Small group tours can be a bit like Marmite: some people love them, and some people hate them.
Whatever your stance, they can be a great way of exploring a new place and meeting new pople. Especially if you’re travelling solo.
When I was living in Melbourne, I ended up travelling on small group tours quite a bit, as a way of making friends and of covering huge areas without the entire expense of renting and driving a car on my own. I experienced small group tours with varying demographics (though most were at least half filled by under 30s), to various places, and with various companies:
- Uluru & Central Australia (Mulga’s)
- up the West Coast of Australia (Western Exposure)
- Tasmania (Adventure Tours)
- a 3 week tour of New Zealand (Adventure Tours)
Sure, there are some problems with small group tours (particularly if you end up having a huge personality clash with one of your fellow travellers, as has happened to me before), and obviously you don’t get to choose your own itinerary. But generally I think the positives outweigh the negatives. After all, sometimes it’s nice to travel with a bunch of other people and to let someone else do the planning and the driving.
However, there are certain rules that need to be followed if you want to have a good time, and not end up killing or being killed by your fellow passengers.
1: CHOOSE YOUR SEAT CAREFULLY
Humans are creatures of habit. You know that thing that happened at school, when you just happened to sit in a certain seat on your first day, and then ended up going back to that seat every day for the rest of the year? It’s kind of the same on buses.
Occasionally, I have been on trips and tours where we switched and swapped our seats about from time to time. But generally, people stay in the seat they start off in, sometimes for the whole duration of a 3 week tour. That’s a lot of time to spend sitting in a seat you don’t really like.
So which is best seat to pick?
Obviously, everyone will have their own preferences. All I can do is to share mine, and to give you an insight into my reasoning.
Minibus seats are often divided into pairs, threes, and single seats. Here’s a low-down on your options:
The Back Seats:
Lots of people will run straight for the back. (I think this is a hangover from some kind of school bus ‘cool kid’ ethos.)
And the back row isn’t a bad choice. For one thing, it can be very sociable, with more people in that smaller space, and a chance to see everything that’s going on down the rest of the bus.
But if you get even the slightest bit travel sick, you’re going to really feel it here. And even if you don’t, the views out of the window are generally pretty rubbish, especially in those buses where the back seats are actually higher up – not what you want when you’re trying to experience a new place. And remember what I said about there being more people in a smaller space at the back? That can be fun when you want to be social, but can start to feel a bit uncomforable after an 8 hour drive.
The Front Seats:
The other place that people always seem to dash to is the very front.
Granted, from here the view will be great. You’ve got the whole windscreen to look out of, and no backs of heads interrupting the vista. You’ll probably also get to spend quite a bit of time chatting to the guide / driver, so you’ll probably learn a lot, too. And if you tend to get car sick, then of course these are your prime seats.
But these seat are usually incredibly separate from the rest of the bus, often higher backed and even on a different level. This means that you can feel as though you’re in a little front cab, totally cut off from everyone else in the group. If you’re a bit paranoid like me, you can end up feeling as though you’re missing out on the banter.
The Single Seats:
My advice? Pick one of the single seats.
Sounds anti-social, doesn’t it? But after several days with a bunch of strangers, you sometimes just need a little bit of space. Everybody likes to sprawl a bit from time to time, and paired seats (and especially triple seats) don’t usually give you quite enough room. And what if it turns out you don’t really like the person you’ve chosen to sit next to, and you end up having to spend the rest of the trip with them? Bad news!
And the single seats are never totally isolated. You can always chat to people across the aisle. Plus, they’re often placed halfway between two rows, which means you actually have two pairs to people to chat to, rather than just one person.
Because it’s a single seat, it’ll be right up against the window, too, so you’ll also get somet pretty good views. Ok, so it may not be as good as looking out of the front windscreen all the time, but I think it’s the next best thing.
2: DON’T WORRY IF YOU DON’T GET ON WITH EVERYBODY
Everybody’s different, and there are bound to be people who you just don’t click with, for whatever reason. Don’t worry about this. It needn’t spoil your trip.
You’ll work out within the first couple of days (sometimes within the first couple of hours) who you want to spend time with, and you’ll form your own friendship groups from there.
This doesn’t mean that you have to ignore the people you don’t get on with so well – you can still be polite and courteous. (In fact, you should still be polite and courteous.) But if you don’t get on with someone, don’t feel you have to force your company on each other. This won’t make for a pleasant experience for anyone.
3: SLEEP ON THE BUS
This is actually two connected points.
Tip 3a: don’t tire yourself out
Any form of travel can be exhausting. You’re constantly on the go, always having to figure things out about new places, and you’re on a high from all the discoveries you’re making. Small group tours are no different. In fact, sometimes they can be even more tiring, because there’s the added pressure of trying to make friends.
So don’t be afraid to have a quick nap in transit. You want to be awake enough to climb that mountain, or to see that historic site, or to walk around that city when you get to it.
Tip 3b: don’t be afraid to miss things
The temptation on a small group tour is to constantly be a part of everything that’s going on. In that way, it can be like normal travel but exaggerated. People are heading out at night to check out a local bar? You go with them. Another group is getting up ealry to catch the sunrise? You set your alarm and charge your camera.
Don’t get me wrong – I love this get-up-and-go carpe diem attitude. But if you throw yourself into it too much, you can quickly wear yourself out. This maybe isn’t such an issue if the tour is only a few days long, as you can always catch up on your sleep afterwards. But if you’re doing a three week expedition, you’re going to need those energy reserves at some point. It’s all about pacing.
Pick and choose what you want to do.
If you know you want to catch the sunrise, leave the bar a few hours earlier. If you know you want to exploe when you reach the next destination, maybe sit out on the card games on the bus and have a nap instead.
4: MAKE THE MOST OF EVERYTHING
I know, I know. I sound like I’m contradicting tip number 3.
But making the most of things isn’t the same as wearing ourselves out. After all, we don’t all have unlimited energy reserves.
To me, making the most of things is about taking an interest in my surroundings. It’s about being interested. It’s about being curious. It’s about not being the guy who sits at the back of the bus with a crate of beer and is usually hungover till lunch time and then catatonic by dinner time.
I mean, seriously. You’re exploring! If you’re only there to drink and party, then you might as well have stayed at home and gone to the pub. It would have been a lot cheaper.
I know this is a bit of an extreme example (though not wholly fictitious), but you get the idea. It’s the same as the people who spend several hours getting ready to go out each morning. Sure, if you want to do that on normal days, it’s up to you. And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against wearing a bit of make-up while travelling, because I quite often do it myself. But just don’t spend hours applying it. Think of all the exciting new things you could be discovering in that time!
5: BE NICE
This one is just common sense, so I barely even need to mention it – right? Sadly: wrong.
This is the most important piece of advice for small group travel, and generally something that most people stick to. Which is great, because when even one person fails at this, the entire group can combust.
I’ve had this experience on a slightly problematic small group tour of New Zealand, where one member of the group upset nearly all of the rest of us, either directly or indirectly, though inappropriate comments, selfish behaviour and what came across as systematic bullying. Most small group tours have some kind of clause that you sign up to when you book the trip, that if you are consistently spoiling the trip for the rest of the group, the tour company has the right to remove you from the trip. However, I learned from experience that you can’t count on the tour guides or tour company to actually follow this through, or even just to have a quiet word with the perpetrator and warn them of the potential implications of their behaviour.
Basically, you just need to be nice to each other from the outset. After all, this is group travel. You are travelling as a group. This means that you need to make an effort to be a part of that group, and not just treat it as your own personal trip.
I’ve met people whose attitude is, ‘I’m on holiday, so why should I have to worry about other people and how they’re feeeling?’
The thing is, everybody else is on holiday, too. And if even one person is unpleasant, it can create bad feeling among the entire group. Factions start to form, and before long, people are having quiet candid talks with the tour guide about the disruptive individual. Whether the tour guide is willing / able to do anything about it or not, it means that they aren’t able to devote their full attention to the ‘guiding’ part of their role, which leads to a less enjoyable trip for everydbody.
Don’t be the one to cause it!
If you’re having an off day, then that’s fine. We all get them now and again. Just keep yourself to yourself until you get back to normal, and don’t take it out on other people!
Have you been on a small group tour? Did you experience any problems, or did everything run smoothly? I’d love to know – especially if you have any extra tips for surviving them!