Touring the Battlefields - Travelling with a Tour Group
The most important benefit of travelling with a tour group is that all your travel and accommodation needs are taken care of for you - and hopefully you should have a knowledgeable battlefield guide to show you around.
Below are some of the key issues to bear in mind when considering a conducted tour.
Most tour companies offer tours based on travelling in a large coach where you are but one amongst 40-60. This most often means that hotels are located away from the attractive town centres of Ypres/Ieper and Albert. Another possible shortcoming is the sheer numbers relative to the single guide who, despite the best of intentions, cannot provide the personal relationship to be found with smaller group sizes.
Larger tour groups can however offer good value for money as the organiser's fixed costs can be spread amongst a larger number of travellers, and you do get the benefit of a guide to show you around (as best they can). Like most things in life, some companies are much better than others.
Tour companies offering smaller group sizes such as those numbering no more than six or so are by far and away the best way to visit the battlefields. These tours are particularly suited to the more discerning battlefield visitor, who may prefer to visit the battlefields as part of a small group, rather than as just one of a large coach party. Travelling as part of a small group allows for a more flexible itinerary, thus making such tours more of an 'adventure'.
One downside of travelling as part of a much smaller group is that it results in a higher per-person charge as fixed costs (especially the very expensive insurance premiums operators have to pay) have to be shared amongst fewer people.
Once again, like most things in life you get what you pay for - and it's just the same with smaller conducted tours! The informality of travelling as part of a small group allows for greater flexibility and an altogether friendlier atmosphere. It is also far more suited to the informal exchange of questions and answers as one explores the most poignant battlefields of the Great War (see recommended links below).
Some tour companies, especially those operating larger coach parties, try to cram in too much in too short a time so as to make an impressive itinerary. This can result in a 'whistle stop' tour of photo opportunities without sufficient time to take in the various sites visited. It's like visiting London and just seeing Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace etc. and therefore not really 'seeing' the true London at all. Not all companies fall in to this trap and many offer a well balanced itinerary to many battlefields world-wide.
Smaller tour groups can usually get 'off the beaten track' (i.e. away from the usual tourist routes...) as smaller vehicles can negotiate the narrow lanes which criss-cross some of the most significant parts of the Somme and Ypres battlefields. The itinerary for smaller groups usually offers greater flexibility.
The most important qualities for a good tour guide is a balanced combination of subject knowledge and interpersonal skills. In other words he/she knows what they are talking about and can convey that knowledge to the first time visitor in such a way to hold their interest and impart their knowledge.
There are many knowledgeable 'experts' around who may not speak in a language that facilitates an ease of understanding. Likewise there are some with the 'gift of the gab' but whose knowledge base is on a somewhat shaky footing. The best way to judge the suitability of the guide is to ask for testimonials from previous clients.
Make sure that your tour operator fully complies with the provisions of the Tour Package Tour Travel Regulations of 1992 (in the U.K.), particularly in regards to the safety of payments and insurance.
Only select a tour operator who has the more costly full third party tour operator indemnity insurance, as well as motor vehicle insurance which covers the carriage of persons for hire and reward (such as those recommended below).
Some tour operators offer a lower per person charge by not including lunch (and sometimes not even an evening meal, though this is rare). Where a lunch is provided it can be just sandwiches or, as was the case recently on the Somme battlefield, a coach parked on a supermarket car park with the guide buying bread and cheese for their customers to make their own rolls!
Also enquire as to whether the guide is going to dine and stay with the group all evening (it's important to bring the day to an end by discussing matters of interest and concern).
Somme Battlefield Tours Ltd always includes two- and three- course cooked lunches as part of the tour cost, as well as free drinks and confectionary whilst touring the battlefield. James Power, the owner and founder of the company, personally organises and accompanies all conducted tours.
Larger Groups: The War Research Society
Smaller Groups: Somme Battlefield Tours Ltd
A 'flying pig' was a mortar bomb.
- Did you know?