The 1969 film, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium,” depicted a funny, but sometimes all too true, look at a tour group of Americans traveling through Europe so quickly they barely knew where they were and what they were seeing.
Today, tour groups are quickly becoming an attractive option for families looking to travel together without the time-consuming hassle of making their own arrangements and trying to accommodate differing needs. Families of all configurations (immediate, extended and multigenerational) are more frequently turning to tour groups, seeking a better overall vacation experience than if they had tackled the trip on their own. In response, several tour companies have increased their vacation packages catering specifically to families.
Special Tours for Families
One such tour company addressing the increased interest in family tours is Tauck, a Ct.-based tour company that has been in business for over 80 years. Recognizing the uptake in families looking for fun and easy ways to travel with children, Tauck developed Tauck Bridges, offering 15 itineraries especially for families. Tom Armstrong, the Marketing and Communications Manager for Tauck, has observed that “Families are looking to reconnect and travel together — whether it’s a family with grandparents, grandparents taking the grandchildren alone, or a group of siblings or cousins,” and is certain that “whatever your group configuration, you can find a destination and tour that will accommodate everyone’s wishes.” Armstrong has not only seen an increase in larger family groups vacationing together, but also a rise in destination reunions where everyone can enjoy a special experience and create new memories together.
Journeys for Families
Journeys‘ response to the demand has been to focus on developing custom tours for families, particularly addressing the needs of the different ages represented among a group. They understand that younger children need to be entertained, teens need action, and grandparents need a more relaxed pace, and they love combining their own travel experience with your unique needs to create “the best family adventure possible.” Joan Weber and her husband, the founders of Journeys for Families, confirm, “The guides understand what each age group needs so that everyone is happy and active. We know how to pace a tour so it’s not too grueling for the adults but is still fun for the children. We know it works because we’ve done it with our own kids.”
Trafalgar’s Family Experiences
Trafalgar Tours also offers Family Experiences, featuring itineraries with endless activities for families including special activities for kids such as “making your own chocolate bar at Pennsylvania’s Hershey’s Chocolate World, dude-ranching activities at The Ranch at Ucross in Wyoming, and even taking a pizza-making class in Italy,” shares Adam Leavitt, Vice President of Marketing for Trafalgar Tours. “And then for parents and grandparents, there are wonderful special dining programs like Trafalgar’s Be My Guest where our guests get the chance to meet and dine with local families.” Trafalgar also strives to meet the needs of travelers of all ages and provide insider experiences that you simply couldn’t have if traveling with your family independently.
Thomson Family Adventures
To address the needs of families looking for highly educational tours, Thomson Family Adventures, which claims to be the first tour group to focus solely on trips exclusively for families and rated the #1 Family Adventure Travel Company by National Geographic Adventure Magazine, has recently announced a new joint venture with Smithsonian Institution. Together they have developed five special itineraries where families travel back in time to learn about ancient civilizations, explore flourishing ecosystems, and delve deep into time-honored cultures. Thomson offers both group and customized tours, and even if you’re just looking for vacation ideas, you’ll get your wheels turning when you read about their creative family tours on their Web site.
Alaska Tour Guides’ Family Tours
Families interested in seeing the “real Alaska,” can turn to Alaska Tour Guides‘ custom and preplanned family tours to Alaska. With tours lasting from one to 14 days, many families opt to include a tour before or after an Alaskan cruise. Doreen Toller, Owner of Alaska Tour Guides, notes that the tour company can handle up to 13 family members at a time, and it can either plan a trip from scratch or alter a preset itinerary to accommodate personal preferences and customize your experience. Offering all activity levels, from mild to moderate to adventurous, an enjoyable tour can be designed to meet the needs of all ages. In an effort to give guests an insiders’ perspective and true Alaskan experience, all guides are Alaska residents. The tour company makes every effort to travel responsibly, “caring to leave little or no impact to preserve the environment and experience for others,” and incorporates as many local companies and resources as possible.
Choosing a Tour Group Right for Your Family
So — how to choose and get started? Going from the idea of taking a tour to actually making it happen can seem daunting at first, but be assured that the tour companies are well equipped to help you every step of the way, easing the decision making process and helping to ensure that your needs will be met. There are a few points, though, that you will want to keep in mind as you make your selection.
- Custom or Planned Tour
For the most part, there are two types of tours for families to consider: “planned tours” and “custom tours.” “Planned Tours” are a group of families, couples or singles who together follow the tour company’s planned itinerary. “Custom Tours” allow you to work with the tour company to plan a unique itinerary just for your family; the tour company then makes all of the travel arrangements and provides a professional guide for your trip. Your choice may depend on the size of your group and if you desire the companionship of others outside of your own family on your travels.
- Cost and Value
When planning a family tour, “First off, figure out your budget,” says Toller. “Then, when you’re looking at different tours, see what is included in the cost and what is not.” Airfare, gratuities and alcohol are not often included in the price of tours, but you’ll find more variation in meals and activities. Toller warns, “You can get sticker shock.” But remember, if you prefer to stay in choice accommodations and like a busy schedule full of activities, it may actually be less expensive to travel on a tour than on your own as touring companies are able to negotiate less expensive prices for their groups. Armstrong notes, “If you tried duplicating one of our trips on your own, it would typically cost you 40 percent more, possibly making it cost-prohibitive.”
When it comes to determining value, also compare itineraries for scheduled “free time.” Make sure there is enough free time so your family can explore alone, but not so much that you’ll wonder why you booked the tour.
Lastly, don’t forget to check for special packages and discounts for families, especially for the youngest and oldest travelers in your group. “We offer a variety of family-oriented savings, from discounts for triple and quad hotel accommodations to up to 10 percent savings for children ages 5 through 17,” Leavitt points out. “And on top of that, we have various promotional offers in the marketplace throughout the year that are combinable with all of our other savings and discounts.”
- Group Size and Age Requirements
When considering a tour, you’ll need to take into account the size of your group and the ages of your travelers. Dorothy Johnson of Indian River, Mich. is a busy grandmother who has vacationed often with a tour group and with a variety of tour companies. Johnson believes the size of the tour group is very important and in her experience, 20 or so is about right — not too big but big enough so that there will be plenty of children to keep each other entertained. Many companies providing custom tours have a limit on the number of people they will accommodate in one group and most tour groups have an age minimum, usually at least six years old. Although Tauck allows travelers ages 3 and up, they find that children ages 8 and up have an attention span better suited for a tour.
- Dining Options
Meals play an important part in any vacation, and while many of the tour companies catering to families select restaurants with children’s menus, some do not, making it a challenge to find kid-friendly options. Dining without a children’s menu can also greatly increase the cost of your meals. “Figure out how much you’re paying for the meals on a daily basis,” Toller advises. “You might be spending $100 for dinner when you could just order pizza in the hotel for $30, saving significantly. You won’t want pizza every night, but you’ll want some flexibility and some acknowledgement that children don’t need fancy meals.”
Another way to reduce the costs of meals is to select a hotel with a complimentary breakfast. Additionally, many tours offer the option to purchase an all-inclusive meal package at a fixed price, which can be significantly less expensive than purchasing meals on an a la carte basis.
Most tour companies use carefully chosen hotels when creating tour itineraries. The hotels are well rated and appear to be centrally located in their given cities, frequently in the true heart of the action; for example, your “hotel” may actually be a medieval-style castle or a classic safari lodge, allowing you to more deeply connect with your destination. Occasionally, tour groups offer upgraded rooms for an additional fee.
If your tour group provides guests with the opportunity to choose from a variety of accommodations, this is a good opportunity to save a bit of money. In addition to choosing a hotel with complimentary breakfasts or evening receptions, it may also be smart to select a suite where the kids can sleep on a pullout couch rather than pay for two separate hotel rooms.
- The Tour Company’s Reputation
It is essential to check the tour company’s reputation with the Better Business Bureau and trade associations, and don’t forget to ask for — and call — references. This may seem like extra legwork, but the calls are truly worth the effort. Dorothy Johnson shares, “Yes, I interviewed the references and it made me feel better. It gave me real insight, and being a grandmother, I had a lot of questions that you won’t find in brochures like, ‘What do you do about picky eaters?’ I also went online and read what people were saying about the tour.” Also, make sure the tour company has insurance and is equipped to handle medical emergencies, especially for children, senior citizens and those with special needs.
Why Family Tours are So Appealing
Once you have made the decision to trust your family’s vacation to a tour company, the advantages are many!
- Easy Planning and Logistics
Christina Lee of Road to Travel, a tour company specializing in private family tours to Italy and Egypt, believes a real advantage is that “Everything is pre-planned, pre-booked and prepaid for. Not only is planning a trip stressful but so are the logistics when you are there. On a tour, you don’t have to worry about getting a cab, trying to drive in a different country, or dealing with lost luggage. We meet you at the airport, and we take care of everything until we deliver you to the airport to go home.” With all of the arrangements and expenses taken care of ahead of time and the details managed while vacationing, you’re more likely to tune in to and bond with your family on your trip.
- Expert Guides and Endless Activities
Trained guides are experts. They know the destination well, speak the language, can handle emergencies and, even better, are paid to make the trip fun. Many tour groups also use local guides that provide deeper insight to the area’s cultural heritage and social customs as well as insider experiences only a local would know about. The guides “don’t need to wing it,” says Tolland. “All of our guides are Alaskans who have local knowledge.”
In terms of the variety of activities, the sky is the limit. For example, Tauck arranges scavenger hunts in the Louvre Museum in Paris and Trafalgar Tours offers active adventures that appeal to a wide age range of guests. Some exciting options for older children include zip lining in Costa Rica, white-water rafting on the Athabasca River in Alberta, and taking a safari game-drive on the Lalibela Game Reserve in South Africa.
- Special Programs for Kids
Some tour groups, in addition to a traditional tour guide, even offer college-age mentors for younger kids. On Journeys for Families tours, a mentor is added at no additional cost as long as there are eight children on a trip. Johnson remembers, “We’ve been on trips with mentors and without, and the mentors added a lot. The mentors are adults that the kids can relate to. They serve as authority figures without being the parents. They know how to make it fun for the kids, and can sense when the parents and kids need to go their separate ways for a while.”
- Addressing Safety and Security Concerns
Security is a real concern for traveling families. With a tour group, you will not only have a professional guide with you throughout your trip, but you will also be part of a larger group beyond your own family. Johnson shares, “We wanted to take the family to Tanzania but we really didn’t want to take them by ourselves. There are some places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do with my grandkids, but I really felt more secure going with a group.”
Tour Group Dynamics and Concerns
After the trip is booked, perhaps the biggest worry for many is whether their own family will fit in with the other families on the tour — especially when it comes to the children; keeping the peace in your own family while vacationing is tough enough without the added element of other, unfamiliar families. To address this possible issue, some companies help you make connections and get to know the others on your tour before you leave home. Johnson notes that having the kids email each other prior to the trip helped her children to break the ice.
“All of the families were fairly easy to get along with and connect with,” shares Patricia Knapp of Woodbine, Md. “The kids were totally interactive. The boys on the trip got along with my grandsons. The girls tended to be a little more reserved but they eventually got over it.” Armstrong has observed that children, especially, make quick connections, which allows parents to re-connect with each other or spend more adult time with the others in the group. In fact, Armstrong notes, “You’ll find that by the second day the kids are in the back of the bus amusing themselves, which takes the pressure to entertain them off of the parents.”
The guides also have experience in handling and defusing any tricky issues that might arise. “My responsibility is to choose guides that will be able to deal with all the personalities and all the relationship dynamics,” believes Toller. “Don’t forget. The guide is with everyone for seven, maybe 10 days. They build up relationships. The last thing I want is an unhappy visitor.”
A Final Consideration
Still deciding if a family tour is right for your family? Knapp’s final insight may be just the thing to tip the scales.
“They keep the kids,” she said, “almost exhausted.”
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