From Eco-Tours to FITs: The ABCs of Tour Types



A tour of coffee country near Pereira, Colombia. Max Hartshorne photo.
A tour of coffee country near Pereira, Colombia. Max Hartshorne photo.

Confused by the many tours available today? You’re not alone. Choosing a tour can be a daunting experience with the huge number of operators offering programs and the great variety of tours and tour types. There is one out there that is right for you, but an understanding of the basic tour types will help you choose.

BASIC TOUR TYPES FITs (Fully Independent Travel)
FITs are the choice for those who know what they want to see, and how and when they want to see it. Typically, a FIT is planned with a travel agent that works with you to plan your itinerary and activities. This can include car, driver and guide hire as well as airfare and hotel. It may include day or longer excursions.

The advantage of a FIT is not only do you control your itinerary, but you can monitor trip cost and pay in advance in one lump sum. The disadvantages of a FIT are that it may be difficult to change a booking you’ve already paid for, and you have to manage your own crises. If you get to the hotel and they’ve sold your room, you have to sort it out.

  • Self-guided tours
    Self-guided tours are popular amongst those who want the privacy of traveling alone, with family or a friend. Typically on a self-guided tour, the operator pre-books reservations, and provides you with the maps and directions you’ll need to do the tour. Operators usually arrange accommodations and transfers, and transportation during the tour, all of which are included in the tour price. Self-guided tours are a great way to benefit from the knowledge of local experts, while enjoying the flexibility and intimacy of solo travel.
  • Small group tours
    An excellent choice for the solo traveler, the traveling couple or traveling family who want to meet people and make friends along the way. Small groups get to know their guides better and get more time with their guides. On a small group tour, guests can stay at quaint, unique properties and do activities that a large group would prohibit. In general, smaller groups facilitate interaction with local people.
  • Large group tours
    May be the best choice for a traveler who wants to see it all in a short amount of time. Typically large groups don’t have to wait around for admission to sights, and tour personnel are efficient about moving the group from place to place. Larger tours tend to be tightly scheduled and fill your days and hours with activities. There is usually little free time on a large group tour.


  • Luxury tours
    If you want to experience the finest a destination has to offer, a luxury tour is the choice for you. Luxury tours offer the best accommodations available, superior regional cuisine, extremely knowledgeable and helpful staff, and a level of pampering that means you don’t have to think, but can just sit back and enjoy. Most luxury tours are all-inclusive (hotels, meals, activities). Some also include airfare and extras like wine and hors d’oeuvres.
  • Budget tours
    Budget tours make the world accessible to travelers who want the peace of mind of traveling with someone who knows the local language and terrain, but need to watch their cash. Budget tours tend to stay in clean and comfortable accommodations, or rely on camping for all or portions of the trip.Frequently clients on a budget tour will be younger and not averse to more rustic living. Some budget tours don’t include meals, transportation to or from start destination, and entry or admission fees. Ask your operator exactly what is included, as well as how much an average guest spends on tour beyond the tour price so you can assess the hidden costs. Many budget tours will put money into an excellent guide instead of fancy accommodations, making the tour the best bang for the buck. Other budget operators may skimp on service.There are a wide range of tours between luxury and budget. Ask the operator you are considering for a detailed tour itinerary, information on hotels, and specifically what is and isn’t included in the tour price.
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  • Adventure tours
    Adventure tours may be all the rage these days, but the real benefit and purpose of these trips is to make outdoor activities that a few people do on their own accessible to the rest of us. Adventure tours will push your limits, and take you places you may not feel comfortable going on your own.Guides provide technical expertise you may not have, and the tour operator may provide equipment specific to the activity you are doing. Often, some level of fitness is required for an adventure tour. Adventure tours range from walking or light hiking to climbing Mt. Everest. Some adventure tours can be customized for individuals or small groups. Generally, they are not designed for FITs or self-guided travelers. It pays to be realistic about your own goals and limits, and ask your operator about its safety record.
  • Eco-tours
    Eco-tours are another popular, but often misunderstood, tour type. Generally, eco-tours are small-group tours that feature activities and accommodations that exist in harmony with the environment and local people. Eco-tours have an educational component, and can range from relaxing to adventurous.Often eco-tours will include the participation of guides and or staff native to the area. You can expect to learn about environment, community, technology and other topics and issues affecting the place you visit. Eco-tours are a great way to make sure your travel dollars are going back to the area you visit. Make sure your operator is a reputable eco-tour operator and isn’t using “ecotour” just as a buzzword. For information on Eco Certification of tours, see the GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO ECO-CERTIFICATION.
  • Cultural Tours
    Cultural tours are designed to bring you close to the people and heritage of the place you’re visiting. They tend to maximize interaction with locals, and may include visits to local homes and places of work in addition to museum visits and excursions to historical sites.The guide on a cultural tour will be well versed in all aspects of local history and culture and will be well connected to the communities the tour visits. Cultural tours can also cover archaeology, ethnic tours, religious and spiritual centers, arts, crafts, and other cultural activities, and can often be done as FITs in small groups.
  • Educational tours
    Educational tours can range from active to sedentary, and can take place exclusively in the field, or combine field and classroom study. Educational tours are for travelers who want to come home with a deeper understanding of a topic, whether it’s Spanish or spotted owls. Usually, educational tours are conducted in small groups.
  • Activity specific tours
    These tours give travelers with a particular passion a chance to pursue their interests in a far-away location with experts in the field. Whether you’re diving, birding, searching for fossils or dancing, activity-specific tours give you a chance to make your hobby your fulltime focus. A good choice for the FIT or small-group traveler.
  • Small Cruises
    A cruise is a floating island that lets you visit far away destinations without surrendering the comforts of home. On a small cruise, you can, of course, appreciate the nature and culture of the destination, but the cruise itself is part of the adventure. On small cruises, you are often treated to regional foods, guest lectures, some hands-on participation and access to remote areas. Generally, small cruises cater to anywhere between 20 and 200 people. Sometimes, small cruises can be chartered for individual groups.
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Touring a coffee plantation in Colombia. Max Hartshorne photo.
Touring a coffee plantation in Colombia. Max Hartshorne photo.

While the basic tour types are outlined above, it’s important to note that many tours these days mix and match: an adventure tour might include a village visit; a cultural tour might include some light hiking. The best way to find a tour that’s right for you is to decide what you want to do when you travel — and how you want to travel — and search for operators by activity or tour type.

Then contact the tour operators for specific details about what activities are included in the tour. Bear in mind that many tour operators offer more than one kind of tour, and most will be more than happy to customize a unique tour for you and your traveling companions. Just ask.