Group Travel – How to Survive Moving the Herd

Galena Street East visits Pisa, Italy

Group travel can be one of the most rewarding and fun moments you can ever experience.  You take a group of your closest friends, colleagues, or family and embark on a journey together.  Moving as a large group has the ability to unify people as you spend countless hours in planes, busses, and walking around cities.  I’ve had the ability over the last 15 years to travel fairly frequently with Galena Street East, a group of young performers from my hometown of Sacramento, California.  Each summer the group goes on tour with recent destinations including Florida, New York, and this year’s trip to Spain, Italy, France and Monaco.

There’s just one issue.  Rules of common courtesy sometimes get thrown out.  We forget that we’re in public and instead act as if we were ONLY surrounded by our friends.  On a private bus, that’s not so much of an issue.  When you’re on shared transit options, however, it becomes a nightmare.  Here are some things to keep in mind if you plan on traveling as a large group.

Group Travel Hint #1 -Don’t Expect the Airline to Cater to your Individual Needs

When you book a group travel reservation, the airline looks at your group as a single entity.  Carriers often have reservations agents that work exclusively with groups.  Let me correct myself.  Carriers often have reservations agents that work exclusively with group LEADERS.

Want to select your seat before the trip?  Can’t do that on US Airways!  Want to grab a mobile boarding pass or use your Apple Watch?  Can’t do that on US Airways!  Need to make a change in the evening after work?  Can’t do that on US Airways!  Their group desk is open 8am to 5pm EST!  Standard reservations agents have difficulty even viewing your seat assignments.

Your mileage may vary with other airlines, but it seems that these same issues occur on other carriers.

Group Travel Hint #2 – Arrive to the Airport Early

Remember that bit about how the airline looks at your group as a single entity?  Often the same mentality applies at check-in.  You’ll have an agent or two specifically working with your group.  That means it can take a little longer to get everyone checked in and ready to fly.  Have your group meet at the airport an extra hour before you would normally get there if you were traveling alone.  This allows you to deal with any issues, while still having a little time at the gate before your flight.

Coming back from Barcelona last week, the agents at BCN outright refused to assist us.  Instead they sent us over to the self-service terminals because we were a group.  It was only after half of us were checked in individually did we realize that there were two to four other group members linked together for each portion of the reservation and that we could have checked in each small group of people together.  Thanks BCN!

Once you’re checked in, get your bags to the agent and send your group members over to security.  Don’t wait for the group to finish one part of the process before moving on to the next.  You all can meet up again at the gate.  Instruct your people where they need to go, supervise them, but be efficient in how you move about.

Group Travel Hint #3 – Weigh Everyone’s Bags Beforehand

Frequent travelers know what they need to pack for a trip.  Those who travel less frequently tend to bring too much.  This isn’t such a big deal on domestic flights, but for international flights where overweight baggage fees can reach $100 or more, it becomes a HUGE deal.  Instead of waiting for the agent to weigh your bag at check-in, bring a portable luggage scale with you.  As you’re waiting in line, check everyone’s bag to make sure it is compliant.  If a group member’s bag is overweight, you can fix the problem and move things around before reaching the agent, which saves time.

Need a suggestion on a scale?  Try the DecoBros 110lb/50kg Electronic Digital Luggage Hanging Scale.  I’ve had one for a couple of months now and it’s perfect for such a situation.

Group Travel Hint #4 -Just Take Your Assigned Seat

This goes for any passenger, really, but it is crucial that you sit in your ASSIGNED seat when boarding.  The passenger load process is already a pain in the butt, and it gets exponentially more complicated when your group tries to switch seats on the fly.  Just because you want to sit next to your friend doesn’t mean you can just plop your tush in the seat next to them.

So, instead of causing traffic down the airplane aisle(s) that would rival many Los Angeles area freeways, sit where you were told.  As soon as everyone is on board, and preferably after the door is shut, feel free to move about and switch with reckless abandon.  Better yet, just wait until you’re up past 10,000ft.

Group Travel Hint #5 -Use a Buddy System/Counting Off

Group leads, this hint is for you.  It can be a daunting task to try and keep track of everyone in your group, ESPECIALLY if you are working with youth as I often do.  We’re fortunate to travel with close to as many chaperones as there are youth.  Wherever possible, pair up your young people with your chaperones.  They are responsible for checking in with each other and knowing where the other is at all times.

The buddy system can be combined with a number system.  Each member of your group is assigned a number, starting with one (1).  As your group moves between locations, you run a quick count with each individual calling out their number in succession.  If someone doesn’t respond, they are either asleep, incompetent, or just plain not there.  Most of the time they aren’t present, and you know exactly which lost sheep you need to go searching for.

Group Travel Hint #6 – Be Extra Kind

As a group, you get noticed.  You’re more likely to be scrutinized for any unkind actions.  Do yourself a favor, and treat everyone who helps you with respect.  That gate agent can be the world of difference when one person’s bag is over that 50lb limit, or if they choose to waive extra bag fees on some of your music equipment.  Flight Attendants will either love you or hate you and that opinion will quickly be based on the overall demeanor of your group members.  Smile, be as helpful as you can be, and stay positive when frustrating situations may arise.

Group Travel Hint #7 – You Can’t Please Everyone

Group leaders spend hours trying to pull large tours together.  From coordinating transportation, to arranging sight-seeing and other activities, there is a lot of work that goes into planning group travel.  Despite your best efforts, there will always be a few people who are disappointed in the itinerary.  Some common excuses include:

  • “We’re moving too fast.”
  • “I want to spend more time at these places.”
  • “We need more time to shop.”

You may even hear them try to rally other group members to their cause and put it to a public vote.  Guess what?  Group travel isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship.  They can’t walk up to an excursion leader from a cruise ship and state that they need another hour to shop.  Why then, should you have to cater to their request?  Trust your itinerary, and don’t be afraid to step up and exert your authority if you’re a group leader.  If another group lead is taking heat, step up and defend them.  That said, makes sure that as you are going through the planning phases, you anticipate the needs and desires of those in your group.  Be cautious not to plan too many activities for one day.

Group Travel Hint #8 – Always Be Prepared for “Plan B”

Be prepared to make alternate plans, and anticipate what issues may arise.  Even the most well-planned and well-executed tour can have it’s hiccups.  We have a saying in Galena: “Always Be Prepared for ‘Plan B.'”  Heck, be prepared for plans “B” through “T”.   Group members don’t like changes, but a good group leader will help coach everyone to be prepared and be ready to roll with whatever may come their way.

See the picture at the top of this article?  That was taken on my most recent trip.  Timelines were tight that day due to our bus not being able to enter the port to pick us up, and our show running a little long in Florence.  We had very little time to visit Pisa, let alone to make it back to the ship on time.  We arrived in Pisa, hopped on the public bus from the parking area, SPRINTED to the tower, snapped the picture, SPRINTED back, returned to our bus, and arrived to the port just as they were pulling up the ramps.  Optimal experience? No.  Planned?  Not at all.  You have to roll with the punches.

Wherever possible, stay ahead of the curve and arm yourself with information.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Track your inbound and outbound flights for delay information.  While you often have to pay for Wi-Fi on the plane, carriers often make their own websites and apps available for free.
  • Review gate assignments and baggage carousel numbers as soon as they are available.  Share them with your group.
  • Know how to contact the airline in case of lost items.
  • Group delayed somewhere along the line?  If possible, send two people ahead of the pack to make contact with your driver, the gate, etc to let them know you’re on your way.

By anticipating issues, you’ll be able to mitigate them quicker which ultimately leads to a better experience for everyone.

Final Thoughts

As I said before, group travel can be one of the most fun and rewarding experiences.  You create memories that will last forever, and hopefully become closer to those with whom you travel. Don’t be afraid to get out there and take a large group.  Just keep these hints in mind, and you’ll be off to a good start.

Need help planning a group tour?  Heading somewhere soon?  Drop a comment below and tell me about it!


Christopher is a bonafide pizza snob, and loves spontaneous adventures to wherever the skies deem fit.

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