By Eliza Myers
Although planning a trip to an English-speaking destination can seem like more than enough work on its own, international group travel can be extremely rewarding. A little know-how can also make it relatively simple.
International destinations feature prominently on most people’s wish lists for a reason: Customers yearn for the highly memorable experiences created when traveling abroad.
“There aren’t many life-enriching experiences more profound than international travel,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). “There is nothing better than international travel for broader awareness or greater appreciation for mankind.”
Fortunately, leading a group abroad has never been more straightforward. Send your group abroad with these six steps.
Step One: Choose a Destination
With around 200 countries in the world, choosing the right destination for your group can seem overwhelming. However, instead of picturing which places seem fun to you, delve into the expectations and desires of your group.
“Don’t just say, ‘Let’s go to Europe,’ because the differences between the countries there are vast,” said Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing for Globus, an international tour operator. “Find out what are the destinations on your group’s bucket list. It’s hard to find people who have the time off and can spend the money to travel abroad. But if someone really wants to go to Italy, they will save.”
Poll your group on what kind of trip they prefer. Figuring out the ideal activity level, average length and average budget for a tour helps you narrow down the myriad options.
If this is your first time traveling internationally with a group, visiting a country with a history of accommodating group travel can make your life easier. For example, Switzerland’s scenic trains allow travelers to send their luggage to any train station in the country, so passengers don’t have to drag it around the airport. Details like that can help take the stress out of international travel.
“Switzerland would be a great destination for group leaders going abroad for the first time because English is widely spoken, it is very safe, and it is easy to get around,” said Mirko Capodanno, manager of central United States and Canada for Switzerland Tourism. “Traveling by trains there is very easy. The trains go along more scenic routes where no bus can go, and you can move freely.”
Other popular first-time international countries for Americans are Italy, Great Britain, France and Ireland. Globus’ Introduction to Ireland tour is one of the most popular for first-timers because after airfare, the destination by land is cheaper than many domestic trips. The value of places such as Ireland and the demand for favorites such as Italy make them easy to sell.
“You don’t want to take someone to a more obscure destination if they have never seen Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower,” said Halboth. “You want to take them to those iconic destinations that everyone loves.”
Step Two: To Cruise or Not To Cruise
Tours by land and by cruise ship both create excellent experiences, so consider which method of travel would work best for your group. The typical motorcoach tour can reach places many cruise ships can’t and, generally, allows more time at the destination.
However, cruising is sometimes preferred due to the ease of going to sleep in one destination and waking up at the next port without having to relocate to another hotel and because of other amenities.
“Cruising is a great way to travel internationally because your meals and entertainment are all included,” said Russ Rosenberry, co-owner of Islands in the Sun. “I was amazed recently by how expensive some meals are in Europe because of the exchange rate. That’s the beauty of the ship. The meals are all included and the quality of the meals are good.”
Islands in the Sun books groups on all kinds of cruises, including the highly sought-after European river cruises. The company helps with the cruising details, provides support and creates custom excursions so the group can tour together. Cruising also ensures that group members needn’t take part in the excursions if they would rather shop or walk on their own.
Step Three: Decide Whether To Use a Tour Operator
Using a tour operator is highly recommended for a group leader planning an international trip for the first time. The benefits of having experts take care of all the details can save a lot of foreign-travel headaches.
“Safety is the No. 1 concern for any group leader,” said Dale. “So pairing yourself with a tour operator who can help you with unexpected incidents is important. Whether it is Mother Nature acting out or civil unrest, having the peace of mind that your customers are safe and secure with professionals who know the intricacies of the country is important.”
Tour operators research destinations thoroughly and often pair up with local guides to make sure the trip runs smoothly. With this amount of expertise, you don’t have to be the conduit for the trip, just the conduit of the group. Even if you don’t speak a word of Chinese, a tour operator will make sure that a fluent tour director stays with you to prevent any language mishaps.
“With a tour operator like us, group leaders can go to a country with a difficult language, like China, and not give it another thought,” said Halboth. “They can go to a place they have never been before and just enjoy the group dynamic. The tour director and local guides will take care of the rest.”
When you travel with a tour operator, a customer crisis that would normally fall to you, such as a lost piece of luggage, is handled by the tour director instead.
If you decide against a tour operator, make sure you partner with some local tourism guides or experts to ensure your preparedness to send your group to a foreign country.
Step Four: Find Out the Basic Information
Once you have chosen the location and tour operator, figure out all the basic information your group members will need to travel. Be ready for your group to ask you questions on currency exchange rates, international phone plans, what charge adapters they’ll need, if vaccinations are required and if the country requires any entry fees.
Most important, do not forget to ask whether the traveler has an updated passport valid three months beyond the return trip.
“It’s a simple thing, but you have to ask the passport question,” said Halboth. “If you travel domestically a lot, sometimes it does not cross your clients’ minds. Ask early, so they don’t have to pay rush fees. It is still shocking to find out how many Americans don’t have passports.”
Tell your group members to leave copies of their passport and itineraries with a family member or a close friend in case of any emergencies. They should also give a copy of their passport to you or the tour operator during the trip, in case of lost or stolen passports.
The other major concern before you leave is insurance. Explain to your travelers the importance of both trip and international health insurance. The one time someone in your group needs their policy’s coverage will be enough of a reason to recommend or require insurance.
“I highly recommend everyone get insurance, especially if it is an older group,” said Halboth. “You are planning these international groups so far out that you have no idea what will happen between now and then. It takes the stress out. Our insurance is all in one package, which is useful.”
Make sure that the tour operator offers insurance on the trip before you sign up. For example, all USTOA members are required to participate in a $1 million traveler insurance program that protects travelers in the unlikely event that the tour operator company should declare bankruptcy.