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Travel Toolbox: Embrace Free Time

It’s all the rage in the tour industry right now: Everyone says that to attract younger travelers, you need to include more free time on trips. But making this change while keeping your existing customers happy will require more strategy than just clearing a couple hours of time on an itinerary.

In many traditional tours, free time often amounts to an hour or two in a shopping district. That’s fine for retail fans, but people who don’t particularly enjoy shopping often find themselves bored during these breaks. And although giving travelers free time in a city center or at a resort may offer more options, it’s not a panacea — some value-minded travelers resent free time, believing that the money they pay for tours should include full-time activity.

Smart free time can add a welcome measure of independence to group travel, but doing it right requires some planning and hand holding for travelers who may not want to be alone. Here are five techniques to make your group’s free time effective and enjoyable.

Prepare Options

Instead of turning travelers loose in a destination and expecting them to fend for themselves, consider preparing a menu of optional activities from which they can choose for their free time. These options could include, for example, a spa treatment, a round of golf and an outdoor adventure. You can arrange with some suppliers ahead of time so they are ready when your travelers arrive. At the end, participants can pay for the activities themselves or, if you really want to make an impression, you can include the cost of these activities in the tour price and give travelers who chose not to participate a gift card for the difference.

Include a Guided Activity

Though many baby boomers enjoy free time on group trips, there’s always someone traveling with you who prefers to stick with a guide the whole time. Maybe they are traveling alone, uncomfortable navigating unfamiliar places by themselves or simply shy. These people will be grateful if one of the optional free-time activities is an excursion they can do with you or the tour director, perhaps a trip to a local museum or a casual tasting tour at a nearby market. Make sure the group knows what you will be doing during the free time and that anyone is welcome to join you.

Help With Dining

Letting people dine around town on their own can be a great way to give your travelers some independence. And though some people will want to explore the restaurant scene on their own, others would benefit from guidance. Work with the CVB or other local partners to pick some area restaurants your travelers might enjoy, and then hand out a map with those places highlighted. If you’re in a busy area, you might even make some reservations at a few places so your people don’t have to wait for tables.

Touch Base With Travelers

When you reach a block of free time during a trip, it’s important for you as the group leader not to disappear. Make sure your travelers understand all the options you have arranged for them and are aware of any important schedule details. Then, as people prepare for what they’re going to do, check in with them individually to see if they have any questions, need any help or would like to join you for your activity. In addition to providing a great customer-service moment, this also allows you to keep track of where your travelers are going so you can track them down should the need arise.

Make Use of the Motorcoach

If your group is using a motorcoach to get around your destination, have the vehicle and the driver help with the logistics of your free time. You could have the coach make a couple of scheduled runs between the city center and the group hotel, giving travelers the choice to return to their accommodations at various times. Or if you have planned several optional activities, have the coach drop off and pick up people in those places at predetermined times. You have already paid for the service, so you might as well make the most of it.