When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.
So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).
As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…
I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller
Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!
I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long
This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.
Age wouldn’t be an issue
This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!
It wouldn’t be all partying
Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.
And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!
Being a fussy eater is fine
Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.
My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!
Van time would be fine
That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.
On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.
There’d be a range of weather along the way
When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.
Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!
Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)
Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.
Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.
Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!
It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home
With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.
On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.
But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!
There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs
I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.
The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!
As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!
Hostel Life would be ok
I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!
For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!
We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences
Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!
Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.
And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…
A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!
I’d learn a lot
Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!
I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.
I’d bond with the group quickly
One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!
I’d make friends for life
On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.
Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.
Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.
I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…
but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!
I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.
It would be the best thing I’d ever do
So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!
*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.
Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!