That is the question my dear friends.
There are many different kinds of travellers out there – those in harem pants and those with hair dryers and the kitchen sink. Lately it seems that social media will denounce you as an intrepid, adventure seeking soul if you don’t go it alone, buckling under a backpack and sharing space with poultry aboard questionable public transport. Let’s iron this out immediately; there is no right or wrong way to travel. We all have creature comforts and unless you prefer yours clucking on your lap, there is no shame in taking first class on the train.
I have noticed in my travels that there is a stigma attached to those who choose to be guided about a destination as opposed to orienteering it on their own. No doubt we can thank the high tales of individuals pitching less than perfectly orchestrated plans as golden moments. In hindsight, these make exceptional stories for the camp fire but what is often forgotten are the tears, the 38 hours without a shower and the exasperation at things lost in translation. So don’t be fooled – the first class train cost a damn pretty penny but the poultry definitely pooped all over the beloved backpack.
Having sampled both the backpacker and guided tour lifestyle, I have compiled a list of 100% frank pro’s and con’s that consider the side to every option.
PART ONE; PRO TOUR (Not of the golfing or tennis kind)
A quick summation; a guided tour is excellent for anyone who is a first time traveller, time poor, lazy, shy, elderly or has mobility issues. I am often a lazy, time poor, shy traveller and the following is what I appreciate about a guided tour;
- Set itinerary.
This can be both magnificent and a nightmare – depending on the kind of traveller you are. It’s fantastic for anyone who is time poor, be that at the actual destination or simply finding time to research the destination. We don’t often consider how long it takes to research a new place – for some, it’s the best bit of planning a trip – and for others it is a hindrance. Having a set itinerary will guarantee you a specific amount of time to see the main attractions within that location and to visit many destinations in a limited amount of time. Ie. Visiting 10 countries in Europe in the time it takes you to drive from the bottom of WA to the top.
- Transportation and accommodation sorted.
It can be romantic; discovering all the wonderful, hidden places to stay in exotic new destinations. It can also be a giant pain in the proverbial. All is well and good in the magical world of making A to B easily, but throw in cancelled flights, delayed buses, public holidays, incorrect addresses, weird opening hours and sometimes, it turns out A to B is a bitch. If I am travelling for a short period of time, I don’t want to worry about the minor, boring but oh so key details. Missing a train or flight or bus won’t ruin your trip but it may very well hurt your bank account or your pride. In terms of accommodation; I have stayed in many a place that I otherwise would never have known about or got the opportunity to visit, if I weren’t on a tour. Things like camping in the Sahara desert or sleeping under the stars on a sailing boat in Greece.
- Like minded people.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that group tours are for sheep, following behind a leader with a flag on a stick. There are SO MANY different kinds of touring companies out there that cater to every kind of interest. Like the idea of mountain biking in Mongolia? Or maybe volunteering in Nepal? What about sailing the Maldives or living with a tribe in the Amazon? These can all be done with a tour and better yet, the people on the tour will also be as interested in the experience as you are. This gives you something in common – the building blocks for great friendships. In my time travelling, some of the greatest friends I have made have been on tours. Friendship aside, you meet exceptional individuals who almost always surprise you. As someone who is on first introduction, relatively quiet, I appreciate the time a tour offers to get to know people and the opportunity to introduce my own personality at a speed that I am comfortable with.
- Hard to reach destinations.
Simply; there are many obscure, fantastic places out there to visit but not all of them are tourist friendly. Bhutan, for example, has a tourist tax of $200USD per day and one can ONLY travel to Bhutan with a licensed Bhutanese travel operator or international partner that complies to the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s standards. Don’t even get me started on the requirements for Saudi Arabia. These are amazing places to visit and they shouldn’t be kept off the list because they belong in the ‘too hard’ basket. They simply require a little more assistance than the old Bali booking.
Having the benefit of an established company in the destination you’re interested in makes one heck of a difference. It’s the small things like being provided a gluten free meal if you’re a coeliac or knowing whether an attraction is wheelchair friendly that can make or break a travel experience. Not only that, it saves you time. A tour operator can make the necessary adjustments ahead of time, so that the experience you get is not compromised by small details that can otherwise catch you out. You also have the benefit of having a provider who can point you in the right direction when it comes to things to pack, vaccinations to get, places to eat and sites to see. Knowing someone has got your back, means having confidence in the uncertainties.
It’s not yours. This is perhaps one of the best points of guided touring. You are not responsible for anything except having a good time. This makes a world of difference to your mental state. If the bus breaks down – it’s not your problem. If the hotel is overbooked, it’s not your problem. If your luggage is lost, it’s not your problem. See the theme? Those boring bits, that you would otherwise have to chase down, rectify, modify, solve – they aren’t yours to worry about. Really, they aren’t wrong when they say touring = stress free. If you have a certain amount of time to experience a new destination, you don’t want to spend it worrying about the what if’s, the where’s, the when’s or the how’s.
- A Tour Leader
A tour leader is a wealth of knowledge and a friend. It is their job to accommodate you (within reason) and are personally responsible for you and your experience. This means if something isn’t up to standard, they’ll campaign on your behalf. If you want an opinion on where is best to eat then they’ll point you in the right direction. A tour leader is a finely blended cocktail for best of’s. Best of the city bars. Best of the local pizza. Best of the museum collections. Best time of day to visit a monument. They aren’t a shepherd nor a hand holder. A good tour leader will add insight into a destination, as well as an understanding of the culture and how to navigate customs. They will be your haggler when you don’t speak Berber; your motivator to climb another hill; your entertainer in the evening and your dance floor friend.
I am the first to campaign that if you are a smart traveller, most places are pretty accessible, however this doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. Any reputable operator that runs a guided tour has done their research on the destination and will know the good, the bad and the don’t go areas of anywhere on the itinerary. This is important for destinations such as Africa, Central and South America – where political situations often create an unpredictable and dangerous environment. There is also the element of environmental safety. Ie. If it is hurricane or monsoon season; if there is a risk of encountering less than friendly wildlife; strong ocean undercurrents or simply extreme high or low temperatures. These factors are all taken into account when an operator creates a guided itinerary – which not only means that you don’t have to stress about factoring it in, but you also know there is contingency plans if any of them do happen.
Guided tours are about creating a stress free travel environment. The mistakes many people make that turn them off guided tours, is not choosing the right itinerary or operator. As much research should go into a tour as the destination itself. Checking the inclusions, the target demographic of the company, group size, the travel time between destinations (and HOW you travel to those destinations) and the time of year that you intend to travel are all very important. These will define the experience you have in any destination. Believe me, you won’t appreciate Cairo in July when it’s 50 degrees with ANY operator.
A great tour will introduce you to interesting, like minded people. It will allow you to travel through a new destination with ease and awe. It will provide the level of comfort and inclusions that you deem valuable.
That’s Pro Tour all wrapped up and under par. Now you’ll just have to wait for Part Two; No Tour to even the score. Did someone say deuce?