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How to travel with strangers, and love it

I’ve done several small group tours over the last decade in Morocco, Egypt and India. Each trip was amazing and I am still in touch with some of the lovely people I met on them.

A small group safari is a perfect way to experience Africa, particularly if you don’t have a lot of vacation time available.

Here’s some advice if you’re weighing up the pros and cons of group travel:

Choosing a tour:

  • Start with a short trip to see if it’s for you. It’s a brave person who books onto an 8 week Africa overland tour for their first group trip! If you’re not sure how you’ll handle travelling with strangers, test the waters with a 7‐10 day tour first. With someone else handling the transport, accommodation and activity arrangements, you’ll be free to take in the sights, sounds and experiences.
  • Choose an operator that offers small group sizes. Many of the safaris we offer limit numbers to a maximum of about 15 people. A group this size can be more flexible: with fewer people to co-ordinate, it’s easier to make decisions about changing the itinerary if you want to explore something in more detail. Smaller groups can often access areas, accommodations and activities that are impractical for larger parties. You’ll also spend less time waiting around for stragglers and late-comers if there are fewer of you!

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  • Choose a tour itinerary or theme that you’re particularly interested in. Food, culture, wildlife, photography, adventure activities and unusual destinations all attract like-minded people. You’ll already have something in common with the others booked onto the tour.

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  • Pay a little extra for a slightly more upmarket trip, if you’d prefer to avoid the younger gap-year crowd, or the party animals. Or if that’s what you’re after, pick the cheapest tours you can find!

If you’re travelling solo, and want to avoid single supplements, look for a tour operator that will pair you up with a roommate of the same gender. Sharing a room with a stranger can be a great way to make a friend! But if, like me, you need your space and privacy, splurge for your own room. I’ve scored my own room for no charge because I was the only single woman on a tour and there was nobody to share with me. It’s a bit of a lottery, but you might be lucky – and you can usually change to the ‘my own room’ option fairly close to departure if you don’t want to risk it.

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On tour:

  • Go with the right attitude. Jessica, a seasoned traveller and former tour leader says “Arrive with only one expectation: Expect the unexpected! It’s all about your attitude – what you give the group, you will get back. If an opportunity for adventure comes up, take it. The more the group goes through together, the deeper the bond!” Raj, another tour leader and avid traveller always tells his groups to have “low expectations”. He then consistently over-delivers and delights his clients with incredible tours. His advice is also to “keep an open mind, accept that everyone is different, have a big smile on your face, and play a drinking game”.

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  • Be considerate, accommodating and flexible. Go with a relaxed, optimistic attitude. Focus on the places you visit and be interested in your fellow travellers. Let the little annoyances go.

  • Observe good personal hygiene. Nobody wants to spend a long driving day next to a person who hasn’t showered, has bad breath or is wearing clothes or shoes that really need a wash.

  • Make time and space for yourself to recharge, if that’s what you need. It’s OK to duck out of group activities for a morning or afternoon if you need to. Twelve days into my Egypt trip, we started at 4am with a hot air balloon flight, then explored the Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s temple. By the time we got to Luxor, I was finished, and just couldn’t handle two hours walking around the ruined temples (I was pretty templed-out by that point too). FOMO battled with the need for time out – and the latter a won. I met up with the group again for dinner feeling refreshed and energised. And I’ll just have to go back to Luxor sometime to see those temples…

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  • If there’s something you do or don’t particularly want to do, speak up (politely). Friends hadtold me about a beautiful step well in India that was a short detour from our route. I asked our tour leader about it, discussed it with the other three people on the tour, and we decided to go take a look. Totally worth it. Likewise, there have been other instances when everyone just wasn’t interested in something on the itinerary, and we skipped it. Small group tours can be flexible like that.

  • Stay out of any drama and don’t pick sides. I’ve been lucky with fellow travellers, but a friend I met while travelling in New Zealand has had some tricky situations: “Don't fall into the drama of some of the relationships that can emerge on the trip. You are there to have fun and explore your own personal growth. Make meaningful relationships - not traumatically dramatic ones.”

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  • Be open-minded. This tip comes from my cousin, who has done only one group tour, on whichshe met her husband. Just remember – if you’re up for a holiday romance, think about how much time you still have to spend with everyone in a confined space if things get messy.

  • Seize opportunities. Most tours will have loads of optional additional activities available. Keeptabs on your budget, but don’t let it stop you from having some amazing experiences. You might never return to that place, so don’t regret letting a little money stop you from doing something. Heli-hiking on a glacier in New Zealand and popping across to Bora Bora for a couple of days both weren’t in my budget, but are among my best travel memories.

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  • Bond with your group. A good tour leader will facilitate this early in the trip. Often it involves a big night out, or an exciting adventure. Experience something exhiliarating together and that will bring you all closer. A walking tour in a crazily congested city where crossing the road is an extreme sport. A tongue-twisting drinking game. A haggle-for-the-tackiest-souvenir competition. These kinds of experiences are great for the group dynamic.

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  • Wait until you’re a little older and richer, and do it in style. If travelling overland in a truck andsleeping in tents is not your bag, save up for a while and do the more upmarket, ‘Out of Africa’ version later.

Lastly, Ophelia (a tour buddy from Egypt) reckons that “Everything I ever learned about how to survive traveling with a group of strangers, I learned in kindergarten: Be kind, share, stick together, look both ways before you cross the street, wash your hands before you eat, always wear clean underwear, no one likes a bully or whiner. And most importantly, everyone is just as worried and nervous on the first day as you are, but after the first day you might just be friends for life!”

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Have YOU ever done a group tour? Or do you have reservations about them?

We’d love to hear your advice and thoughts in the comments below…


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