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 and chose to travel independently. Independent trips were much cheaper for us so we didn’t even consider an organized tour. As we’ve travelled more, we’ve learned to love organized tours and can see the benefits of both. So how do you choose which way to travel? We are going to weight the pros and cons of both Organized trips and traveling independently.
Organized Travel 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 guesthouse or walk around town until we found someone that looked good.
We’d search for local tour companies in our destination weighing the price of the tour with our budget. When planning our treks or tours, we’d ask 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.
- Read about our independent travel to Everest and Kilimanjaro
We saw all the highlights, we stayed as long (or in our case as short) at each stop as we wanted. The benefit of the independent trips were that we could negotiate the price, choose our itinerary and go for as long as we wanted.
We also had private guides to indulge in our every need at an affordable price.
Time Vs Independence
The downside of independent travel is that it takes a lot of time. When we traveled 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 own guide books. If we felt we didn’t get enough out of the experience, we went back with a local guide the next day. Having several weeks or months to travel is when independent travel becomes worthwhile. Get your guide to traveling Southeast Asia independently with Lonely Planet on a Shoestring.
Choose The Right Tour Company
A lot of people don’t have the luxury of time. And that’s where a tour company makes sense to see all of the top sights with an organized tour. Organized trips do all the planning for you allowing you to relax and enjoy the experience without any stress.
But the most important thing about traveling on a tour is to choose the right tour company to suit your needs. Things to consider are.
- Do you want to be in a large group to have safety in numbers and make friends?
- Do you want a small group for a more intimate experience.
- Do you want to be able to go off on yoru own with a lot of free time.
- How mobile are you? Is your tour active?
- Do you have mobility issues and will want to be on busses over guided walks.
Ask these questions to decide what tour works for your needs. Companies like G Adventures or Intrepid Travel are known for small groups that are active but if you are older or have any medical issues, you may want a company like GoAhead Tours which has a blend of both. Or maybe you need a company that offers complete mobility for tours and transfers.
- Great organized tours we took:
Small Group Tours
I think most people’s problem with group tours is 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. Even if you have mobility issues, you don’t need to be on a giant tour. Many companies offer small targeted group tours to suit everyone’s needs.
If you choose a company that offers small group tours, you can feel like you are traveling independently, but with a helping hand to guide you through.
Our trip through China with Intrepid Travel 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 in the Amazon 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.
Group Tours are Sometimes Necessary
A tour company is needed for certain travel situations and is necessary for some destinations. Obviously, Antarctica cannot be traveled 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.
- Amazing expeditions and tours we took
We couldn’t go into the jungles of Borneo alone when we traveled Asia independently, so we booked an organized tour with Uncle Tans based in Kota Kinabalu.
Our Amazon expedition is 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 Guided Trip 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 way back in 2006, we visited on our own independently. Sadly we didn’t know that first thing about Machu Picchu and wandered around aimlessly wondering what we were looking at. It ended up being a less than a stellar experience other than witnessing these beautiful ruins. 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!
Group Travel offers Safety and Security
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.
Organized Tours are Great in an Emergency
I don’t know what we would have done had we been traveling independently. The guides from our tour company 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.
- Read more about that experience
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. Our tour company 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.
Times when Organized Trips are a Must
It made us realize that there is a time and a place for independent travel. When you are backpacking around Southeast Asia or Central America taking tour buses from place to place. Well, that is the perfect time for independent travel
There are times that I am dead set against traveling with a tour company. Well-traveled 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.
China is a place that an organized tour helps. We have traveled cities in China independently, but when we cross the country an organized tour made things much easier and helped us enjoy the experience. We understood the culture better and had a richer experience with a local guide.
- 24 of the Best Things to do in Beijing, China
- 25 Things to do in Suzhou China – All You Need to Know Before you Go
- 13 Things to do in Nanjing China – A Complete Guide to the Ancient Capital
Had we travelled independently we never would have had so many incredible experiences in China.
English-speaking countries like Australia may save you money traveling with a group, but it’s better to go it alone when you are in a place you are comfortable. Road trips are a great way to travel independently and have the freedom to go off the beaten path.
Some of the best road trips we have taken around the world are:
- The Ultimate Switzerland Road Trip Itinerary
- Wild Atlantic Way – Tips for Driving Ireland’s Coastal Route
- North Coast 500 – The Ultimate Trip Guide to Scotland’s Epic Drive
- Best Things to do in South Africa
- 18 Great Things to do in Queensland, Australia
When you combine road trips with organized day tours or city tours, they become a richer experience.
Know your Limits
When traveling independently you need to know your limits. If you have never traveled before, going alone out of the gate might be the wrong idea. If you have done many adventures, have skills and know the risks, you may be ready to travel on your own when others would consider a group tour.
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. Plus, we had been traveling independently for a decade and had a lot of experience.
We knew navigation, we had first aide, we had the right gear and we had the safety of being a group of four people. Read about the Mongol Rally: Essential Tips for Driving The Mongol Rally
When to Use a Tour Company
When choosing a tour company weigh 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.