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Why you should take a small-group tour on your next trip

Author Christine Lee admires the view at Bryce Canyon National Park, a stop on the Enchanting Canyonlands tour of the Southwest. Author Christine Lee admires the view at Bryce Canyon National Park, a stop on the Enchanting Canyonlands tour of the Southwest.

 

In these unusual pandemic times, you might think traveling on your own is the only way to go.

But I recently joined an Insight Vacations weeklong, small-group guided tour through the enchanting canyonlands in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. It was the first tour I’d been on since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I had a great time. 

At every turn, I was pleasantly surprised—by the safety protocols in place, the comfort of the luxury motor coach, the lovely lodges where we stayed in, and the views along the way.

During this vacation I challenged myself to stay off social media and refrain from checking emails frequently. The weeklong digital detox helped me to focus on being present and to appreciate the Southwest’s stunning scenery.

Bryce Canyon National Park was a surprise, with its captivating colors of beige, burnt caramel, and light orange, and uniquely shaped hoodoos (eroded, irregular columns of rock).

The group explores Zion National Park.

The group explores Zion National Park.

As we entered Zion National Park, we drove through the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Peeking out through small breaks gave us glimpses of the park’s majestic scenery, and I felt as if we were transported to a fairy-tale land.

Seeing so much natural beauty day after day made me realize that life is good, despite COVID-19. 

The truth is, I found many advantages to traveling with a group, especially a small tour. Here are 7 of them.

1. Social distancing is easier.

The members of the Enchanting Canyonlands tour group serve themselves breakfast in Tusayan, Arizona

Members of the tour at the breakfast buffet in Tusayan, Arizona.

“It’s wonderful when there’s only 25 or fewer people instead of 50 because you’re more socially distanced on the coach,” Tour Director Ann Harness told me.

We were able to easily social distance while eating, too. About 15 minutes south of Grand Canyon National Park in Tusayan, Arizona, I served myself at breakfast buffet and had a table for four all to myself.

2. You won’t have to memorize COVID rules.

In 2021, Insight Vacations began offering small-group tours capped at 24 travelers. The company, which is a part of The Travel Corporation, worked closely with the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Health Organization to create new global safety protocols.

Insight requires all guests to be fully vaccinated, and each vaccine-eligible person must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccinationChildren who are unable to be vaccinated need to provide proof of verifiable negative test results for the coronavirus taken within 72 hours before their tour begins.

The goal is to give vacationers peace of mind while traveling. Our well-being director, Kim Chaulk, looked after us 24/7 and helped ensure that we felt protected during our journey.

Christine Lee gets her temperature checked on the Enchanting Canyonlands tour.

Temperature checks are part of the tour’s COVID-prevention protocols.

When we first checked into our tour, each passenger had a preliminary health screening. My temperature was checked, and I answered questions about whether I was experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms. I also filled out a form attesting that I was in good health to travel. Chaulk was also available to answer questions and was trained to provide us with the latest information on new developments and guidelines relating to our well-being during our travels.

Every morning before getting onto the motor coach, she stood by its entrance to make sure every person wore a mask and to spray our hands with sanitizer. She also frequently checked our temperatures. 

Sanitizing the seats on the Enchanting Canyonland small group tour

Kim Chaulk sanitizes seats on the motor coach.

At the end of each day, Chaulk and the driver wiped every seat with sanitizing wipes to prepare the coach for the following day.

Having strict mask-wearing protocols and daily temperature checks gave me peace of mind. And having a full-time staff member dedicated to my well-being allowed me to just focus on having a great time. 

3. You’ll have more room on the coach.

Passengers on a small-group tour have more room to spread out on the motor coach.

Passengers on a small-group tour have more room to spread out on the motor coach.

On previous, larger tours, I felt confined and restricted on the motor coach. Not this time: Our coach was twice as spacious as a standard one because it was reconfigured with fewer seats. Plus, the back half was empty because our tour had fewer travelers.

In Monument Valley, two open-air vehicles driven by Navajo guides gave us space to spread out while we enjoyed a narrated tour. 

4. You won’t face crowds on excursions.

Tourgoers get a geography lesson at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Tourgoers get a geography lesson at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

A smaller tour allowed us to experience special tour highlights together without a crowd around us.

For example, we enjoyed a geology lesson while sipping Champagne in an amphitheater just a few feet away from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The built-in seating area accommodated all of us perfectly, and we even had enough bubbly for a second round.

Tour group takes a boat ride on the Colorado River.

The group takes a boat ride on the Colorado River.

On another day, we all fit onto one boat on a Colorado River cruise from the Glen Canyon Dam through Horseshoe Bend to Lees Ferry.

Boarding the tram at Zion National Park

Boarding the tram at Zion National Park.

At Zion National Park in Utah’s canyon country, we traveled in one tram car and took in breathtaking views of the canyon walls, the Great White Throne, and the Temple of Sinawava.

Only three passengers were aboard a helicopter flight, an optional excursion, over Grand Canyon National Park.

Only three passengers were aboard a helicopter flight, an optional excursion, over Grand Canyon National Park.

A small tour group meant even smaller groups for optional excursions, as I found out on the biggest highlight of my trip: soaring over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter. The experience was made even better by having an entire row to myself and sharing the ride with only one couple, who were seated next to the pilot.

5. You won’t wait in lines.

The buffet at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, at the end of the tour.

The buffet at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, at the end of the tour.

One of the nicest surprises on this tour occurred when we walked past a long line of hungry people waiting for Bacchanal Buffet inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and were led right to our table. That was thanks to Harness, who had called ahead to alert the Caesars' staff.

She planned and made advance arrangements for many of our activities. Businesses anticipated our arrival, so our time idling in lines was limited. 

At times we pre-ordered our preferred meal choice the day before, so we could be served immediately upon being seated. 

6. You might stay in popular, hard-to-book lodges.

The author’s room at the Thunderbird Lodge overlooked the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The author’s room at the Thunderbird Lodge overlooked the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Because we were a small group, Insight Vacations was able to get rooms for everyone in Grand Canyon and Zion national parks. Zion, in particular, was a sweet score because Zion Lodge is the only lodging inside the park and it books up months in advance.

And, although I have visited Grand Canyon National Park countless times throughout my life, my jaw dropped when I entered my room at the Thunderbird Lodge and walked over to my windows. They overlooked the South Rim, and for the first time in my life, I caught the sunrise and sunset at one of the most beautiful places in America.

7. You’ll make deeper connections with travel companions.

Christine and her new friend Angela Natterman of Torrington, Connecticut, at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Christine and her new friend Angela Natterman of Torrington, Connecticut, at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Traveling in a small-group tour allowed me to get to know my fellow travelers better in just a couple of days.

“You kind of feel like a big family traveling around together, said Harness, our tour director. "People bond better and share experiences together more.”

She's right: My travel companions and I shared meaningful conversations over many meals, and by the end of our time together, I was teary-eyed at our goodbyes.

I started the Enchanting Canyonlands tour not knowing what to expect and feeling trepidation at traveling with strangers. Some friends and family members asked if it was safe to travel again. Now I can say with certainty that I felt completely safe throughout my journey.

I came home with lifelong memories and can’t wait to embark on a new adventure soon.

Christine Lee is a TV anchor and reporter in Southern California.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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