We've always been fans of independent travel. When we took our first backpacking trip in 2000, we didn't have a lot of money so naturally we shied away from organized travel. It was much cheaper for us to go it on our own.
Through the years, we continued to travel independently by taking local buses and trains and hiring a guide once we arrived at the station. Or we'd hire a guide from our guest house or walk around town until we found someone that looked good. We'd hop from local tour company to local tour company feeling people out, weighing the price of the tour with our budget, and asking about every detail regarding what we get with our purchase. Most of the time we did amazing.
We couldn't have asked for a better guide to Everest Base Camp with our now friend Deep, we saved a bundle climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with Moshi Tours by arriving from the airport and hammering out a deal, and just recently we booked a great tour around the island of Aruba for $20. We saw all the highlights, we stayed as long (or in our case as short) at each stop as we wanted and we didn't have to listen to long drawn out speeches about the history and little known facts. (Not that there's anything wrong with this) But we've been on some tours where I want to pull my hair out as our guide drones on and on over a microphone telling about every single building or street sign we pass. Most of the time organized tours are not for us.
Time vs Independence
For one thing, independent travel takes a lot of time. When we travelled South East Asia, Central America and Europe independently, we had time. We had time to spend an entire day searching for a guide or tour company to take us up a mountain or into a rainforest. We had time to explore ruins and historical sites on our own reading our guide books. If we felt we didn't get enough out of the experience, we went back with a local guide the next day.
A lot of people don't have the luxury of time. And that's where a tour company makes sense.
Choose the Right Tour Company
But the most important thing is choosing the right tour company. We recently had a tour company offer to work with us to help promote their tours, but after looking at their product, we declined. Our worst nightmare for travel is to sit on a big tour bus and watch the world go by. Sorry folks, but it is. We've done a couple in our lives and each time it's taken all my stamina not to scream let me out of here or jump out the window. I feel so stuck on a tour bus it's painful. But some people love being on the big buses, they are happy with looking out the window and jumping out for a quick snapshot here and there. That's fine, you just have to decide if it it sfor you.
I think most people's problem with group tours are those giant groups of 30 to 50 people walking around in a mob following their leader's umbrella. That's not my idea of fun, that's more like a cattle drive. But if you choose a company that offers small group tours, it's an entirely different experience. Our trip through China was one of the best and most memorable trips we've ever taken and it was on an organized tour with Intrepid Travel. There were only 8 of us on the tour and we all became fast friends. We're still friends with Kim and have visited her in England since.
International Expeditions also specializes in small group tours. Our ship only held 30 passengers and when we went on safari or our daily boat trips, we split up into two groups. There were never more than 15 of us in a boat and there are several guides to take care of our needs. We had plenty of time in each place, we all had individual attention and we never felt crowded.
Depends on the situation
A tour company is needed for certain travel situations. Obviously Antarctica cannot be travelled independently and Greenland would be very difficult since there are no roads connecting the villages, and there are many more “Wow” destinations that definitely require a tour leader. We couldn't go into the jungles of Borneo alone when we travelled Asia independently, so we booked an organized tour with Uncle Tans based in Kota Kinabalu.
Our Amazon expedition is an another excellent example. It is possible to travel the Amazon on your own, but why would you? On the ship, you get to go deep into the rainforest and National Park. You stop at local villages, you have expert guides taking you out on safari and you get to sleep in comfort and safety each evening.
Sometimes a guide makes sense
In the Amazon, we couldn't spot any wildlife on our own. We didn't know what to look for, but our guides had eagle eyes and could spot a 3-toed sloth a mile away. If we went on our own, we would have said “Well that's a pretty forest and we would have missed all the wildlife hiding within it.
When we went to Machu Picchu, we visited on our own. Sadly we didn't know that first thing about it once we left and other than checking out the view, we came away with a less than stellar experience. We realized that we missed out by not hiring a guide. Since then we've visited many ruins with a guide and have come away fascinated by the history and stories that they told.
It's worth having a guide, they know more than you!
We've had a lot of close calls during our travels. We've been violently sick in India, Honduras, Egypt and Peru. We've been to hospitals on 4 continents, but we've never had as much of a scare as we had this past November in the Amazon. Dave fell on a boat and broke two vertebrae in his back.
I don't know what we would have done had we been traveling independently. The guys from the ship were on the satellite phone calling for air support and talking with head office. Within 4 hours Dave was on a flight back to Iquitos (extenuating circumstances turned our 30 minute flight into an 8 hour ordeal but we made it!) where a representative from International Expeditions was waiting for us at the hospital to translate for us and they let us use their office phones to call our travel medical insurance. We were in a really remote part of the country and nobody spoke English. We wouldn't have been able to talk to the doctors or organize our emergency flights home. It all still took a week due to red tape, but had we been on our own, we'd have been in Peru for several more weeks.
The office of the tour company was luckily directly across the street and for the week Dave was in the hospital they came regularly to check on us. They helped us gather paperwork and send it to our insurance company, we used their phone to call insurance, we used their computers to email papers and they helped us fill prescriptions, talk to specialists and doctors and pick up a back brace. They even brought me to the supermarket to buy some snacks.
I would have been so alone had we been traveling on our own.
It made us realize that there is a time and a place for independent travel.
When you are going into a remote rainforest, you want to make sure you have proper emergency equipment like a satellite phone, and a way to speak to someone in your own language. It can be done independently, we carried a satellite tracking device with us while driving from England to Mongolia but when I look back, I'm grateful that nothing happened in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
There are times that I am dead set against traveling with a tour company. Well-travelled places like South East Asia and Europe are the time to go on your own. We didn't book an organized tour for Mount Kinabalu, we just showed up at the park and joined a guide, Visiting English speaking countries like Australia would may save you money travelling with a group, but it's better going it alone.
When choosing a tour company weight the price against the convenience. Organized tours in Asia are actually more expensive than traveling independently. But organized tours in New Zealand may be cheaper. Things like the Flying Kiwi in New Zealand get you from point A-B reasonably and they show you the highlights of the country. This may be a time when even though it's English speaking and easy to get around, you may want to join in the tour.
Some people don't feel safe traveling South Africa independently, but we love having the freedom to drive ourselves and stop where we like when we like. Other than for safaris or remote village visits, I don't think a tour company is needed.
Do your research, decide what sort of travel you like and plan for your budget. These are all factors to take into consideration when choosing whether to tour or not to tour. We've become fans of both. Just don't make us sit on a bus the size of a Greyhound and we're happy.
This post is in partnership with IETravel. For more information on Amazon Expeditions visit International Expeditions, the leader in Nature Travel.