Why do you travel? There are so many ways people answer this question - to relax with family and friends, to enjoy the beauty of nature and the outdoors, or to eat local food and experience how other people live in small towns and big cities. Discovering local favorites is a big reason for me, like finding the best food in town or learning a tidbit of little known history. Whether we are hitting the road for a day trip, weekend getaway or longer family vacation, I’ve found that I’m seeking out organized tours more and more. My family and I have enjoyed over half a dozen organized tours in recent years. Among other things, we’ve learned about history in Philadelphia, ghosts in Key West, architecture in Chicago and pizza in Brooklyn. My growing appreciation for letting someone else lead the way stems from a number of things, as outlined below. But it wasn’t always this way. My family can attest that I’ve been known on more than one occasion to play the role of tour guide the first day in a new city, like when we visited San Francisco or Seattle. Or the time in Los Angeles when I knew it would be cheaper to grab a map of the stars and drive aimlessly around Hollywood trying to glimpse behind the gates. But was it really time well spent? How do you know if you should book a tour or try the “do-it-yourself” method? To help, I’ve put together a short list of benefits and drawbacks to consider, along with some tips that might come in handy in the future.
Benefits of Taking a Tour
1. Learn From a Local. This to me is one of the biggest benefits and generally what gives you the biggest bang for your buck! Hearing the perspective and insight from a local allows you to learn tidbits that you might not have otherwise heard. Urban Adventures, which currently offers tours in 93 countries, does an excellent job in connecting you with the culture through their local guides. I’ve toured with them in Philadelphia and am looking forward to the Seafood Crawl in Annapolis, Maryland in the near future. DC Metro Food Tours mixes up local cuisine with history on the streets of Old Town Alexandria, sharing stories of George Washington's visits to places such as Gadsby’s Tavern.
2. Helpful Introduction to a New Destination. On several occasions we have arrived in a new destination, only to discover that it’s tricky finding our way around or traffic is far worse than we expected. To quickly understand the layout of a city and places of particular interest where you might want to spend more time, take a tour soon after your arrival. Jumping on a “hop-on, hop-off” bus is one of the best ways to do this. We tried this recently with the Old Town Trolley Tour in Key West, Florida, and totally enjoyed listening to the bus drivers humorous narrative as we jumped on and off to check out various sites.
3. Exposure to Unique Experiences. Strolling the streets of Chicago you can’t help but be impressed by the towering buildings that surround you. But it wasn’t until heading out on the Signature Lake & River Tour with Wendella Boats that I was able to experience the iconic skyline from a totally different perspective. As the boat cruised along the Chicago River, our guide entertained us with stories, and shared tidbits about the buildings that were towering above us. This particular tour takes you through the Chicago Lock and onto Lake MIchigan, so you get amazing views of the skyline from the water.
While I feel that the benefits of paying a tour guide definitely outweigh the drawbacks, there are a few things you should know about guided tours before you make a reservation.
4. Tours Can Be Expensive. Solo travelers or couples may find tours to be an affordable solution for local transportation, as well as an opportunity to meet fellow travelers and have some fun at a reasonable cost. On the other hand, dropping $100 + for a family of four or more to take an afternoon tour may be a vacation budget breaker. One way to mitigate the high cost is to consider a “pay as you like” tour, such as the ones offered by Free Tours by Foot. They offer tours in over half a dozen US cities, and have partnered with similar name your own price companies throughout Europe. I’m hoping to check out one of their DC tours in the near future.
5. Accessibility/Weather. Most tours run rain or shine, so come prepared, with an umbrella or rain jacket. In some cases, you have to book the more popular tours well in advance, so you don’t have as much control over the weather. Companies like Urban Adventures do a great job in describing their tours in terms of level of culture shock and how much physical activity is required. Most of the tours we have been on offered a good balance between walking and sitting down.
Tips for booking a tour
6. Read the Reviews. This is a common theme in many of my blog posts, but I truly do believe in the value of online reviews. Trip Advisor is my favorite, because for the most part I feel like people are honest, and will let you know whether or not an attraction is worth the money. Sure, there are always a few reviewers who don’t like anything, but you can tell the general tone as to whether an attraction was well received. And don’t hesitate to use social media, as it seems like everyone has an opinion these days.
7. Understand the Cancellation Policies. Most of the tours that I have been on have a pretty strict cancellation policy so be sure to read the fine print before you book. Tours typically run rain or shine, so unless the weather is severe, be prepared to go. In many cases, you can book within a few days of the tour, which helps in planning, but more popular tours may require a purchase weeks in advance.
8. Look for Deals. Sign up on your favorite discount site 3-6 months prior to visiting a destination. Groupon often offers discounts for tours and attractions in cities around the US. Be sure to also check for discounts offered through places like AAA as well as deals through your credit card company.
You can check out these related posts to get more information on some of the tours we have taken. And feel free to share your tour experiences in the comments below.
Why You Should Add a Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour to Your NYC Bucket List
Key West Ghosts & Gravestones Tour: Teen Family Adventure
24 Hours in Chicago - A Photo Blog
5 Reasons to Head Out on an Urban Adventures Tour in Philadelphia