If you're one of the many 50-plus American travelers with an independent streak, you shy away from group tours. You're afraid you'll be crowded aboard an uncomfortable motor coach after a predawn wake-up call, then face forced marches through museums with 40 or 50 other travelers with whom you have little in common.
Group tours don't have to be that way. Plenty of tours provide richer experiences than you would have traveling on your own.
In general, group travel can be more convenient than going independently. The tour operator takes care of arranging the sights and activities, the accommodations and sometimes the restaurants. Usually, you don't have to haul your own luggage to and from your room or tip the bellhop.
It's also more convenient if you or your companion have mobility problems. The traveler with less stamina can skip the more strenuous outings, stay aboard the motor coach or van, or return before the group, often with several others who also have problems getting around.
Also, group travel is almost invariably less expensive than if you took the same trip on your own. Tour operators receive group discounts at accommodations, attractions and restaurants, and pass them along to customers.
Group travel also can be more secure than vacationing independently, especially for senior couples and solo travelers often targeted by pickpockets, purse snatchers and other thieves.
If you're worried about being cooped up on a motor coach, take a look at today's models with reclining seats, video screens, smoother rides, on-board toilets and other comforts.
But you also need to know key questions that will help match you with the right tour operator and travel program. Use maps to check distances between hotel stops in itineraries and see if there are too many long days on the road for your taste. Look for trips that stay in places several nights in a row, offering you optional as well as included local tours and time on your own. Hotels should be centrally located so you can easily reach sights and shopping on foot or public transportation.
Make sure the tour package you choose includes opportunities for activities you enjoy, whether it be shopping, gambling, country music shows or museums. If you want an active trip, look for one that includes opportunities for walks or hikes, jet-boat rides and other activities. Or choose an outdoor-oriented trip. Companies offer walking, hiking, bicycling, canoeing, kayaking, snowmobiling, skiing and golfing trips, an increasing number geared specifically to older travelers. Many such tours limit the group's size to 16 to 20 or fewer.
Hate the idea of a once-over-lightly tour? Look among the growing number of educationally oriented and special-interest trips that focus on such topics as the Civil War, theater, music festivals, photography, art, birding and dozens of other avocations. Find out if the program you're considering is led by an expert in the field, and if you'll meet local authorities.
Don't select something like a garden tour if it only visits public gardens and arboretums you could see on your own, unless such visits are led by a curator or other expert. The best of such tours -- or any tour -- include experiences you wouldn't have if traveling on your own. These might be visits to private gardens, birding spots only locals know about, meals with local families, behind-the-scenes looks at theaters, concerts just for your group or a great seat at the annual Rose Bowl Parade.
Another way to size up group trips is to make a cost-benefit comparison of tours offered by different companies. The first step is to divide the cost by the number of nights, leaving out nights getting to and from the tour. Take into account whether the price includes air fare.
See how many meals are included, and whether full breakfasts are served or just coffee and rolls. On some trips, everyone is served the same lunch or dinner entrees; on others, you can choose from the a la carte menu or even dine at a choice of restaurants. Review the amenities and ratings of hotels against guidebook listings.
On sightseeing, compare what you go into to what you "see" or "view" on various packages. Find out if prices and departure dates are guaranteed or whether the company can make last-minute changes. Look at each company's policies on cancellations and refunds, as well as inclusions of such things as airport transfers, tips and luggage handling. If you're a solo traveler, see if the tour operator will match you up with someone or has trips that waive the single supplement fee imposed by hotels.
Ask each tour operator how long it and the tour leader have been taking people to the area you are visiting.
Such homework may appear time-consuming, but it's less so than planning your own trip and helps match you with a package that fits your budget and style. You're also almost guaranteed to discover that traveling with others can enhance your vacation as you share your observations and experiences along the way.