Almost everyone you meet will have an opinion on this – are group tours or independent travel better? Some people will swear by tours, others will not even consider one.
So where do I stand? If you had asked me a few months ago I would probably have answered advocating for independent travel, hands down, no questions asked! If pushed to choose now, I would likely give the same answer, but with a little more hesitation. I’ve recently done a short group tour (see my post on The Rock Tour here) and I am in the process of helping my parents to plan their first ever tour. I am starting to see that there is a big place for both types of travel.
Here’s what I have now discovered during my research – group tour vs independent travel: which is better?
Independent travel provides much more flexility than group tours. Here are just a few things to consider
- The Tour Itinerary – Generally these are set well before the tour is available to be booked and cannot be changed. Sometimes it can be difficult to find one that includes everything you would like to do in an area. Sometimes too the tours move on too quickly to enable you to schedule extra time for anything else. Other times there will be things included that you would otherwise skip. This could be a good thing, encouraging participation in excursions or activities you would not otherwise have, but on other occasions, perhaps there is a medical or other reason why you cannot participate and you end up feeling that both time and money have been wasted.
- The Departure Dates – These are also usually set in stone, and sometimes they just don’t cater for your specific timeframes. Not everyone can organise their trip at any time. In my previous job I could only take leave at certain times each month, so if a tour didn’t start on the exact date I needed it to, it wouldn’t work for me. There can also be other reasons such as school holidays, medical treatment or other fixed events that need to be worked around. One of the reasons I went with the company I did for our Uluru tour was because they offered departures ever day, which suited my short window of opportunity.
- Last Minute Planning – While it is possible that tours can be booked at the last minute, you really are leaving that in the hands of the gods. With only a limited amount of seats available, it’s also possible that if you want to book a tour for next week, then your options are even more limited.
- Special Hobbies or Interests – unless you are going on a specialised tour just for your hobby or interest, you will find most tours are general in nature and cater for the mass tourist. If you want to check out, say, all the train stations along the way, then you are likely to either annoy everyone else on the tour, or find your your request to stop denied.
Sometimes a tour can be more expensive, at other times they can be cheaper. Here are some things to think about when comparing the two
- Compare Apples with Apples – essentially by this I mean make sure you looking at the same type of travel. There is no point comparing a luxury tour group cost with backpacking independently, they are just not the same sort of thing! If you would stay in five star hotels and eat at good restaurants whether or not you do a luxury tour, then those prices will be more comparable.
- Inclusions – make sure when looking at your potential tour you understand which meals are included and which you will have to pay for yourself on top of the tour cost. If it’s a ten day tour and you still have to pay for lunch and dinner every day, that could add a substantial cost to the total. Also read the fine print on which attraction entry fees are included. Some tours will include everything, others will ask you to pay on the day. Many tours also include extras that can be added on either at the beginning or the end, or on days when there is free time. It’s worth checking that the offerings of the tour company are not more expensive that you can get otherwise.
- Extra Services – cost is not always the be all and end all, there are often other things to take into consideration. Some of those things I will touch on below, but also remember part of a tour is peace of mind that you don’t have to do things like drive. Therefore you have to consider that you are paying for that service as part of your tour.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting, the planning of your trip. Some people don’t like it at all, but I love the planning and research stage.
- Knowing Your Destination – this is a huge one for me. I want to know every little thing about where I am going. I’ve even been known to get onto Google Street Maps and “walk” the streets of areas I want to stay in, or between the train station and my accommodation, just so that I know exactly what to expect. My husband thinks I’m a bit of a control freak, but in my opinion, the more I know about a place, the more excited I get to visit. It also makes me more comfortable when I get there if I know exactly what to expect.
- Knowing Your Options – this is another good reason for doing the research and planning yourself. When something goes wrong, you will be aware of other options. You will also need to do at least a little bit of research if you want to know what to do in your spare time during your trip. Maybe there is nothing planned for the evening but there is a show on in the town you really want to see. Maybe you have a particular restaurant you really want to dine in. I was able to add on an extra activity during my tour, but it wan’t something that was advertised, and when we went off to do it, everyone else in our tour group wanted to know what we were doing. No one else had even heard of the attraction, even though it was very popular and could be easily found by googling the top things to do in town.
- Time Poor Travellers – if you just don’t have the time to research and organise everything then a tour could be the way to go. You just need to spend a little time on the internet booking the tour, or even go and book through a travel agent. They will then do all the individual bookings and arrange everything for you, presenting all the information and tickets neatly organised ready for you to go. This can include things like visas, flights and transfers too. As mentioned above, this is one of those extra services you would have to take into consideration when comparing costs.
Independent travel can sometimes be isolating. You stay at a hotel, visit attractions and eat at restaurants, all just with your travel group. I think some of the best travel experiences happen through personal interactions that you can have along the way, but there are options.
- It’s not Called a Tour Group for Nothing – You will spend the whole time with other people. This could only be a few other people, such as on a small group tour, or it could be a whole lot more on a large coach tour. This can both be a good thing and a bad thing. I tend to need my alone time, so I don’t generally do well in groups. I also get frustrated with things like lateness or disorganisation, so I think large tour groups would be hard me. That’s mostly why I have always gravitated towards independent travel. But large groups also mean lots of opportunities to meet new people. And if the tours are for a decent amount of time, these could become lifelong friends. It’s not unusual to hear of reunions happening between people who met on tours. Large groups also mean you don’t have to be best buddies with everyone. There are other people around to share “that one person” in the group.
- Best of Both Worlds – but just because you are travelling independently, it doesn’t mean you can’t meet people. Staying at hostels can be a great option to meet people. They really aren’t always what you would expect (read my post here on what hostels can really be like). I’ve also met and become friends with people on day tours, or even in hotel/airport lounges or public spaces in hotels. You just have to be open to it and start chatting. Most people are particularly friendly when they are travelling.
Usually you will be going on a trip to see a little bit of the scenery and to learn something about the place you are visiting. There are different ways to do that
- Your Tour Guide – most group tours will also have a tour guide that will be with you the whole way. Part of this person’s job will be to teach you about the area you are visiting. They are generally a local, or at least someone who has spent a lot of time in the area, so they are a great resource for more than just the name of that bridge in the distance. These people can help you with all sorts of questions, from simple ones such as where a good restaurant is for an evening meal, to (usually later in the trip) more controversial questions about local lifestyle, traditions, politics or religion. Tour Guides are used to dealing with many different questions, and they are generally travellers themselves, so they often have great stories to tell about other places too.
- Guided Tours at Attractions – both independent travellers and tour groups will often end up with the same tour guides at big attractions. These are people that have specific knowledge of the places you are visiting
- Short Guided Tours – as an independent traveller I often seek out free walking tours as soon as I arrive in a city. Not only do I get a little history on the city, this works as a great orientation to the main attractions too. There are many other versions of this too – a bike tour, wine tour, a river cruise, the list is endless. These guides are also great to ask simple questions about the location you are in or get recommendations for a meal. These short tours also double as a place to meet other people.
- Self-Guided Tours – it is becoming easier to get information to allow you to do a self-guided tour. Some guide books will provide you with a walking map and information on each point of interest along the way. There are also podcasts that you can now download and listen to as you make your way around towns to learn about what you are seeing. This will be hard to do during a tour unless you have free time.
I don’t tend to include safety in my own calculations, but I know there are a lot of people out there for whom this is very important.
- Safety in Numbers – there are lots of people that feel that travelling in a group is a safer form of travel. I do tend to agree with this. After all, you are in a groups and almost everything is scheduled. There is little opportunity to get lost or into any trouble. What I sometimes disagree with though, is that there is a NEED for safety in numbers. Most places are no more unsafe than your hometown. Of course there are some exceptions, and there are some areas in certain places that are probably best avoided, but with a bit of research and asking around the locals, it’s easy to find this information.
- Travel Confidence – this is what I think is the real issue. People want to travel, but do not have the confidence to do it themselves. And do you know what? That is perfectly okay. Maybe you don’t have the confidence to drive on the wrong side of the road. Or maybe you have no sense of direction and don’t trust yourself to not get lost. Maybe the unknown is more scary than exciting for you. Maybe you are travelling solo and just want to feel more settled and to placate others who are at home. In all those cases, a tour will still allow you to travel, and that is the most important thing!
So Group Tour vs Independent Travel: Which is Better?
I don’t think there is one answer to that question. I think it is a combination of all of the above factors, and each person will have a different driving force. Do you have more time than money? Perhaps independent travel is a better solution because you can take the time to plan it thoroughly, and also stick within budget. Do you have more money but a limited time? A tour is all planned for you and you can often see a lot in a short time. Are you worried most about your safety? Again a tour could be the answer.
Do you feel strongly one way or the other? Or have I missed something? Let me know in the comments below.
You may also like these other posts
A Step by Step Guide to Planning Your Trip
Think You Are Too Old for Hostels? A Gen Xer’s Guide to Budget Travel
Our Ten Biggest Gap Year Failures
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.