Travel has been an integral part of my life since I was 18 years old. It started with a high school graduation trip through the Mediterranean with a former teacher (and friend) who organized an itinerary through EF tours. It was one of the most eye opening experiences of my life and really an indicator as to how culturally illiterate I was in 2004. I couldn’t name the countries we were actually going to go to, let alone find them on a map. It didn’t take very long before I realized that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and absorb as much culture as I could, but I always wondered what would’ve happened if I decided to travel on my own (or with a small group of friends, rather than 30 some odd classmates). It’s a debate between people that I have met along the way, how different the experience is between taking a tour and going about it on your own. I’ve done both and I can tell you that they each have their Pros & Cons, it really boils down to what you’re looking for and what your style of travel is. So let’s explore the differences between the two.
Before we start I should distinguish what I mean when I refer to “Group Tours” versus “Independent Travel.” Group tours will refer to any trip that has a longer itinerary, so a trip where a tour company has planned the accommodation and transportation over a period of time, you’re with a group of people and are being led by a guide who takes care of things on behalf of the company.
Independent travel refers to a lack of a “tour company” setting up a trip itinerary for you.
Most of my experiences with travel have been with tours, it was a group tour through Europe that changed my life so I naturally stayed with it. The convenience is unmatched when it comes to planning a trip, not having to worry about a lot of the less glamorous parts of travel, like what Bus or train you have to catch or where you will be sleeping that night. If you choose a tour, whether it’s services are bare bones or luxury, you pretty much don’t have to worry about how you get from city to city or where you’ll be staying. It’s a handful of stresses that you won’t have to think about when you’re planning your trip and most definitely a great way to go if you just want to show up and let someone else take care of all the “in transit” stuff (some of them will even book flights for you). When you arrive in cities, more often than not you have a scheduled walking tour where you get an introduction to your surroundings and some ideas of places to go/eat/enjoy when you have some time. There are also times where day tours of landmarks or points of interest are also included in the price, I was a chaperone on a group tour through Europe once, and we spent a day just going through the most popular sites in Paris and ended it with a night cruise on the Seine River, I didn’t even have to try to see the big tourist parts of the city.
You always have someone as a resource
Whether you are staying in hotels or camping, there is always someone there that you can turn to if you have questions. Every tour that I have gone on has had an operator there who serves as a group organizer as well as a resource for the destinations you go to. It’s great to have someone you know you can talk to about things as well as do a little local research for you, they’ve probably traveled to these cities a bunch of times and know some great places to go as well. If you have any problems at all, whether it be with the tour, accommodation, health, and everything in between you have someone you know you can go to. I remember being saved from a potential pick pocket in Arequipa, Peru because the tour operator kept a vigilant eye on our group. At worst, the tour operator is someone who keeps things moving properly and gives you a couple of pieces of information, at best they are an invaluable resource that enhance your experience.
You get to see a lot of different cities
If you look at most tour itineraries, you end up seeing a lot of things in a short period of time. Many people can only travel for a couple of weeks at the most, on a tour they can feasibly go through 3 or 4 countries (or more) without having to worry about securing transportation(in unfamiliar locations most of the time). Combine that with the resource you have in your tour operator and you could have some excellent experiences in a myriad of cities & countries.
The bond you create with the people you travel with
Whether you’re on a tour that is 6 people or 30, you’re experiencing some life changing moments with somebody. It’s funny how time distorts when you travel, because there is a point where you feel like you’ve known somebody all your life because of the shared experiences. A sense of camaraderie is usually built (to some degree) with the people you are traveling with, I’ve found that people within the tour group tend to look out for one another. I’ve met some of my best friends because we were in the same tours together. There’s also the convenience of having people around you when something happens, minor or major. It’s almost like a built in support group (and in some cases, a source for ibuprofen or Imodium if you forget to pack it).
Tours aren’t nearly as stuffy as people assume
We all understand the inherit romance of seeing the world with just your backpack and a sense of adventure. It’s not nearly as glorious to say that you had a company plan things for you and help you along with your experience, but the reality is these tours aren’t nearly as strict as people make them out to be. I think when people think “tour group” they think about a giant group of people in their own bubble driving around in a giant private bus completely disconnected from the environment, where they just follow the lady holding up a makeshift sign or umbrella for them to follow. I’m not going to deny that there are tours like that, but you can shop around and find something that is much more attuned to your style. Perfect example would be two companies that I’ve enjoyed using in the past: G Adventures & Intrepid travel, who are said to be “small group adventure travel” companies. Every time I’ve used either company the groups have not been bigger than 10 people and we’ve always used local transportation whether it be a converted school bus or a shared van. The options are completely open to what you want to do with your time and the tour operator with you is there to make sure you’re getting an optimal experience. It’s because of these tour operators that I got to do things that I never would’ve done on my own (like hiking an active volcano in Guatemala, pictured here, with my tour leader, Aaron). What’s even better about these companies is that they have their own sub categories for types of tours, want to bike,hike,and raft through Costa Rica with other people who are into it? there’s a tour for it or perhaps you’re interested in just sailing through Sardinia & Corsica? there’s a tour for that too.
You’re Independent! (duh)
Don’t want to deal with the same faces everyday? don’t want to comply with others quirks? you don’t have to! You can really just up and go at your own pace & leisure (friends & travel companions may protest) without having to deal with set times & appointments scheduled by someone who isn’t you. Of course if you’re traveling with people, it is different, but you & your group are only limited to your own plans. Think of the freedom of being able to do things on your own time, want to stay in the city for an extra night? you can totally do that. Tour groups have set the travel schedule for you, so you’re off to the next city when the schedule dictates (it’s actually not as stringent as it sounds, there have been times where things are changed, it is just a pain when you have to work through certain channels). When I was in Chile 6 months ago, I had originally planned on going to the city of Valparaiso for a day, but I enjoyed it so much that I ended up staying for a night. You can’t really do that without dealing with some complication on a tour.
Absolute Control over your spending
There are plenty of tours that a very fairly priced for what you get, but what if you’re cool with staying in more remedial accommodations to save a couple bucks a night? Maybe the added cost of a day tour is not something you want to spend your money on. The potential for traveling on a shoestring budget is a lot more feasible if you control ALL of your money and activities (so long as you have impulse control). There are plenty of free things to do in most cities and it’s not hard to find information on it. When I was in Santiago Chile, I took two different walking tours with “Tours 4 Tips,” a company that runs daily city tours that don’t have a set cost (but you should tip the guide generously, don’t be stingy). Tours usually have you staying in hotels and sometimes using private transportation, that all adds up to costs that you may not want to incur when you’re cool with staying in hostel and taking a public bus. If you’re staying in a hostel or couch surfing, more times than not there is kitchen access for you to save some money on food, you’re not going to be able to make anything too complicated (hostel kitchen appliances are not that good) but you can really stretch your dollar at the local markets.
Modern technology has made it easier than ever
With things like Wi-fi & smart phones, you have resources at your fingertips at almost anytime. With popular travel apps & websites out there that can pretty much plan your trips for you, you’ve got wealth of knowledge that extends past lonely planet guide books & travel brochures. You can connect with an international community that can share it’s vast and endless amounts of knowledge with you for no cost a lot of the time. Sometimes this takes some time from your trip because the research falls on you, but the resource is invaluable. With that being said, talking with a human rather than a screen will always be something that I prefer because sometimes it’s hard to phrase your questions (if you don’t know what to ask a search engine, you can’t really SHOW it what you’re talking about). Just to flex your modern technology power, I suggest you listen to the Zero To Travel Podcast, more specifically this episode called “Travel Grab Bag” where several traveler bloggers talk about their favorite travel apps (among other things). If you’re in a podcast mood, check out Extra Pack of Peanuts also, both of them are excellent resources.
By the way, if you’re looking for the best cell carrier for international travel, T-mobile is pretty damn good.
The people you meet along the way
Obviously you choose to be as sociable as you want to be, but when you’re in a tour group you tend to stick with the people you are touring with. I’ve found that when I’m on tours I tend to be less sociable with people outside the tour because I’m not forced to interact with random travelers. Hotels aren’t usually a place where you interact with other guests, whereas hostels are usually built around some social interaction. I’ve met some of the best people from around the world because I just happen to be eating in a hostel’s common room, imagine the possibilities for life changing experiences with people you’ll never forget because you just happen to be there. It makes for one hell of a story. The guys in the picture I met when I was in Chile, We met because we happen to take the same free city walking tour.
Travel has been, for many people, a transformative experience usually relegated to a transitional period during one’s youthful years (although it shouldn’t be). Think of how the idea of the big “backpacking through ___________” trip has become within the American (among many others) consciousness. There is a certain romanticism attached to the concept of the independent traveler expanding their horizons while learning about the world. You are free, you will cultivate a sense of self reliance, and you will be able to open their minds & hearts to ideas that you never knew existed. All these things, while true, aren’t relegated solely to traveling on your own or to a certain age. I can honestly tell you that every time that I have traveled, whether on tour or solo, I have come back a different person.
When it comes to tours v.s. independent travel, I think it really boils down to what you’re okay with in terms of style, but in my experience, one isn’t any more rewarding than the other, it’s just a matter of finding what you get the most out of. If you’re looking to really focus on something specific, It would certainly behoove you to have the freedom of Independent travel so you can dedicate as much time as you want. If you are looking for more of a general understanding of your locations with more destination variety, tours may be more what you’re looking for. Either way, you’re bound to have an absolutely amazing trip.
P.S. no matter what you do, get travel insurance. Seriously.
Here are some links to some tour companies that may interest you:
G Adventures: a small group adventures travel company. An excellent company to fit your style whether you’re looking for a comfortable trip or something on a shoestring.
Intrepid: another small group adventure travel company, I did a Spain/Portugal/Morocco trip trough them and it was excellent.
EF college break: For large tour groups ages 18-28, I used them my earlier years in college and met some great people.
Topdeck: for 18 – 30 somethings, some good variety in terms of trips. The groups tend to be bigger from what I’ve seen and they’ve got some great festival tours.
Contiki: I’ve never been on a Contiki tour before, but from my interactions with people who have been on them (and their website) it is really seems about the comforts of home while traveling with 18 – 30 somethings. I think it may be one of the pricier tour groups on the list as well
HostelWorld: Hostel world is the largest hostel booking site in the world, and what I use to book most of my accommodations
CouchSurfing: Stay with local hosts, save a little money, and join a global community
AirBnB: Another resource for accommodations where you can rent out people’s houses or rooms
Hotels.com: collect 10 nights and get 1 free? hell yes!
TripIt: send all your travel confirmations and this will organize it all for you into a master itinerary
TripAdvisor: They are not without their own controversies, but you can find some good things here.
Lonely Planet: My favorite guidebooks
Fodors: another great resource
Get Lost! Amsterdam: I know it’s pretty specific, but I LOVE this guidebook to Amsterdam. It’s where I learned that “Stoned as a shrimp” was an actual phrase
World Nomads: Travel insurance! seriously, make sure you get it.
Extra Pack of Peanuts: Travis & his wife Heather are a pleasure to listen to and also an amazing resource to travel hacking and using airline miles.
Zero To Travel: The first travel podcast I listened to, Jason Moore is quite inspiring.
The Travelers: Nathaniel just revamped his podcast (it used to be the Daily Travel Podcast) and his website is great.
Amateur Traveler: I just started listening, but it’s destination specific episodes are excellent!