Escorted Tours. The Pros, Cons and Who They are Best Suited For.
What exactly is an Escorted Tour? What are the pros and cons, and who are they most suited for? These were some of the questions that came to mind when I was invited to go on one by Titan Travel to Florida. As I had never been on one, I welcomed the chance to find out more about Escorted Travelling – and answering those questions. This is what I discovered.
What is an escorted tour?
A Tour Manager hosts the tour, from start to end. They fly out and stay with the group at every step, handling all aspects of the trip once there. Flights, hotels, transfers to and from the airport, transportation around the destination (usually by coach), sightseeing and entrance fees are covered within the fare. Meals may be included in the price, but differ by trip.
Escorted tours pack as much as possible into the itinerary, and so tend to be intense and busy. They may only spend one or two nights in each hotel.
Is an escorted tour and guided tour the same thing?
They are similar but a Guided Tour uses a local representative who meets the group on arrival. While they provide guidance, support and handle local arrangements, they may not travel with, stay at the hotels or join every excursion and activity. The itineraries tend to have more free time and optional sightseeing opportunities.
What are the main pros of an Escorted Tour?
- Removes hassle: Removes the hassle of planning your vacation. The tour company sets the itinerary, arranges and books flights, hotels, transfers, ground transportation, excursions and entrance to attractions.
- See more: Likely you will see more than if you did it self-touring as they know, and have found, the most efficient way to cover the destination.
- Reduces risk: The tours are constantly fine tuned and adapted, based on feedback from earlier customers and tour managers, to make sure all aspects meet the needs and preferences of their target traveller. There is less risk that you waste time visiting sights or staying in hotels that do not meet your needs – if you chose the right tour company for your travel tastes.
- Guiding hand all the way: A Tour Manager, who knows the destination and speaks the language, accompanies the trip, They provide commentary on the destinations, make recommendations, give tips and advice, take care of all arrangements along the way and deal with any problems or issues that may arise.
- Transparent budgeting: Budgeting for your vacation is easier and more transparent; as the fare you pay will cover all or most costs. Any exclusions are made clear, the most common being meals. For example, on my tour of Florida no meals were included, except one sunset cruise dinner on the last night.
- Cheaper: They may be cheaper than independently booking a similar itinerary, as they have the benefit of negotiating group rates.
- Safety and Security: The Tour Manager and fellow guests are always around to help, look out for each other and keep you company. This makes escorted touring appealing to solo, nervous or any traveller that does not want to navigate a foreign country, language and customs on their own. They are also useful for exploring countries with security, political and crime issues or where the tourist infrastructure is under developed, as the company will have considered and have expertise in handling these.
What are the main downsides of Escorted Tours?
- Inflexible: No flexibility or customisation of elements of the itinerary, hotels, excursions or other arrangements is possible. You have to stick to the fixed schedule, sightseeing, hotels and restaurants packaged into the trip.
- Pace: The pace is intense and often includes early starts, long commutes between destinations and only one or two nights in any one hotel to make sure as much of the destination is visited.
- Tour Manager dependent: Reliant on the quality of the Tour Manager, which you won’t know until the tour starts.
- Fellow travellers: If you don’t get on with the people on the tour you are stuck with them.
- First-time traveller focused: Not as suitable for repeat visitors to a destination as they focus on the must-see highlights (which most will have seen on previous visits).
- Upfront payment: You have to pay the full cost of your trip before you leave. Usually many weeks before departure date, and there are likely to be strict cancellation penalties.
Who is an Escorted Tour best suited for?
In my view, it is less about age and more about how people like to travel. Although in practice these attitudes tend to also be shared by, and often attract, an older demographic.
I believe Escorted Tours are suitable for travellers who meet some or all these criteria:
- Are visiting a region for the first time. If you have been to a destination before it is likely an Escorted Tour will visit many of the sights you have seen. They tend to focus on the must-see and highlights, which makes them ideal for first-timers.
- Want to cut the hassle and uncertainty of visiting a new destination. Escorted tours remove the need to research the history, background, sights, places to stay, transportation and where to eat. They also remove the need to make any of your own arrangements.
- Want certainty on cost of their vacation and have paid for it before they go. As all the costs are bundled into the fare you will know the total cost (and pay for it) before the trip starts. If there are any costs not covered, like meals and gratuities, you will know these in advance and be able to bring the right amount of money with you, use your credit or a pre-paid currency card.
- Want the security, reassurance and support of a destination-knowledgeable guiding hand at every step of the journey. The Tour Managers are experts in the destination and speak the language, and so are well equipped to show travellers around, tell them what they need to know, where to go and how to make the most of their time there.
- Do not want to explore a destination by themselves. They suit travellers that do not want to visit a country by themselves, and prefer being surrounded by and meeting people.
- Do not have the time to plan the details of their vacation. They suit people who know the destination they want to visit but do not have the time to properly plan and book elements of their trip. Escorted tours have packaged it all up for them. The only decision is where to go and with which company.
What questions should you ask when choosing an Escorted Tour?
If the above has convinced you that an Escorted Tour is for you, then these are the questions I suggest you ask when making your choice:
- What type (and age) of people will be on this company’s tour? Review the brochure, website and company’s social media accounts (especially Facebook and YouTube) to see who they are targeting and what sort of people appear in their marketing materials. I also recommend reading reviews left on sites like TripAdvisor.com, travel blogs and by searching for reviews on Google. If unsure send a message to reviewers to check what sort of people were on their trip. This is a feature that TripAdvisor enables on most reviewers’ reviews.
- How many people will be in the group? The smaller the group the more time the Tour Manager has to spend with people and fine tune the commentary, adding in other side activities or diversions that the group wants.
- What is the reputation and ratings of the Tour Company? Check what other travellers are saying about the company’s tours. Looking at their Tripadvisor.com reviews is a good place to start. Many will also have reviews on their site but they may be selectively chosen so go to other review sites such as TrustPilot.com and Revoo.com. Do a search on Google for reviews of the company (e.g. if considering travelling with Titan Travel to Florida search “Titan Travel Florida Reviews”).
- How much of the tour’s itinerary have I visited or seen before? Is there enough that will be new and interesting to me? As mentioned before, many escorted tours suit first-time visitors to a destination and so spend time reviewing the itinerary to understand what you will be seeing and how much time will be spent at each. Some sights may just be driving through or photo opportunity only.
- What is not covered in the fare? I recommend especially checking what meals are included and how many optional excursions there are. These can add a sizeable amount to the overall cost of your vacation. You need to understand these if price comparing different companies to compare overall cost for all aspects. I suggest calculating a cost for the trip by the time you get home for each. For example, Titan Travel includes transfers to and from your home and airport and so when looking at another tour provider you need to add that. Finally factor in gratuities for the Tour Manager, driver and local providers based on the custom in the destination (e.g. In the United States tipping is expected for almost every service, with waiters looking for between 15% and 18% minimum).
- How much time will be spent on a coach or travelling between destinations versus sight seeing? It is unlikely they will tell you, but I use Google Maps and put in the places travelled from and to which gives the mileage and a good estimate on how long it will take. For example, I could tell that there would be around four hours of bus travel everyday on the tour before I left.
- What are the hotels I will be staying in like, and where are they located? Again TripAdvisor.com is the easiest to use. Make sure the hotels meet your needs and quality standards (e.g. If you like to work out if they have a fitness centre, if you only like boutique hotels over resort-style ones). Also check how central they are to allow self-exploring or being able to find restaurants in the evening so you can avoid expensive hotel restaurants and try local cuisine.
- What do I need to pack and take? Prepare to live out of a suitcase, as you will probably spend at most two nights in any one hotel and pack accordingly. Check what other items you need to cover a variety of weather like sunscreen, insect repellent, cold snaps (or vigorous air conditioning on the coach) and rain. Ensure you have packed the right footwear for the different activities and terrain you will experience.
Have you been on an escorted tour and have anything to add to these? I would love to hear your thoughts, which you can leave as a comment on this article or by emailing me.
Ray, a podcast and blog follower, sent these insightful comments and some extra tips for escorted tours that I wanted to share with readers as they give some added first-hand traveller insights and suggestions:
Gary, I read your piece on escorted tours and want to add a few things. But first, I should tell you that I’ve become a fan of escorted tours, for many of the same reasons you mention. I’d rather enjoy my time seeing, hearing, and learning about another place rather than worrying about the logistics of travelling. In other words, I want to be a kid, not the daddy organizing it all and keeping the agenda and schedule!
My additional thoughts (in no particular order):
1) It seems that some tour operators (probably smaller ones) require clients to carry their own luggage back and forth between the tour bus and hotel rooms, while others provide that service.
2) Yes, you are with the same group of people for the entire trip. But if you don’t find ANY fellow tourists on your tour to be compatible with you at all, that probably says more about you than it does about them.
3) As you point out, too much travel from one place to another can be a disadvantage of an escorted tour. I think it’s easy to look at published itineraries and steer away from those types of tours, but even if you don’t, you can see and learn much even through the windows of a bus when travelling from place to place. It’s not always lost time.
4) It might be a good idea to determine whether the bus that you’ll be on has restroom facilities, especially if that’s important to you. Some do and some don’t.
My wife and I have the freedom to travel now, and we’re making good use of it. Listening to your podcasts is one way we get information about the best sites and companies, so many thanks for that. We take ocean cruises, we’ve taken our first river cruise earlier this year, and we’ve taken a guided tour to Italy, with others already planned to Ireland/Scotland and to Greece. About 16 years ago we traveled unescorted to Paris and then to Germany over 3.5 weeks, and although we saw and learned much, I tired of worrying about where our young family would eat and stay every day, and about language issues (especially in that mostly pre-Internet era). So now, as I mentioned, I’m a fan of escorted tours.
I happened to hear your podcast on the topic of escorted tours, and then I found the article on the same topic here on your website. My wife and I like both independent travel and escorted tours. I wanted to say that I think the most significant downside of escorted tours (not mentioned by you) is that when you take one, you can easily never speak to any local person in the country you are visiting, except perhaps the guide(s). It’s the exact opposite of “cultural immersion.” You may see the sites and visit the museums, but you can have no interactions with the people. In my opinion, you don’t really get a feeling for the place(s) you are visiting. The only people you may get to know are your compatriots on the tour bus. In the worst case scenario (for us), our fellow travelers are all Americans, like us, or even worse, all friends of ours! Then we don’t get to meet anyone new!
To reduce this negative aspect of escorted tours, we do two things:
(1) We try to chose tour operators who attract travelers from multiple countries.
(2) Whenever possible on the tour, we explore independently, on foot. We go into stores (not souvenir shops), visit neighborhoods, and in every way possible try to see “ordinary life” and, if we can, interact with people we see. For us, it makes a world of difference!
Thanks for checking out both the podcast and the article! Really good and key points you make, and the tips are key – so thanks for adding these. I think that point about having an operator where time is built into the schedule to allow some self exploring time is really key. Much appreciated!!