Small Group Travel

I recently returned from a 19-day trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia with my family. Seem like an ambitious itinerary for such a brief period? It is, and it’s something that would be very difficult, and probably logistically and financially unfeasible, without some overseeing tour operator.

On this trip, we traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company that orchestrates small-group tours (no more than perhaps 16 people) on dozens of itineraries around the world. It’s more reasonably priced than some other such tour providers, and although it caters to a 55+ audience, tours are quite active.

As a family, we’ve done group overland tours before–student EF trips when I was middle-school aged, and one trip with Trafalgar. Those tours all featured larger groups–maybe 40 people, plus or minus–and in the case of EF at least, was much lower budget (with meals and hotels most especially reflecting that). As a family in the last few years, most of our travels have been cruises, to both conventional and more exotic destinations. And of course, with friends and with family I’ve also traveled plenty on my own–the most ambitious such trip being the 10 days I planned navigating Turkey with friends.

So, is a pros and cons list in order? I think it might be, as applies to my personal experiences.

Self-Guided: Pros

  • You have the most freedom: only see what you want, spend as much time as you want, etc.
  • You can fine-tune this to any budget
  • Can be the most “authentic” type of travel, insofar as you yourself are the only resource for interacting with people and getting things done
    • Although with some self-guided travel this may not be the case–if one is traveling a more beaten path it may never be necessary to interact with natives or leave the touristed areas, in any case

Self-Guided: Cons

  • Less recourse if something goes wrong; no higher power looking out for you
  • Might occasionally strike out in terms of missing good attractions or visiting bad ones because you’re not an expert on the region.
    • Example: In Turkey, I had to route our travel such that we would either spend a day in Ankara, the capitol, or Konya, a conservative city in the center of the country. The guidebook and other print and electronic resources I consulted described Ankara as more of a commercial and governmental center than touristic, and described how interesting and different Konya was, and how amazing a certain museum was that would justify an entire trip there. So off we went, and how we hated Konya. It was difficult to navigate, which made us nervous because of our limited time before catching a train. There were few tourists or foreigners around, so we got unwanted attention. And we spent about 30 minutes in the museum–not so interesting to us, after all–and realized there was little else to do in the city that was feasible. Result: we hung out at the train station and extra couple hours. In retrospect, Ankara probably would have been more interesting and comfortable and feasible–“mistakes” like this are more likely to happen when planning on one’s own, I think.

Best for: Visiting places with which you’re already familiar (e.g., Paris for me). Places where there is no or little language barrier (Britain, or even, say, Germany where most people speak English). Trips in which you stay in just one or two places (visiting just a couple of major cities without a lot of intra- or inter-country additional travel). Shorter trips. Low-budget or student trips in which you can be most flexible.

* * *

Crusing: Pros

  • The most easy-going travel style: be as active or non-active as you want in terms of you activities when in port, meaning it’s the most flexible style for groups with different types of travelers
  • More relaxing, since off-days are built in as sea days and you never have to worry about packing and unpacking repeatedly

Cruising: Cons

  • Least amount of freedom in terms of sites to see or time to spend, since you’re teathered to the ship’s itinerary and schedule
  • Most separate destinations to see, generally, but usually the least intimate look at any of them, since perhaps only one lunch is spent in port and rarely is an evening visit possible
  • Although most things are included, there has tended to be more nickel-and-diming of additional costs on major cruise lines of late, and ship’s shore excursions tend to be pricey–so it might not be as cheap as you think, quite

Best for: Large groups whose members have different interests (e.g., we always did cruises when traveling together with my grandparents and cousins equaling 11 people total). Less active travelers who prefer a more low-key experience. As an introduction or overview of a region. For first-time travelers. For travelers on a budget (sometimes). For covering the most variety of destinations.

* * *

Overland Tours: Pros

  • You see more than on a cruise, thanks to all meals and nights spent in the country
  • With a small group tour, traveling is less unwieldy than with the typically larger-group bus tours that comprise cruise shore excursions
  • As with a cruise, you know pretty well what you’re going to spend before you go, and most things are included
  • With native guides and built-in immersive experiences, you may be more likely to get to know the region and people better than you would on a cruise and even on your own
  • A good guide can provide more background and context in general on a place than what you can just read in a guidebook
  • A smooth trip planned by someone else eliminates many of the logistical stressors of independent travel

Overland Tours: Cons

  • Less flexibility than independent travel, although more so than a cruise
    • It’s easier to take some time off from the tour group on a 24/7 overland tour, and free time is often built in–whereas on a cruise the schedule must be strictly regimented since if you miss the boat you’re entirely sunk
  • If you don’t like the dozen or so people, e.g., with whom you’re traveling for the next couple weeks, things can get rather unpleasant. Same goes for your guide.

Best for: More active travelers, but less adventuresome travelers who want an more immersive experience than a cruise but a less stressful experience than independent travel. Seeing more out of the way destinations, or destinations where the language barrier is more troublesome or where there is less tourism.

* * *

Our experience with our OAT trip in Asia was great, and we all agreed we would certainly return for future trips by this company to other destinations we’ve never visited before instead of, say, going on another cruise or going back to Switzerland for the umpteenth time. Our trip with OAT was consistently smooth, professional, appropriately paced, and well-guided, and it was an interesting itinerary with a good amount of variety and activity. Plus, this company, at least, puts more focus on immersive experiences and getting to know parts of the country other than just the major cities, but still at the kind of quick pace between destinations that we Kleins appreciate. Thanks, OAT.

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