Active travel is one of the few industries in the digital age that still revels in mailing out thick, glossy, color catalogs. Every time I receive one (surprisingly often) it’s hard not to immediately start flipping through the pages and fantasizing about tempting trip after tempting trip. Cycling Croatia’s Coast by Boat, Trekking the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Multi-Sport Adventure in Bhutan, and endless trips in proven favorites such as Italy, France, Ireland and Spain. There are trips for every taste, but increasingly, many of the more unique offerings don’t have prices or departure dates, but instead simply state “Private Only.”
When the guided active travel industry began, pretty much all of the bike, hike and multi-sport trips offered were group departures, meaning they would list a few dates for reach trip, have a maximum group size, usually in the range of 12-24 people, and they would sell spots to singles and couples. You would join a bunch of strangers, usually for better, sometimes for worse. But increasingly this segment of the travel industry has shifted to private trips, and many of the top players have told me that 50% or more of their bookings are now private. This can mean either the same itineraries that are offered as group departures but at a date of your choice and with no strangers, or a completely different custom itinerary, often in places where there are no “scheduled departures,” industry jargon for a group trip on a certain date out of the catalog.
There are many advantages to private travel. You are not limited to the handful of dates offered, and can make the trip fit your work, school or life schedule. You can tailor even a preset itinerary more precisely to your own interests, especially since many such trips have cultural extras beyond physical activities, such as museum, gallery, artisan or food producer visits. If you don’t drink you may not want to tour a winery, and if you love art, you may want to hit more than one museum, and by going private all of that is possible. You might like the catalog itinerary but want to upgrade or downgrade the price and quality of lodging. Private trips also allow travelers to visit places that may not yet be popular enough to allow tour operators to offer scheduled departures. Every bike company has multiple dates for Tuscany and Burgundy, but few have the critical mass of demand to offer South Africa, even though the cycling there is off the charts.
But to me the best thing about going private is that you get to choose your traveling companions, and if you have some like-minded friends, private doesn’t have to mean unaffordable.
In general, private trips cost more, because travelers tend to heavily customize them, and often a single family goes by themselves, and the less participants you have, the more expensive it is per person. The tour operator’s fixed costs have to be spread over less people. This varies by type of trip, and a guided ski adventure that begins with a smaller group size and basically requires just the guide will need less participants to make it reasonable than a bike trip that requires at least two guides and support van, whether it is for two or two dozen participants.
But usually, if you pick a standard offered trip and put a few couples together, you can go for the same ballpark price you would pay to travel with strangers, and this is an underutilized approach to active travel.
If money is no object, the number one deluxe operator in the cycling and hiking space is Gray & Co., a luxury specialist that has no catalog or scheduled departures at all, and does nothing but completely bespoke, one-off custom trips, usually for small groups – and often for those with their own privet jets. I profiled founder Cari Gray here at Forbes in my series on women-owned travel companies, and they are fabulous, the smallest company ever to be rated the World’s Best Tour Operator (of any kind) by Travel + Leisure magazine, but you will pay for it. With companies that do both scheduled and private, which means most active travel companies, trips are far more approachable – or at least close to the cost of traveling with larger groups and strangers.
For example, African wildlife safaris are never bargain vacations, but they are certainly Bucket List trips, and while I suggest going as often as your budget allows, the reality is that for many travelers this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and that is all the more reason to do it in the best way possible. I’ve been very fortunate to have had great experiences with many excellent travel companies, but regardless of the genre, one stands above all others. Micato Safaris is widely considered best in class, and has won Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Safari Outfitter an unprecedented 10 times – no other company in any other travel category has come even remotely close to this industry record.
Micato’s custom private departures are exquisite but expensive, and even its scheduled group trips are costly, but they are amazing (they are also truly all-inclusive, down to tips and alcohol and many things other active travel companies charge extra for). If you are going to take the plunge, this is definitely one to consider doing as a private with friends, because safaris are very intimate trips with shared experiences you will remember forever. They are also longer than your average bike, hike or ski trip, often more than twice as many days, and you typically share a safari vehicle that holds six for the game viewing drives, the main event of the entire trip, so it might as well be shared with friends. On its scheduled departures, the average group size is twelve guests, with a maximum of eighteen (this is rare) in peak season. But you can do the same trips with as few as two other couples and keep it in the same price ballpark. For example, I checked one of Micato’s classic itineraries, the 12-day Heart of Kenya and Tanzania trip, and this coming May, the catalog trip is $14,750 per person, but for a party of six, it costs $16,100 each to make this a private departure, and if you have more companions the gap closes further.
Not all active travel runs into five figures. My husband and I just did a ski trip in Italy with a regional specialist, Dolomite Mountains, that we took private with just two other couples. The company offers hiking, mountain biking, alpine skiing and ski touring guided trips, and according to their website, group sizes for scheduled departures are much smaller than most active travel, usually 4-6 and no more than 8, so doing one of their standard itineraries just for a few couples is easy and cost effective, especially since the dollar is strong against the Euro right now. Most weeklong inclusive (breakfast, dinner, lodging, transfers, private guide, lift tickets, etc.) guided ski trips run around €4,100 euros per person.
In addition to a slate of scheduled departures such as Gourmet Ski Safari or Three Valley Dolomite Hiking Traverse, they have many pre-planned private-only itineraries including weeklong mountain bike or multi-sport trips you can browse online.
Backroads, the oldest U.S. active travel specialist and by most accounts the largest, offers something called “Take Over A Trip,” which allows small groups to snag a scheduled trip and make it private, which is important because right now there is unprecedented post-pandemic demand for active travel, and all these companies are setting records, which has made lodging in the most popular areas very hard to come by. Grabbing one of these scheduled trips means the rooms have already been pre-booked along the way, and according to Backroads, a group of 12 is often enough to bring the price to the same as the catalog rate. They can also try to schedule one of the catalog trips for you at different dates if you need that, and offer totally custom itineraries as well. For cycling and multi-sport trips, Backroads normally caps groups at 26, though the average is just 16, and for walking and hiking trips, the max is 20 and average 14. But if you have five other couples or two to three families with kids, you can make it your own, have less people overall, and pay the same. Even if you have just three or four other couples, you can start to get the price closer and still have a white glove experience. Backroads is one of the best and most acclaimed active travel companies, and I have traveled with them twice, both times fantastic.
DuVine is another top tier cycling, hiking and multi-sport company that has earned Travel + Lesiure’s World’s Best Tour Operator – the most recent winner in 2022 – and I’ve traveled with them as well, and it was just spectacular. They also offer a mix of scheduled departures and private and in addition to bespoke, they have “Private Only Itineraries,” similar to pre-set group departures but available only to single groups. Two other things set DuVine apart in this regard. First, they have an entire segment of “Villa Bike Tours,” specifically designed for private groups but utilizing a rental villa as a home base instead of hotels, which means the convenience of unpacking just once, as well as avoiding the issue of not being able to get hotel rooms. It can also be a more fun experience for a group who know each other. Otherwise, these trips have all the usual bells and whistles, guides, vans, exceptional meals and wines (a DuVine specialty), curated routes, etc., and are offered in hotspots such as Tuscany, the Napa Valley and Provence.
DuVine also has a unique category of “Cycle + Sail” trips based on sailboats or charter yachts. These allow cyclists to visit places otherwise difficult get to, such as smaller Greek Islands with zero crowds, and DuVine founder Andy Levine prides himself on creative itineraries none of his competitors offer, like these. These set up especially well for private takeovers because in most cases, the boats can only accommodate five or six couples max, even on scheduled group departures, so you do not need as many friends to make it exclusively yours. And again, you get the benefit of unpacking just once for the trip as your luxury lodging moves with you.
While most of these big tour operators span the globe, Tourissimo is a Boston- and Italy-based cycling and hiking company specializing in all things Italian. Co-founder Heather Dowd, another woman in travel I have profiled here at Forbes, told me that, “About half of our business is trips for private groups, and many of them do go on one of our set itineraries, just on dates that work for them. There are many advantages, your dates, customization of hotels, inclusions, and the amount of walking or riding each day, with all of the services of our public tours, van support, guides, etc., even if your group is small. A big advantage of doing a private tour with Tourissimo is that you’ll get personalized attention. We specialize in this type of travel. We know the questions to ask to make sure you get the best trip possible!”
The company has an interesting model where you can take one of their Magnifica Trip itineraries and turn it private, with a party of 12 going for exactly the same cost as a potentially larger group, while 10-11 travelers pay a 10% premium, 8-9 adds 18% and 6-7 adds 30%, allowing you to dial in a still-affordable adventure even for smaller groups.
Trek Travel is another premium cycling-centric tour operator that does its private pricing this way, with incremental increases for smaller parties. Take 10 guests and you get the same catalog price as a group departure, with add-ons for less people, from $750 per person for 8-9 all the way down to an extra $3,000 for 2-3.
Butterfield & Robinson is the company credited with inventing the entire category of guided active travel more than 50 years ago, and is a luxury tour operator that has won countless awards and accolades. Its meticulous service, with luxury lodging and top-notch meals means it is often the priciest of the companies offering scheduled departures. B&R offers bespoke trips as well, but they also have a more affordable alternative geared entirely at small private groups, self-guided versions of its most popular trips.
These include the same great hotels, meals, attractions along the way, bikes, route maps and luggage transfer, everything except the actual guide and support van (though there is on-call support for mechanical issues and such). I did the self-guided Burgundy trip for my 20th anniversary and it was wonderful, just my husband and me on a luxury cycling trip. Most tour operators charge a huge premium to go private for just two people (for instance, Trek Travel, above, adds $3,000), but these are designed for just two, cost substantially less than the scheduled group versions, and every person you add brings the price down. For example, the self-guided 6-day Burgundy cycling trip is $4,995 per person for two, a thousand dollars less than the group departure, and if you add people the discount can be even greater. There are 15 self-guided cycling, e-biking and hiking options in France, Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia.
I’ve had some great experiences on group trips with strangers and made new friends, but I’ve also had a great time traveling with old friends, and this is a more intimate and flexible way to go, with everyone on the same page about daily routines and activities. So, if you have a few pals you think might be interested in joining a cycling or hiking trip, it’s well worth looking into.