Why group trips aren’t for ‘people with no mates’
“Before I went on my first group trip with Intrepid Travel, my big worry was that I was on my way to India with a bunch of people who couldn’t tie their own shoelaces,” says 40-year-old Jacqueline Armour, an IT contractor from Glasgow. But although she admits “you do get the odd person who needs to be hand-held,” for the most part, she’s made “instant pals” with her fellow travellers, and found them an “inspiring” bunch.
The idea of paying for what is essentially a high-stakes 10-night Tinder date with 12 strangers was unpicked with surgical precision by New York Times writer Caity Weaver last week. The piece promptly went viral, with countless commentators asking if and why millennials are a generation of selfish and rootless loners, desperate to make new friends.
Ten years ago, a travel-obsessed millennial like Jacqueline would have been an unlikely contender for a package tour. She’s travelled to more than 90 countries, mostly solo, as well as doing three trips with Intrepid, most recently to Costa Rica in December.
“Right now I’m planning a two-week solo trip around South Africa, and although I love the planning process, this is a lot of research and time online. So I also appreciate the ease of a group tour, where minibuses have been organised to get me to far-flung spots, my accommodation has been booked by someone who knows the region, and I can just pack, turn up and enjoy myself. And some experiences - like nature-focused adventures - are much better enjoyed in a group, because I want to share this amazing experience with 13 other people, all bouncing off each other.”
Historically, there has been a bit of a stigma around group package tours. “Real” travel was about “going your own way”, “rugged individualism”, getting “off the beaten track”, wherever that might be. And Jacqueline’s initial trepidation would have been normal: who on earth goes on these trips? Travel newbies scared to book a hotel on their own? People with no mates?
Today, most Millennials have lost any such qualms, because the image of the group trip has been radically overhauled. There’s the deservedly successful Flash Pack, the slickly marketed one that bangs on about the perfect “group dynamic” and enthusiastically kettles travellers into making friends. There’s Much Better Adventures, the responsible one, with an emphasis on local guides and supporting local hotels and restaurants. There’s G Adventures, with an expansive portfolio that gets just about everywhere on a range of budgets. There are the veterans with four decades of experience, like Intrepid and Exodus who’ve been forced to up their game in response to these younger upstarts, and are now venturing into the South Pacific and Antarctica.
Perhaps it goes hand-in-hand with co-living and co-working spaces, but co-travelling is not a creepy concept to my generation. We join community choirs, we sign up to weekly ceramics, upholstering and cookery classes, we get involved in gentle acts of community activism like litter clean-ups, soup kitchens and community gardening.
We might be in our 30s and 40s, but when it comes nebulous notions like “community”, “trying new things” and “meeting new people”, Millennials and Gen Z-ers embrace the social activities that our parents only discovered when they retired. When your week involves sharing a flat, a co-working space, a choir and a gym class with sort-of-strangers, travelling around Morocco with a group of 13 new faces doesn’t seem particularly alien.
So we’re comfortable with the concept of group travel, and now, we’re acutely aware of the practical advantages. The pandemic gave us all an understandable thirst for new travel experiences….and then the cost of living crisis swiftly shoved a lot of our travel daydreams out of our budget. Booking an Intrepid or Flash Pack trip is much more affordable than travelling alone, and with the cost of living crisis, any option that makes adventure more accessible and affordable is a good thing.
And much as millennials have embraced independent solo travel more than any previous generation, there are some destinations where solo travel seems a bit unsafe, or a hassle, or simply boring.
“When you travel with us, you experience a lot of the perks of solo travel – meeting new people, head space, building resilience – within the structure of a group format, with that added layer of moral support,” says Lee Thompson, co-founder of Flash Pack. “But you still get to escape the expectations of people who know you: you can be who you want to be, within a group of strangers.”
And even experienced solo travellers like Jacqueline agree with this. “When I went to Costa Rica with Intrepid in December, we were taken deep into national parks, and I would never have been able to organise this all for myself without spending a fortune,” says Jacqueline. “I’m more than happy to travel around Europe solo, and visit cities alone, but for far-flung natural experiences, it’s much easier and more fun in a group.”
As a lover of both solo and group travel, I’m often asked why travellers would opt for a group trip instead of holidays with their friends or families. It’s true that millennials are more likely than previous generations to still be single and child-free in their 30s and 40s, but I know plenty of travellers who’ve gone on group trips leaving a partner (and even children) behind for one blessed week of independence, new friends, new experiences and freedom.
It’s less that we’re a lonely generation desperate to make new friends, and more that we’re used to getting what we want, on our terms, when we want it. And if travel is our passion and priority, there’s nothing wrong with being a bit of a snowflake. What saddens me most are the trips that people don’t take. Travel daydreams that don’t become a reality because your friends, co-workers, partner or family members don’t want the same travel experience, at the same time, for the same price.
If you have always dreamed of visiting Antarctica and saved the cash, but your boyfriend hates the cold, Intrepid will take you on an 11-day adventure for a (relatively) affordable group rate of £6,500. If you’ve started a new job and feel you can only take a week off one weird week in November when none of your mates are free, Flash Pack will sort your long-awaited time out-of-office with a surf trip to Morocco.
So I’ll defend group travel wholeheartedly, as a much-needed service to my generation of sort-of solo travellers. Travellers who want to choose their own adventure and turn up solo, but leave with lifelong memories…and an equally enduring Whatsapp group chat.