Small Group Tours? The Definitive Guide
An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983
Why Join A Small Group Tour?
Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for senior or mature-aged travellers, providing adventure and educational programs to small groups since 1983. A “small group” for Odyssey is typically up to 18 travellers, but we’ve experienced running a tour with as few as four people. This is a comfortable alternative to big-bus tours for large groups.
When you are asked about tourism nightmares, the big-bus tours usually come to mind: 40 to 50 people descending upon a place and by their very presence wiping out the adjectives that the tourism brochures may have used to describe it: “charming”, “cozy”, “idyllic”. In search for more “authentic” experiences, where one can feel more like a person travelling with friends than a sheep in a herd, more and more people are gravitating towards smaller groups–and the smaller, the better.
In this article, we will look at the advantages of joining a small group tour, with discussions regarding travelling, “authenticity” in tourism, and Odyssey Traveller’s own experiences running organised tours.
Why even travel?
In order to answer the question “Why join a small group tour?”, we need to take a step back and consider, “Why travel at all?” In 2018, Forbes Magazine shared “a significant amount of scientific research” showing evidence that travel is good not only for your physical health, but for your mental and emotional health as well.
Travelling with an open, receptive mind somewhere new, especially a foreign country with a culture different from yours, broadens your perspective and helps you re-evaluate your values, and perhaps even make you rethink your own biases regarding the place visited.
Professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School has been studying the link between international travel and creativity for years, and shares that travel increases “cognitive flexibility” or “the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas” which is key for creativity. However, Galinsky stresses that this will only happen if there is genuine engagement with the local culture.
Here at Odyssey Traveller, we see travel as a form of education. The focus is on history and culture, allowing participants to more fully appreciate a destination in the context of the past events that have shaped it.
Education is not a short-term effect–you can reap the benefits long after a trip has concluded, making you a happier person who is more compassionate and more engaged with the world.
On the flip side, travel has a lot of moving parts and anything can go wrong, turning what should have been a calming experience into a horror show. This brings us to the first reason for going on a small group tour.
1. Hassle-Free Travel
Wouldn’t it be great to simply have someone take care of every logistical concern on your trip, while you sit back and relax? There are people who still prefer DIY (do it yourself) tours over packaged tours, but for some, just thinking about putting together a travel itinerary and coordinating flights and meals and hotels is already overwhelming–not a good start for planning a holiday! This is why people go to tour companies, so they can reserve their energy and brain space for the actual travel, instead of putting out fires.
Here at Odyssey Traveller, we take care of (almost) everything. We say “almost” because there are certain aspects of travel that we leave up to you: items of a personal nature (such as telephone calls, laundry, some meals), as well as the cost of international air fare, travel insurance, and visas. But we can definitely help you every step of the way, giving you advice and making arrangements to satisfy your requirements.
For example, on our popular Spain and Portugal tour, we take care of the following:
- 23 nights of hotel accommodation
- 23 breakfasts and 12 dinners
- Applicable entry fees and services of local guides
- Touring by comfortable and modern coach
- Field trips as indicated
- Gratuities and necessary tips
- Services of an Odyssey program leader
- Detailed tour information booklet
It is always helpful to look at the Inclusions/Exclusions tab on our tours to assist you in planning your trip.
One of our participants who joined Odyssey Traveller’s May 2019 Spain and Portugal tour had kind things to say regarding this hassle-free arrangement:
Well organised, great hotels, lovely food, local knowledgeable guides showed us around their towns. With entry included to the majority of sites. A comfortable small coach so the fourteen of us had plenty of room but we weren’t in a massive coach. It wasn’t really like the other tours following someone with a flag. We were more like a group of friends out exploring. (Spain & Portugal participant, May 2019 — Read more Odyssey Traveller tour reviews here.)
The need for hassle-free travel goes beyond making travel arrangements. A big concern is security. As Tiffany Misrahi (2014) of the World Economic Forum says, “Security is one of the primary criteria for the selection of a holiday destination. Most people want to feel that they are in a safe and stable environment.”
Our links to local guides and suppliers give us regular updates on what’s happening on the ground. This is particularly valuable in certain tours–such as our tour to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, the Silk Road tour, and Iran Culture & History–which we’ve been running for many years without incident but which may understandably worry certain travellers due to geopolitical concerns.
The safety of our travellers, local guides, and Odyssey Program Leader is our paramount concern. We receive advice from our local supplier, and prudent conservative action is taken at all times to ensure the safety of any of our groups. Odyssey Traveller is based in Australia, and we also monitor travel advisories released by the Australian government. The last time we had to cancel a tour was immediately after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, on Government advice.
Our Program Leaders are also trained in First Aid, and travel with a first aid kit.
Travelling with a small group also gives you admission to certain places and activities that may be inaccessible to large groups or to members of the public who are not escorted by a guide.
For example, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, originally built as a secret missile testing site for the Soviet space program, is definitely no longer a secretive place but can only be visited by special guided tour. Following NASA’s retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the Baikonur Cosmodrome remains the only operational launch complex left for flights used to re-man and re-supply the International Space Station. It is not a destination you can simply walk into. Odyssey’s tour to the Baikonur Cosmodrome gives travellers a chance to visit the launch site and watch a rocket launch into space.
A large tour group will also not be able to gain access to a dig site with palaeontologists, but with Odyssey Traveller, a small group can do just that. The Mongolia Dinosaur Dig tour is arranged with the Institute of Palaeontology and Geology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences. On this tour, a maximum of twelve participants have the opportunity to spend several days accompanying palaeontologists, recovering specimens of various dinosaur and mammal species side by side with them in the fossil-rich Tugrigiin Shiree. The Tugrigiin Shiree is best known for the impressive “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil, unearthed in 1971, showing a protoceratops and a velociraptor locked in combat. Following each day’s adventurous prospecting, the group expert field-chef will serve a hearty meal. We offer the same kind of tour in Argentina.
In addition to access to the place, Odyssey tours also give access to knowledge, with our local guides and interpreters who make sure language will not be a barrier on your learning journey.
Travelling with a small group also ensures that you travel with flexibility and are given adequate attention. A large tour group will have to stick to a more rigid schedule in order to move efficiently from one spot to the next, and the larger the group, the greater the risk of being overlooked or left behind.
At Odyssey, since you’ll be travelling with at most 18 people, your Program Leader can be more flexible on the tour, allowing you to admire a painting a little bit longer in a museum, or make that all-important rest stop without being hurried by a timed itinerary. The Program Leader will know all of the participants by name, as well as their individual concerns from health conditions to dietary restrictions.
Sometimes, changing the itinerary may be required for the group’s safety. The Program Leader is in constant touch with our local guides and suppliers and monitors all aspects–for example, a sudden change in the weather–that could impact planned activities. If required, the tour is amended on the spot, and the group is briefed on the options and reasons for any changes.
Itineraries are also designed with free time, to allow you to explore a place on your own or to simply recharge in your hotel room.
4. Respect for the Locals
The tourism industry has acknowledged the modern travellers’ growing need to seek out the “authentic”. But “authenticity” is such a complex concept. In relation to culture and history, what does it even mean? Olivia Ruggles-Brise, WTTC’s Director of Policy & Research, discusses this “challenge of definition”:
For some people authenticity is inclusive — it brings travellers closer to the people and places they are visiting. For others it’s divisive — predicated on a perception of the ‘other’ and highlighting only the differences between visitor and visited. And it also depends on who is doing the defining. Safari operators have been selling ‘authentic’ Africa for decades, but for how many Africans are the Big 5 the realities of day-to-day life? (Source)
David Sze (2015) also points out that “[e]ach country, state, and city, down to the smallest village, is constantly changing with unceasing interaction with regional and global influences.” This is not just modern-day globalisation; this interaction dates back to ancient times, to the days of the Silk Road.
With this in mind, Adam Dennett and Hanqun Song (2016) argue that instead of searching for “authenticity”, we can think about “co-creation“, which has respect at its core. “Under this strategy, value is created as tourists help to construct their own experience by engaging with each other, the tourism provider and also local people.”
Ruggles-Brise calls this “a moment of shared experience“. This is easier to achieve with a small group, as there is less invasion of the locals’ shared spaces, and a greater chance of having meaningful conversations.
One participant who joined us in Iran for a 2019 tour has this to say:
Of our many travels, our trip to Iran was among the most memorable. The people, the country, the scenery were all wonderful, we felt very safe at all times. The people welcomed us to their country and wanted to engage in discussion every day. They were very friendly. Our guide and driver were excellent, so much history to absorb. Well worth the experience.
As we’ve written before in our article on overtourism, our small-group approach minimises our impact on the environment and local infrastructure, allowing us to use public transportation and/or small vehicles, or go on long hiking and walking trips without subjecting locals to visual pollution. We seek out local craftspeople and smaller shops to ensure that the money we spend truly goes to the community we are visiting.
Our local guides help us understand the customs and etiquette of the place visited, and ensure that we enter and leave as thoughtful guests. We also regularly publish articles to give prospective and loyal Odyssey clients backgrounders about the places we visit.
5. A Chance to Meet People
Of course, joining a group tour, no matter the size, is a chance for you to meet new people. The advantage of joining a small group is that the conversations can be longer and the connections deeper. Just imagine the kind of connection you can make during a welcome dinner for a group of 30–versus a group of 10 people sitting around a small table and sharing a meal.
Odyssey Traveller also specialises in organising tours for people over 50 years of age. As Anthony Peregrine charmingly puts it in his article for The Telegraph, older travellers are more interesting, because “[t]hey have more to recount and less to prove.”
When Things Go Wrong
Here at Odyssey Traveller, we do our best to provide the best tours to our participants. However, things can and do go wrong despite the kindest of intentions and efforts, leading to a less than stellar experience for our participants.
Among the problems we’ve encountered in the past include hotels or local suppliers that fail to deliver services as advertised, an Odyssey Program Leader unable to join a tour at short notice, the aforementioned cancellation of a tour due to the tsunami in Japan, and a participant neglecting to tell us health issues that negatively impacted the group and her enjoyment of the program. (Rest assured that these problems are anomalies and not the norm, occurring in less than 1 percent of the 100+ tours we’ve run since 1983.)
We are human and so are the people we work with in delivering each tour, but we pride ourselves on our transparency and accountability. You can contact us and ask to hear about our customer service concerns and the action we took to refine our tours and prevent errors from happening again.
This in turn will give you a sense of the service we provide, our service recovery efforts, and the pitfalls we all need to avoid as travellers and customers. (For example: unsure if your level of fitness will enable you to enjoy the program? Contact us first so we can have a chat prior to booking.)
After each tour, we ask participants to respond to a survey. Reading and taking note of the responses in the questionnaire is part of a program of continuous improvement. Participants’ feedback collectively provide guidance as to which areas we need to improve, both in the office and in the field on the tour itself.
Travel with Odyssey Traveller
Are you ready to join your first small group tour? All of our Guaranteed departures are listed here. Odyssey Traveller will in good faith guarantee a tour to proceed when it reaches the minimum number of participants required to operate the tour. See our Terms and Conditions, and visit our FAQ page if you have any questions. We also have several articles you can read to prepare:
- Practising Responsible Travel
- EU Introduces New Authorisation System for Visa-Free Travellers
- Trans-Siberian Railway Travel Advice
- Problem of “Overtourism”
- Women’s Walking Shoes
- Selecting Shoes and Socks
Odyssey Traveller has a Loyalty Program for regular travellers. Membership of the alumni starts when you choose to take your first international small group tour with us. To see the discounts and benefits of being a Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Diamond alumni member, please see this page.
We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps us award this scholarship.