NEW YORK -- Group tours sound easy: Choose a destination and the tour company plans your trip, delivering you to hotels, restaurants and attractions. You don't have to Google or organize a thing.
But how do you find the right tour to begin with, one that fits your age, activity levels and preferences for lodging, dining and sightseeing? And what's the difference between the $2,000 tour and the $8,000 tour to the same place, the same week?
Here are some tips.
Start your research
Travel agents can recommend tour companies to match your interests and demographics. One place to start your own research is USTOA.com, the website of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, which represents 160 brands, including overseas companies with U.S. offices. USTOA.com's "Find your dream vacation" widget lets you search by destination, tour company and activity -- from bird-watching to Oktoberfest.
Tour listings at TourRadar.com also include ratings for comfort level and how physically demanding tours are. And many of TourRadar's partners include age recommendations. Topdeck tours, for example, list an 18-39 age range because they cater to a young party crowd. TourRadar also embeds reviews from recent travelers along with messages about upcoming departures. Comments like "Who is ready to party on this trip?" and "I'm stoked!" show the vibe for an Amalfi Coast trip. TourRadar's Meet app helps travelers connect with others on the same itinerary with comments like, "We'll be in Rio a few days early, anyone keen to join us to see some sights?"
What you get for your money
Most group tours cover all hotels, guides, transportation to places on the itinerary and admission to attractions -- though activities like zip-lining may be extra. Most meals are usually covered too, but ask what, if any, are not. If you want more than standard fare, ask: Is breakfast and dinner taken in the hotel every day, at chain restaurants, or at mom-and-pop cafes? The larger the group, the harder it is to dine in small, offbeat eateries.
Airfare to and from your home city is not included in tour costs.
The two biggest cost factors in any tour, according to USTOA President Terry Dale, are group size and type of accommodations. An intimate group tour with eight or 10 travelers staying at four- and five-star hotels can easily be four times the cost of a large group in three-star lodging at the same destination.
Budget tours sometimes save money by booking hotels outside city centers. That makes it difficult to explore on your own when there's downtime, so ask whether accommodations are in central locations, near major attractions or outside of town.
Time of year affects price, too. Holidays and summer -- when you're competing with kids on school vacation -- are usually more expensive. Fall is often cheapest except for places like New England where fall foliage is a draw. Unlike cruises and hotels, group tours don't usually have last-minute deals, but booking well ahead may get you a discount. Pick a few companies, subscribe to newsletters and follow them on Facebook to watch for deals.
As for tipping guides, some luxury tours include tips, Dale says, but most tours suggest tipping 3 percent to 5 percent of the trip cost, or $6-$8 per day for tour managers, and around $4 a day for local guides.
Interests and activity levels
You may think nothing of walking a few miles or spending hours on your feet exploring new places. But that's not realistic if you're normally sedentary or have physical limitations. So ask: Does the tour offer sightseeing mostly through bus windows, by trekking up mountain trails or by walking around neighborhoods?
Group tours cover every interest under the sun, from volunteering, photography, wineries, history and the arts, to winter sports, biking, hiking and wildlife. If you're a foodie, look for culinary themes, where you might meet a chef, visit markets and farms, or dine in someone's home.
Even for classic itineraries, there's a range of options, from check-the-box visits to top 10 attractions, to behind-the-scenes meetings with curators, artists and activists.
The dreaded single supplement
Solo travelers usually pay more because they are single occupants in hotel rooms designed for two. Single supplements can raise tour prices anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Some companies help single travelers find compatible roommates. Friendly Planet Travel has a roommate-matching service introducing like-minded solo travelers booked on the same trips. If, after speaking by phone or meeting, single travelers think they're compatible, they can share a room, saving up to $500 a person, according to Friendly Planet President Peggy Goldman. Solos can also look for roommates on Friendly Planet's Facebook page. Cosmos tours also offer travelers the option to share a room through a "guaranteed share" program.
TourRadar.com's Meet app also allows single travelers to connect. And because many of TourRadar's operators are geared to younger travelers, accommodations range from hostels to tents that easily accommodate solo travelers, avoiding the dreaded single supplement.