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Retreat Travel: Things You Need to Know Before You Go

So, you want to go on a retreat. Maybe it’s a yoga retreat, a writer’s workshop, or a tour of another country. You like that someone else is doing all the planning and all you have to do is show up for what promises to be an amazing experience. You will get to do or see (or eat) all the things you always hoped to, and you didn’t have to plan any of it. Sounds like a dream!


Which is exactly what it is.


News flash: group travel isn't about you. 


Ouch.


I said what I said.


If you want a trip that is all about you, you will have to book a trip that is just for you. If you want to see all the things and do all the things and eat all the things YOU want, in the way YOU want to, on YOUR timetable, you must travel independently. It is important to realize that a group trip is about the group, not any individual in it. It's like a team, and as the saying goes, there's no I in team.


However, none of this is to say that it won't be the trip of a lifetime, provided you manage your expectations and exude flexibility. Having planned and led more than a dozen retreats myself, I have figured out the secrets to effective group travel. I’m here to tell you the benefits and drawbacks of traveling with a group, what to expect (and how to deal with the unexpected), what to look for in a tour company or retreat leader, and how to have the time of your life on your retreat.


Group of eleven women in athletic clothes, carrying yoga mats, on a yoga retreat to Colorado.
Yoga & Art Retreat to Colorado 2023

The Things You Need to Know Before You Go are broken down into the following sections. Skip ahead with these links:







 

Which Retreat is Right for Me?

Picking the right retreat is the most important thing you will do.  Not all retreats are, well, actually retreats.  Let’s start there. 


What is a Retreat? 

The definition of a retreat is an act of going away, especially from something difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable.  In modern day terms, most retreats are a vacation that helps you get away from everyday life.  Some are spiritual in nature, while others focus on a group activity (writing, art, fitness, etc.).  You can find solo retreats and silent retreats.  In simple terms, a retreat is a purposeful break from your life’s routine.  


What makes a retreat different from a tour, a convention, or a vacation?  A vacation is typically a getaway that you plan, or that is planned by a travel agent with your input.  Everything you do on vacation is paid for separately, unless you are vacationing at an all-inclusive resort or going on a cruise.  


A convention, or workshop, is typically an event that you attend for a specific purpose.  It may be a single day or several days.  The cost of your ticket covers only the event.  Hotels, flights, food, and entertainment outside of the convention are booked by you and paid for separately. 


A tour might be big or small, involving a motor coach or a small van, a driver, and a tour guide.  Typically, your cost includes this mode of transportation, your guide’s fees and accommodations, your own accommodations, and not much else.  Depending on the country, many entrance fees to attractions are separate and food is almost never included. 


A retreat is usually held at one location and includes your accommodations, program, activities and excursions, and most of your meals.  Airfare and gratuities are usually not included, but sometimes airport transfers are.


If someone is trying to sell you a retreat, but they tell you that you must book your own hotel, it is not a retreat!  



The Different Types of Retreats

There are 3 main types of retreats that you can attend, using our definition of a retreat.  


  1. The Programmed Retreat. This is a retreat with a specific program, a planned itinerary, and several workshops or events within the structure of the getaway.  For example, perhaps you start your day with breakfast as a group, head into a 3-4 hour group workshop, share lunch as a group, have an hour on your own for reflection, come back together for a 3-hour afternoon workshop, have dinner together, and then enjoy a nighttime activity as a group.  You are on this retreat to participate.  If it’s a hiking retreat, for example, and you have a broken knee, you probably shouldn’t book this retreat.


  1. The Flexible Retreat.  This is a retreat with a specific program but plenty of built in down time for you to explore and do your own thing.  For example, you might eat all your meals together as a group, and bookend your day with yoga classes, but throughout the rest of the day you can book a massage at the spa, go to the beach with new friends, or explore a nearby town.  


  1. The Tour Retreat.  This is a retreat similar to the Programmed Retreat, except you will move from place to place instead of staying in one location.  Most of the people on this trip are there to see the sights and enjoy the program.  If you prefer more time alone, do not book this retreat.  If you love going with the flow and unexpected adventures, this is the one for you. 



Length of Retreat

If this is your first ever group travel experience, you may want to consider a shorter retreat or one closer to home.  The Programmed Retreat is usually 2-4 days and is a good entry point for learning how much group time is suitable for your tastes.  If you are a more seasoned retreat guest, you can find retreats as long as 14 days, depending on their location.  The Flexible Retreat is your best bet for trips longer than 7 days.  You may want more downtime the longer you go.



Big Groups vs Small Gatherings

I must point out here that the retreat business is just that – a business.  The person or group hosting the retreat is doing so to earn a living!  I’m sure there are some independently wealthy people out there who hold retreats out of the goodness of their hearts, but most retreat leaders hope to be fairly compensated for their time planning and running the retreat.  As such, the bigger the group, the better the compensation.  


However, not all retreat leaders like leading large groups.  And not all retreat guests like attending large retreats.  There are pros and cons for both types.  For our purposes, let’s say Small Groups have fewer than 10 attendees, Medium Groups are 10-25 people, and Large Groups are 25 people or more.  (We’ve seen groups as small as 4 and as big as 40!) 


SMALLER GROUPS

PROS

CONS

Intimate; Close relationships can be formed; More 1:1 time with the group leader

May not have enough people for small group work/partner work

Ability to stay in smaller houses/villas, or boutique hotels

Tends to be more expensive without the large group discounts

Fewer personalities may lead to less drama

If you don’t get on well with someone in the group, it can be uncomfortable for everyone


Group of seven women standing in tree pose in a forest.  Small group yoga retreat.
Small Group: Women's Yoga & Hiking Retreat to Pennsylvania 2020

LARGER GROUPS

PROS

CONS

Enough people to mingle with and vibe with

You may not get a chance to know everyone (or everyone’s name!); More personalities = more opportunity for drama

Bigger hotels = more rooming options

Bigger groups mean bigger hotels, and more logistical challenges at local venues, particularly if last-minute changes need to be made

If it’s a flexible retreat, there may be more ways to spend your time with different groups, or alone.

Less flexibility with time (You must stay on schedule when dealing with so many guests!)

Group discounts mean retreats might be less expensive

Less personal attention from group leader


Group of 22 people standing in tree pose under a thatched roof on a medium sized group yoga retreat to the Dominican republic.
Medium Group: Yoga Retreat to Dominican Republic 2023

Know Before You Go


What to Look for in a Retreat Leader

First and foremost, when booking a retreat, make sure that the theme of the trip is in line with your interests.  If you really want to go to Spain and you found a yoga retreat doing all the things you want to do, but you don’t do yoga, should you go?  You may want to talk to the retreat leader about it to see!  


Retreat leaders should be approachable, knowledgeable, and willing to find answers when they don’t know them.  You should be able to reach them on the phone to ask all of your questions.  If you have a lot of questions, don’t waste time (yours or theirs) texting and emailing.  Just call and ask!  They will be excited to talk to you, and you will be able to determine if you want to spend six days in the middle of nowhere with them! 


A few scenarios we have seen when it comes to retreat leaders:


  • Solo Leaders - This is your local yoga teacher who is planning a retreat in Bali, or your running coach who has a weekend training camp in Florida.  You tend to know these leaders, or know someone who knows them. On the off chance you don’t know them (maybe you found them in a group or through an ad), ask them if you can speak to one of their previous retreat guests, or view testimonials.  If this is their first retreat (and yours), ask them if they have ever been on a retreat. If they don’t know how one is run, I would skip this as your first.


  • Partner Leaders - Perhaps two friends are leading a spiritual women’s empowerment workshop in California, or maybe your poetry teacher is teaming up with a travel agent to plan the retreat in Scotland this summer.  Ask the same questions that you would with Solo Leaders.  

  • Corporations or Retreat Centers - Occasionally, you will come across a retreat hosted by the retreat center itself.  This might be a hotel in Mexico with a yoga teacher or a Sedona yoga studio inviting guests to their town.  Make sure that the lodging and meals are included in the price! These prices should be lower than the two above because the overhead is lower.  If the price is higher than you expected, find out why! 



The Fine Print

Read everything!!! 


Start with the website and read it beginning to end.  If there is no website, and you are planning on going on an African Safari with someone you’ve never met, that would be a major red flag!  Sure, anyone can make a website.  But anyone who doesn’t make a website is even more suspicious! 


If there is a retreat contract, read it beginning to end.  Jot notes about things you don’t understand.  Ask questions in the preferred format, but know that it is never wrong to call and speak to the retreat leader.  


If there is a Zoom meeting to meet other participants, make every effort to attend.  If there is a retreat group on Facebook or another website, join it and participate.  If there is an email list, subscribe.  If there are polls or forms or surveys, fill them out.  If there is an app to download that will make your life easier, download it.  


Research the area you are traveling to before booking the trip. If you are traveling to South India, for example, and packing only tank tops and shorts, you missed the memo on what not to wear!  Most retreats are nonrefundable, so the time for questions is before you put down your deposit.  


If you find it hard to be flexible or you like things a certain way, group travel may not be for you.  A degree of flexibility is needed to truly enjoy yourself.  But if you read everything, and watch everything, and ask everything, you will know how much flexibility is required before you commit! 




The Other People in the Group

It’s up to you to get to know the other people in the group.  You may know some if you are traveling with a local group or friends and family, but try not to spend all your time with the people you already know!  Part of the fun of traveling with a group is making new friends.


Do’s and Don’ts of Socializing on a retreat:

  • Don’t go off on your own to nap when everyone else is making friends. Everyone has jet lag.  Have coffee and conversation instead! 

  • Do switch seats on the bus everyday and sit next to someone new. 

  • Don’t sit with the same people at every meal, even if they are your family.  Mix it up!

  • Do get to know your tour guide or retreat leader.  They have a lot of responsibilities and are working to make sure you have a good time, so maybe check in with them and let them know you are!  

  • Do ask people who are traveling alone to join you with your traveling buddy if you have one, or if you are traveling alone as well, introduce yourself! 


The awesome part about retreat travel is that you can travel alone and make new friends.  And if you love having your own king size bed and traveling solo, know that sometimes it can be hard to meet new friends if you retire to your room alone. You really have to push yourself outside your comfort zone and talk to everybody! 


On the other hand, if you love traveling to retreats with your bestie, be mindful if you two are being exclusive rather than inclusive.  If you are giving off the Real Housewives vibe, no one is going to try to infiltrate your private circle and you might not make as many new friends. 


Final point, if you fear that you may be the person in the group that is the Negative Nancy, the one that complains about everything or questions everything (because you didn’t log on to the Zoom, or sign up for the newsletter), you can turn that around at any time!  Remember, the retreat group experience is only as positive as its most negative guest.  Give as much love to the group as you take.  



Expect the Unexpected with Retreat Travel

Things go wrong. All. The. Time. 


Think of your own family vacation.  Did everything go right?  Or did your flight sit on the tarmac for three hours, causing you to miss your connection and losing your Dad’s luggage (for the entire two weeks you were away), and then everyone in your group caught Covid and you broke your foot two days into the trip?  No? Not your family? Just mine? 


Even if it is a tiny hiccup, things go wrong. This is why we get trip insurance.  It’s all part of the experience.  Be flexible, and this will be something you laugh about later!  This blog will teach you what to do if you’re the retreat leader.  As a retreat guest, you only have two tips: 


  1. Buy trip insurance.

  2. Be flexible.


Some of the things we’ve seen go wrong:

  • Volcano eruption causing a lava flow that wiped out the road to our top attraction

  • An ice cave exploration that turned out to be a 5 mile trek up a glacier with hurricane force wind gusts.

  • All the guests on our Iceland trip had to share beds because something was lost in translation regarding two beds. 

  • Robbery. Pickpocketing. Blah.

  • Rain and clouds the entire time.

  • A near drowning (on two trips!).

  • At least one person on every retreat gets sick or injured. Usually more than one if they are contagious.

  • The showers stopped working at the retreat center and flooded a guest’s room.

  • No-see-ums.  If you do not know what these are, learn before traveling to the Gulf of Mexico in warm weather.

  • Mean girls.

  • Lost luggage. So much lost luggage.


This list is not exhaustive.  You get the idea. 


Always remember, you have a choice.  You can look back on this retreat and say, “I had a phenomenal retreat despite XYZ going wrong.” Or you can say, “I had a miserable time on this retreat because of XYZ going wrong.”  You get to choose.  You spent the money, bought the flight, brought your hype.  Do you really want to remember it in a negative light?  



Eight women doing yoga on a deserted beach in the Florida Everglades.
That time we almost died in the Florida Everglades 2022

Stay in Touch

Once the retreat is over, stay in touch with your new friends and your retreat leader! Network with your new friends on social media.  Stay subscribed to the newsletter.  You may get a discount on a future trip.  You may want to organize or join a trip reunion.  There may be follow up work or gifts.  


Leave a positive review on social or Google for the retreat leader, and provide any constructive feedback in a private message.  


If there is a group photo album, contribute.  Tag the retreat company in your posts.  Refer friends for future retreats.  


While this trip wasn’t all about you, it wouldn’t have happened quite this way without YOU.  Each person in the group is an integral part of making a retreat an unforgettable experience.  Have a great time! 




 


If you are looking for your next Yoga Retreat, consider traveling with Whole Image Wellness, Inc. In addition to trips around the USA, we’ve also organized retreats to Costa Rica, Greece, Belize, Iceland, and the Philippines, and we’ll be visiting France, Egypt, Roatan, and Africa in the near future. We’ve worked with retreat companies in the past, booked some solo leader and partner adventures, and are most recently working with Go Farther Travel for truly exceptional one-of-a-kind experiences.  Subscribe to our email list (at the bottom of this page) to be among the first to know about upcoming retreats! 




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