Family Vacation Travel Tips: When and Why to Use a Tour Operator

Many people associate tour operators with “old people” trips. After running Ciao Bambino for several years, I’ve learned that this assumption is false. In fact, using a tour operator can be a great option for families planning multi-generational trips, families that want more structure to their trip with pre-defined itineraries and access to an array of reliable tours and activities, families wanting to incorporate physical activity into the itinerary like hiking and biking, and/or families that want to explore more off-path locations or those with challenging infrastructure. Also, you do not need to be part of a larger group trip to use these services — many of the top tour operators plan itineraries for independent families as well.

family vacation photo

When and Why to Use a Tour Operator for a Family Vacation

Classic Journeys is continually recognized as one of the best tour operators in the business. Nancy’s family plans annual multi-generational trips and is still raving about the trip Classic Journeys put together for the 15 of them in Italy (see her Thoughts on Multi-Generational Travel post). I asked Edward Piegza, the company’s founder, to comment on why a tour operator is a good resource for families.

Here’s what he wrote:

You know that old adage: “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium?” It applies to the type of touring that our parents or Aunt Mary took when she did the grand tour of Europe. (And literally, you’d pack 40-50 people in a bus and cover a whole lot of countries in two weeks’ time. You knew it was Tuesday when you got to Belgium. Wednesday was Paris, Thursday was London and so on.) For many of us, myself included, it doesn’t hold any appeal.

So why would a web site like Ciao Bambino be interested in talking about tours at all? We’ve already agreed that the idea of being packed into a bus and being driven-literally-into boredom sounds terrible for anyone, and in particular for families with kids.

I’ve been in the adventure travel business for 17 years — and head of Classic Journeys since its inception in 1995. My wife, Susan, is also actively involved in Classic Journeys as our CFO and head of HR. We have two sons, Jack (12) and Matthew (9). Because of what we do professionally, they’ve always traveled with us. Over the years, we’ve found some real benefits to traveling on small group tours. Here are a few things I’ve learned on our travels.

Everything looks brighter when you see the world through younger eyes.

You rediscover the fun of family travel when you take the kids – or grandkids – on a family adventure vacation. Suddenly, ancient ruins are for climbing on. Bocci ball and boules become games for playing rather than spectating. Rivers are for rafting, and alpine tram rides turn into joy rides. That said, it helps to have someone in the know locally who can organize these activities and make your vacation seamless. A good tour company blends these into your days without you having to figure out when is the best time, place, etc. to do each activity.

A tour can give you all the fun and none of the hassle.

Okay – long-distance trips with kids can be a challenge. A well-designed small group family tour should match the curiosity, energy levels and attention spans of fledgling travelers. Check the distances companies cover so that you can avoid the “Are we there yet?” It’s almost axiomatic that if you have someone else taking care of the details for you, you (and your kids) actually get more flexibility in what you do each day.

Hold out for the “cool factor.”

Find a company that scouts out cool stuff like a nighttime safari, mountain biking on the wide medieval walls of an Italian city, or rafting down a scenic river valley. Nowadays, the best companies have local contacts and so can hook you up with local artisans so that you can get your hands dirty in craft sessions…and join kid-sensitive explorations of must-see landmarks.

With the kids it’s a trip; without the kids it’s a vacation.

That used to be the case. Now, you can find itineraries almost anywhere, from Costa Rica to Canada, Peru to Provence that give you some time together and some time apart. Ask the tour company if their itineraries are designed to satisfy the curiosity, energy levels and attention spans of multiple generations. There should be some activities each day for the whole family and some time for the adults to go off alone while the kids are on chaperoned kids-only events.

Picky eaters are people too.

I remember reading the Arthur book by Marc Brown titled “DW the Picky Eater” to my sons when they were young. You might remember it too. I have some friends whose son ate only steak and chocolate. He’s a great kid, but it was challenging when they’d try to travel. On a good tour with a great guide, your kids will be introduced to new foods in a way that makes them approachable. The guides find the local specialties kids love-pizza, fondue, picnics – as well as plenty of chances for the adventuresome to try new tastes.

For me, there are times to travel alone as a family. Every once in a while we go to Maui and we ski as a family every winter. I could not imagine needing a tour company to organize either of those for us. Then again, we’re going to Morocco on a Classic Journeys tour for spring break and I know the four families traveling together will have more fun, see more things, stress less and come home with better memories because it’s a tour designed for families.

Photo by Nancy Solomon

Classic Journeys operates cultural walking adventures, culinary tours and family journeys in 65 regions around the world. The company has been recognized by Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Adventure magazines as a World’s Best Tour Operator, and by as a Best of the Web.

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  • Need help planning a multigenerational trip to Italy in July of 2011. Ages 1, 3 13, 15, 16, 21, and 8 adults, two who are 72 years old.
    Would like to visit Rome, Florence and Venice. Need to visit relatives in Campobasso for 1 day and relatives in Biella for 1 day. Help!

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