What comes to mind when you think about taking a tour? A flag carrying leader moving you from massive buses to cheesy tourist attractions leaving you feeling like herded cattle?
While this does still exist, these days there are a ton of amazing family travel tour options focusing on adventures for the whole family that are worth investigating.
My travel style has always been staunchly independent. I enjoy the excitement of exploring off the beaten path locations as much as the difficulties of being lost or trying to find my way around a city.
However now with a child, I find that I don’t always have the time or flexibility to be as independent. And while historically, I’ve not been a fan of tours, I have found myself moving towards family travel tours more and more these days. With an only child, it’s become apparent my son enjoys traveling with other families as a way to have instant playmates and to share his travel experience with a peer.
This summer I set out to explore what it means to travel on a family focused tour with two different companies in two different parts of the world. One was organized through a small local company on the Amazon River in Brazil orchestrated through Our Whole Village which is part agent part operator. The other was through the large international tour operator, Intrepid Travel.
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Why Take A Family Travel Tour?
If you are an independent traveler like me, you might think ‘Why would I need or even want to take a tour?’. I hear you. I often feel the same. I always think I can plan the same trip on my own at a similar expense. While this may be true, the reasons for taking a family tour are many.
Get Off the Beaten Path
I have found that tours are great for families who want to get off the beaten path, but with the security of being taken care of by locals who know the ways of the country and can help guide you through.
Often times taking a tour with your kids helps to expand boundaries, giving you access to experiences you might not have otherwise. On our recent trip to Borneo, we probably would not have looked to stay in a traditional long house had we not been part of a tour. It was a unique look into the culture that the kids really enjoyed.
It’s Less Work
Taking a tour brings back a sense of vacation even with an adventurous trip. As the travel CEO of the family, constant planning and organizing of details can be exhausting. Participating in a tour means that you can actually enjoy more of the adventure rather than worrying about where you will eat for dinner.
Once you are past researching what tour to take, your work is mostly finished, making a tour a much more hassle free option for busy families.
Most importantly for many families, taking a family tour means that your kids have instant playmates. This is one of the biggest reasons we look at doing tours. While my son loves traveling with me, he has gotten to the age that he really does miss having social interactions with other kids while we travel. Being on a tour provides those opportunities for him.
Traveling on a tour It also allows him to connect with kids from other countries and kids who have similar values and lifestyles as he does. While he is often the anomaly having traveled to so many countries, these are also kids who enjoy travel and like to talk about all the places they have been.
Delve Deeper into Local Cultures
Tours also help children (and adults) delve deeper into the culture by explaining the different customs, foods and dress.
Additionally, as my child asks more and more questions that I don’t have the answers to, having a local guide comes in handy. Rather than turning to me for all the answers, my son has someone else to pepper with questions!
Have Assistance in Case of Emergencies
If you are traveling either solo with your kids or as a family, one worry is what to do if someone gets sick or hurt. Being part of a tour helps alleviate some of that stress. You have a local with you who can assess whether something is doctor worthy as well as help you navigate the medical system if needed. On our recent trip to Borneo when my son was sick in the middle of the night in the jungle, it was helpful to have someone help me help my son.
What to Look for in a Tour Company?
When looking for a family tour operator there are a number of things to keep in mind. One of the first questions to ask is whether you want to go with a local operator or with an international company. Having just experienced both options, I will say there are benefits to both. Companies like Our Whole Village explore regions all over the world seeking out unique family friendly travel opportunities that work with local operators, but their tour dates and destinations are more limited as opposed to international companies who offer a broader range of tours and dates all over the world.
When I am looking at a tour company, the things I look for are:
- Opportunities for authentic experiences – Does the tour provide opportunities for your family to really get into the local culture? Do you get to stay in unique places or do interesting things?
- Family focused activities – Does the tour take into account that kids also have the need to process travel in their own ways? For example activities like arts and crafts from the local culture, time to swim, etc.
- Good organization– Is the tour well organized? Do they provide you with all the pertinent information you will need to prepare and pack for the trip?
- Unique itineraries that take you off the beaten path – Does the tour take you to places that you couldn’t easily do on your own? Do you get away from the big tourist traps to experience the country in different ways?
- Travel style that matches your expectations – Does the tour match your style of travel? If you are accustomed to 5 star travel, find tours that use high level accommodation options.
- Itineraries that provide down time for kids to be kids – Make sure the itinerary does not pack too much into each day so that kids can have time to relax or run around.
- Record of safety – Does the company have a focus on safety of its groups? Do they use local companies that focus on safety?
- Eco friendly with a focus on sustainable travel – Does the tour company use sustainable and local friendly options for transportation? Do they give back to the local communities? Do they embrace environmentally friendly practices?
- Small group sizes – This is a big one for me. If you want to experience life in another culture you need to be able to be close to the ground which cannot be achieved when traveling with large groups. Stick to groups with 20 people or less.
- Know in advance what is included and what is not. Some tours are all inclusive, while some provide more flexibility for meals and/or optional activities. Make sure you know what you will be responsible for.
It will be important for you to figure out what things are important for you on your trip. For some it may be luxury accommodations while for others it may be plenty of downtime.
Our favorite family travel companies are Intrepid Travel, Thompson Family Tours and Our Whole Village, but there are plenty more out there! Check out all these amazing international family tours you should think about for this year!
How to Get the Most Out of a Tour
- Be prepared to go with the flow. Things don’t always go the way you think, it’s important to be flexible and willing to go with the flow.
- Prepare the kids on the type of foods that will be served and/or come with plenty of snacks to supplement when needed.
- Research about your trip before going to set expectations on the type of accommodation offered and what you will be doing.
- Pack accordingly– and lightly if possible!
- Take time out for yourself and family when you feel tensions increase with the other families – it always happens!
Are there negatives for taking a family tour?
For me the only negatives of doing a family tour is not having the flexibility to do what you want when you want. Sometimes as an independent traveler you miss being able to just stay in a place longer or just take time to explore as you wish.
However I really believe that the benefits of having a knowledgeable local who can teach you and your kids all about the destination outweigh the negatives of not getting to do it exactly as you want.
Another potential negative to family tours is getting a tour guide who you don’t connect with. This can happen and totally stinks when it does. Being a direct American, my suggestion for this is to lay out your expectations and needs and discuss with this openly with the guide. A reputable company will have policies in place to help guide you in this situation.
The trick is finding an operator who wholly understands the needs of family travelers, aligns with what you hope to get out of the experience and hires quality staff.
After our two recent experiences, albeit both very different, with family focused tours I have to say we are totally sold! My son absolutely adored having other kids to play with. It also helped push him from his comfort zone at times. For me, it gave me a much needed break from always being the travel CEO of the family! It also helped me hone in on what I do find important in travel and what I want to share with my son.
What do you think about the idea of family travel tours? Would you take one?
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