UPDATED: This article was originally published in January 2018.
America, for me, is the perfect travel destination – it’s easy to travel between cities, the people are friendly and helpful, the food is great, and there’s always something is happening.
It is also incredibly rich in experiences, from the wonders of its national parks to the hustle and bustle of its big cities. Whether you are a visitor coming from abroad or a local American ready for it explore more of your home country, there is so much to see and do that you can never run out of travel ideas. If anything, the hard part about planning a US vacation is narrowing down which trip you want to take!
In my own travels around the US, I’ve hiked muddy paths to a waterfall in Hawaii, renewed my wedding vows at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas (officiated by ‘Elvis Presley’, of course) and sipped mulled wine on the rise of a 4Th July block party in Brooklyn. And all that is just the top of the experiences you can have in the United States.
But while America is rich in travel experiences, I’ve always been curious as to why anyone would want to do an organized group tour here. After all, the US is easy to navigate around (especially if you’re American yourself), so if you know where you want to go and what you want to do, can’t you just see the sites on your own?
Well, yes you can, but believe me, you would be missing out on a wonderful unexpected adventure. I myself was a skeptic about a group trip to the USA, but after 10 days on the road with 13 other travelers and an amazing local leader named Ali, I have to say: I’m a convert.
1. Everything is organized for you
When all logistics, from hotel reservations to transport to glacier climbing in Alaska equipment is taken care of for you, you can focus on the most important part of your trip: enjoying the experience! When you arrive at your starting point, your skilled leader takes the reins, getting you and your group from point A to B and planning all the stops to see in between – meaning you can just sit back and relax. Trust me, seeing rolling hills, snow-capped mountain ranges or desert plains as far as the eye can see whiz by while someone else takes the wheel is pretty cool.
2. Your manager is a walking, talking, joke-cracking encyclopedia/guidebook
When we arrived at Yosemite National Park on day three of our trip, Ali insisted on taking us to the ‘good’ lookout. We passed what looked like an AWESOME lookout – packed with travelers wearing zip-off pants and swinging selfie sticks, snapping photos of the famous Half Dome basking in the golden afternoon sunlight. I admit, I was a little “Hmm, how good can this other lookout really be?” as the van zoomed by and turned onto a winding road that led us further up the mountain.
But I ate my words – and a lovely picnic of local cheeses and fresh grapes Ali had prepared – while we stood almost on top of the world and looking out over the entire valley from Glacier Point. And there was hardly anyone there. If I had been to Yosemite alone, I would have stopped at the first lookout, felt slightly annoyed by the crowds, taken a few pictures and left.
Likewise, when we were in Death Valley, she took a left turn onto an unmarked road. Ten minutes later we were exploring a bona fide ghost town and a very strange outdoor museum. Yes, it was creepy, and yes, I loved it. Would I have thought to investigate ‘ghost towns and strange outdoor art installations in Death Valley’ if I had made the trip on my own? Probably not.
Your manager knows which route to take when the roads are closed (which happens a lot in America’s national parks), where to get the best coffee in small desert towns, which dodgy supermarket in the middle of nowhere that actually serves delicious bagels and juice at 7:15, and which hiking trail to take when rain and snow are forecast later in the day. In short, your local manager is incredible and will become your best friend in a matter of hours.
3. There’s always someone for a beer or two in a saloon in the middle of nowhere
When you travel with a partner or friend, there’s always a 50/50 chance that they won’t be up for the idea of having a drink in that seedy bar on the outskirts of town. When you’re traveling with 13 other people on a small group trip, those odds change dramatically (and you end up with some pretty good stories, too). The same logic applies to foodies, lovers of old Western movies, hikers, wannabe hikers, and first-time helicopter passengers. You are pretty much guaranteed to have at least one person who is interested in the same thing as you.
4. Perfectly designed itineraries mean you don’t miss a thing
The US may be easy to explore, but with so many hidden gems tucked away down back roads and rich stories lining the city streets, it’s easy to miss out on some pretty big discoveries. Just as Ali knew where to go to get the best views in Yosemite, group tours are designed with secrets like that built right into them—everything from meeting pioneering local California winemakers to discovering best seafood places in Maine cycling best bike routes in Bryce Canyon. Plus, group tours still include all the must-see sites (because, yes, of course you still want to see the tourist spots!), but perfectly timed so you can see them without the crowds. That’s why a guided tour really is the best of all: you take in all the highlights, while also learning the stories and seeing the places you might not have found otherwise.
5. Somehow you end up with more time
Your days are planned to the very last minute, giving you maximum time to enjoy whatever national park/picturesque country town/glitzy Vegas casino you happen to explore. One-street towns and Vegas’ one-armed bandits are easy enough to navigate on your own, but when you only have a few hours in Yosemite (which has about 50 miles of hiking trails in the valley alone), you’ll want to make the most of it. Instead of spending your morning mapping out which trail to take, your leader can tell you which hike will give you maximum trekking/scenic time and get you back to the van in time for a pizza and a hot chocolate at the pizzeria near the bus stop.
If you want to see a different side of America, make new friends from across the country, and take the stress out of travel planning, small group tours are a great way to experience the United States.
Tempted? Check out our selection of small group adventure across the US of A now.
All photos by Emily Kratzmann