10 Ways to Make the Most of Any Tour, Anywhere in the World


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Have you ever been on a tour and felt like it’s just not working for you? Maybe there’s something missing? Or the connection just isn’t there?

What do you do?

Watching the Glacier from the Boat - El Calafate, Argentina
Capturing Perito Moreno Glacier — Patagonia, Argentina.

When I consider this question, I’m reminded of a conversation with a passenger on a tour we took recently. The conversation with Miranda (I changed her name) went roughly like this:

“I don’t really feel like I’m engaging with [this place] on this tour. I don’t feel like I’ve done [this place],” she said with a look of disappointment. Clearly, Miranda wasn’t getting the depth of engagement she wanted from the trip.

“So what would you like to change?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “It would be great if maybe we visited a local market or somewhere where we can talk with more local people.”

“Funny you mention that,” I said. “It’s not on the itinerary, but we just heard about a weekly market tomorrow morning that's a short walk. Come with us.”

She never came with us, she never visited the market. And this was one of several opportunities she missed that would have tuned her into the sort of experience she claimed she wanted.

It’s our experience that tours are often subject to the implicit assumption: everything is taken care of, so you should sit back and passively check off the elements of your itinerary as they’re delivered to you.

Not so. If you really wish to make the most of any travel experience, whether you travel independently or in a group, you must take ultimate responsibility for your own satisfaction. Sure, once you’ve booked a group tour, there are certain elements that are out of your hands — the guide, itinerary, and fellow passengers. Beyond that, however, it’s up to you to take control within those constraints. (Note: We've already discussed the various reasons why people choose to take small group tours here.)

Ugh, Dan. You mean I pay this money for someone else to organize my holiday and it’s still up to me?

Kind of. During the last few years, as independent travelers who’ve also taken small group tours to places like Iran, Ethiopia and Japan, we’ve discovered that the value we derived from the experience was due in one part to the organization of the tour, and another part to how proactive and engaged we were. If you want to have a great vacation, you must make an effort. You must invest a piece of yourself — to engage and participate in the tour and be a part of the experience. After all, you are ultimate arbiter of your own holiday happiness.

OK, you’re making a great argument, Dan. But how do I do actually this?

So glad you asked. Here are ten pieces of practical, actionable advice you can implement straight away to make the most of any organized tour. The upshot: consider the tour itinerary as a foundation, a basis for you to create ad hoc experiences in the in-between space.

1) Proactively communicate your specific interests to your guide.

Fact: it’s impossible for your guide to read your mind and to know everything about you and your interests. When it comes to travel, passivity does not pay. This goes for independent travel and tours alike.

If you have a specific interest – ancient history, sports, local foods, markets, weaving, ceramics, music, whatever – share that interest with your guide at the beginning of your tour. Then ask your guide nicely if he can direct you to places, experiences or people that will help you learn more about your interest.

This may sound obvious, but we’re surprised by how often it does not happen.

A couple things to keep in mind when applying this approach. Understand that you are a guest – a guest in a place that is likely the guide’s home. It’s best to express your interest in the form of questions, rather than in the form of demands. If you come at your guide combatively with an “I paid for this” attitude, forget it. Instead, show your interest and humble curiosity to provide your guide with a platform to share more of his knowledge of his home country and culture with you.

Ice Cream Stop - Kermanshah, Iran
Our G Adventures group in Iran, *all* with an interest in ice cream.

Finally, understand that other people's needs are at work, too. The trick: make your desires known in a good-hearted way, and position it to see if the experiences you seek may also meet the interests of others on your tour. If they don’t, then try to schedule these experiences during your free time.

We’re reminded of: We told our guide on the first day of our Ethiopia tour about our deep interest in learning about Ethiopian food. Over the course of the week he took us to a rural village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, organized an impromptu cooking course at a lodge, introduced us to restaurant owners who explained their cuisine to us, and found food markets along the way that were not on the itinerary. This not only added to our experience, but to that of our fellow passengers and our guide.

2) Perform your own research.

The first time we saw a person on a tour with a guidebook we thought it a bit odd. I mean, you’re paying for the tour and a guide who is a local expert so why bother?

We soon saw the light.

The more research you perform on the place you are visiting – by reading a guidebook, asking friends, doing internet research – the better prepared you’ll be to ask informed questions and go off-itinerary for a bit, either by yourself or with your group. At the very least, this research can help source new restaurants or cafes to explore outside of your hotel (see #6 below).

We’re reminded of: During our visit to Iran, our questions — prompted by advice from an Iranian-American friend — led to an unscheduled visit to the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the town of Hamadan. Our thirty-minute visit there was not only interesting for the tombs, including of the fabled Jewish Queen Esther, but for our meeting with the Iranian rabbi caretaker who told us about the lives of the Jewish community (surprising!) still living in town.

Tomb of Esther - Hamadan, Iran
An off-the-itinerary stop at the Tomb of Esther in Hamadan, Iran.

3) Ask questions, channel your curiosity.

Unleash your curiosity and leverage your tour guide as the resource he is — or should be — to learn as much as you can about the place you are visiting. This will not only benefit your understanding of the local context and history, but it will also jump-start your guide’s energy and direct his knowledge and explanations more to your interests.

This is especially important to break what I call “tour monotony” where it’s clear that the guide is giving an explanation on auto-pilot. This can get boring for everyone very quickly, the guide included. Asking questions changes the pace and energy and often surfaces stories that you'll take home and remember forever.

We’re reminded of: During our tour to Antarctica we passed a pod of killer whales. Audrey took a bunch of photos and later approached the cetacean expert (i.e., whale and dolphin specialist) with her photos to ask more information about the whales and their behaviors. He was excited — because he was always excited by passengers’ interest in wildlife — but this time he was really excited. It turns out that we’d come across a previously unidentified sub-species called Type D Orcas, and Audrey's photos were just the proof he needed. The photo later appeared in a scientific journal.

4) Take advantage of your free time.

Many tours incorporate free time into the itinerary — either entirely free days or chunks of time before or after scheduled visits to sites. Be sure to use these bits of free time deliberately to go off on your own and explore – perhaps to a café, market, or new street you haven’t walked down. Most often, it’s the ad hoc, unexpected experiences that not only provide real, authentic culture and context, but leave us with the “you wouldn’t believe what happened to us…!” stories that we tell our friends back home.

We’re reminded of: During our Japan tour, we visited the Nishiki market in Kyoto on a free afternoon. We took one of the people on our tour with us, walked through a market flush with local students and sought out freshly-made takoyaki (octopus balls!) from one of the food stalls. It was a simple yet resonant experience. The traveler who came with us told us it was one of her best memories from an already memorable trip to Japan.

Pickled Vegetables at Nishiki Market - Kyoto, Japan
The Nishiki market in Kyoto. A great way to spend a free afternoon.

5) Realize that you don’t have to do everything.

This is one that I struggle with. When I’m on a tour, I often feel compelled to do everything that’s offered. But sometimes the best decision is to strategically skip an optional activity or do something different so long as my choice doesn’t disrupt the group or their schedule.

We’re reminded of: While in Uganda, most of the group went off on all-day optional tour in the Lake Bunyonyi area. The itinerary sounded a bit hurried to us, and we were at the point where we needed a break. We woke up late, took a walk up the mountain and enjoyed a beautiful plate of crayfish curry at a restaurant with an incredible view. Rather than packing our heads with even more experiences, we needed a sprinkling of reflection. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.

The view above Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.
The view above Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.

6) Get outside the hotel.

As tempting as it is to stay in your hotel — it’s easy and close — push yourself to get outside to take care of basic necessities like eating, drinking and shopping. And use those journeys to find local restaurants, cafes, bars or shops. This approach forces you to engage with more local people, thereby expanding the nature of your impressions and experiences in a place.

These outings will also allow you to spread your tourism dollars to different businesses and families. Family-run businesses – particularly if you interact with the people that run them – will often provide you with a sense of connection and a handful of stories to take back home.

We’re reminded of: Finding small restaurants and street food stalls in Bali that were much cheaper and served tastier food than the shiny restaurants at the hotel. It took more effort to get out and find these places, but we were rewarded for it with beautiful local food and conversations off the most heavily traveled bits of the tourist trail.

Bumbu Bali Fish at Sanur Beach - Bali, Indonesia
A meal with a view at Sanur Beach, Bali.

7) Experience the beginning of the day.

Sleep is a precious thing, and it is especially important while traveling. But as much as a good lie-in helps sometimes, so does waking up early. In fact, it's almost always always worth the effort.

Many towns and villages around the world come to life in the early hours of the morning as vendors carry their goods to market. Morning is also a great time to see children going to school and watch the day unfold as cafes and restaurants set up for the day. This time is often less stressful for everyone, so you are more likely to have friendly, focused interactions. For example, you’re more likely to get an answer to your question of a vendor when they are just getting set up than when they are in full swing dealing with a handful of customers.

After getting your fill of activity, you can return to the hotel for breakfast or a coffee to meet the group for the rest of the day.

We’re reminded of: Going to the weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda before breakfast. Within a short walk from our campsite we found the market and saw dugout wooden boats transporting sacks of charcoal, fish, bananas, and vegetables from other islands in the lake and even from neighboring Rwanda. Nothing like sensory overload to kick off the day.

Sacks of Charcoal at Lake Bunyonyi Market - Uganda
Early morning at the weekly market at Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.

8) Extend your time in the country.

A tour is a great way to introduce you to a destination. It can allow you to get your bearings, find your feet, and build confidence traveling around a new country with a different language and culture. Spending some extra time after your tour allows you to explore cities or regions more deeply than might have been allowed by your tour itinerary. Alternatively, you can further explore new areas of the country.

We’re reminded of: Spending an extra week in Iran to see the lesser-visited northwestern part of the country and to take a 60-hour train to Istanbul. As American citizens we were required to have a guide with us, but we were able to ad hoc visit towns where we had Iranian friends and see sites like the Armenian monastery of St. Stephanos and the ancient Tabriz covered market and carpet bazaar.

Armenian St. Stephanos Church - Jolfa, Iran
Armenian church of St. Stephanos in northwestern Iran.

9) Understand that alone time is OK.

The concept of a tour may make some introverts cringe and wish to crawl into a hole. So much people time! Even if you are extroverted like Audrey, you may still find yourself feeling something similar as your holiday progresses.

Understand that you don’t have to spend all your time with the group; be sure to take care of your needs, including the need to reflect. Don’t feel bad about getting dinner on your own or going solo for your free time or tuning out when the bus is moving. It’s your holiday, after all.

Having said that, you may want to let others know that you are not shunning them, but instead are taking some time to yourself to refresh. Reasonable people will understand and most will nod in approval. In fact, some may realize they need a bit of that themselves.

We’re reminded of: One evening on the safari portion of our Tanzania tour, I left the group early for some quiet time to reflect, take notes and read a book while the rest gathered around the campfire. After all, Audrey and I had only recently summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and had just finished an afternoon of tracking cheetahs. This is a lot to recuperate from and to process. The following morning, I rejoined the group refreshed and rested, and all the better for it.

10) Don’t let negative thoughts simmer to a boil.

Stuff happens. If something bothers you, tell your guide in private. Have an open conversation. His job is to try and make the trip as enjoyable as possible for everyone, within limits. It may be that he can’t solve the problem immediately, but at least he can begin to address the issue. Be sure to also give feedback to your tour provider after the tour is over so they can address issues on future trips.

What you shouldn’t do: Keep it bottled up inside so you’re outwardly angry (yet no one understands exactly why), complain publicly, particularly to everyone on the tour except your guide. There’s nothing that ruins a trip — yours and others — like shared misery.

We’re reminded of: Our tour in New Zealand was (at the time) a very new tour, so there were some inconsistencies between the accommodation description from travel agents and the reality on the tour. The tour leader couldn't change where we were staying, but once he was aware of the concerns, he addressed them as best as he could. And, the trip was pretty remarkable.


The bonus nugget of travel wisdom: Even when we’ve paid for an experience and someone else is responsible for facilitating it, we and our actions help form the bridge to our own travel satisfaction.

The bad news: It takes effort.

The good news: That effort is often rewarded.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

35 thoughts on “10 Ways to Make the Most of Any Tour, Anywhere in the World”

  1. Awesome insight in this post! I really like the emphasis and reminder that these trips are your experiences and you can customized them to your liking while still being on an organized tour. I wholeheartedly agree with you that it is ultimately the responsibility of each person to make the most of a trip.
    Attitude, curiosity, and reflection are great things to keep in mind for travel. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Oliver! Great to hear from you. Your comment reminds me that as I was writing this with respect to traveling on a tour, I realized pretty quickly — as you did — that this advice applies rather generally to travel, independent travel and life in general. While there’s stuff that happens outside of our control, there’s still a lot we can do to impact our own experience. Thanks for your feedback.

      Reply
  2. Organized tours sometimes carry the connotation that they won’t deliver an authentic experience. I’d agree to some extent, but I’ve had a tour enrich my experience in a way nothing else could. I spent several days on a small group tour in Egypt. Spending that much time with one guide allowed us to get to know a local and ask more in depth questions than we would have during short encounters with locals in restaurants or elsewhere. I left the trip with more knowledge and a deeper appreciation because of the guided tour, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We definitely had a custom experience and gained a friend. I also agree that tours can be a great way to get comfortable in a new location before branching out. A tour in Istanbul gave me my footing, and now the city is at the top of my list for returning to and exploring without a tour.

    Reply
    • Natalie, great to see you here. I agree that organized tours — particularly to those of us who enjoy or even prefer independent travel — carry connotations of “inauthentic experience”. Some tours and tour companies do their best to counter this while others don’t. Like you, we’ve had excellent guides across the world who have added a dimension to our experiences and understanding that we alone would have been challenged to do. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Reply
  3. Fantastic points. I love doing tours but I’ve also found some of these tips really helpful in the past. It’s defnitely up to you to make the most of a tour.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Emma. Glad you found this useful. True, whether traveling, touring or whatever — it’s up to each of us to make the most of what’s in front of us.

      Reply
  4. Great article, Daniel! I agree with each and every point. I’ve also had some great travel experiences when traveling in a small group.
    As Natalie mentioned before (talking about Egypt), I know much more about the people of Oman, just because I had the chance to spend more time with a local guide. I also had some moments when I did not have time to prepare for a trip and, although it was nice to be surprised and to discover everything on the way, I always had the feeling that I am going to miss something important. So yes, it’s worth the effort to prepare in advance, even if all the details are taken care of.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Roxana. Glad this article resonated with your experiences in Oman and elsewhere. Preparation, as you mention, is important. As I read your comment, it occurs to me that having a guide not only provides context and perspective, but can also pick up a little bit of slack if we haven’t fully prepared or researched a destination and its history prior to our arrival.

      Not like I’m speaking out of experience 🙂

      Reply
  5. Great article. I’ve worked as a tour guide for a few years and indeed tourists come with certain expectations that are difficult to fulfil if the guide does not know about it. The expectations of the tourists changed a lot of how I organised the trip. If indeed, people are interested in visiting a local market, we will make a detour. And so on
    When reading your article, people might look different on taking organised tours and get more satisfaction out of it by thinking of how to make the most of it.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Thanks for providing your perspective from the other side of the equation, Sabine. I’m actually surprised more guides don’t spend a little more time on setting expectations up front, first thing on the tour. I suspect they are frightened of all those expectations. I probably would be, too. And as you point out, trips evolve and expectations change and need to be continually managed. (Aside: I really respect successful, organized tour guides — this is a difficult job, especially to perform well.)

      And to your point that has been echoed in other comments, this article boils down to making the most of whatever we purchase, are given, presented with, etc. in life.

      Reply
  6. Great post, guys! In places like the Amazon, Galapagos and Antarctica, a group tour really is the best way to see the area if you want to understand the complexities of the balance between mankind and nature. And I love the tip about talking to locals to find things that aren’t on the group itinerary. That’s often how we find the coolest side-trips.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bret! In some of those places, a group tour may be the only way to see the area — unless of course, you have your own private plane. I find guides especially valuable in ecologically sensitive areas because they often not only share the current environmental circumstances, but they are often 10, 20+ year veterans who can tell you how perilous the situation is when compared to fairly recent history. That’s certainly the way it was for us in both Galapagos and Antarctica.

      Good point on the side trips: locals often have the best inside knowledge for cool, unusual side trips.

      Reply
  7. I just came back from leading a tour group through Mexico City – actually, I was as much the participant as I was the leader since I organized the trip but I’ve never been there. I agree with all your points above and I wished I read this before I left last week. I’m an introvert, so leading a tour group and constantly interacting with people is exhausting for me. Thankfully, I’ve traveled places before and I know how to handle my need to be alone. I ended up ditching one dinner and one breakfast to go off and explore the surrounding areas. I asked our guide to take me to a local market when everyone else had gone off shopping. I also went on a morning run around the hotel and ended up passing by the Angel of Independence Monument (the symbol of Mexico City!). Thanks for writing this! 😀

    Reply
    • Glad you found this worthwhile, Pauline. You’ll have it for the next tour you lead.

      Energy level management is really important. After all, travel — particularly travel of the immersive sort — takes effort. If you are introvert amidst a group, it’s especially true. But you are proving the point that introverts are capable (and are often quite adept) at leading groups and performing activities that seem especially suited to extroverts. The trick is that introverts just need to manage their energy levels a little bit differently in context like this, when surrounded by people all that time.

      Glad your choices all worked out in Mexico City!

      Reply
  8. Great article – thanks very much for sharing, Daniel!
    I have been brought up in some of the countries you have visited in group tours, i.e. Egypt and Ethiopia, but that was more than 30 years ago.
    And even though I usually don’t travel in groups, and I find your advice outstanding and very helpful!

    Reply
    • Glad you found it useful, Alexander. Like you, we tend to travel independently and believe that similar principles that underpin terrific independent travel experiences can be applied by travelers who take guided or group tours. In any event, it sounds like you’ve had quite a history living and traveling overseas yourself.

      Reply
  9. All such great points! Too often I think people equate group tours with a lack of freedom or flexibility – but you’re so right: like any other travel experience, a group tour is what YOU make it.

    I’ve been on some great small group tours throughout my travels, and have enjoyed myself every single time! I like being able to share the experience with others (since I usually travel solo), but am not afraid to take a day or night off from group activities to go do something on my own.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your feedback, Amanda. Regardless of the style of travel (in a group or independently), it’s all what we make it. I’ve seen plenty of independent travelers looking like they are traveling in their own little version of prison 🙂

      Sharing with others is definitely a major benefit traveling with others. And if we do it right, we create additional energy that others feed off of.

      Reply
  10. As a former tour guide, I agree 100% on relaying your interests (though some of this responsibility rests on the guide themselves) to your guide, as they can then tailor the tour to the group’s wants and needs. Also, alone time is a need for many introverts, so thanks for promoting this in this post!

    Reply
    • David, I’m glad to highlight the introvert side of travel any chance I get. Also, your point is well-taken. Clearly the guides must take their responsibility — but I’ve seen how much it helps to have an engaged group of travelers. The experience dynamic is totally different.

      Reply
  11. There are a lot of things to do and see when you are in a tour and usually you don’t have the time for all of them so I really agree with the fifth point. I also think that you should make a list of things that you really want to do during a tour and stick to it.

    Reply
    • Glad the “don’t do it” advice resonates, Marcia. Make a list of the things you want to do, but understand that time and circumstances may motivate you to re-adjust.

      Reply
  12. These are wonderful tips, we’ve done a few tours, some better than others but you couldn’t be more spot on that its your experience and you need to own it! Next time we take a tour we’ll keep these tips in mind.

    Though one time a tour guide did tell us that he has had people complain because he deviated off the advertised itinary for a photo op that isn’t often available. Crazy!

    Reply
    • Glad you found these useful.

      Regarding your anedote: Agreed, a little unreasonable, if not crazy. You can’t satisfy all the people all the time.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  13. Great article, Daniel. You are right, the travelling is not a movie, we all should be proactive and put some efforts to customize our travel experience to take the most of it.

    Reply
    • You’re absolutely right, Dylan. Not a movie, but something to actively take part in. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

      Reply
  14. Excellent post I must say as it covers all the ingredients to make your tour tasty. Being a travel blogger who also runs small group tours to India, I agree communication with your guide is the key to happy tour. I often face similar situations when people come to my tours with lots of things in their mind but expect me to read their minds and offer them a unique experience. Until unless they show me curiosity over an experience like art or food or culture, how can i give them my insights. I wish all the people read this before they come on tours. Thanks for bringing this topic… 🙂

    Reply
  15. Fantastic tips!

    I especially agree with tip number 2, it’s a shame not many tourists take advantage of it. We live in the era or information, it’s time we put all these available knowledge to good use 🙂

    I would also add, enjoy your experience and take the time to really take it all in. Many are so preoccupied with taking photos or wanting to do everything (as you have also mentioned), they end up missing too much of the whole experience…

    Reply
    • Agreed. I suspect the reason that so many travelers do not take advantage of the information that is out there is that it sometimes is a little daunting and not always well organized.

      You point regarding experiencing the moment — something we refer to as “getting out from behind the lens” — is essential.

      Reply
  16. I totally agree that sometimes you just need a little alone time! I went on a sightseeing tour in Alaska with my extended family a few years ago. Even though it was my family, I still felt sometimes that I needed to break away occasionally in order to keep my sanity! It’s not something to feel guilty about, even when you’re with people you know and love. Everyone needs a little time to rest mentally and get back into gear.

    Reply
    • Glad these tour and travel tips resonated with you, Georgia. Recharging while traveling — however you need to do it — is essential to keeping yourself in top mental shape to interact with the place you are visiting. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  17. My wife and I are planning on taking a vacation soon and have been wondering about going on an organized tour. I like that you suggest not feeling pressured to do everything and to strategically skip activities on the tour. This sounds like a great way to prevent burnout on the trip. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • You are welcome, Derek. We’re glad our perspective was useful. Let us know how it goes on your trip. Also let us know if you have any additional tips for those considering taking organized tours.

      Reply

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