Why Take Guided Tours Over Independent Travel?

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Craig and I are big advocates for independent travel. It is what we know, like, and trust.

However, there have been certain times when we have considered taking guided tours of a region, and sometimes even participated in group travel.

There are many benefits to travel with tour companies and they really do suit the purposes of a lot of travelers. In fact, now that we have a child, I am more inclined to consider guided tours for specific regions.

I think back to me riding around on a pick up truck on the wild and dangerous roads of Africa and I think,

“Do I really want my child to accompany me in difficult independent travel like this?”…Yes and No.

in the back of a pick-up, Cambodia 2002

While I d love for her to have this cultural experience, this momma-bear-fearful-heart of mine probably could not stand the pressure.

We are going to split this post into two, first discussing the benefits of taking a guided tour, and then discussing the benefits of independent travel.

Benefits to Guided Tours with Tour Companies

Save time with guided tours and group travel
Photo: Betta Designs

Time

Some people just do not have the time for independent travel.

Let’s face it catching local transport often takes a whole day or more to get from one destination to another. If you consider the fact that most Americans get on average only 2 weeks paid holidays, independent travel may not work.

Even those in other countries who can get 4-6 weeks off, with this limited time to travel independently you really have to stick to one small region in order to make the most of your stay.

This is where guided tours with tour companies can prove to be a great choice for those who want to see as much as they can in a small space of time.

Try to limit the number of countries you visit so you can experience more of the culture of your destination.

Comfort Levels

tour guides
Keeping it comfortable

Independent travel is not easy.

A lot of travellers, especially when first beginning their around the world adventures, start with group travel on guided tours. This helps them to adjust to this new lifestyle, slowly stretching the comfort zones out until they feel confident enough to take it on themselves.

For some people the thought of trying to order food in a foreign country causes them to faint at their knees. Instead of never leaving the house, a guided tour would be a great way to travel within their comfort zone limits.

Meeting People

China friends
Making friends

Many of my friends kicked off their living in London/ European tour with a Contiki tour. They made a lot of new friends because of it, which meant that they arrived in London to live already knowing someone.

This can be very reassuring to those shy folks who might not be so great at getting out there and meeting people on their own.

After my beerfest tour, we met up several times upon return home to London with our new friends we met on our group tour. It was great to have so many new friends who all shared a common travel memory.

Information

guided tours
Tell me more Photo: to Uncertainty and Beyond

Even when I am traveling independently, there will be many times I will take a guided tour of an historical site or cultural experience.

This is because I want to learn more about the place I am visiting. And I don’t want to be walking around trying to read it from a guide book while I am there.

I want someone to point out certain features, tell me stories about the area and relay the important information. Guided tours are a great way to sit back, absorb the area you are in and allow someone else to tell you all about it.

Less Hassle

Guided tours and group travel
Allow yourself to be led Photo: Wei on the way

Travel planning takes a lot of time and research and then of course you need to be constantly adapting and changing these plans as you are going along.

You have to decide how to get there, how to get around, where to stay, what to eat, what to see, how to change money and who to talk to for help.

The list of tasks never end, it can be tiresome, cumbersome and just plain irritating.

Taking a guided tour means removing all the hassle of the planning stage.

Someone can take you by the hand while you concentrate on the only thing you want to concentrate on exploring, learning, eating, drinking, shopping and having fun.

Safety

Walking Safari Kruger NP AFrica
Walking Safari Kruger NP AFrica

Many people fear travel as they believe the world is unsafe.

A guided tour may give a person like this the opportunity to travel as they feel much safer. There is always someone watching their back and people who they can turn to for comfort when feeling afraid.

As I mentioned above, now that I am mum this is a very important factor in making travel decisions for my family.

Some areas suit guided tours

Antarctica Guided tours
Photo: Storm Petril 1

There are certain travel experiences and destinations that only lend themselves to group travel and guided tours.

For example, going to Antarctica would be extremely difficult without being on a tour.

In Africa, night time safaris can only be done by guided tours, Robbin island can only be visited through a group tour and trekking to base camp, I’m sure would be best to be done on a group tour.

Tips for choosing tour companies

  • Do your research. Find those reputable companies that run guided tours through the destination you want to visit. Contiki are popular for Europe, but not for Asia. Ask around for advice and read reviews on travel message boards. Also, most companies have a facebook page, get on them and ask questions of past participants. Be absolutely certain that the tour company you choose is the best you can get for your travel budget.
  • Be very clear on your travel goals. What are your absolute must sees? What sort of experience are you looking for? Purely cultural, adventurous, photographic, or having a massive party?
  • Check the Age Group and Vibe. Contiki is well known for it’s 18-35 year old party type atmosphere. And on the flip side, one of my good friends will never forget unknowingly ending up on a guided tour of Europe that was full of pensioners. Not really the experience his 25 year old self was looking for.
  • Don’t try to fit too much in. Do you really want to have a 5 minute ‘I was here’ experience, or do you want a more enriching experience? Less is more. 15 European countries in 15 days is going to leave you exhausted and you will not remember Germany from France. Trust me, you never want to get those two confused.
  • Safety If you do your research properly and find a reputable company then I am sure you will discover they have adequate safety measures in place. Make sure they have the proper accreditation
  • Eco-tourism Choose a company that not only respects the local environment, but the local culture as well. You want to make sure you are leaving a positive impact wherever you are going.
  • Costs Make sure you know the costs, including any extras of your tour. Certain activities on tours may cost extra. You must know all this beforehand. You would hate to turn up to the Serengetti on your African overland tour only to discover you needed to pay an extra $200, which you don’t have. Know how many meals are included, what accommodation type is covered by the tour, transfers, etc. Tours should be able to give you a rough estimate of spending money you will need as well.
  • Guides – As discussed, a benefit of a guided tour is the knowledgeable tour guide who will be showing you the area and teaching you more about it. Part of your research should be to find out what sort of guides the tours use and how knowledgeable they are. We had a local Kenyan on our guided tour of the Massai Mara. He knew an incredible amount about the animals and the back roads he could take to find them. He really helped to make our first Safari experience a memorable one.

Can you recommend any tour companies?

 

74 thoughts on “Why Take Guided Tours Over Independent Travel?”

  1. You’ve got great points here. It’s funny – just yesterday I was thinking about the possible benefits of guided tours. I couldn’t come up with many, though πŸ™‚ If you don’t have time, desire or know-how to plan a big trip, though, a guided tour could be worth the money and worth avoiding the hassle.

    1. It definitely has its place. I am happy for anyone to be travelling and if this is the way they choose to do it that best suits them then go for it.

  2. We are always very annoyed by the big tour groups taking over in museums. But, on more out-of-the way excursions, I agree that a group tour can be pretty enjoyable. Especially if you have a group of fun people!

  3. I love this post as it hits all of the major benefits to group travel. I personally would love top strap a backpack on, put my thumb out and wander the world aimlessly, but the reality is that I work in Canada and have limited vacation time (mental note: move back to Europe).

    WIth this reality, group tours are a great option to ensure you can make the most of your vacation time with little risk.

    But for me, one of the best reasons to travel with a small group guided tour is the people. Almost everyone I have met on a group tour has been incredible.

    Enjoy your adventures and contact me if you ever need one of those guided tours. I would be happy to assist.

    1. Thanks Neil. There are certainly some places we are considering for a guided tour. I think the time constraint is a really good reason to take a tour. There’s no reason why you can’t see all you want to see just because you have little vacation time. It’s also good to find places you really liked so you can go back to them at a later time on your own and spend more time there. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      1. Hey Caz. That’s why I worked so hard to get hired at Gap Adventures. Now I can make my travels part of my work. What a great way to live!

        1. Your post is from seven years ago. Are you still there?
          I’m planning a trip to Europe. My main interests this time are Germany, Vienna and Prague. Perhaps Budapest as well. I can’t decide whether to go it alone or with a tour group. The ones I’ve explored are fairly expensive. Might Prague hotels offer day tours?
          I have a total of six weeks so no time constraints. My main concern (besides the language) is my safety as I’m over sixty and traveling alone. Thanks in advance!

  4. I did a post on this last week. I usually prefer independent travel, but there are times that it’s safer and easier for me to go through a tour. It turned out to be the right choice this summer in Croatia because I met lots of people and was traveling by myself.

    1. It definitely has its place. You really have to weigh it up with your travel goals, time and budget, some times it just makes more sense to take a tour. It definitely did when I went on my Oktoberfest tour.

  5. Great post! I have traveled with tour groups several times and have never regretted it. My first one was the first time I ever left the country, a 3 week tour around Europe with Contiki. It was a crazy whirlwind, but I saw a lot, made some great friends (who I still keep in touch with almost 10 years later!), got me hooked on traveling and gave me the confidence to go it alone later.

    I’d highly recommend Gecko’s Adventures – I went to Egypt with them and they were great. Group size is limited and the age range varies (ours went from 21 up to mid 40s). The itinerary and guide were also really flexible so we had a good amount of free time.

    1. It’s great that you had such positive experiences with group travel. I have not heard of Gecko Adventures but it sounds like a great tour. I think a lot of solo women would feel more comfortable taking a guided tour of Egypt. I have heard some pretty horrible stories from women doing it on their own.

  6. Great post! I’ve done both group tours and independent travel and even during the group tour through Europe, I was surprised with how much free time we had to explore each city without our group and guide. Sometimes I much prefer having a guide taking me around as I love listening to their take on the histories of where we are at!

    1. That is good that you had a lot of free time. I think I would be really making sure this was included in any tours I went on. It is nice to have someone take you around and tell you everything. You can just sit back and relax.

    1. Yeah. I know lots of people who use it as a way to discover places they liked so they can go back to them at a later date and spend more time.

  7. One of the best guided excursions we’ve taken is at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. Our guide was ex Viet Cong and had such invaluable local knowledge. We definitely wouldn’t have had the same experience or gotten as much out of it as we did without a guide! Same goes for here in Oz, our guide taught us and showed us so much about the country, aboriginal culture and nature. Yesterday we went for a walk on our own through a national park and got really frustrated that we didn’t recognise certain animal or plant species! Tours and guides certainly have their place, but at the same time, can make people lazy and restrict experiences. I’d say Independent travel with a few day tours mixed in is the perfect solution!

    1. We did the Cu Chi tunnels as well. that was a great excursion and we too learned a lot from the knowledgeable guides. We recently took a guided tour in the Royal National Park and we learned a lot about Australian plants and animals and the Aboriginal culture too. I really appreciated it.

  8. For me: guided tours only to places where you absolutely cannot go without. As you said, Antarctica and I would also take a guided tour to China. Otherwise…NOOOO

    1. Antarctica is definitely on my list. Why would you want to take a tour to China? Independent travel is pretty easy there. I think you could do it, especially if you have been to Lebanon.

  9. Interesting that you should include a photo of Petra – the only place I can think of now that I have visited as part of a group tour. It goes without saying that I was happy to be there but I was frustrated, mainly by time limits. The little bit of “freetime” we were given was unspeakably precious to me.

    I musn’t be a snob about these things I suppose but for me one of the crucial elements of a true journey is that you get up off your backside and go somewhere, not get taken there. You have to do all the figuring out yourself. It’s a challenge, it’s a different thing to just trying to squeeze as much entertainment into a period of time as possible. It’s living, not taking a break from life.

    1. That is a funny coincidence. Independent travel is definitely a much different style of travel, and it is more like living. I’m interested to take a guided tour just to see. I’ve only been on really short ones- 4 days at the most and that was a Beerfest, Prague, Amsterdam party tour. Might as well get someone to take you to all those places when that is your intention.

  10. I think group tours is a great way of travelling! I have taken a few of them so far.. Contiki, Top Deck, Gecko’s Paddywagon, Balkan Road Trip, Adventure Tour, Connections, Red Back Safaris… Met my fiancΓ© on one of them.. πŸ™‚

    1. Wow! you have done a lot of tours. It is great to hear that you really loved it as well. It’s always a bonus when it leads to a marriage as well. Will any of the tour group be coming to the wedding?

  11. I travel alone but I’m always open to tours every once in a while, especially if traveling with my mother and sister again because they really do need a set itinerary for everything.

    1. I think tour groups really do have their place. And I am open to travelling in any sort of fashion, although i love independent travel. I think when the time suits why not go on one?

  12. We mostly travel as a couple and do our own thing, but we have no problem jumping on the occasional tour. We actually did a GAP tour in Peru to hike to Machu Picchu and visit the Amazon Rainforest. It was a much more expensive than going at it alone, but we were able to do a lot in a short period of time, and it was nice to not have to plan anything for 10 days!

    1. This is one of the tours I am considering for the future. I really want to go to Machu Picchu and I am wondering how much easier it might be with Kalyra to go on a tour. Independent travel can be so challenging and after many years of doing it I think I’d like to have someone take me to a specific area like this so I can just relax and enjoy.

      1. I actually just hiked through the Andes a couple of months ago and made my way up to Machu Picchu. What an awesome experience!

        Gap Adventures does have a family trip that takes the train up to Machu Picchu (http://www.gapadventures.com/trips/peru-family-adventure/PIF/2011/), but the age restriction is 5 years old. I don’t know how old your daughter is.

        I am going to take my daughter to the Galapagos for her 5th this year. Another trip that is best taken with a tour group.

        1. Kalyra is three but every bit the five year old. Gives us two years to plan! Wow! The Galapagos sounds awesome. Another one to put on the list. Working for Gap must be a lot of fun. Hard to beat a job that involves travel

  13. The joke in Australia, is that tours are an untapped minefield for single women! Girls almost always outnumber boys 2 (or 3 or 4 or even 5 times) to one as it’s less common for solo girls to search out random car trips to places and feel safer jumping on tours. Heck, I know that was my reason!

    I prefer solo travel, but if I am trying to get some where new, I’ll jump on a tour for a few days here and there. Seems like the sigma is dropping about tours and independent travel in recent years.

    1. It’s about time the women got some great opportunities. πŸ™‚ I think the stigma is dropping about it as well, and although I prefer independent travel who am I to judge how someone else chooses to travel. As long as they are happy and achieving their travel goals then I can only celebrate for them.

  14. Some interesting points here, I recently started a free walking and colectivo (public bus) tour here in Buenos Aires and whilst it’s only 3 hours, not a full-blown two week trip I wanted it to fulfil two main purposes. Firstly to not only see the main sights (Congreso, Plaza de Mayo, Casa Rosada) but also some really interesting stuff off the main tourist beat (Abasto, Casa de Carlos Gardel).

    Secondly, as an independent traveller myself, I wanted to give people the tools to explore Buenos Aires themselves by showing them how the colectivo (and subte/subway) system works so that they can get around more easily and cheaply in the rest of their time here.

    It’s still early days but it seems to be working very well so far, people who normally would never dream of taking a bus, really get to grips with the routes and how to pay – hopefully really making a difference to their stay whilst remaining independent!

    1. Wow! This sounds like a really worthwhile tour Jonathan! Thanks for sharing this. I think travellers would really enjoy this. Thanks for sharing your great idea

  15. This is a great list of “To Do’s” …. I have always done independent travel since I really enjoy doing the research myself, but for places that are a bit more “foreign” like Egypt or China I’d consider taking a tour (mostly so I don’t miss out on something that I might not think of myself.)

    1. Thanks for appreciating Michael. I think I would take a tour in certain regions as well. Egypt would be a place I would consider. We did China independently. It was awesome and pretty easy

  16. I always prefer to arrange our own guide — or driver/guide — rather than do a group tour, because you have your own pace to experience what you’re enjoying, and it tends to work out cheaper in markets where tours are affordable to the budget traveller anyway. But I agree that having someone who knows the ropes can make an experience a whole lot better…

    1. My brother and his wife just hired their own guide to take them around the Masai Mara. They loved the freedom and flexibility with being able to dictate where they went and for how long but loved having an experienced guide.

  17. I love this post. You have done a great job in provide the benefit with the real fact without being bias.

    Another benefit that I see from my own experience is when you travel with extended family who might have different travel style than you. It’s a compromise that make everyone happy and provide you with time to focus on bonding than trying to figure out the logistic of other stuffs like transportation of 15 people or restaurants for 15 adults and 10 kids. πŸ™‚

    1. That does seem like a really good benefit. It is really difficult travelling independently with family, so many different interests. I hate being in charge of trying to please everyone. A tour would be so worthwhile here.

  18. Love it! I organize solo travel groups & photography adventure groups and couldn’t agree more! Great post!

    Steve

    shutterflytravel.com

  19. I think it works well economically to travel in groups/ guided tours, but I find it very stifling often due to the enforced time-limits. Often the places where they give little time are the places that I want to spend lots of time πŸ™

    But yes in completely unknown places, it may not be a bad idea. Also some places are absolutely inaccessible unless you traveling with a bunch of people.

    1. As with anything, balance is the key. There is a time and a place for anything and if a tour suits your purpose then it is well worth it. You have to do a lot of research to make sure you find a tour that suits what you are wanting.

  20. I, too, generally avoid them like the plague, but, as you mentioned, sometimes they’re the best, or only, option. I always want a detailed itinerary so I can make sure the majority of our time isn’t spent shopping or eating at tourist traps. Those kind of tours drive me absolutely nuts.

    1. Definitely! Getting the itinerary before hand is so important. I certainly don’t want my travel time to be spent shopping or at tourist traps- although some are worth visiting.

  21. Bookmarked this post as I want to read through everyone’s comments as a lot of good opinions here.
    I guess the simplest way of assessing group tour versus independant is this-

    Got lots of time and tight budget- go independant.
    Got money and little time- go group tour.

    It’s always cheaper, and you can interact with locals and other travellers if you have the time.
    But not everyone is on the road for weeks at a time, most are on a limited vacation allowance, so they just don’t have the time, and will see and enjoy more if on a tour.
    But then some destinations it certainly is best to take a tour. Our recent Ethiopia trip was 1 week independant, then touring with Gap Adventures, and that was the right decision. Because roading and infrastructure was disrupted with rains, so our harried tour guide had all the hassle of getting us through washed out roads and broken bridges.

    1. I think you have summed it up really well Jim! For limited time vacations, I either want to remain in one area or let some one do all the planning and guiding for me πŸ™‚

  22. Todd | Todd's Wanderings

    Wow guys, this is one great post (nice and long too). I have to admit that I’m an independent type of traveler. BUT I do like getting into small groups to visit out of the way places. Makes it even better when you get a cool group of other travelers to share the experience with. But I don’t think I could ever do a large tour group.

  23. This is something I’m struggling with at the moment – and I plan to write a post on it – is taking a tour when we go to Africa later this year. I am NOT a fan of tours but do recognise the many benefits. My boyfriend is a little apprehensive about Africa and would prefer to do it on a guided tour. I may have to compromise… something I’m not particularly good at doing πŸ˜‰

    1. We were really apprehensive about Africa as well, and were considering a guided tour. After talking with my brother, who lived there for 2 years, and some girlfriends of mine who travel independently, I realized all would be okay. You have to weigh it up. If going independently meant your boyfriend wouldn’t enjoy it as he would be too concerned then it is probably better to go on a guided tour. At the end of the day you just want to make sure you have a good time and enjoy all the time and money it has taken to get you there. You could maybe start off with a guided tour to get more comfortable and then go on your own.

      1. That’s exactly what I’m thinking – start off in a tour, get him comfortable about travelling in Africa then head off on our own. And I’ll just keep my fingers crossed for some good travellers in our tour group!!

  24. Great overview. I’m also of two minds about this. Recently we did a group tour to Halong Bay and it was fine and certainly saved us the hassle of trying to arrange things ourselves – which can be hard in a country like Vietnam where so much negotiation is required for everything. The downside is that I really don’t like being on anyone else’s itinerary and forced into keeping with the group. Still, overall it was a good experience so I can’t really complain. Like you said in your post, there are benefits and tradeoffs whether you go independent or with a group.

  25. As a tour guide in Europe, especially in France, I should have my pennies worth!! My greatest joy is to entertain, educate and inspire people, sharing my vast knowledge and experiences with my travellers. Each person is different and each person I treat differently. Everyone has plenty of time on their own, but always with my support and encouragement. But I need to point out that my tours tend to be for small groups of 6 to 8 people so achieving my objectives is easier than with a large group. Sometimes the interaction with the group has nothing to do with what you are seeing – I had a guy on my last tour who said “John, you always get so excited and carried away with what you describe as beautiful places or views – but I just don’t see what you see”. This guy was travelling, yet missing everything (in my opinion). Over the course of two weeks I taught this guy to see around him, to savour beauty, and to appreciate even the small things. For travellers choosing a good tour operator is critical, but the end result can be enlightening!

  26. Are there individual tour guides offering services for say, a family of 7 covering an itinerary typical of a Best of Europe tour package?

  27. Dear Caz,

    Its a very valuable article. Thanks fo it. We are family of 4 with 2 kids of 16 yrs and 4 yrs. Planning to see europe in may.14 for 2 weeks. I am totally confused as to go of our own or go with group/guided tours. I have invited quotations from tour companies for group tours but they seems to be touch n go sort of itinerary with 9 countries in 14 days. We are budget travellers and based in dubai. Would you mind suggesting us some good tour organisers for group tours in europe

  28. Great post, Caz! It’s great to hear all different people’s opinions on this. I know that different things suit different people, but for me anyway, group tours have always been the way to go. It saves so much hassle for one thing- imagine having to organise transport to every different place, and doing border crossings by yourself! It’s hard enough having to organise flights and extra nights! And then there’s the danger of being a young woman travelling alone- anything could go wrong and no one would notice you were missing, plus people take advantage when they know you’re alone (like in Taken!!) And more than anything, group tours are so much fun! Of course you don’t get on with every last person, but on the whole you’ve always got people with you, and you all feel like friends when you’re travelling together, going on meals out and nights out, etc. It’s much, much better than wandering alone through a strange city, and sitting in a bar by yourself night after night! (I know you could happen to make friends while travelling independently, but it’s not guaranteed, as you’re not part of any group!) I always make sure I have time to myself too, though, and always try to see what I want to see- I don’t just go along with the group for the sake of it. And I always try to have a few days alone at the start and at the end, because you usually don’t get to see the city you’re starting from or finishing in, so I always try to see them by myself before and after. So that way, I get the best of both worlds!

  29. its better to explore the city with experts it helps alot in terms of safety and knowing the places in a better way

  30. We recently went to Vietnam and were really pleased we have opted to go with a tour. Not necessarily just down to language barriers but the fact that we didn’t have to go through the nitty gritty complications of organisation transportation or spending hours making our way to a destination. Obviously, that’s the part about travel some love but since we had a time limit we didn’t want to spend stressful days doing this. In this instance, we thought we would go with a local company as their tour packages aren’t always so generic. We were so thrilled with the service and command of the English language that our guide/agent had. It made liaising with them just so much easier and their advice and inside knowledge were solid. Suffice to say, if you’re looking for a good Vietnamese agency then Tonkin Voyage Travel comes highly recommended. http://www.tonkinvoyagetravel.com

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