London - Joining an escorted group tour can be a sensible and reassuring way to explore far-flung countries with unfamiliar cultures, such as India or China.
Guides take responsibility for sorting out all the day-to-day hassles and often provide fascinating insights. But there are downsides. You have to fit in with everyone else’s wishes and do things at the group’s pace - and you may end up spending a fortnight with the travel bore from hell.
Which is why private tours sound so appealing. You usually get your own dedicated guide, or guides, to drive you around and show you the sights. And holiday companies say demand for them is soaring. Trailfinders, for example, has seen bookings for private tours increase by 70 percent over the past year - and it has now produced its first specialist brochure for them.
India is Trailfinders most popular destination for private tours. There, you’re provided with a usually well- informed and personable driver who stays with you for the duration of your holiday - or at least your time in a particular region.
But a local guide shows you around each sightseeing attraction. By contrast, in Sri Lanka, your driver normally also takes on the role of guide. With the same driver/guide for a week or more, you may build up a special rapport. But it can be more informative to meet fresh faces and to have a variety of expert, local input. In most Asian countries you normally have a different driver and guide in each city you visit.
There are other clear-cut advantages of private tours over group ones. You can get the holiday company to tailor-make an itinerary that suits your wishes and is within your preferred dates. And you will have much more flexibility on the trip itself. For instance, you can linger at an attraction, and if you drive past somewhere that catches your eye, your driver/ guide will be able to stop.
Such spontaneity is much less likely if you’re travelling with ten or 20 others.
You’ll also have more recuperative downtime in the evenings. Group tours, with the pressure to eat communally, can be tiring. On the other hand, having a private guide can be an intense experience and some people find it socially awkward at times - agonising about whether to invite the guide/ driver to eat with them (really not necessary).
Surprisingly, private tours are often not that much more expensive than group ones. I asked Trailfinders to compare some costs. For an eight-day Golden Triangle tour of India next month - including flights, local travel, three-star accommodation and entrance fees to sights - the company quoted £1,116 (about R14 500) per person on the group tour. For the private tour, the quote came in at £1,259pp.
With a similar set-up, a 14-day Highlights Of China group tour in March was £2,328, while the comparable Classic China private tour was £2,649.
So, the private tours came to only 12 to 13 percent more. That difference sounds fairly typical across much of Asia.
The other companies I spoke to told me that typically, you’ll pay just ten to 20 percent more per head for a private tour than a comparable small-group one. However, in Central and South America, guides and drivers are more expensive.
Consequently, private tours in those regions cost significantly more than group ones - as guide/driver costs are shared on the group tours. Also, group tours anywhere can work out much cheaper for single travellers - if they are happy to share rooms.
Contacts: Trailfinders (020 7368 1500, trailfinders. com). Other firms specialising in private tours include: