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Is the Extra Expense of Traveling with a Small Tour Group Worthwhile? 

By Phyllis Stoller, NABBW’s Group Travel Associate

Here, a WTG small travel group poses in front of the Duomo, or the cathedral church of Milan, Italy. It is famous for its collection of 4000 statues, gargoyles and figures — more than any other building in the world — as well as the Holy Nail relic and the Little Madonna, which is covered in 3,900 pieces of gold leaf and sits atop the tallest spire. The Duomo was constructed between 1386 and 1965 – yes almost 600 years!  Photo courtesy Phyllis

Tour groups composed of 15 or fewer travelers are probably a bit more expensive. But, our guests at The Women’s Travel Group happily tell us, they believe the few extra dollars they spend when booking with us can actually MAKE their trip. Why? Let’s quickly take a look at a handful of reasons…

The first reason is that small groups move much more efficiently. Have you ever waited for 25 people to settle a hotel bill, then waited again for porters, AND THEN found you had waited so long you now had to run off for a last minute bathroom stop?

We empathize. And we also know that small groups cover more territory in less time — without rushing. Which means you see more in the Louvre, have a more insightful walking tour, or you can sleep in 30 minutes longer before you leave the hotel each morning.

At some airports, all travel groups have to check in as one. Imagine yourself cooling your heels while standing next to a huge pile of luggage. Then mentally add in 25 other tour group members — each individually “angsting” about the weight allowance for the whole group.

Second, small group travelers move in appropriately-sized vehicles. Various countries have different legally mandated long distance coach sizes. In the UK the average coach size is 49 seats. While in Tuscany (for one hour trips), the coach for a group of 10 might be a Mercedes that seats 16!

Why does size matter? Some wonderful “off-the-beaten-track” places cannot accommodate a large bus: for example, a walled hill top town like Lucca, in Italy. Large buses also cannot manage the winding roads on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. We have also seen big buses that are too large to park in hotel parking lots, which makes luggage unloading hard.

Third, there’s the issue of your food. Who wants to eat all their meals in a huge hotel restaurant?  We all know hotel meals served in banquet rooms can be blah. But that’s often the only option when the restaurant needs to serve a very large group in a limited amount of time.  So: In order to dine at a nice restaurant, your group size must be smaller.

Here, another happy WTG small group tour poses in Mexico. Photo courtesy Phyllis Stoller.

As an added bonus, when you enjoy a meal served in a smaller restaurant, you often find that you have a chance to ask the chef questions — or even collect recipes. Another difference: Large groups requesting simultaneous food service are usually limited to a preset menu. When you are a part of a smaller group,  you can enjoy the opportunity to select anything you prefer, as long as it’s on the menu.

Here’s a fourth benefit: These days most tours include whisper headphones, to make it easier for you to hear the guide as you tour. While this initially might seem like a benefit, it also means that when you travel with a large group you never have the opportunity to have an actual conversation with the guide. He/she is too busy to answer individual questions.

One woman told us that the most insightful conversation she had on her trip occurred when she and our Omani guide discussed religion: Catholicism and Islam. Another shared that she had wanted to learn about saffron, a very expensive spice, in order to bring some home. Our guide had the time — and knowledge — to explain to her the ins and outs of purchasing this beautiful, golden spice.

Fifth, the option for unexpected special opportunities are many with a small group. Your guide can divert the itinerary to include a local wedding or a stop at her favorite gelateria — that is, a shop that sells Italian-style ice cream. She can also make quick, but time-saving decisions regarding traffic jams, strikes or weather situations. We think the best schedule diversion opportunity probably happens when a small travel group gets to participate in a festival, parade, street market, or ceremony.

(Just imagine what fun you might have over many years’ time, if you were to be able to recount to friends your own personal “Hallmark-esque story” of your visit to Andalusia, Spain, where you learned to dance the flamenco when your tour guide unexpectedly altered plans in order to allow your group to enjoy the sights and sounds of a street fair — and you found you were overcome by the beauty of the music and the moment! Of course, no reputable tour operator will ever promise that you might experience such an opportunity. But it is fun to fantasize. And the one-in-a-million chance of something like that ever actually happening is really only possible if you’re traveling alone — or with a savvy small group tour operator.)

Finally, these impromptu events are what make the few extra dollars you will spend on a small group tour well worth it. For your next group trip, try going for the smaller group option. We suggest that traveling with a group of fewer than 16 is a good benchmark.

Phyllis Stoller Group Travel

Phyllis Stoller, NABBW’s Group Travel Associate is founder of The Women’s Travel Group, a tour operator which specializes in smart vacations for smart women, was recently honored as one of the 14 most influential women in Group Travel by Group Travel Magazine. The Women’s Travel Group works with travel agents and is a strategic partner of Sky Vacations.

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