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?

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