To Tour or Not To Tour – independent vs group travel

When it comes to planning your next holiday adventure, one question that may arise is: “do I plan my own itinerary and do all the bookings myself, or do I join an organised tour?” 

For some this question would never come up, as they consider tours to be somehow a less authentic way to travel, or for those who are tourists and not real “travellers” like themselves. You know the type, right? *Roll eyes*

I myself IN GENERAL choose to organise all my own flights, accom, internal travel etc… but not always. I have quite a few times taken tours that have turned out to be amazing experiences…and occasionally one or two that weren’t. This topic is quite close to my heart, having taken a 14 day tour recently in India. Let’s look at pro’s and con’s, shall we?

Pro’s of Organised Tours

  • No stress in organising accommodation or travel. It’s all done for you, so you just turn up, see the sights, and get driven/trained to your next hotel at the end of the day. Some places don’t have trains or buses that go to your selected destinations, or not without difficult connections.
  • Certainty in your itinerary. You know you’ll get all your selected destinations covered. You won’t get stuck in a city for days because all flights and trains are booked out due to a religious festival (as happened to us in Vietnam during Tet). Or get stuck because the infrastructure is still developing and there is no regular transport (see point one).
  • Meeting new people. Solo travellers find they have a rent-a-crowd, if you like; company with whom to enjoy the travel experience. Some female travellers may find themselves feeling safer in some places travelling in a group.
  • You often get to see and do things you ordinarily wouldn’t have thought of.
  • You have a tour leader to explain cultural nuances, and answer any question you may have.
  • Restaurants chosen are ones that are known to be safe – for some people travelling in developing countries, this is a great plus.
  • Financially you know most of your costs ahead of time, and they’re taken care of, leaving you with less money to have to drag around.

Con’s of Organised Tours

  • Lack of freedom with itinerary – You can’t just jump off at a certain destination and spend x more number of days there; you have to stick to what’s on the itinerary.
  • Lack of freedom with daily scheduling – You may be expected to meet up with the group for dinner, say, just when you want to explore the new city.  You can’t just cop out on something you’re not interested in either, but be expected to join in.
  • Boredom – you may not find the fellow tour members very interesting, and then you’re stuck with them for weeks!
  • If you get sick on tour, it can be a drag to continue going to all the different pitstops on the tour when you really just want to stay holed up in your hotel room.
  • The accommodation is fixed, so if you get a dud room or just don’t like the hotel you may not be able to go elsewhere.
  • Foodwise, you may be more into street food and hawker stalls, but for the sake of other less adventurous souls in the group may always be attending safe but less authentic restaurants.

 

I’d like to share some of my own experiences as they relate to some of these key points.

Years ago I travelled on the Oz Experience bus several times to Byron Bay and Cairns. Despite the rest of the bus being backpackers, I had a fantastic time. Being a solo traveller, I was glad to have company when viewing the sights and at mealtimes (gawd, I often hate eating alone). I could also have a few beers and not be worried about getting back to the hotel safely, being in a group.  Oz Experience though is unique in that it’s hop-on, hop-off – so you really can choose to stop at a fave town, city or beach, stay a few days, and then call them when you want to get picked up (subject to bookings).

Likewise in Western Australia a few years ago, Dom and I opted to go with a backpacker group. Given that we had vast distances to cover between Perth and Ningaloo Reef/Exmouth, it got us to all the places we wanted, for cheaper than a Greyhound bus that would just drop us off somewhere in the middle of the night. Again, travelling with the backpackers was great craic, and made the trip immensely more enjoyable. It was only for 4 or 5 days, mind.

In Vietnam, a trip to the beautiful hills of Sapa and then Halong Bay in the little time we had left at the end of our honeymoon was made much easier by joining a tour. Each was only for a few days, and having someone else worry about trains, drivers, and booking the Village Stay and boat trip, just made sense.

  

Our most recent trip to India was one which I initially thought would be organised by ourselves. I can speak and read/write basic Hindi, have been there 4 times before, and the country has good trains and general infrastructure in the tourist belt. However, as I looked again at the distances between sights and cities in Rajasthan, it became apparent that it would require a LOT of trains. The luxury tourist trains to these areas were way expensive, so local ones would be the way to go. 

Looking at Intrepid, World Expeditions etc, showed that there were tours that visited the places we wanted…and it just seemed easier to let them do it all for us, bar the first and last few days in Delhi. One thing we weren’t too sure about was the fact that it was off-season. We went in April, which was really going into the hot season for India, with October to February being the cooler and drier months. The temperature could quite possibly hit the 40 mark, especially in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Only a camel could enjoy that…and maybe not even him.

 

But as it was the only time I could get off work, we booked the tour. After a few days at a hotel of our choice, we moved to the hotel in the itinerary to meet the group. And promptly discovered it consisted of just ONE OTHER COUPLE. Yikes. Who were in their mid-to-late FIFTIES. Double yikes. And one tour leader in his 40′s. Dom and I are very young at heart, so this really was a blow. That night at dinner, we met up with some of the group before us who had just returned – and there were some girls in their 20′s & 30′s who were vibrant, funny, inquisitive and great to chat to. They assured us we’d have a brilliant time – oh, but if only we’d come 2 weeks earlier, we thought, and travelled with you.

Now, the couple were nice people, and the first few days were OK, bar the awkwardness of talking to new strangers. But when it was the SAME people turning up to meals EVERY time, and the same people in the van for up to 5 hours at a time, it began to get a bit old.  The male got sick a week in, and then it was just the female and tour guide coming to meals.

Another issue was the itinerary. We’d agreed to the overall itinerary, but didn’t realise we were locked in to having to meet up with the others every night, and at a time the tour guide suggested. This proved really restrictive for us. When we got to Jaipur, we’d been travelling for HOURS from Agra. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, and Dom and I were keen to get out and see the new city. We went off to explore, discovered fantastic street stalls and markets, chai shops and spice shops, and just enjoyed talking to the Indian people in the street.

  

Only problem was, we were supposed to meet up for dinner at 7. Sadly we turned around at a certain point in time, to go back for dinner, knowing that we wouldn’t get out after dinner and this was the end of our day. Disappointing.

On our 2nd night in Jaipur we played hookey and in the bollywood movie intermission, declared we’d like to troop off without seeing the second half of the 3-hour (non-subtitled!) film. Unfortunately we still felt we had to go to the dinner place the guide suggested for dinner, which turned out not to be so great. Hurrumph. But we did get to play silly buggers with Ronald McDonald!

 

At other times we stayed in hotels that were fabulous in themselves, but were way out of town, so that we’d have to get a taxi if we wanted to go in and interact with the locals. One such we renamed the Shining Hotel, because it was large, empty and spooky – and we were the only guests there. Another one that was out of town we discovered did have a vibrant street area a few blocks away…but discovered this just as we had to return for dinner. Doh.

In Jaisalmer we snuck out after everyone had said good night, to go get some beers. Despite the bottle shop being closed, I spoke to the dodgy guys hanging around outside and we managed to come back with the booty (that story will be in another post). But we felt very naughty.

In Udaipur, which has one of the most spectacular sunsets you could hope to see, being situated right on the lake, we only had two days scheduled. At dusk on the first day, instead of enjoying the sunset, we had to attend a puppet show and dance show, which took until nightfall. We did have a lovely boatride on the 2nd day..but discovered a lovely vantage spot that would have been brilliant to have discovered the day before, at which to get great shots. Ah well…

  

On our final afternoon we arrived back in Delhi, and Dom and I were keen to go to a big outdoor market complex in South Delhi with food and wares from around India. The tour guide as usual started to say, “let’s meet at 7 for dinner…”, when I offered “why don’t we head to the rooftop restaurant now? We’re all starving”.  This would mean we’d all get a final meal together, and then leave us the night free.

But neither he nor the other couple were interested; not saying no, but just keeping silent.  We all stood around awkwardly. Dom eventually just said “well, we’re heading off to the markets; don’t wait for us tonight if we’re not back”. If they weren’t going to flex, neither were we. It was only 4.30pm or so, and it would be another night wasted if we ate at the hotel and then just went to bed. In fairness, I think the other couple were quite relieved, being just as sick of our company as we were with theirs.

We did indeed attend the markets, bought a beautiful sari, and then headed to the rock bar called Cafe Morrison, after which we got some street food, met a TV presenter in the queue and had a hilarious ride home in an auto. Give us adventure any day.

 

One other major issue we had was that at virtually every fort/temple/sight, we had local guides explaining everything to us. In India, the guides seem to learn by rote, and feel they have to get all the information across to you, or they’ve failed. Our eyes would constantly glaze over as all this detail and dates we didn’t need to know came spewing forth from their lips. Honestly, we would rather have discovered the temples for ourselves. Or used an audio-tour, as we did at one fort, where we could go at our own pace, or fast-forward if we wished. We could see that it stimulated the local economy to employ local guides, but it ruined the experience for us on a few occasions.

On the flip side I have to say we did things we wouldn’t usually do – like attending the Sikh temple, even going into the kitchen where they cook up the meals for attendees. We stayed in hotels far ritzier, and more full of character, than we would have chosen. We were driven around for hours a day, so that we could sit back and enjoy the scenery.  We saw far more forts and sights than we ever would ourselves (though a few more than I’d have liked). Most of the places at which we ate were really good; some in remote places we would never have found on our own.

 

What would I do differently next time? Probably hire a driver ourselves to take us around. Then we would have the power to say stay or go, depending on our whim. Or have a more customised tour which drops you at a place and lets you do what you want each afternoon/night. We will certainly be more careful in future and ask lots of questions, recognising that we have this need for freedom once we get to a place. I may well not go on a tour that’s 2 weeks long again. And I wouldn’t go in the off-season.

So my advice to you when considering a tour is: first ask yourself what sort of trip you want, and how much autonomy you need.  Consider if the organisation and travel offered is beneficial to the point it outweighs the benefits of organising your own trip.

If you do decide to go with an organised tour:

  • Read the itinerary and other literature thoroughly and ask lots of questions.
  • When actually on tour, if you find you have a very small group, be open at the very start and see if you can negotiate more free time if that is what you’d like.
  • Also negotiate whether you can visit some sites unassisted, rather than having a local tour guide.
  • Book your trip quite late, as a) the prices reduce as the tour date approaches, and b) you’ll already know the numbers of people booked to go with you.
  • If you’re going to go in the off-season, ask some friends you know well to come along, as you may very well be the only ones on tour.

Have you ever gone on an organised tour you wish you hadn’t? Or conversely, done your own thing only to get stuck somewhere and regret it?

The Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, Old Delhi

Well it’s about time I continue on with the Delhi sights, isn’t it? Our very first afternoon in India, we headed off to explore The Red Fort, or Lal Qila.

The red sandstone walls of the fort rise up to 33 metres above the bustle of Old Delhi and are an impressive sight.  Built in 1638, The Red Fort  is one of many built throughout northern India to keep out invaders. We would, in time, become a little fort-ed out, especially when on guided tours, but we were still fresh and eager on this our first day.

Obligatory couple shot in front of the magnificent complex:

The fort was once circled by a moat, now filled with verdant grass and noisy cicadas in lieu of water and crocodiles. The entry, however, remains as grand as ever:

Red Fort, Delhi Red Fort Delhi

Entry and exit is through the Lahore Gate, and once inside you sashay past a cornucopia of bazaar stalls selling tourist trinkets, before setting eyes on the architecture.  This sign below shows you the various halls, gardens, masjids and pavilions that can be explored once fully inside:

Red Fort in garden

First you walk towards the Hall of Public Audiences or Diwan- I-Am, also constructed of red sandstone.  The Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-I-Khas, is made of beautiful white marble, and gives a sense of serenity as you pass through its pillared portico.  It was also marvellously cool and offered respite from the heat. (No, hubby Dom didn’t wear Indian garb as I did).

Red Fort Diwan-i-Khas

You can easily see the Mughal style, not only in the graceful archways and onion domes, but also in the delicate designs inlaid in the marble of the interior halls.  In Islam it is not allowed to use human form, and so geometric and other patterns are designed, using inspiration from nature, such as flowers and stars. Unfortunately my poor photography does not do the designs justice.

One of the things we most enjoyed, apart from the beautiful design work, was just seeing people having a rest in the gardens. We too decided to sit for a while on the grass, and even cool our feet in the puddle that one of the dripping hoses made in the lawn. Just a simple pleasure on a hot day, that made us feel at one with the others.  Large gothic ravens also stepped gingerly on the grass, sipping at the pools of water, as did the friendly temple dogs:

Another little pleasure was seeing the mega-cute little squirrels that we saw everywhere, including here. They’d just scurry along the grass and climb up the trees, their little bushy tails aquiver.  Leaving the complex by a path that would take us to Chandni Chowk, we looked back to see the sun light up the marble brilliant white.

The next day we travelled south to see another unmissable sight,  Humayun’s Tomb. It is quite a way from the centre of town and the quickest way to get there is to take the metro to Nizamuddin station.  The tomb combines red sandstone and white marble, and can easily be seen as the forerunner of the Taj Mahal in Agra that would come later.

Isa Khan, the architect of the Taj Mahal, was also buried here, and his tomb is an example of Lodi architecture, being octagonal in shape. (You can also just make out my salwar kameez outfit).

And how about a shot of me in action, taking a photo in the gardens, and Dom with gardens and gleaming white Sikh temple beyond (another day, another rock t-shirt!)

After this visit we went to Nizamuddin, near the darga, to have a look for Karim’s – a great Mughal restaurant. Alas, we’d just missed the lunch cutoff time of 3pm – so promptly had lunch at the restaurant right opposite the darga. Absolutely delish!  To round off the day, we went to another suburb in the south Delhi area.  Having heard from my friend the night before that Lajpat Nagar was good for buying ladies fashions, we then high-tailed it there, being close by.  But I think that buying spree can wait for another post!

First stop in India: Delhi

Delhi is the quintessential mix of “old and new” (yes, travel cliche #1, yawn…)

While most people who haven’t been to India often think about poverty and slums (or maybe call centres), in fact there are spacious wide boulevardes that greet you from the airport. The airport itself sets the tone with soaring glass and chrome architecture, and gleaming metallic art installations on the walls.

 

As we drove from the airport into town, we first saw middle-class peeps walking their well-groomed dogs, others doing their morning calisthenics, still others waiting for the bus to work, with nary a whiff of poverty for some 20 minutes or more.

Dahl stall Delhi India

Only after some time does this impression of orderliness and wealth give way to the dusty streets with little markets and chai stalls, the hordes going about their daily business, lean-to shanty houses, people sleeping on footpaths, temples, masjids, auto and cycle-rickshaws, the smell of smog and wood-fire mingled, the ubiquitous cows and even more numerous street dogs. I remember my first trip here, having been been to Mumbai previously, wondering “where’s all the character?”

I kept looking slyly at my husband to see when he would get his first shock  - but it was a long time coming, much to my disappointment.  I’d made him watch doco’s about slums, the railways, even Bollywood movies to get him acclimatised, but secretly thought he’d find it confronting his first time around.  After a few days he declared that, in terms of smell and grubbiness, he thought Thailand was worse!

In truth, it was ME who in the first few days wondered what the heck I thought I was doing back here, when we could’ve been sunning ourselves on a beach in south east Asia (see pics of dusty hot littered roads near our hotel, below). But more on that later.

 

Every other time I’ve stayed in Delhi, it was in Main Bazaar – the Khao San Road of Delhi – in the appropriately named district of Pahar Ganj, right near New Delhi railway station.  As you can see, the road is fairly narrow, and utterly congested with tourists, shops/market stalls, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and the odd cow and dog. With the constant honking of traffic over here, it’s NOT a peaceful place to bed down for the night.

 Pahar Ganj, Delhi

But being older, wiser and a little less noise-tolerant, I decided to book us into the other main accommodation area in Pahar Ganj, Arakashan Road. It’s just a little more upmarket, although still dusty and noisy by day, and festooned in neon by night.

This is the road from Delhi Station to Arakashan Road; note temples, autos, cows and dogs:

 Delhi cow

Arakashan Road alive at night – admittedly the road is not much wider than Main Bazaar, but it is mostly hotels and restaurants, and more local Indian foot traffic.

Pahar Ganj by night 

We stayed at Hotel Raj which was relatively clean, and fairly quiet, being back off the main road. But every morning this pigeon fancier who lived on the roof (we surmise) would make his cooing noises to atract the birds and he would feed them.  So for some half hour from around 7am, there would be this “craw!craw!” and we’d screw our earplugs in just a little bit tighter.  But by Pahar Ganj standards, this was no big deal :)

The hotel had a nice little restaurant attached, at which we ate breakfast a few times.  But we weren’t going to restrict ourselves to a hotel restaurant, and planned a little exploratory walk after a well-deserved nap – with no stopover on the way to India, it had been a LOOONG flight!

Anxious to try out the local nosh, we happened upon a great little Bengali restaurant around the corner – Gagan Restaurant. No, I’m pretty sure it’s not in the Lonely Planet, but it does the BEST thali plates, with refills of all but the meat curries. OK, it’s a bit grungy on the inside, as you can see below, but it’ s the food that counts, right? And queues of locals waiting to get a seat is always a good thing:

Gagan resturant, Delhi 

Gagan DelhiThali plates, for those who don’t know, are these tin plates with an assortment of different curries in them so you get a variety (a bit like the bento box concept in Japan). You will also get rice and sometimes pickle or raita, and roti or naan bread upon request. Sometimes you even get a dessert, like a gulab jamen.

Dom ordered the mutton curry thali plate and I had the chicken, along with the usual dahl, 2 veg curries, rice and pappadum – oh, and the rice was topped with teeny tiny french fries – aww! I tried Dom’s and…I shoulda had the mutton. Delish. We went back there 3 or 4 times after that, and the little boy who did the refills always had a big smile for us.

 Indian thali plate

We were about 10 minutes walk to New Delhi Railway Station, and a short walk further on to the Delhi Metro Rail, which is a great way to get around Delhi. We used this a lot to get to various parts of town; much quicker than a taxi or auto rickshaw.  To access the Metro station, you can either walk through New Delhi Railway Station (there’s an overpass with views over the railway lines like the one below), or take the bridge to the left of the main station and walk over.  The pic below right is the view from the bridge at sunset – see how the smog makes for a lovely diffused colour glow?

 

If you choose to stay in the ritzier Connaught Place area, where there are 4 and 5 star hotels, there is a Metro station there also to get you about town.  Mind you, the Inner Ring Road is getting torn up now and looks like a bomb hit it. It looked like they were replacing plumbing, as pipes were exposed. But India being India, the shops and businesses remained open; people just resign themselves to walking over the rubble (which also provided comfy beds for the street dogs). And even Connaught Place has pockets of grunge – check out the filthy auto below! I don’t think it’s been used in some time, heh.

 

In the next few posts I will share some of the sights, such as Chowry Bazaar in Old Delhi, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid etc (with beautiful rather than grungy pics), but I just wanted to give a bit of local flavour here and show what the daily streets are like.  There was a lot of beauty in architecture, scenery and fashion later in the trip, but Delhi is like the mean streets, with a grit that gets under your skin even as it gets up yer nose!