I’m not a die-hard travel bargain hunter.
And I travel “independently” rather than taking group tours.
But last week at a nearby high school I took an “adult-ed” evening class entitled “Travel Bargain Secrets” and learned about a novel way to use a group tour to save on travel expenses, even if you don’t want to tour with a group.
Here’s how it works.
When Taking a Group Tour Pays Off
To save money by taking a group tour while not “taking” the tour itself:
- Find a group tour that includes airfare between an airport near your home and the starting and ending points of the tour.
- Check Websites for airlines or third-party booking agencies to see if you can find an airfare that is lower than the total cost of the tour that includes airfare.
- If the group tour price is lower than airfare alone, consider booking the tour since that price should include not only airfare, but local transportation, lodging, most meals, admission to tourist attractions, and the services of tour guides.
“See You Later, Alligator”
Terri and Jeffery, the wife and husband who taught the “Travel Bargain Secrets” class that I took aren’t travel agents or tour company representatives, just ordinary travelers, like you and me, who discovered a way to travel less expensively.
They’ll take advantage of the airfare savings, usually stay at the hotels booked by the tour company, and have breakfast and at least some group dinners that are included in the up-front payment to the tour operator. And they’ll be on the bus, train, or plane when the group departs for the next stop on the tour’s itinerary.
But when they arrive at a tour’s starting point, they might skip the first night’s “Welcome Dinner,” and they may not join the group on sightseeing excursions.
For example, on a recent trip to Beijing, China, the tour group was scheduled to spend a relatively short time at the “Forbidden City.” But Terri and Jeffery decided instead to take the subway to that they could devote most of the day to touring that famous attraction on their own.
Likewise, when the tour group headed off to see a heavily-visited section of The Great Wall of China, this dynamic travel duo hired a private guide who took them by car to a lesser known section of the wall which they hiked across it to a point where the guide had agreed to pick them up and drive them back to the tour group’s hotel.
I can understand why Terri and Jeffery’s tour guides might not mind when the two of them go “AWOL” from the tour. As I’ve learned through ten years as a volunteer facility tour guide at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, California, having fewer rather than more participants on a tour can make the tour guide’s job more like a outing with friends and less like herding around a bunch of cats who may not be paying much heed to what you tell them to do.
To (Group) Tour or Not To (Group) Tour, That is “The Question”
While saving money by taking a group tour “semi-independently” might appeal to you, ask yourself these questions before you plunk down the deposit against the full tour-price.
Am I an extrovert who at cocktail parties happily mingles with everyone I’ve never met before? If so, you’ll probably enjoy the tour more when you do decide to join in on group activities.
Will I feel like I’m throwing money away if I don’t stick with the group all of the time, since I’ve paid in advance for everything the group will do together?
Will I feel guilty if I “sneak off” and don’t go along with the group, except to travel from place to place with it?
If the answers to those two questions are “Yes,” you could still go on the tour, although your motivation for doing so won’t be to simply get a lower airfare.
But even if the total tour price is less than what you would pay for airfare alone, be sure to carefully read what travel expenses are included in that price, and what is not.
Usually there is some “free time” during a tour when you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket for sightseeing you chose to do on your own. And tour prices often do not include all dinners, any lunches, or alcoholic beverages.
While European travel guru Rick Steves includes tips for his tour guides and bus drivers in the tour price, that pricing is probably the exception, rather than the rule. Tour guides are often paid relatively little by tour companies which expect you to help their guides earn a living by tipping them at the end of the tour.
Also factor in other travel costs such as getting to and from your home airport, airport parking, boarding pets, and incidental expenses that you are likely to incur during the trip.
Make an estimate of what those additional expenses will run, add them to the tour price, and you’ll know how empty your wallet is likely to be when you return home.
After all, if the trip is going to be a budget-buster for you, you probably shouldn’t go, even if you could “save money” by taking the trip.