Mike shares his experiences and thoughts of travelling solo on an organised group holiday. With a surge of holiday companies offering holidays for solos it’s a question often debated – can joining a group trip really be regarded as solo travel?
Two years ago, a life-changing event prompted me to quit my job of 17 years and go travelling around the world.
As a single man of a certain age (around the mid-life crisis stage) I contemplated packing a rucksack and taking to the road. Fair play to them, many travellers delight in plotting a route around the globe and going it alone.
But not me. I craved the comfort of knowing where I would be sleeping every night, safe in the knowledge I had a ride booked from one town to the next. The stress of being entirely to blame if it all went wrong was too much to bear.
There’s an answer for solo travellers who don’t want to do all the legwork but still want to see the world – the small group trip. And that’s how I visited magnificent and exotic countries including Chile, Armenia and Namibia.
The deal is, your itinerary is all mapped out but you’ll be in the company of a number of strangers. So does this mean that you’re surrendering your solo status and throwing away your cherished independence?
Well, the group trip comes with its own set of rules and regulations and I swiftly realised you need to respect them. To spend two weeks smoothly travelling the length and breadth of a country, you have to be up at a certain time and primed to leave promptly when you’re told. Your fellow travellers and tour leader won’t take kindly to being held back or dragged down.
Latecomers, stragglers and those who aren’t up to the task will soon be stained with a bad reputation – and nobody ever wants to be that traveller. I soon discovered there’s always at least one of them on every trip.
The real pressure point of the group tour is the bus, whether it was the slightly cramped bone-shaker in Ethiopia or the sleek, vast stately galleon in New Zealand which transported a bewilderingly large group of people. You spend hours on board, moving from place to place and with the same characters, for good or ill.
But it’s the destination that matters, and again, I often found myself experiencing them with familiar faces and receiving the same input from knowledgeable guides. For at least some of your sightseeing, you have to stick together.
This might sound like the worst school trip from childhood, though all isn’t lost for the solo cause by any means. Most tour leaders give you time to roam freely and break away from the clan. I always wanted to take photographs where no-one else would be, finding my own angle. These many moments eased the group dynamics – although you had to get back to the bus and be mindful of the collective schedule.
Group trips are designed with varying amounts of elasticity, including free days to wander at will. My trip to Japan was punctuated with more liberty than most. I always set my own agenda and wasn’t tempted to land myself a buddy.
Evenings too were often free to take a walk or sort out your exploding suitcase. In Ethiopia, I sometimes joined other group members to brave an idiosyncratic local pub, while one night in Georgia I met another traveller randomly and spent most of the night in a rowdy bar. The group mountain hike the next morning was completed with ease.
Bedtime can be the saviour of the group travel experience. When you book your trip, you’re offered the chance to pay the dreaded single supplement and secure your own room throughout the experience. It’s the guarantee of closing a door and having your own space. Single travellers who shared to save some cash always seemed to pay with their freedom and putting up with a pesky roommate.
While some meal times are your own, be prepared for some ‘included’ dinners and indulging in the joint human pastime of eating, making small talk or reflecting on the day that’s been spent with fellow travellers. In Armenia, every lunch was a groaning feast and never a solo moment. Supper in Cuba was inevitably punctured with rum cocktails.
But who were these people I ended up with? There are never any guarantees, but I found myself with several educated retirees and appeared to be the baby of the tour party. Many were solos who I’m sure were thinking the same as I was at times – they wanted to see the world but were prepared to make some compromises.
In all honesty, some people you find yourself with just meld into the background and you barely exchange a word, while others are welcome companions. The small group tour is a microcosm of life – a mixture of pleasure, camaraderie, downright indifference and even occasionally annoyance.
Well away from the crowd, I definitely had memorable moments to myself in the many countries I visited. There was the walk I took to a vantage point overlooking New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands, where I poignantly reflected on the loss that had led me here.
So after all this experience, do I think you can be solo in a group travel environment? Yes, without a doubt. But at the same time, it’s a game you have to play and win – just like you have to if you’re hitting the trail by yourself.
I’m considering more group trips and see them as my ride around the world. You still have to be in charge of your own destiny and have a spirit of independence. On the whole, if you adopt a positive attitude, travelling in the company of strangers can add to your own experience.
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