The Truth About Group Travel, As Told by a Solo Traveler

by Carly | Fearless Female Travels

The Trouble with Group Travel

I have decided to start writing this post from my seat on a tour bus, as it bumps along the highway in Uzbekistan. Out the window, there is an endless expanse of dessert dotted by the occasional gas station and kebab stand. Inside the bus, there are fifteen other travelers, a tour guide and a driver, and after twenty days of traveling like this, with them, I find myself almost at a loss for words.

As a dedicated solo traveler, my first foray into organized group travel was so much worse than I ever could have imagined.

I have always tried to keep Fearless Female Travels a positive place where I focus on the good things, or at least the interesting things, from my travel experiences, but I think I would be doing other fearless female travelers a disservice by not spilling the tea on what happened during my first group tour experience,  why I would recommend that confident solo travelers never sign up for anything like the tour I’m on right now, and how my experience can best be represented through gifs.  Grab a hot drink and find a comfortable chair because this is going to take a while.

(Seriously, this is a long post… there’s a sort-of summary at the bottom called “Please Don’t Hate Me” if you don’t have time for a long read.)

The Background

If you’ve read my blog before, you would know that I took eight months off work to travel around the world. You can read my updates from Month One, Month Two and Month Three to hear what happened before this tour started.
I have obviously done a lot of traveling before, and while I usually spend about ten weeks each year on the road, this eight-month trip will be my first seriously long vacation. In the months leading up to this trip I got worried that I might get lonely if I spent eight months backpacking solo, so I decided to include an organized group tour in my itinerary. I thought it would be a good way to meet new people and make some new connections, while also relieving me of the responsibility of planning everything myself for a little while.

Choosing My First Group Tour

I considered taking a tour of India, but ultimately decided that I’d like to brave that country on my own (in fact, I’m there now and have already started writing about my time in India!). Having always enjoyed traveling in Eastern Europe and the Former USSR, it seemed like an organized group tour of Central Asia might be a good fit.

In particular, I’d have other people to join me for beautiful hikes in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and I also thought that the kind of people who would sign up for a tour of Central Asia would be “my kind of people” – probably a bit more experienced, more familiar with other cultures and less likely to just be looking for a party.

I searched online for weeks, scoured itineraries, read reviews, examined maps and compared prices before finally settling on a twenty-three-day tour of Central Asia called the “Multi-Stan Adventure”, which was offered by Canadian travel company G Adventures.  It ticked the boxes noted above, and it had the added bonus of being a relatively small group (while the website says “you can expect up to fifteen travelers”, we actually had sixteen on our tour – which is still better than the thirty or forty travelers we saw with some other companies!).

The Truth About My Group Tour

The Tour Guides and Tour Staff

This post is going to be long and quite negative, so I want to preface what comes next by saying that overall, I was very satisfied with the two “Chief Experience Officers” (CEOs) who were assigned to our tour. Our first CEO joined us only in Kyrgyzstan. He was only twenty-two years old but seemed to have an old soul and a quiet confidence. Our second CEO met us as we left Kyrgzystan and stayed with the group through Kazahkstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. He was also quite young (twenty-six years old) and a bit more interested in being “cool”. I think both CEOs did the best they could within the framework developed by G Adventures.

Update: Oddly, when it came time to provide G Adventures with feedback on our Multi-Stan Adventure tour, there was only space to leave feedback about our second CEO, not our first.

We also had some great drivers on our tour. In particular, we had a van driver in Kyrgyzstan who safely navigated some very dangerous road conditions during a freak snowstorm, and who also took amazing photos when he wasn’t behind the wheel (check him out on Instagram for some major Central Asia inspiration!).

My concerns about this tour, and group travel in general, aren’t really about the guides. They are more about the entire model of group travel, including its many limitations, inconveniences and annoyances. Let me explain more…

Arrival Date

My group tour was scheduled to begin on September 7th in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I downloaded the G Adventures app in advance, and it informed me that I could “arrive at any time” but that “normal check-in times apply”. The check-in time was not listed in the app, nor was it on the hotel’s website (I checked) so I decided to show up at 1:00 pm.

When I arrived, there was no sign of any staff from G Adventures. There was a sign on the counter welcoming us to the G Adventures Multi-Stan Adventure tour and introducing our guide… but when I read further, I realized it was left over from a tour that had departed a few days earlier. There was a much smaller note for our group that said we would “meet at the time noted in the Welcome Note”. A note telling us to check another note?

The receptionist kind of rolled her eyes and told me that we’d be meeting at 6:00 pm that evening. She also told me that I couldn’t actually go into my room yet, but not because it wasn’t ready. Rather, I was a solo traveler and I’d been assigned to share a room with another solo traveler, but that person had already checked in and had the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. So I was out of luck?

I didn’t accept this, so reception phoned the room to see if I could also come in. The woman inside asked for five minutes to get dressed (no problem) and then opened the door for me – only to reveal that she’d already used both beds and all the towels, and covered every surface of the room with her stuff.

It was definitely not the welcome I’d expected, so I just dropped off my bags in the room, asked housekeeping to prepare a clean bed for me when they got the chance, and left the hotel until 6:00 pm. I was already… concerned.  More guidance around arrival and check-in, especially for solo travelers who have been paired in a double room, is essential.

The Welcome Meeting

I showed up around 5:45 pm for the 6:00 Welcome Meeting in the hotel lobby. As the other travelers trickled in, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach…

My tour was full of senior citizens.

As it turned out, our initial group of sixteen travelers had the following demographics:

  • 10 people were over seventy years old
  • 4 people were in their fifties or sixties
  • 2 people (myself and another girl) were in their early thirties

I was really confused. I knew that travel companies for senior citizens existed, but I had always thought that G Adventures was a younger, more “adventurous” travel company.

Within the first fifteen minutes of the tour I started to worry – rightfully – that the older people on my tour would be unable to meet the physical requirements laid out on the G Adventures website (the tour was advertised as a level three (out of five) tour that would include moderate physical activity including hikes and kayaking).

We spent more than an hour introducing ourselves to one another and the situation grew increasingly uncomfortable. I realized that I had almost nothing in common with the other travelers on my tour, and that they saw me (and the other younger woman) as bit of a novelty… “Wow, you’re so brave to be traveling by yourself! I have a daughter your age but fortunately she’s married with three children.  You should probably think about settling down.”

The Realities of Traveling with Seniors

Things started to go awry on the first full day, when our morning walking tour of Bishkek was cancelled because a number of the senior citizens didn’t want to walk long distances in the (totally flat) city center. Instead, it was changed to a bus tour and we were shuttled around from sight to sight, never getting to explore the nooks and crannies of the city that I think make for a real “adventure”.

Update: According to a response I received from G Adventures, “this is -generally speaking- not a walking tour and the featured bus transit is a regular part of this activity”.  This directly contradicts what we were told by our CEO, who said that he changed the walking tour to a bus tour at the request of the older travelers in our group.

The cancellations and modifications went on and on from there.

After Bishkek we drove to a homestay in the countryside, where our first hike was changed to a flat walk through the village because the old people couldn’t get up and down the hill in time for our bus departure.

We were given time to explore a local market, but when departure time rolled around fourteen of us sat waiting on the bus for two old people who were still leisurely strolling the market, shopping for clothes more than thirty minutes after we should have left.

Another day we spent forty minutes in a coffee shop because the old people couldn’t handle starting their day with the tea offered by the guesthouse where we’d stayed (and hadn’t thought to pack their own instant coffee), while one night we spent a full hour just ordering food because our guide selected a noisy restaurant without an English menu, and he had to verbally explain every option to each old person one-by-one as they couldn’t hear well (I lay the fault for this one purely on the local guide, not our CEO… who takes ten elderly people to a noisy party venue with thumping bass and blowing brass horns?!?).

Every single thing we did for twenty-three days happened at a snail’s pace. As soon as the guides tried to walk a little faster or move a little bit further, one of the old people would grab his or her arm and ask a question that was clearly designed to buy time. It was especially frustrating seeing other travelers and even other tour groups zoom past us, while we crawled along in their dust.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the seniors’ physical limitations that put a damper on our trip. As an outsider to the “advanced” group (as one couple referred to themselves) I was able to see the way they formed their own social hierarchy, putting the non-native English speakers on the outside and all but ignoring the one older man with the worst hearing difficulties. I tried to take those travelers under my wing as much as possible, but as awesome as I am, I don’t think I’m a great substitute for age-appropriate social interaction.

Speaking of appropriate social interaction, traveling with so many seniors also led to more than a few “we don’t really say things like that anymore” moments. I recall one day where a few older men were trying to make me feel uncomfortable by endlessly talking about peeing standing up in nature, and when I finally responded with a comment about it not being the end of the world for women to pee outside too, one guy gave me a dead stare and, in all seriousness, said, “We really don’t need to hear about that.”

On another occasion, one woman loudly complained that she didn’t want to visit another mosque (in Central Asia!) because “all mosques are the same”. When someone tried to explain that was both insulting an inaccurate, she doubled-down and said that it’s better to travel in Europe because there are lots of churches, all churches are different, and regardless, it’s nice to visit the same church three or four times!

Most disappointingly, on our final night of the trip we went out for a farewell dinner. Most of the other travelers were leaving early the next morning and had put aside very little money for dinner, and unfortunately our guide chose a restaurant that was on the pricier side.  In Central Asia, restaurants have a mandatory service charge.  After more than three weeks of travel in the region, we all knew this existed and should have been prepared.  However, one elderly couple discovered they didn’t have enough money to pay their bill and the additional service charge.  Instead of borrowing money from someone else, they berated the food and the server, and went so far as to say, “We aren’t paying the service charge because in England we don’t pay for bad service.  At this point in time I actually called them out and reminded them that we weren’t in England, to which they responded, “Well, they had better learn how it’s done in England if they want to have more tourists here.”

Great Expectations

I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with senior citizens.  I have a problem with a travel company promoting its itineraries as being for adventurous, fit, active travelers, and selling that itinerary, and then allowing the itinerary to be completely changed because of the demographics of the group.

Screenshot from G Adventures Website

Screenshot via G Adventures website for commentary purposes.

After the tour I went back and looked at the G Adventures website, to see if I’d missed a part where they said they catered primarily to older travelers.  All I could find were pictures of travelers close to my own age, taking active holidays, getting hands-on and actually engaging with the activities listed in their itineraries.  I also looked at their physical and PDF brochures, to see if those showed a more accurate representation of my tour’s demographics, and once again I found at least twenty-five photos of travelers in their twenties and thirties to each one photo of an elderly tourist.

In my opinion, what should have happened after the first morning, where the walking tour through a completely-flat city was cancelled, is that our CEO should have stuck to the advertised itinerary and encouraged those who couldn’t participate in the listed activities within a reasonable time period to either independently do a modified version (for example, while we hiked to a waterfall, they could have independently walked through the flat fields around our yurt camp) or to simply skip them entirely.  What didn’t work – in my opinion – was allowing people to complete things at their own pace, as this left no time for anything that was scheduled afterwards, and obviously the continued cancellations of planned activities was totally unacceptable.

The Innate Structure of Group Travel

While a lot of the problems with my group tour can be blamed on G Adventures’ being unprepared for the demographics of the other travelers in my group, many of the things that I found deeply disappointing turned out to be innate to the structure of group travel, and were already well-known to the other travelers who had taken a group tour before.

Eating in Restaurants as a Group of Seventeen

I love learning about local foods when I travel (for example, I did a food tour in Istanbul and a cooking class in Bali) and I was very disappointed to discover how sheltered our group tour was from the authentic local food.  When you’re in a group of sixteen (plus your guide) you tend to visit restaurants that are specifically designed for tour groups, with watered-down versions of the local cuisine and prices that can be double or triple what you’d spend if you were eating in a restaurant with the local people.  Not to mention the fact that ordering as a group of sixteen, and waiting for sixteen people’s food, and sorting out a bill for sixteen people, can be a huge waste of time that could be spent exploring a new destination.

When I looked at the itinerary for my tour, I saw that it included quite a few breakfasts, some lunches, and a few dinners. Wrongly, I believed that meant I would be free to choose my own restaurants for the other meals.  Instead, I found that most of the meals that were not included were still intended to be group affairs.  On the one night (out of twenty-three!) I made personal plans for dinner, I definitely felt that my CEO was disappointed, and bordering on offended.

What’s With the Hotels?

I’m writing this part of my post from a lovely hotel in Tashkent (it’s called Navruz Hotel – highly recommended!) and I stayed at other lovely hotels in Bishkek before my trip started.  I know that Central Asia has fantastic hotels that are clean, comfortable and safe… so why did we stay in so many unpleasant places on the G Adventures Multi-Stan Adventure?

In Khujand, Tajikistan, we didn’t even stay at the hotel that was listed on our itinerary (and on the G Adventures app).  Instead, we were shuttled to a sketchy hotel thirty minutes by car from the city center, with absolutely nothing nearby, and where the hotel restaurant took more than an hour to serve one person on my tour a bowl of rice.

In Tashkent, we stayed at the infamous Hotel Uzbekistan, which has a rating of 6.6 out of 10 on Booking.com (the worst score of any hotel I’ve ever stayed at, by far…), where the water ran brown, the air conditioners didn’t work and there were cigarette butts on the hallway floor for days.  

In other hotels we had bedroom lights that couldn’t be turned off, hot water tanks that squealed all night, patio doors that didn’t lock and even Bluetooth headphones that were stolen.

I never have problems like this when I book a hotel for myself, so I don’t understand how supposed local travel experts, backed by the purchasing power and repeat business of a major tour company, could end up in such disappointing accommodations.

Let’s Talk About the City Tours

This part of my post is mostly about the last part of the tour, where we spent about nine days exploring Uzbekistan.  We had stops in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva… and every time, our city tour occurred on the day after we were given a free day to explore the city.

None of us could understand why we would get the information about the city after we’d already been given all of our time to explore it.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to do the tour on the first day, so that we would have some context for what we were seeing during our free time?  It also became very confusing when we tried to keep track of the different attractions in town.  Is this something we should visit on our independent day?  Or are we going to see it tomorrow?  Should we pay to enter today?  Or is it included tomorrow?  I really don’t want to miss this one sight… is it worth potentially going twice just to be safe?

To add insult to injury, there didn’t seem to be any coordination between the local guides throughout our tour.  Most of our mosque visits were accompanied by the same information about Islam and Islamic architecture, and I think I listened to the entire biography of Amir Timur at least ten times.  From city to city, sight to sight, we kept getting the same information, over and over.  And over.  And over.

I say this problem was unique to Uzbekistan as we had virtually no unstructured time in the other three countries that made up the first portion of our trip.  In fact, it wasn’t until the eleventh day of the tour that our group even spent one full day in any one place (it was a little village in Tajikistan and many of noted how happy we were just to have time to choose between walking down this street or that street, or taking a photo of this dog or that house…).

Who Is Responsible for What?

When I realized that our tour was going off the rails, I tried to take action quickly to salvage the tour.  According to my email records, I contacted G Adventures by email on the second full day of our tour, letting them know that already, activities were being cancelled or modified.  They responded and told me that I should share my concerns with my CEO, and explicitly stated:

I have passed this on to the Customer Solutions team, however as they are not in location with your tour group, they cannot assist immediately. The CEO however, will be able to take action and make changes if possible.

I did speak directly to my CEO the next morning.  I let him know that I’d contacted G Adventures directly and that I was concerned that we weren’t following the itinerary.  He responded that he was also very concerned and didn’t know how the older travelers would be able to complete the activities on the tour.  Since he didn’t propose an actual solution, I suggested that he recommend some people opt out of the (totally optional!) hikes and the other strenuous activities if they weren’t able to complete them in a reasonable time frame.  Although he attempted to do this, ultimately he (and the next CEO, who I talked with about my concerns on his first day with our group) chose to tolerate the slow pace of the older travelers and delay the group, rather than simply telling them, “Keep up or opt out.”  I did not receive a reply from the Customer Solutions team.

On the eighth full day of the tour, I contacted G Adventures again by email, listing the activities that had been cancelled or modified on a day-by-day basis.  I also sent a similar summary via tweet.  Two days later I received a response from a member of the Customer Solutions team.  The response said:

Many thanks for your email and for taking the time to send this feedback.  I would like to say how sorry I am to read that your tour experience did not meet your expectations, particularly with the deviation of the itinerary as a result of your group’s demographic. I do want you to know that I hear you and that I have contacted our regional operation manager based in Central Asia to be aware of your concerns.  Meanwhile, I believe this tour will run until the 29th and hope your experience will improve.  Should you have any additional thoughts or feedbacks once the tour conclude, please let us know and we will investigate them with our local office.

As you can see, no real action was taken.  Sure, my concerns were “heard” and someone was “contacted”, but what action was taken?  None, apparently.  And they made it pretty clear that they didn’t want to hear from me again during the tour.

Our tour continued through the full twenty-three days with no significant change to the slow pace and lost opportunities.  Again, I can’t blame our CEOs for most of these issues.  It would be impossible for them to follow the itinerary developed by G Adventures without excluding most of the older travelers from many of the activities. Instead of leaving the older people behind or recommending independent alternatives to the advertised activities on the itinerary, our CEOs chose to water down everyone’s experience, rather than fully shut off anyone’s tap.

(Plus, when 10 out of 16 travelers are unable to complete the tour as advertised, and you’re counting on them for tips (since G Adventures recommended tipping CEOs a fairly hefty amount!), there’s little incentive not to indulge them.)

 So Who is Group Travel Really For, Then?

Apparently group travel is for senior citizens.  In fact, many of the older travelers on my tour had extensive independent travel experience in their younger years, but preferred to use group tours in their advanced age because they felt group travel was less strenuous, less dangerous and less expensive.  I can’t say I’d agree with any part of that, but that’s what was discussed.

If you are genuinely afraid to travel somewhere alone, then a group tour might be a good option for you.  However, I think you’d be happier just choosing a different destination, one where you can feel safe while traveling independently.

If you’re just worried about dragging a bag around from city to city, or if you think that traveling independently is too expensive, please trust that there are easy workarounds that don’t involve chaining yourself to an organized group tour.  If you don’t want to drag your bag around, get a rolling suitcase and splurge on taxis from the airport or train station to your accommodation.  If you think that group travel will keep costs down, there are tons of other ways to save money while you travel, like renting an apartment and cooking your own meals, or traveling during the shoulder season.

I’d love to hear from fans of group travel in the comments.  Especially people who have taken – by choice, not just for your blog – more than one organized tour.  What makes you go back to this style of travel, again and again?  What do you see is the advantage over independent travel? 

How to Book a Group Tour That Doesn’t Suck

They say hindsight is twenty-twenty, so today, the morning after my tour has ended, here’s what I would recommend for anyone considering booking a group tour:

  • Book a topical tour about something you’re passionate about.  A subject-specific tour focused on your passions means that you’ll still be enthralled by what you see and do, even if the other travelers are duds.
  • Consider booking an age-limited tour.  There are senior-specific tours for older travelers, as well as companies that cater exclusively to younger travelers, like Contiki.  I even saw one tour provider, Shoestring, that lets you see the age, sex and nationality of the people who have already registered for the tour, so that you can choose if they’d be a good fit for your travel style.  If I had known that my tour would have ten people over the age of seventy, I definitely would have selected a different departure date.  Oddly, I was later informed by an employee of G Adventures that “at the time of booking, or before you depart, we can give you an overview of traveller demographics on your trip”, although the FAQ section of their website clearly states that “for privacy reasons we cannot provide you with advance details on your traveling companions.”  This company needs to get its story straight.
  • Find a tour that meets your physical needs.  If you have limited mobility or other physical health needs, there are tour companies with itineraries, facilities and staff who are well-equipped to ensure you are safe and comfortable throughout your group tour.  On the other hand, if you’re all about sports and looking for an active, go-go-go type of tour, there are companies and tours that can get you trekking, kayaking, cycling and mountain climbing to your heart’s content.
  • Read the reviews carefully.  Today is October 25th, and when I check the G Adventures website for reviews of my own tour, I can see that they haven’t published any reviews since August 28, despite at least sixty people having completed this tour since then (by my estimate).  My own review has not yet been published on the public section of their site, and the lack of reviews over the past month is concerning.  However, I do see a review from earlier this summer noting that staff weren’t well-equipped to deal with travelers who couldn’t meet the physical requirements of the tour… that should have been a red flag.
  • Book short group tours as part of a longer, independent trip.  I honestly think this is the best option for all travelers.  Last summer I traveled around parts of Eastern Europe on my own, and as part of that trip I did a two-day group tour of Chernobyl.  Two days was just long enough to meet some other people, get to know one another and see something that we were all interested in… but it wasn’t long enough for us to get sick of one another (or for me to go crazy due to the constant smoke breaks!).  I also did a two-day trek through the Colca Canyon in Peru, and once again it was just the right amount of time to spend with strangers, sharing a common interest.

The Response From the Company

When I contacted some other bloggers before publishing this post, someone reached out to me and put me in contact with G Adventures’ media team.  I received a prompt email from the media department, but it seemed very focused on me as a blogger, rather than on me as a paying customer.  My email was then forwarded to their Customer Solutions team, who requested three weeks to complete an investigation.

After three weeks, I received an email response that addressed two specific concerns (the Bishkek walking tour, as noted above, and the cancelled horseback riding… although the excuse for the cancelled horseback riding didn’t show any understanding of the fact that yes, the horseback riding was cancelled due to weather… but it was only cold when we arrived because we were so late, after waiting so long for the seniors at an earlier stop that day).

The response concluded,

I can appreciate that this tour may have operated at slightly slower pace than standard due to the demographic spread on this particular departure. However, the result of my investigation has indicated that your tour itinerary was completed in full and did not deviate significantly from the tour dossier information displayed online.

That being said I am of course sincerely regretful that you found your experience to be of such a disappointing nature, please accept sincere apologies from G Adventures that we did not meet with your expectations on this occasion.

And that was that.

Please Don’t Hate Me

I’m guessing this will be the most controversial post that I’ll ever put on Fearless Female Travels.

Again, I want the record to show that I don’t hate senior citizens. I formed an amazing friendship with the one senior on my tour who consistently treated me with respect, and have kept in touch with him after the tour, but I found it really hard to warm up to the ones who undermined, mocked and judged me, the places we visited and the people we met.

As well, I’m not mad at our two CEOs. They did the best they could given that their employer created an exceptionally full itinerary that could only be achieved by fast-moving, active, aware travelers in otherwise-perfect travel conditions… and then stacked the tour full of people who needed more time and more individual support than the itinerary allowed.

My real frustration is with G Adventures for having organizational structures that led to our tour being what it was. There was very little “Adventure” to this experience, and the few opportunities that we had to be adventurous were curtailed by the limitations of the older travelers. G Adventures claims:

The foundation of our success is built on one very simple principle: Do the right thing all the time, every time.

And I would argue that on my tour, they failed.

You made it to the end!  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Which part of my group travel experience would have driven you the most crazy? 

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a group tour? 

How did you maintain your sanity on a group tour that went awry?

My group tour of Central Asia was a complete disaster. Read about what went wrong, how to avoid bad tours and how to find a group tour that doesn't suck.The truth about traveling with a tour group: long waits, rude travelers, cancelled plans... don't let a poorly-organized group tour ruin your next vacation!

 

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