Organized tours often get a bad rep, especially within the travel community. In fact, organized tours are often associated with being for “old people” and conjure up images of tourists wearing wide-brim hats hopping on and off large buses to follow a tour leading donning a flag in hand. There’s also the belief that they offer little flexibility and cost a lot. The truth of the matter is that tours come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve traveled solo, but also enjoy organized tours (which seems to shock a lot of people). That’s because tours offer a variety of benefits, which I quite like.
- You don’t have to do as much planning. One of the most-time consuming and overwhelming things to do is choosing where to go, for how many days and which of the highlights to experience. Once you have finally settled on those elements, then it’s time to research accommodations and transportation, which can be quite challenging in some countries. Most tour companies have nailed down the highlights, length of time, and other logistical elements based on years of experience and user feedback. So not only do you save time on planning, but you can also save yourself from the stresses of planning. I certainly don’t mind that!
- But you do have the option to plan components of your trip to customize your itinerary. There’s always the option to mix and match your trip to include both solo time and tour time by tacking on days before and after your official tour to do your own thing. You can even reach out to your tour company to get tips for these days. Even during the tour itself, some itineraries allow for plenty of free time for you to explore on your own. This means you can focus and plan out the important stuff (like what to do when you’re actually there) instead of the more stressful details (like how you get there).
- You have people to hang out with! Speaking of free days in your itinerary, one of the benefits of going on an organized tour is that there will always be others that will want to do the same thing as you. Even if you like to be on your own most of the time, there are some activities that aren’t available to solo travelers or are quite cost prohibitive for a party of one (i.e., river rafting, adventure sports, private shuttles or drivers to see the sunrise on the Bolivian Salt Flats).
- Tours can (sometimes) be cheaper than going solo. Especially if you want to partake in certain activities that are costly for solo travelers, but are more reasonable with groups. Tour companies have relationships with others in the travel industry whether it’s private shuttle companies, hotels or local guides. They also have the ability to negotiate bulk pricing by just the sheer number of people they can bring through on a continuous basis. True, it may not be cheaper than if you were going to take public buses and stay in hostels the entire time, but at the level of comfort offered, they can definitely be cheaper than solo travel. The cost savings is most apparent in expensive regions like Scandinavia where prices are jaw-droppingly high.
- You get the benefit of hearing from a local. Many organized tours use local guides at each stop. These local guides can provide you with more relevant, recent information compared to a guidebook like Lonely Planet, which often has outdated information. Having a local guide can help deepen your knowledge about a place and is especially useful if you’re the type of person that is interested in culture and history but don’t enjoy talking to random strangers.
- Some places are just easier to visit (and sometimes require) using a tour company. For example visiting India or much of Africa is much easier and safer via a tour. Major hikes like the Inca Trail require a permit, which are only issued to tour operators.
- You get to meet some amazing people. Like seriously amazing. Often when you travel with your friends you don’t get the benefit of meeting new people. Even if you are a solo traveler, it might be not be easy to walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation. Traveling on a tour allows you to meet people, build bonds and develop lasting friendships (as I have) with some of the most interesting individuals from all over the world. BONUS: This means you have people to visit and places to stay when you go visit their home countries! In fact, a few years ago I was on a 3.5 week tour of China and met a Finnish couple. The wife was pregnant. Years later, I was on a solo trip to Finland and they invited me over for a home-cooked meal and I got to meet their daughter! Nothing beats the relationships and connections you can make on these trips.
While traveling solo might seem more glamorous or like the “real deal”, it isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. Tours are a great alternative. Yes there are some cons like sometimes costing more, having less overall control, and having to wait for people as they stop to get cash or pick up laundry, but they are pretty fabulous in their own right. The goal of traveling is to explore and see the world and there’s no wrong way of doing it.
I’ve taken a number of tours from single-day to month-long tours. If you’re looking for great tour companies I highly recommend Intrepid as well as GAdventures. I’ve traveled with both and think they’re both great operators. And no, they didn’t pay me to say this.