I’m an independent traveller. Have been for close to four years, but that doesn’t mean I’m against organised tours. Although my personal preference is to go it alone, I think tours can offer an invaluable travel experience if done well and taken in the right circumstances.
I’ve taken tours that have lasted hours, days and weeks. I’ve toured in big groups, small groups and everything in between. I’ve experienced tours run by international brands and local outfits. Based on my experiences, here’s my guide to whether to take tours, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of this style of travel and what to look for if you do decide to book a tour.
The Advantages of Taking Tours
Someone else organises your trip
The overwhelming upside of taking a tour is having the luxury of someone else doing the planning, arranging, booking and general organisation of your trip. Whether it’s a day trip to Chichen Itza from Cancun or two weeks in China, it’s nice not to have someone else line up bus and train schedules. It also means you get to avoid spending hours on trip advisor checking accommodation reviews.
Even as someone who enjoys the planning part of a trip, it is undeniably hard work and if you’re not so experienced in getting yourself around, a tour can be the perfect solution. Hell, sometimes I hop on a tour for this reason alone – it makes a nice break for me after weeks and months on the road, planning every day.
You’ll get to meet people
The first “solo” trip I ever did i.e. a trip without any of my friends or family at my side, was to Southeast Asia. It was a break from work (back in the days when I was a lawyer) and I was freaking out that I’d spend the entire time on my own, hiding out in my hotel room, too paranoid about my single traveller status to actually enjoy myself. To address this, I booked onto a tour and ended up meeting people I’m still friends with over four years later.
The great thing about tours is that you’re rarely on them alone (I say rarely because I did once book onto a tour, again back in my lawyer vacation days, and found I was the only one on my tour at a time when I really didn’t feel like being alone).
Even now, I jump on the occasional day or so tour sometimes just for the purpose of meeting new or different people. I find this especially useful if I’m in a party town and looking to meet people who have more than pubs and clubs on their mind.
They are great if local transport is tricky
Sometimes local transport isn’t your best friend. Whether it doesn’t go directly where you want to go, the times are not ideal (for me that means early in the morning) or you’d need to change bus or train a few times too many, in those circumstances an organised tour can be the perfect solution.
I took a tour to the Maya ruins of Uxmal in Mexico. I could have got there by public transport but I would have needed to get a taxi from my accommodation to the bus station and back as well as change buses to get there. My decision to take a tour bought me an extra hour in bed!
Sometimes taking a tour is the only way
Think you can turn up at the Inca Trail and ramble along the four-day route on your own? Think again. North Korean, Bhutan – there are a number of places and activities around the world where you are required to have at least a guide to show you around the place. In those circumstances, pure independent travel is a no-go.
You’ll get local insight
I’ve been to many places that, in hindsight, would have been enhanced had I hired a local guide. From history to curious facts to customs you didn’t even realise existed, having a local as your side can offer a level of cultural enrichment you’re unlikely to experience going it alone.
You’ll probably do more than you would on your own
I’m a lazy..ahem, slow traveller so I can happily languish in a place for a few days before even getting around to seeing the main sights. In part that’s due to my work but it’s also due to the planning effort required when you’re exploring a new place. Whenever I’ve been on tours, I’ve crammed much more into my day than I ever would have if I’d been travelling on my own steam. Not only that, I’ve seen places and enjoyed activities I may not have otherwise. Ultimately, planning your own adventures takes time and that is time that eats into your sightseeing.
You won’t experience the language barrier
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m no natural born linguist. During my first trip to Latin America and also for over a week in China I was relieved to have a local guide who could help ease me into the language. Sitting on a bus, getting a free language lesson as well as having someone fluent with the lingo to ask questions about food bills or iron out accommodation wrinkles can take a lot of stress out of a trip.
You might go somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise
There’s a huge amount of snobbery amongst independent travellers – a judgement that tours are full of “tourists” and that anyone who goes on one is not a “real travellers”. Seriously? I wish those people would get over themselves and stop being arrogant for long enough to realise that everyone is different and for some people the idea of independent travel in a foreign land is a scary prospect. Taking a tour can offer a high amount of security and confidence for many people and encourage them to take a trip to a place they might not otherwise venture on their own and as far as I’m concerned, anything that helps someone fulfil a dream and travel to a place they’ve longed to go to is a plus in my books.
The Disadvantages of Taking Tours
Cost – you can most likely can do it cheaper
Cost is without a doubt the biggest downside to taking tours. The companies offering their services are not altruistic do-gooders, they’re in it to make a profit and that profit is paid for by you. From transport to sights and activities, you’ll be paying a premium when you can most likely recreate the same trip much cheaper. When I was in Hawaii, I spent only $5 visiting Pearl Harbor when most of the tours cost around $50. Sure, I took the local bus instead of stepping onto a coach outside my hotel, but it wasn’t difficult to stroll a few paces to the bus stop.
You’ll be part of a herded mass
One of the things that frustrates me the most as an independent traveller is large groups. I recently visited the Van Gough museum in Amsterdam which was being visited by a large group at the same time. As they stood en mass around each picture, jostling with each other for viewing space, it became impossible for anyone else to get a look in. Meanwhile, those who had lost interest, stood at the back, chatting loudly and generally ruining the quiet that I enjoy so much in galleries and museums. Take tours, especially large group ones, and you become part of that problem. It (inadvertently) happened to me when I took a Roots tour in The Gambia.
Not only that, if you’re on a large tour, you’ll probably find yourself following an umbrella wielding guide and unless you’re up front or sporting some 1990’s headphones (like the Spice Girls), your engagement level will be low.
You’ll have very limited time alone
My next big gripe about tours in the intensity of them. In order to provide you with the greatest bang for your buck, most tours cram as much as they possibly can into them, which can leave you feeling like you’ve been on a whirlwind adventure rather than truly getting the time to explore and connect with a place on your own and in your own way.
You’ll meet people
Ok, so this is both a pro and a con when you take tours. Yes, you get to meet people, but sadly, you don’t get to choose who they are. From negative Noras to been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt types, tours can throw you in the path of the kinds of people you wouldn’t usually choose to spend your time with. If your trip is just a day, that’s usually bearable, but if you’re on a multi-night adventure, clashing personalities can start to grate pretty quickly.
I still recall with an irrational sense of anger a “lady” on my China tour who ordered the vegetarian menu at a dim sum restaurant because she was worried she’d be served chicken feet. However, when the meat and fish dumplings were served and looked delicious, she spent the entire meal griping about her boring vegetables. The climax of her complaints saw her lean over, spear my scallop dumpling and cram it in her mouth declaring “I eat fish”. To make matters worse, when she saw my astonished and unimpressed face, she opened her mouth to reveal the chewed contents, pointed with her chopstick and mumbled (mouth still open) “wan’ it back?”. I declined.
You’ll spend a lot of time waiting
People are not machines and keeping time is not everyone’s forte. In fact, I’m that person on a tour who doesn’t quite make it back to the bus on time (reference earlier comment about not having enough time alone) or just has to do one last thing before we sit down for dinner. If you’re on a tour, you will find yourself waiting for other people a lot. Best solution – pack a book!
You’ll see what everyone else sees… including a rug factory or two
Unless you have a lot of free time to explore on your own, you’re only going to see what everyone else sees while you’re on a tour – no wandering off down a different lane and discovering another side to a village.
But worse, you run the risk of being shuffled into a rug selling factory. I shudder at the number of times I’ve been taken to these commission paying (to your guide) warehouses where the sole intent is to get the tourists to make a purchase. I don’t know about you, but as someone who is practising the art of packing light, I’m not in the market for a hand woven rug or a life-size replica of Buddha. Meanwhile, my window of exploration and time to see what I want to see is ever diminishing.
You may go home not recalling one place from the next
One of the significant upsides to planning your own trip is that the details tend to stick better in your head. After plotting bus routes and scouring accommodation websites for each destination, you’re going to have a much better memory of where you went and when compared to a trip where someone does all the planning for you. I’d have to think quite hard to remember some of the places I went during my first week in China as the days tended to blend into one.
You don’t get the same sense of personal achievement
Even when I’m failing at travelling, I’m still growing – mentally and personally. And it’s that sense of personal achievement that continues to inspire me to push my boundaries, leave my comfort zone and makes me want to continue to travel.
What to look for when you’re booking a tour
So, they are the advantages and disadvantages when you take tours (at least as I see them). The next question is how to take tours in a way that can give you the best of both worlds – the benefits with as few of the downsides as possible? Here’s what to think about when you book a tour.
Pick your company carefully
Smaller groups are almost certainly going to provide a better tour experience so find a company that specialises in smaller group travel rather than companies that are going to put you on a 52-seater coach. Better still, if you can stretch to it financially, a tailor-made tour for you and a few friends will be your best bet.
Try booking with a local outfit
For shorter tours lasting a day or two, look at booking your tour in-country with a local company. Not only will they have great local knowledge, you’ll be putting money directly into the hands of the locals
Check the itinerary closely
This is the most vital detail when you take tours. First, make sure you your tours stops at all the sights you want to see (and none that you don’t want). But not only that, check how much time you have in each place. If the whole point of your trip to South America is to try your hand at some Tango in Buenos Aires, there’s little point booking a tour that blows through the city for just a few hours.
Another tip is to make sure you get some free time to explore – you may think you know what you want to see before you arrive, but just wait until you’re there – then you’ll realise there is a whole load more things you didn’t realise that you want to see.
Check what’s included in the price
When you take tours you are going to pay more than a DIY trip, but not all tours are created equally and some can offer great value. Look at room quality (if accommodation is included), what meals are already in the price, whether you have to pay more to enter sites and what other optional extras might bump up your costs.
Consider transport, accommodation and restaurant styles
If you don’t mind roughing it, there’s little point paying extra for a tour that will place you in 4 star hotels and luxury carriages on trains. Likewise, if you need your creature comforts, overlanding in Africa with a bus and tent isn’t likely to suit.
Consider the target demographics of your tour
Companies like Intrepid Travel are great for people who want the experience of solo and independent travel but with some hand holding. Likewise, a package tour sold from the back page of the SAGA magazine is going to attract a different kind of traveller. And don’t even consider a Contiki tour unless you have a high tolerance for parties and shenanigans.
How to be responsible when you take tours
And finally, a quick word on responsible travel. Just because somebody else is going to take responsibility for your trip or part of it, doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to be a responsible tour taker. Here are some tips:
Check out the green credentials of your tour company
Good international companies will have a responsible tourism policy. Smaller companies, usually in-country will be harder to judge so you will have to ask around. What are you looking for: in essence to take only memories and leave only footprints. In terms of practical examples, don’t go with any company who systematically engages in practices that are unfriendly to the environment (ploughing over trees in arid terrain just to get a sight of an animal) or behave badly towards wildlife (encourages feeding animals or touching them).
Tip your guides… and tip them well
The amount of budget travellers I’ve seen swan off after a tour without giving even a small tip embarrasses me. Particularly when they spent the previous night handing over wads of dollars for their favourite at home brand of beer. A lot of guides are paid very little so rely on the tips for their income. Don’t be tight.
Don’t barter too hard
For the same reasons as above, don’t barter too hard in-country with guides for the price of their services. Sure, don’t get ripped off but do pay a fair price.
Chat to your guide
My most rewarding aspect of hiring a guide when I was in Banaue in the Philippines wasn’t the sights I saw (as beautiful as they were), it was the cultural exchange I had with my guide. Topic after topic from schooling to healthcare to music to desserts we traded tales on what life was like in each of our countries. For me it was a great insight into life in the Philippines. For my guide it was perhaps the closest he might ever come to experiencing what life might be like in England.
Taking tours can be an excellent and rewarding way to travel if done well. Who knows, taking a tour might inspire you to go out and explore on your own one day (as happened to me). But maybe it won’t. Either way, what matters most is that you travel and get to see the places of your dreams – however you get around.
Are you a fan of taking tours? Any extra tips to add?