I’m a very independent traveler, meaning that I prefer to plan my own trips without much aid and travel on my own once I’m in a new destination. A few years ago though my eyes were opened to the benefit of a great tour guide, but it for a day or a week. This in turn prompted me to explore different options when I travel, such as longer guided tours. I admit from the start, I have more questions than answers in this post, but I do want to share some thoughts and hear your opinions as well.
First, there are a couple of different travel options if using the assistance of a tour company, day trips and complete tour packages.
Day trips are organized either through local travel groups or with larger global tour companies. The benefit of a day trip or going on a 4-hour walking tour is how much more you gain from the experience with the expertise of someone who knows what they’re doing. We’ve gone the cheap route before, walked around cities by ourselves, reading plaques and tiny paragraphs in guide books leaving content, but not totally satisfied with the experience. Doing the same walk with an expert tour guide though is an enlightening experience. The right guide can transform a mediocre travel experience into a great one and for a few dollars more, your entire trip is that much better. Most of us don’t revisit the same destination twice, unless it’s close by or really special. That means we need to make it a priority to get the most out of the experience as possible. I’m not talking about running through town with a checklist, instead whatever you decide to do, do it well. Usually that means spending a little more money, but it is almost always worth it. You are there for a reason after all, and you should do everything in your power to get the most out of your trip.
Day tours are easy to rationalize and quantify their utility. Where I’ve run into some psychological travel angst lately is with the concept of packaged tours.
Millions of people embark on a preset tour every year, and that’s great. It’s a travel style, just like cruising, adventure or volunteer travel. It’s not for everyone, but is great for some. In the past I never really thought this style of travel was for me. I love nothing more than planning the intricacies of a new travel adventure, and to take that away from me would be almost heartbreaking I think. But there are certain parts of the world which I think necessarily lend themselves to working with a tour company if the situation fits and if it is the RIGHT tour company. The Galapagos and Antarctica are two great examples where the traveler almost has to book with a reputable company. But there are so many other parts of the world where this decision is less distinct and harder to make.
I’ll use the example I’m wrestling with currently. Next year we are traveling to Southeast Asia to revisit one of our favorite places, Thailand, and to explore a new one. I haven’t decided yet if that new one is going to be Cambodia or Laos, but it will be one or the other. To get around either country is a little challenging, but certainly possible. I know many people who have navigated the bus and train systems of both countries to moderate and even high levels of success. But there’s more than just travel to consider, there is lodging, activities and tours – everything that combines to make a successful travel experience. While I could certainly figure out just about everything, I would still have concerns about local guides and certainly accommodations. This is where a reputable, well matched tour company comes in. There are several outfits which offer multi-day tours in both countries and, should I elect to go with them, THEY will manage all of the pesky details that would ordinarily keep me awake at night. My entire vacation wouldn’t be planned from start to finish, merely a leg.
And yet I still can’t pull the trigger. The idea of touring around with other people, other potentially obnoxious and annoying people, doesn’t really appeal to me. I love the idea of being able to go where I want and when I want, without worrying about a preset schedule. And yet I’m torn because of the relative ease that selecting a 3-5 day tour would give us if we went with a well known travel company.
As I promised, there are more questions than answers in this post, but I think my dilemma is one many people must go through. That’s why I’m curious to hear what you think.
Have you traveled with a preset tour in the past and do you think it’s possible for the independent traveler to really enjoy them?
19 thoughts on “When Should Independent Travelers Use a Tour Company”
I agree this is a tricky one Matt. I have been struggling with this myself. Traditionally we are independent travellers like yourself. I have come up with the same results as you:
1. Half day and day tours are great. You get more info, hopefully with a nice group of people. If they are horrible, you only have to put up with it for a day, so it is all good.
2. I have not yet been able to bite the bullet and book a longer tour. If I did it would be in Asia, but I would do something like an Intrepid tour where the group size is small and the travel style is basic. I definitely could not come at a large bus with 30 people tagging along behind.
3. I am tossing up about doing an Intrepid Burma trip now things are getting a little better in that Country. By the way Laos is great. I do not think you would need to book a 3-5 day tour in Laos.
I’ve done a wide variety of tours, and while I prefer short or day tours to multi-day trips, I’m planning my first overlanding adventure in February — another area that is best done on an organized tour.
But as far as Southeast Asia goes, I don’t think it’s suited for a multi-day organized tour. It’s such an easy place to travel — just about every guesthouse doubles as a travel agent, and you can book day tours and onward transport to just about anywhere. And if you end up in a crappy hotel, it’s cheap to upgrade to a nicer one.
Get a guide for Angkor Wat — that’s where it’s worth it. Otherwise, I think you’re best off going independently.
Thanks Kate! That seems to be the popular opinion.
We did a half-day tour in Fez with a guide to take us through the medina. Since we had limited time and were visiting multiple cities, this made great sense to have a guide so no one would get lost. The guide was terrific and told us many stories and tidbits you’d never get except from a local!
I think you are right to “mix it up,” taking advantage of tours while still keeping time to yourself to explore. I’ve found you can take a tour and still bow out of activities that don’t interest you much in favor of doing something else. And sometimes it’s nice to have someone else be in charge of all the logistics!
Southeast Asia will be easier than you think without a tour. It is heavily trafficked by independent travelers of all ages. All of the countries have bus systems that are easy to use and efficient. Hiring a tour guide or even a private driver for part of the trip can be helpful but is by no means a necessity. I do agree with your logic though, sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the logistics, and a great tour guide can give you amazing historical and cultural insight into a place. That being said, it’s totally optional in southeast asia, so if you’re on the fence, go with your gut and do it on your own. You’ll easily find guides and companies to help you once you arrive if you change your mind or want to do something shorter.
As a former flight attendant, prone to exploring every big and little city in which I had a layover, I understand and lived the independent type of travel. I also traveled to the UK 6 years in a row with a friend and we planned our own where to go and what to see, using the city walking tours offered as our only tour guide experience – well worth the time and money! We were both like minded about being relaxed while we explored – leaving time to linger at the Tate if we wanted for example.
I have in the last few years taken 3 packaged group tours – and the advantage is – it’s less expensive than any deal I could put together myself with regard to where I wanted to stay and the activities I wanted to do. I found the groups were over all pretty interesting and great people, and the ability to avoid and ignore the unhappy members was pretty easy. The more expensive and known the company is, the more interesting and less full of complaining the other guest are is my experience. I also found the really popular sites were less crowded with the group, believe it or not – they almost always took us at a less than prime time for the visits. I also found the Tours to be able to get me into places and events that I would not have known about on my own – their research into the newest and most interesting attractions was pretty amazing. They also used step on day tour guides in a lot of local cities. I also traveled with friends, and found there was no grumbling about what were we going to do today and when, it was all on the schedule. My last group trip was on an African Safari, and I chose not to go on the last game drive of the trip – spent the day at a camp getting a long massage over looking the Serengeti and seeing Plenty of animals – and had the camp, pool and lounge pretty much to myself – and had some amazing conversations with the staff that I would not have on my own.
Most people I speak with would not go to China on their own – fear of getting lost and never found again – is their main reason.
That’s great advice Jennifer, thank you. I think you do a a great job outlining the clear benefits of going with a group.
My very first international travel experience was in 1995 as a wet-behind-the-ears college junior participating in a pilgrimage to Israel with 50 people from Montana and Colorado. That trip is the reason I still love to travel. It was my gateway drug. It proved to me that I could get past my fears of traveling out of the country and opened my eyes to the possibilities.
I returned to Israel this past year and had a completely different experience as a solo traveler. I was able to decide which places I wanted to see and if there was a place I wanted to stay longer at, I could. No one was directing me. I loved it! I did take part in one of the free walking tours of the Old City and enjoyed it very much. There were some other short tours I was also interested in but they were a bit too costly.
I honestly don’t think I would use a tour group in SE Asia. It’s just too easy to get around and see things…I stayed at the Green Tulip Hostel in Chiang Mai and they arranged anything I wanted to do from cooking classes to visa runs to jungle excursions and I didn’t feel like I was getting taken advantage of (and found out later, was often paying less than other tourists).
I think there is a time and a place for a tour group…you just have to decide for yourself what that means. It’s a hard one. I look forward to hearing what you decide!
Thanks so much, there’s definitely a lot to be said for both methods of travel.
I used to do tours, and then I shifted to being “independent” for my year-plus travel sabbatical. I have done some day tours when it is impossible, unsafe, or too expensive to do it alone. Like you, the thought of being stuck with a group of people I may find annoying for multiple days is a little scary. But I am getting into Patagonia and really want to do some of the multi-day trekking. I do not have the previous experience/ confidence to do it on my own, so my first attempt will be with a tour. I’ll let you know how it goes :-)
Great, please do! It sounds like that may be an instance where the group is definitely the way to go.
I am easily embarrassed and annoyed by Americans traveling abroad and have tended to avoid multi-day tours in my limited holidays. I was an incredibly inexperienced traveler when I went to Cambodia a year or so ago and managed to get from Siem Reap to the coast with very little fuss. I vote for a guide at the big sites like Ankgor Wat: worth every penny. We hired a driver and a guide for three days and it was total $125 US including our entrance fees/lunch/tip. I’ve since heard you can get better deals. Heaven to get into an air conditioned car and out of the oppressive heat. In Siem Reap, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to show us around the city for about $5 US and not only was it a blast it was a great introduction to Siem Reap for a couple of wide-eyed jet lagged North American women. We made him take us away from the tourist center near Pub Street and across the river. The people working the guest houses in Siem Reap were much more helpful (I found) than the people at hotels. We arranged our bus trip at a guest house we weren’t even staying and they had a tuk tuk pick us up and take us to the “bus station” at our hotel. You’re going to have a blast and someone as traveled as yourself will only be frustrated by a multi-day tour of SE Asia. Have a great trip!
Laura, congrats on navigating Cambodia so well! You describe one of the best parts of hiring a guide, learning more about the destination from someone who lives there and really understands it.
The guide really makes the tour, as you mentioned. I’ve done New Zealand both on my own and as part of an organized 12-day tour (the tour came first; it was my first big trip out of the U.S.), and both were really great experiences. The tour was so successful though because the guides were GREAT, and because I had no prior travel experience.
These days, I only like short guided tours; maybe a few days at most. But I’m certainly not against longer ones! They can be great for the right sort of traveler.
I think the key would be finding a tour that offers you plenty of free time, and perhaps more than one option at certain stops. I hate going on a tour that requires you to either partake in an activity (that usually costs extra) or sit around and twiddle your thumbs…
Organised tours can be great if you haven’t much time but they can be crowded and rushed. I remember going on an tour of the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. It was hot, crowded and not a pleasant experience. We went back on our own in the noon day sun (to avoid the crowds as everyone else avoided the heat) and it was so much better. Wandering around the tombs and being virtualy the only ones there was without a doubt so much better. We also checked out the Valley of the Nobles which was really interesting and completely overlooked with the orgasnised tour.
I went on an organised tour in Egypt this past September. I’d never gone on a package tour before (although I frequently take day or half-day tours for the reasons you described); but there’s a lot to see throughout Egypt and it doesn’t have a great transportation infrastructure like so many European and Asian countries do. Also I wanted to take a cruise on the Nile, and pretty much the only way to do that is as part of a larger package tour. Yes, I had to do things on their schedule, but it was very comprehensive in what was covered (one key is to choose wisely and select for a tour that includes all or most of the locales and attractions in the area that you want to see). Given how hot it would get each day, it was also very nice to have an air conditioned coach to take me to the temples, museums, etc. that we were visiting. I also arrived in Cairo a couple of days before the tour began so that I could do some additional sightseeing on my own; and some downtime was provided during the tour as well. Additionally, whenever we would go to a particular site we would be some given some on-our-own time to explore and take photos after the guide had finished showing us stuff and relating the history. I had an amazing time. My next few trips that I have lined up will again be independent, but I had a fantastic time on my Egyptian tour, and I would do an organised tour again under the right circumstances.
The first answer is no, I would accept someone to help me with reservations and orientation on the best places to stay etc. especially in remote locations but taking a packaged tour? That would be probably he last thing I’ll accept only if the option is taking a cruise (exceptions being Alaska, Nile and maybe Danube). However, as stated in many of the comments there are notable exceptions due to location, safety, time and cost.
Exactly, it depends on the situation
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