There's but one correct answer to the question of whether you should take a group tour, travel experts say: It depends.
With help from the pros, here are some of the questions you need to answer--definitively--before you decide to go with a group.
Do you want to leave the planning to someone else? Getting a plane ticket and reserving a hotel are easy to do on your own or with the help of a travel agent. "But for multiple stops, all-inclusive packages may be the way to go," says Robert Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Assn., or USTOA, based in New York.
Do you enjoy togetherness? Group travel brings together a community of interest, but that doesn't mean the participants will be your new best friends. "People who don't enjoy the company of other people" are not good candidates for a group trip, says Eilene Braun, a vice president at Gate 1 Travel, based in Philadelphia. Remember that you'll be with these people for a good part of the day.
The "Vacation Personality Quiz" found on the USTOA Web page http://ustoa.com/vacplanframe.htm will help you determine your traveling style.
Is value a prime consideration? A tour can save you money. "My guesstimation is between 15% and 20%" less than independent travel, says Tish Agoyo, director of sales and marketing for EuroBound Tours, a Los Angeles-based company.
It's important to determine what's included, says Whitley of USTOA, and to do a side-by-side comparison of what you would spend on an independent trip and what your per-day costs will be for a group trip.
If you're unsure what your costs would be, check the State Department site, http://www.state.gov, and type "per diem" into the search engine. You can find foreign and, with a little more clicking, domestic destinations with guidelines for costs of lodging plus meals and incidental expenses.
Is learning about your destination a high priority? A group tour can be a bit like Destination 101, especially with a knowledgeable guide. Braun of Gate 1 says, "If you go yourself, you'll do less, see less, learn less."
Can you deal with a schedule? If you like to sleep late or party into the night, a "leaving-promptly-at-8" timetable may tax your patience. You can sit out some group activities if you need a break. Or if your real goal is just to get reduced air fare and hotel, you can drop the group entirely. (Just let the guide know what you're doing.)
If you've answered yes to these questions, you're probably a good candidate for a group trip. After determining the "whether," you must determine the what and the where. Group travel is a $27 billion-a-year industry, so there is plenty to choose from.
As you move to the next step, the experts recommend that you look closely at the tour company by:
Checking with your travel agent and the Better Business Bureau about the company.
Asking friends or family for recommendations.
Seeing whether a company is a member of USTOA (which requires a million-dollar bond) or the American Society of Travel Agents.