at heart and it’s exciting to try to guess who will be the party animal, which solo travellers might pair up, who will turn out to be the expert linguist or which shy traveller will blossom into an amazing karaoke singer on the last night.
I don’t think I’ve had a bad group on any holiday. Quite the contrary – many have become friends I am still in contact with.
Sure, you might spend less time with some people than others but usually the fact you have chosen the same tour means you have a lot in common as a base to build on.
Keep driving on
Perhaps as important is the tour driver. In many parts of the developing world, traffic is a contact sport and having a driver who knows the wild local ways, but ignores them, is a major bonus.
On the anarchic roads of India or Africa, for example, the driver is warmly embraced as part of the tour family, the person who delivers us safe to our hotel every night and the first person we look forward to seeing every day.
I always say that the most dangerous part of any trip is the drive to the airport (and that includes Heathrow). We all know the risk but recognise that it’s a pretty small one, which is my point.
We’ll worry about bungy jumping New Zealand or a township tour of Cape Town but a ride through 70mph motorway traffic is actually the greatest extended period of danger on any holiday.
When you have put yourself in the hands of an experienced tour company, they will mitigate any risk, including the driving.
Discover more about South Africa, a whole world in one country Find out more here.
Thanks for the pointers
The essential person to bind all this together is the tour guide and/or escort. Their personality brings everyone into the new family and their skills ensure everything goes smoothly, which keeps everyone happy.
I never fail to be impressed by the guides I’ve met who can speak several languages, juggle several mobile phones to chase up hotel bookings, expound at length on seemingly any relevant subject under the sun and keep smiling through it all.
When it comes to the tip at the end, it always feels worth every cent, peso or penny.
From dumplings in Shanghai to cow hearts on a stick in Peru, street food is one of the attractions of any destination – but some of it is more attractive than others.
You might come away addicted to the deep-fried pork chicharrones of the Dominican Republic, or hating the fried grasshoppers of Thailand.
On a tour, it’s reassuring to know that you have a company and a guide looking after your needs.
Your pre-planned meals will take into account any allergies or preferences you have, while the guide can help you avoid, or find, any foods you hate or love.
Need to find the best ice cream in Florence, or the hottest Shenzhen-style soup in Hong Kong? That’s when local knowledge really comes into its own. Your guide might not know, but they will know someone who does.
I don’t have a thing to wear
My comments about “Clothing lag” apply even more so to worldwide travel. Weather might be even more extreme and suitable clothing much harder to find.
Good luck finding anything that isn’t a small or even petite size in Asia, for example, if you are anywhere on the large side (one reason for the popularity of tailors there with foreigners).
Packing layers and making everything as versatile as possible will save space in your bag. A sarong can serve as a beach towel, pyjamas, scarf or headscarf.
Wet shoes can be worn in the gym, shower or on the beach. A long-sleeved T-shirt can be worn casually or dressed up with jewellery or a waistcoat for evenings. A tour company will send you a packing list, to help you expect the unexpected.
I tend to avoid “adventure clothing” as it makes you stand out as a tourist. That may be no bad thing except that it can mark you out for scam artists or others who target visitors.
It might be difficult for a blond European to blend into Asia or Africa but plenty of expats work abroad. They blend in by dressing as if they are going to work or a restaurant, not as if they are about to climb Everest.
Be careful out there
Speaking of security, that’s another great reason to be in a group. You have lots of extra pairs of eyes keeping an eye on you, as well as a guide to steer everyone well away from any potential trouble.
In all my decades of travelling to more than 100 countries, I’ve only been mugged once (my own fault for wandering off piste). A pickpocket or two has tried it on, in Santiago, Naples and Lisbon, but taking a few simple precautions has served me well.
All those incidents were on public transport (another good reason to be on a tour bus) but holding your bag in front of you (not on your back) and having your wallet or phone zipped away are sensible precautions, even in London.
Again, a tour group will help keep you safe if you drink too much in a strange bar, or get lost in a market. We all let our attention wander when we’re relaxed on holiday but there is always someone in the group – if only the escort – to bring you back to reality.
Any risks will be those you have signed up for. Mine would include walking with leopards in Namibia, white-water rafting in the Rockies, or zip lining on the world’s highest in Puerto Rico - all experiences I wouldn’t have missed for the world.