Planning a trip can be fun, but it can also be stressful. There’s a lot to consider – what to see, how much to spend, and the amount of time to stay in one place. So do you choose to do a guided tour and have a fairly relaxed trip knowing that everything has been pre-arranged, or do you elect to plan your own travel – which can be cheaper but take more time to arrange?
Guided tours certainly have their place in the world of backpacking – if you’re short on time, guided tours mean that you can cram in plenty of adventure and culture in just a few days. Tours are also a great way to meet other solo backpackers and spend your time with them.
Independent travel on the other hand can be significantly cheaper, so if you have plenty of time but not much money this might be the better choice for you. Most long-term backpackers are advocates of independent travel but it’s important to note that many backpacker veterans actually started their trips with guided tours, to develop a good foundation in the world of backpacking.
In general, tour leaders are a knowledgeable, fun bunch who know your destination back to front and are able to help ease you in with plenty of fun facts, top tips, and amusing tales. Your tour leader will most likely have taken this tour before, so you’ll also have a lot of inside scoop on some of the best spots in town.
There is definitely safety in numbers and when it comes to traveling the world it doesn’t get much safer than arranging a guided tour with an experienced tour leader.
You should have a great group of like-minded backpackers to travel with. Particularly if you are backpacking alone, it can be fun to share your experiences with people who are interested in seeing and doing a lot of the same things as you.
Having everything arranged for you means you don’t have to worry about bus schedules or which hostel to stay in.
You typically know how much your trip will cost up-front and will pay this prior to leaving. Obviously, you will need to factor in any out-of-pocket costs like meals, souvenirs, or activities that are not included in the price of your tour.
Your tour company will have partnered with local specialists to provide the best possible adventures, which takes the headache out of choosing a rafting company at random. Many tour companies emphasize responsible tourism, choosing businesses to support the local economy.
There are some places around the world that are logistically impossible to reach without the help of a guided tour. Whether you’re interested in trekking to a remote location or somewhere with travel restrictions, some things are difficult – if not virtually impossible – to be explored independently.
There’s no denying it, even budget guided tours are going to cost more than independent travel. Some guided tours can be extremely expensive so be sure to shop around.
If you don’t like the people in your group, there’s not much you can do about it. If a large group of friends signs up together that you haven’t met before, you could feel like an outsider.
Guided tours tend to try and “pack it in,” which means you might feel like you are constantly being rushed from one attraction to the next.
The cost of your tour will cover set activities and meals. If you’re not keen to go horse-riding up a mountainside then no problem, you don’t have to do it, but sometimes these expenses can make their way into your tour costs.
One of the best ways to get to the heart of a place is to get lost, screw up a restaurant order, and have a laugh with the locals. On a guided tour, you are less likely to have to take the initiative and may miss out on a truly wonderful self-learning experience.
Independent travel is considerably cheaper than going on a guided tour and will enable you to stretch your budget further and travel longer. Most activities provided on a guided tour can be arranged in-country for cheaper so you won’t necessarily miss out on much by organizing everything yourself.
Independent travel is the ultimate freedom. You get up when you want, you go where you want, and you do what you want. If you find somewhere or someone, you like and fancy sticking around for a few weeks then you can; you don’t need to worry about sticking to a timeline.
It can be relatively easy to make friends while traveling solo and you can meet more people as you make your way through your trip. You’re not stuck with the same people for a set period of time.
Independent travel is a challenge but, like any challenge, it comes with its rewards. Backpackers who hit the road by themselves and dive headfirst into the whirlwind of organizing everything on their own will quickly acquire great time management, haggling, and language skills. Independent travel can be the ultimate confidence booster.
Independent travelers have a better chance to meet with locals. Whether it’s haggling with a taxi driver, shopping at the local night markets, or discussing Buddhism with orange-robed monks, your chances of getting a feel for the local culture are greatly improved.
Organizing absolutely everything by yourself can prove exhausting. There are only so many times in one day you are going to have the mental energy to haggle for Tuk Tuks or use your bad Vietnamese to try and order a vegetarian option.
If you get sick while traveling and you are on your own, it can really suck. People you meet in dorms are likely to be friendly to you but nobody is going to take time out of their day to look after someone they have just met.
Independent travel has an added element of risk – if something does go wrong you are going to have to deal with the consequences yourself.
You may also find yourself being a bit lonely; sometimes a couple of days can pass where you won’t really meet anybody and if you are a little shy it can sometimes be hard to wander up to new groups of people every day.
Choosing between a guided tour and traveling alone is a very personal choice, so it is a good idea to ask yourself these questions:
If you’re a first-time backpacker, consider signing up for a short guided tour followed by some independent travel afterward. Being on a guided tour will give you the confidence and know-how you need to properly explore an area by yourself once the tour has ended. You could also meet people on the guided tour who are in the same situation as you and are keen to find a travel buddy for further adventures once the tour is over.
There are a huge range of tour companies out there, so it’s important to find the right one for you. Tours focus on everything from partying to birdwatching. If you’re a social butterfly, interested in having someone else be in the driver’s seat, consider signing up for a tour from a company aimed specifically at first-time backpackers.
There is no “right” approach as both independent travel and guided tours have their merits. While most seasoned backpackers end up gravitating towards solo travel as it’s ultimately cheaper and more flexible, guided tours are an excellent introduction for first-time backpackers and enable even the most well-trodden adventurers to reach destinations such as the Darien Gap or Antarctica, which would otherwise be impossible to visit.
To assure you don’t waste your money or time and have an awesome time on your trip, keep in mind the following details when picking an escorted tour.
When picking from the seemingly countless number of tour operators, you should pay close attention to the reputation a company has for supporting sustainable travel. What does this mean? It means the company supports the local community, offers eco-friendly options and provides you with a more realistic view of the destination. Why? This will give you the opportunity to have a more authentic, local experience, which will cut out some of the negatives mentioned above. It also means that you will be a more responsible traveler, less likely to have a negative impact on the place you are only passing through, but where people call home.
You should also find a company that caters to people just like you! There are options for every personality and every taste. Look around to find something that makes you say “that’s me!” There is definitely that option out there if you just take the time to look!
The way to get the best of both worlds, to have a planned trip, but also have some freedom to explore on your own, is to pick a company that does not have a strict set schedule 24 hours a day. Many companies offer a sort of flex deal, which allows you free days, or at least long hours, to explore.
Group travel gives you the opportunity to safely travel to parts of the world you may be overwhelmed to go to on your own. Take advantage of this and explore all corners of the world. Look for escorted tours in places where you may feel uncomfortable going by yourself or that may be a bit difficult to get to without the help of professionals.