Group travel during the pandemic: What to know before booking

Tour companies operating group vacations have long offered travelers an easier way to see the world. Booking a group departure, sometimes with airfare included, alleviates a lot of planning for those willing to handing over a set sum of money for a set amount of inclusions on a group vacation with strangers.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic’s travel restrictions, tour companies have halted the vast majority of their operations for nearly a year now — and still have little idea of when most of their offerings may be up and running again.

“I know all of us in the travel industry wish we knew exactly when and where travel will resume,” says Heidi Durflinger, president of EF Go Ahead Tours. “Unfortunately, we just don’t know for certain, and there are many variables that are constantly evolving.”

Without a crystal ball to say when travel restrictions will lift, tour companies are now scheduling (and rescheduling) group departures for 2021 in hopes that the pandemic will soon wane. They are also making many logistical and health changes to adjust to the long-term realities of the coronavirus.

Here’s what optimists looking to book future tour travel need to know.

Most tours have not run for almost a year, and they are still getting canceled

Anyone considering booking a spot on a tour departure should know that the company may be returning to operation for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic — and there could be some growing pains as companies navigate logistics and a patchwork of travel bans and health protocols.

Border restrictions and other travel safety guidelines have led EF Go Ahead Tours to begin canceling tour departures it had scheduled for mid-April. Exodus Travels, a tour operator with trips to more than 100 countries, says it has also moved to pause departures through the end of April.

Intrepid Travel, a Canada- and Australia-based tour operator with offerings all over the globe, has not run any of its North American departures since early last year. Only a limited number of small “retreat-style” tours ran within Europe last summer, and the company just restarted its domestic tour offerings in Australia.

That approach largely represents how tours have existed since the pandemic began. Group travel from North America mostly halted last March, and it remained limited in Europe when E.U. borders temporarily reopened for travel last summer. The challenge of restarting group travel in a post-covid world has largely not yet begun. Most consumer interest in 2021 tour bookings is for the second half of the year, the companies say.

Health protocols will be ramped up and group sizes will be smaller

Many, if not most, tour companies are shrinking their group sizes as a health measure: Group limits that typically reached anywhere from a dozen to more than 40 travelers, depending on the company, are being scaled down. G Adventures, for example, says their groups, which were previously 12 to 16 travelers, will no longer exceed 12 participants. Exodus Travels has reduced its group size to 10 travelers or less “in order to put the safety of our travelers, staff and the local people always first.”

Go Ahead tours, which previously allowed for up to 38 travelers per group, will now cap tours at varying limits to “allow for extra space on our private [bus] and the ability to create a more intimate experience,” EF’s Durflinger says. The company has also created a collection of solo tours that include a single-occupancy hotel room, allowing solo travelers to avoid having to share a room with someone else on a tour.

Group-tour companies are also requiring travelers follow destinations’ local health rules, including masking and pre-travel coronavirus testing, and that they separately attest that they are free of the coronavirus. EF Go Ahead has guaranteed that it will provide free assistance to any traveler who gets the coronavirus on a trip, including lodging, meals and interpretation services. Many tour companies, including Intrepid, have broadly been touting their status as a ‘Safe Travels’ provider recognized by the World Traveler and Tourism Council, which certifies travel companies adhering to globally recommended covid-19 protocols.

Exodus Travels says it will travel only to countries cleared for travel by internal guidelines based on country-specific advice from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of State and a private risk-assessment firm. The company introduced a Travel Safety Charter that pledges that the company will only visit safe destinations, that travelers must attest they are covid-free, and that it will implement enhanced cleanings at lodging and in all dining scenarios.

Timing and activities also come into play, with group arrivals being planned for less-busy times of the year, as opposed to popular times like the holidays. “Our expert global operations and health and safety team evaluates every single moment of each tour carefully to minimize time spent in crowded places by rerouting or arriving at quiet times,” Exodus Travels spokeswoman Robin Brooks says.

Optimists can book with flexibility — and are planning dream trips way ahead

Because of the uncertainty surrounding group travel departures, tour companies are largely allowing flexible bookings that can be canceled without penalty up until about a month in advance, if the company does not cancel itself. And some have opened up advance-booking for departures years out; EF Go Ahead says it has opened up 2023 bookings following strong consumer demand for future bookings.

Flexible booking policies that allow free cancellations seem to be driving that demand: Intrepid Travel says it has seen strong interest in late-2021 departures from North America as vaccine hopes rise. The average lead time for Intrepid’s tour bookings is about one year in advance, and there is high demand for destinations like Antarctica, Egypt and Ecuador, where travelers can get far away from typical crowds.

Private tours are on the rise

Travelers who want to book up a private tour with friends are also receiving attention from tour companies encouraging them to “book with a bubble.” EF Go Ahead lowered the group-size requirement for its customized and private tours to seven participants, making it easier for a friend group or family to book. Intrepid says its private bookings are gaining popularity for late 2021 and are designed by the travelers purchasing the trips. Interest in those tailor-made tours are up 60 percent from last year, the company says.

Companies are hopeful that the planning-free ease of group tours, especially those that do not include travelers from outside a group bubble, might catch on more broadly to help visitors come back after the pandemic.

“A lot of adventurers who might have booked and planned travel on their own are now looking for the peace of mind and 24/7 support that comes with a guided tour in a small group, led by an expert local guide,” says Brooks, of Exodus Travels.

“Travelers are looking to do their big bucket-list trips. Over the years, they’ve been saying to themselves ‘Oh, we’ll get there eventually’ but this [past] year has put things into perspective.”

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