Organized Tours vs Independent Travel

Written By: The Planet D

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 tours and chose to travel independently.

How to choose an organized tour vs independent travelIt was much cheaper for us to go it on our own.

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Life of a backpacker

Organized Tours vs Independent Travel

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.

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Local guides on Everest

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

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A lot of research is needed for independent travel

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’s for you.

Small Groups

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Our tour group in China

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.

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Small Group Tours – 3 Guides for 10 people

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.

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Our tour group at Uncle Tans

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

Amazon boat
Tour guides will help you spot animals you wouldn’t normally see.

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!

Safety

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.

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Jaime of IETravel looks on to take care of Dave

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.

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The early days, 2003 in Borneo

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.

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This post is in partnership with IETravel. For more information on Amazon Expeditions visit International Expeditions, the leader in Nature Travel.


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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

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30 thoughts on “Organized Tours vs Independent Travel”

  1. its nice place i went also there once its nice blog i wish more people read your blog and go there we also travel agent i prefer my clients to go there

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  2. I really like your wonderful post. I loved to read such kind of article and I happy to be here, thanks for sharing this amazing post

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  3. Awesome blog! I am an independent traveling lover because I like adventure and feel free when travel independently.

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  4. Really great information about tours and traveling. I’m a regular traveler and love to camp and visit different places. I really enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing the whole information in a very beautiful manner.

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  5. Iโ€™m definitely going to share your page with friends who are deciding between independent travel and tours. Thanks!

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  6. Independent travel has been the way to go most of the time for me. I like getting up early in the morning, take it slow and watch the locals getting ready for the day or try to get breakfast at the same places locals do. Hard to do when there’s a tour bus waiting at 6am ๐Ÿ™‚ But when I visited Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, if if weren’t for the registered tour guide, I would’ve missed out on a lot of interesting local information that couldn’t be found in guide books.

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  7. I agree that there is a time to take an organized tour and a time not to. Cost always plays into the decision for me. I would prefer the independent travel because you get to see what you want. With today’s internet, it is easy to get information on your own. There are many locations where I can get internet service on my cell phone and can thereby check on information on what I am seeing at the moment. It wasn’t always that easy. I remember a time when there was no internet and travel plans had to be made with a travel agent. I made such a trip many decades ago to China and Japan. Tours were set up and at that time, China would only allow government assigned tour guides. It may be different now as it has been a while since I was in China. I am grateful for the flexibility today.

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  8. What a great read! I am also a fan of independent travel in general, but I feel that tours fit certain situations and can be better for certain people! I’m definitely going to share your page with friends who are deciding between independent travel and tours. Thanks!

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  9. We have also always been fans of independent travel – finding that group tours tend to make us feel like we’re being held back…or holding others back.

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  10. Nice Idea. I love this topic, but i think yes, it depends on the situation.. but if you real a traveler a strong person who can face any struggle on you life to your journey. you will love the independent travel ๐Ÿ™‚

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  11. Great post guys ๐Ÿ™‚ When we first started traveling, we were dead set against tours. But then we realized that there is a time and a place, when it makes sense. Like the time we hired a local guide in Vietnam to take us on a 5 day motorbike adventure around Central highlands of Vietnam. Without him and that tour (which was amazing) we would have not only never seen that part of the country and tried amazing local food at truly local food establishments, but most importantly we wouldn’t have had the courage and confidence to get on the motorbike by ourselves at a later date. As a result of that tour, we purchased a motorbike, and traveled all through Laos and Vietnam on our own ๐Ÿ™‚ There are other great reasons as well, but this one sticks out in my mind because its so near and dear to our heart!

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  12. I also hate buses, I didnโ€™t come half way around the world to an exotic location to sit inside a bus and look out the window, I can do that at home!

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  13. Independent travel whenever possible for me as I just like the flexibility. The only time I take tours is if it is a requirement or if it is an experience where I would like to learn things from a local guide. I took a tour in the Vatican City as I would have no idea what I was looking at without a guide. I took a tour up Kilimanjaro as you’re not allowed to trek it solo and I didn’t want to carry all of my gear ๐Ÿ˜‰ If I do take a tour I usually try to book it when I get to the destination if I have the time. It is almost always cheaper.
    I think that tours have their place and they certainly suit a lot of people, particularly if you are short on time.

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  14. I’ve never been on an organised tour, but I’m seriously considering it for a few trips I want to do. The main one is India- I know there are loads of awesome girls who backpack India solo and say they’ve never had any trouble, but for me personally I’d feel much safer and able to enjoy myself in a group. The only thing putting me off (aside from the price, it does pain me to spend more than I would travelling solo) is that I love to wander around a site by myself, stopping to relax and sometimes even leaving and coming back later. But then I tell myself that it’s better to put up with those irritations than not see the country at all!

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  15. For sightseeing that really involves a lot of history and knowledge I think a guide can be better, like you said. However I too like going at it alone when I can, you just have so much more freedom then moving around with a big group. I also hate buses, I didn’t come half way around the world to an exotic location to sit inside a bus and look out the window, I can do that at home!

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  16. Totally agree, depends on the destination. Worth it in more remote destinations and you can meet interesting people. But in places in Europe, most likely you’ll be in group of 50 walking around like sheep. We’re in Croatia right now and some of the group tours very expensive – a place like this, unless you want to do a very special activity, you’ll get much better value travelling independently. Also depends on how you travel; we’ve been travelling for 10 months and we’re not going to spent 50 Euros a day on group tours. The more you travel the more you want to do things on your own.
    Having said that met totally different travellers in Sumatra doing some organized tours…but again, that’s the kind of place you want to do that.
    Frank (bbqboy)

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  17. It totally depends on what you’re after. I’ve done a good mix of both. With my husband, we’ve done organized day tours, or ones lasting 2-3 days. When I did solo travel, I tried a couple of Contiki tours. They were great, because you could choose how much you wanted to participate. If I didn’t feel like partying every night (which I can only handle so much of – poor liver), I’d wander around the cities on my own or with others who wanted a liver-break.

    I did three months of solo travel back in 2006 and will be honest that by the end, I was quite excited to get on a tour where someone else was making sure I got from Point A to Point B, I could sleep on the bus without fear of missing my stop and I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep that night. It’s not my preferred, all the time way of travel, but organized tours can serve a purpose.

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  18. I think the only time i ever booked a tour was on Spitsbergen. Because you are required by law to have one guide along with a loaded rifle against the polar bears. Other than that I really don’t see the point of it. Sure, can get very lucky with your group – but your chances on actually missing out the good stuff are way higher.

    every human is different – and whenever i am forced into tours (like in some museums etc) I always notice how the things that interest me really dont interest anyone else to that degree. So while I want to stay people already move on etc..
    Sure the guide can point things out to you – but with good preparation (which obviously takes time) you won’t miss out anything.

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  19. I’m such a fan of group/organised travel. Mainly because I feel like a guide can point out things or details that I might overlook if I was alone. One of my favourite was to go is by joining a tour and then spending a few days at the tour’s end and/or start point to explore deeper on my own – the best of both worlds! Choosing the right tour company is definitely the most important thing – if the company doesn’t suit you, it could just about ruin an otherwise great experience.

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