Organised tours often get a bad press and it’s hard not to associate them with retired tourists in polyester who decide to ‘do Europe’ in ten days. Many an independent traveller would loathe being told exactly where they will be at any given time and having to stick rigidly to a schedule that someone else has designed for a commercial purpose. However, rather like the whole cruise ship experience, the organised tour has evolved over the years and has broadened its scope as well as its target market.
Don’t rule it out
I’ve travelled solo, travelled with friends, travelled with family, with a plan, without a plan and I’ve done organised tours (not simultaneously of course!) and I’ve come to the conclusion that the organised tour can be a valid option depending on your circumstances, especially if you are intimidated at the prospect of travelling alone.
If you do decide to go on an organised tour, bear the following in mind: low-cost, budget tours tend to attract a very young crowd while expensive, comfort tours attract a much older, senior crowd. If you’re somewhere in between, I think it’s a bit harder to find people in their 30s and 40s on these tours. (Maybe they’re all busy raising their kids?) A lot of companies offer an age guide e.g. 18-35 so you can have some idea of the age group that you’ll be travelling with.
Best of both worlds:
Consider a combination – start your trip on an organised tour of, say, 6 days but, if possible, leave time at the end for onward travel. That way you find your feet in that part of the world, gain confidence and then go solo for the next stage of your trip. Or you may well meet a travel buddy on the tour and be happy to carry on with him/her.
If an organised tour is something you’re considering, check out the pros and cons below.
As an alternative to travelling solo, you won’t have to worry about your safety.
If your time is limited and you don’t get much vacation time (i.e. you’re an American :-)) you get the most out of your time as they cram a lot into short trips (e.g. 10-12 days).
There is NO stress about planning, organising, catching and missing trains or decision making. It has all been done for you in advance so you don’t even need to think.
You don’t need to drive – woohoo!
You will eat out with your group every night in restaurants – no dining alone unless you want to.
You might make nice friends/travel buddies on your tour.
You won’t get ripped off at bad restaurants. The tour guides are often locals who know exactly where to eat for good food and good value.
A decent local tour guide will give you rich insights into their culture and history. They’ll tell you how things are done in their country and you’ll learn things that just aren’t visible to the tourist eye. They’ll also have good contacts and connections so they may organise for you to have a meal in a private, traditional home or they may put you in touch with the best seller of artisan crafts or whatever you’re after. (My own examples include lunch in a family cabin in the mountains in Chile; dinner in a cave-dwelling in Cappadocia; visiting a women’s fair trade co-operative in Ayvalik; getting access to a private, not-for-tourists tango club in Buenos Aires.)
The tour may get you to places that are impossible to reach by public transport/without a car.
Most tours now give you plenty of free time when you get to destinations so you’re not held hostage to the schedule.
There is absolutely no spontaneity. You can’t decide to spend an extra night somewhere because you love it. Sometimes the tour allocates an afternoon to a town that you may feel merits more time. Tough!
The tour moves fast. You get a superficial surface view of many great cities. E.g. one day in Buenos Aires. This, for me, is the biggest disadvantage – the whistle stop tour.
The itinerary may say ‘two nights in’ wherever. That often means one actual day because you arrive late evening, spend one day there and leave at 8 a.m. next day. Read the itinerary very carefully.
Small group tours: you might hate your tour group or maybe you just don’t enjoy their company that much but you’re stuck with them. Group dynamics can have a strong impact on your trip and in a small group there may not be enough diversity for you to find your kind of people.
Tours can be quite expensive compared to DIY travel.
Large groups: better chance of ‘someone for everyone’ but can really slow things down when you all have to assemble en masse, check-in en masse, check-out en masse, board and disembark en masse… you get the picture.
Planning and anticipating your trip is half of the excitement. You kind of miss this if you take an organised tour.
Huddled together in a tour group, I think it’s harder to interact with locals or meet people outside your comfort zone.
Some major tour companies:
Geckos Adventure Travel – my favourite, highly recommended.
Exodus Travel – haven’t been with them but they are very reputable and come highly recommended.
Busabout – mainly Eastern Europe. Definitely for the young at heart and those who like to party. Good value; lot of emphasis on drinking, bars, clubs.
Contiki – I’ve never gone with them but they are known for their – em – youthful revelry. Probably fantastic if you are 20. And, to be fair, I met a 30-something who went with them recently and had a great time.
GAdventures – I’d never travel with them again.
The organised tour is not for free spirits as it has a lot of restrictions that can be frustrating but if you are hesitant about travelling solo in a different continent or the developing world, it’s worth considering.
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