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Group travel: Is it for you?

If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to change course on a second’s notice and otherwise play your adventure by ear, tour groups may not be for you.

But if you enjoy meeting people and want to avoid the hassles of making reservations, paying at every stop, booking flights, or driving in strange places, they are a great option. You can find trips just about anywhere: Online or through a travel agent. Or, keep an eye out for excursions sponsored by organizations near you. That way you’re apt to know a few of your fellow travelers and you’ll be supporting a nonprofit that gets a small percentage of each ticket price.

Both the library and historical society where I live in Central New York have offered travel packages, and I started taking the historical society trips a few years ago. The local chamber of commerce also has offered some, and if it hadn’t been for work complications, I would have traveled to China in 2007, with none of the anxiety of a self-planned excursion.

Still not convinced that hopping on a bus or plane with little or no control is for you? That’s perfectly normal. There’s a lot to consider.

Will I spend more on a group tour?

Often, but not always. The China trip I mentioned was a great deal. A little over $1,000 for 10 days, because it was run by a Chinese agency seeking to increase business and leisure travel there. Remember when you’re weighing the price to factor in any advantages that got you thinking about a tour to begin with. Ultimately, and it may sound tacky, once you’ve paid for the trip, you get to enjoy not paying at each and every stop. Sure, you’ve already paid for it, but there’s psychological appeal to not meting out your travel savings along the way — except for any meals that aren’t included, plus shopping and any side trips. Locally sponsored tours also try to make the trips as affordable as possible and will book hotels in a nearby community to save money.

Side trips? Aren’t I stuck on the tour’s schedule the whole time?

Most tour itineraries include some downtime. Not a lot, but enough to break free. On a New York City tour, we went to The Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the number one reason I’d gone). Afterward, we were free to explore, so I tagged along with new friends who were going to The Tenement Museum and then Rockefeller Center for dinner before meeting the bus to return to the hotel. I know others who checked out local pubs, Tiffany’s and more.

Um…what if I don’t like the other people on the trip?

That can be huge, and in the long run, you might just have to suck it up. But there are ways to ease, or even prevent, the discomfort. First, try to find a friend to travel with. For both Manhattan and Boston, my friend Joan came along. We’d never traveled together, but it turned out to be a great fit. Plus, traveling in pairs costs less. On the weekend trip to Boston, we saved $210 by sharing a room.

Unless you have the misfortune of traveling with blowhards and know-it-alls who can’t be ignored, tours are generally big enough that you can steer clear of people you dislike. It helps to realize that when there’s a personality clash, you’re not alone. On one trip, I had only brief encounters with a woman I knew to avoid, but her dinner companions weren’t as lucky. Someone from her table stopped by ours to complain that she hadn’t shut up the entire meal.

Finally, try to separate dislike from discomfort, and you may be surprised. In New York City, I was seated next to our former mayor at “Wicked,” unsure how or if we could sustain a conversation. What would I say? What would he say? Turns out we had people in common and a mutual love of Broadway musicals. A year later, on the Boston trip, we chatted like old friends.

I’ve never been there before. What if everybody else has?

No problem. First, they wouldn’t be on the trip if they weren’t interested in the destination. Second, you stand to benefit most from one of the big perks of tour groups: Knowledgeable guides. On the Boston trip, our tour manager was able to describe some of what we visited (Rockport and Gloucester). But, at several locations, we had special guides who led tours of Salem and Concord; Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow and Hawthorne are buried on Author’s Ridge; Plimoth Plantation; Plymouth Rock; the House of the Seven Gables; and Louisa May Alcott’s home. We also took a tour of historic Boston in a Duck Boat, a replica of a World War II amphibious vehicle, and the guide’s personality rocked it.

Anything else a first-timer needs to know?

  • Look at the itinerary carefully before committing. If it feels like too much is being packed into the time allowed, consider whether you’ll be able to enjoy yourself. My husband didn’t give two seconds of thought to the China trip, because he didn’t like the rush-rush schedule.
  • Promptness and patience need to go hand-in-hand. On my first trip, I arrived for the bus on time, but 10 minutes later than everyone else. The glare I got from the woman in the front seat could have seared my flesh.
  • Bring snacks when practical. You’ll save money, and sharing can be an icebreaker.
  • Consider cancellation/travel insurance. While Joan never buys it, I always do, for fear of getting sick and sacrificing all the money I paid upfront.
  • Accept that you’ll want some alone time, even if it’s just a 10-minute stroll or a trip to the hotel bar in the evening. Togetherness has its limits.
  • Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself (and keep a sense of humor about it). At Plimoth Plantation, a gentleman asked me to take a picture of him and his travel companions. I noticed he was wearing an American Legion patch from a town about seven miles from where I live. When I told him we were practically neighbors, he said, “Yeah, I know. We’re on the same bus tour.”

And, that’s the other advantage of tour groups that originate where you live. You’ll probably see your travel companions again, and you can share good memories. Several of us from the Manhattan trip still laugh about how our fearless friend in the front seat reamed out a cabbie who took a meandering route from the Met to the Tenement Museum.
So commit to making the most of it, and enjoy!

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