(CNN) — Gear-grinding buses jamming up parking lots.
Gawping packs of wide-eyed clods in sandals and floppy hats.
Amateur travelers hopping in and out of said buses, snapping photos while a peppy guide gushes over some run-of-the-mill attraction.
“This is the Fabric Museum. You have an hour here. Then lunch!”
Anyone who’s traveled past their front door has seen the benighted tour group and recoiled in revulsion.
Is this any way to see the world?
Who travels this way?
There’s a tendency for many to disparage group tours, snicker over the doltish stereotypes and, in the process, feel like superior world citizens.
But tours come in all shapes and sizes and, regardless of what you might consider “real travel,” they play an important role in the travel world.
They’re not all big bus tours filled with flag-waving tour guides.
Many consist of small groups who stay longer than an hour in each place.
It was a package tour through Costa Rica that gave me my love of travel and made me comfortable traveling alone.
It helped make me what I am now — a travel writer and occasional tour group leader.
This year I began running small-group tours for readers of my budget travel blog in order to do for them what that tour to Costa Rica did for me.
There are a number of reasons even seasoned travelers shouldn’t be afraid of tours.
1. Instant friends
For people not comfortable meeting strangers on their own, tours provide an easy environment in which to make friends right away.
Although most of us want to meet people on the road, many find it hard to strike up conversations.
Tours help you make that leap.
And even if you don’t, guides want everyone to have a great time — they make sure travelers don’t sit around staring at each other like kids at a junior high school dance.
2. Tour guides create a more meaningful experience
I’ve had some amazing guides in my time.
On a tour in Australia, our Aboriginal guide/driver suddenly braked, ran out of the car and called us over to look at a trail of ants that locals use for cold medicine.
The ensuing conversation led to some ant eating — I’d have never done that on my own — and a greater understanding of the local culture.
3. Tours teach you how to travel
Tour guides are old hands at travel.
They can teach you to spot scams, illustrate the best ways to find food on the road and much more.
The skills they impart will likely inform a traveler’s future trips.
On a tour I led in Paris, I had to save one of my tour members from falling for a common local scam.
We were outside the Louvre when he was asked to provide a signature and donate to “charity,” an old ruse run by Paris con artists.
He had his hand in his pocket just as I came up to him.
I’m sure he hasn’t made that mistake again.
Guides make new travelers better travelers.
4. Tours ease fears
Traveling alone can be a scary proposition, particularly when you haven’t done it before or don’t speak a local language.
A tour provides a support system that allows travelers — even experienced ones — to feel more comfortable taking a chance on new experiences.
Tours are floaties for world travelers — they allow you to dip your toes in the pool without the fear of getting in over your head.
5. Tours get you places you can’t get yourself
While independent travel is great, many places in the world can’t be accessed by solo travelers due to license and government restrictions.
Many big destinations — the Galapagos, Antarctica, African safaris — need to be explored as part of organized trips.
There are many exciting, once in a lifetime activities you won’t be able to experience if you don’t take part in a licensed tour with a guide.
6. Package tours can be cheaper
While this may seem counter-intuitive since traveling alone allows you more flexibility, many tour companies are able to secure bulk rates and other deals.
Small group operators can be cheaper for mid-range travel than if you were to price out the same trip for yourself.
One diehard independent traveler I know wanted to visit the wild but scattered Solomon Islands.
Lack of infrastructure and traditional tourist services meant going to all the obscure places he wanted to see — including some historic World War II battlefields — would have cost upward of $10,000 for charters and services.
Instead, he spent $3,500 on a package tour, enjoyed every minute of it and remains in touch with several members of the tour, including a still-active World War II vet.
What’s more, saving on the cost of excursions means you’ll have more money to splurge on a memorable dinner with your new friends or a ridiculous souvenir for your family.
7. Tours provide safety
When you’re on your own, you’re a more tempting target for thieves, scammers and criminals.
By traveling with a group, you have safety in numbers and don’t have to venture into unknown places without a companion.
Additionally, tour guides can advise you on what areas to avoid that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
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