Group tour operators and guided group tours have come a long way in the last decade. While the misconception that they’re all just travel tours for seniors is still alive and kicking, the tours of today are filled with an incredible mix of retirees, families, solo travelers, women-only travel groups, and young people looking to see more of the world without the hassle of planning and booking every detail.
One of the most popular group tour destinations for all ages is Europe, with its famed churches and architecture, delicious cuisine, and diverse cultures across countries. But choosing a guided tour to any of Europe’s best vacation spots can be a daunting task.
How to Find Your Best-Fit Tour in Europe
Tour operators are as varied as the tours they offer, so it’s important to consider both the right itinerary and tour company for your preferences and needs. These nine tips will help you choose your perfect-fit guided tour in Europe.
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1. Research the cost of the tours and see what’s included and what’s not
Cost is a huge factor when booking tours. Yes, it’s true that there are some cheaper tour companies and some companies that charge a premium, but there are some substantial differences in what’s included in the cost.
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Some European tour prices include everything from activities to most meals, while others will only include activities and a small selection of meals. The cost of food—and anything you may want to do in your free time—are all things to consider before booking. The added financial burden of things not included in a trip can bring the overall cost up dramatically, even if you think you’re getting a deal on the up-front price.
2. Check the pace of the tour
There’s nothing worse than being beyond-exhausted by the time you return to your hotel each night on a European tour. After the cost of the trip, the second most important thing to look at when you’re comparing European tours is the pace of the tour.
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And while maximizing value with lots of activities is appealing, you should consider the amount of down time built into the itinerary, since free time can be a great opportunity to explore a city on your own or to simply relax and recharge at the hotel to get ready for the next day of adventure.
3. Look for a mix of tourist attractions and local experiences
Does the tour go to the most popular Europe tourist attractions in the destinations it visits? Probably. But the best European tour packages will also take you to lesser-known destinations and give you some sort of backstage access.
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Check the itinerary to be sure there’s a good mix of the must-see tourist attractions (like the Louvre in France or the Colosseum in Rome) and local experiences—think wine tastings in the caves of the Louvre or hands-on pasta-making classes.
4. Learn the target audience and group size of the tour
Every tour operator has a different target audience and group size that should be considered in your decision-making process. For example, Adventures by Disney is known for family travel adventures on which children can be as young as five years old, while Collette Tours sees mostly older adults booking tours. Road Scholar has a strong learning focus, and Intrepid attracts adventure travelers. By first making sure the tour company’s demographic fits your expectations, you’re going to be a lot closer to finding your just-right tour even before you choose an itinerary.
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Group size is another important determining factor, and there’s benefits and drawbacks to both. While it’s easier to meet people in larger groups, traveling as part of a crowd can also make you feel like a tourist in small villages. Smaller group sizes are great for getting a hyper-local experience, but in smaller groups it can be tricky connecting with people who may already be traveling with a partner or friend. Figure out whether bigger or smaller is the better fit for you and then look for a company that fits the bill.
5. Find out if there’s someone to help if something goes wrong
One of the worst parts about traveling is getting to and from your destination, especially if you end up on a canceled or delayed flight, or if your luggage gets lost. Before you commit to a tour company, check to see if the company has an emergency number you can call if a flight is canceled or delayed, or if something else goes wrong while you are trying to get to Europe or back home.
6. Check the hotels before booking a tour
The hotels included on a tour’s itinerary are a huge part of the group-tour experience, especially since that’s likely where you will be having breakfast and spending some downtime. Before booking a tour, check out the hotels listed on the itinerary and read some reviews about each. Do reviewers say the rooms are clean and comfortable? What about the hotel staff being kind to guests? Is the breakfast service good—and is it quick and easy? These are all things to think about.
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Also check distance from activities. Some tour companies put guests up in centrally located hotels, which makes it easy to get from the hotel to the activities for the day. Other companies opt for less-expensive hotels farther out from the city, which means there will likely be longer driving times to activities and fewer options when it comes to activities on your own.
7. Try to find out what the guides are like
Each tour company has a different standard for its guides. Some companies like to pair up a local guide who knows the ins and outs of a city and speaks the local language with a guide who is from the United States and can easily relate to guests. Some might seek guides who are walking encyclopedias, but who may not prioritize connecting with guests. And others might have a strong service focus but who may be able to answer every question about a place.
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There are of course plenty of guides who are great all-arounders, able to connect and inform guests simultaneously. But it’s not a given, and the easiest way to find out what the guides are like is to look for online reviews of specific tours.
8. Join social media groups for different tour operators
Social media groups can be a goldmine of information about tour companies and specific tours. Consider joining a few groups about different tour companies and read through some of the posts. This is often where you can find information about the guides, what activities and hotels are like, and even ask how to get a deal on certain tours.
Groups like these are also a great way to meet people who may be looking at or have already booked the same tour date and company as you, so you can connect with them before your trip.
9. Consider responsible tourism
Responsible tourism is a growing trend, especially among tour companies. Responsible tourism minimizes the negative effects of travel on the environment and local communities while maximizing the positive effects.
Many tour companies make it easy to find information about their sustainability efforts on their websites. Finding a company whose sustainability mission resonates with you can help you make sure you’re traveling with a group that works to preserve these amazing destinations.