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Safety in numbers – pros and cons of organised tours

Tour group

If you’re looking to start a good argument in any hostel bar, discussing the pros and cons of organised group tours would be a great place to start. Some people love them, some people hate them and nearly every traveller seems to have an opinion on them.

Popularised by the likes of Contiki and Top Deck, there are now a seemingly endless range of companies offering variations on the group tour theme.  Party buses, cultural trips, eco tours – the list goes on, with seemingly something for everyone.  Many people shun organised tours completely, however, much preferring to go solo or travel with a small group of friends.

There are benefits to either approach, and some people may find themselves taking a combination of both during their travels.  While I personally much prefer travelling independently, there are certain places and situations in which I would happily consider taking a group tour.

So, the big question: are organised tours the right choice for you?

 

The Pros

Group travel is easier

There’s no doubt about it, travelling on an organised tour is easier – sometimes much easier – than going it alone.  You don’t have to worry about arranging transportation, accommodation, food and drink, or pretty much anything else.  Just turn up, find a seat on the bus and enjoy the ride.

If you’re new to the travel game or travelling in more challenging areas, taking a tour allows you to see new places that you might not otherwise have the confidence or ability to get to by yourself. In some parts of the world (Africa, for example), tours provide a degree of ease and comfort that you may struggle to manage alone.

 

There are always like minded people around

As rewarding as solo travel is, there are lonely times too.  Sitting by yourself in an empty bar or hostel common room is not most people’s idea of fun.  That’s not a problem on a tour – there’s always someone to go for a drink or explore the city with, and on the longer tours you can forge some great relationships that last well beyond the end of the trip.  You’re not going to get on with everyone – that’s human nature – but it’s a rare trip indeed where you don’t find at least one or two people to hang out with, especially if it is the type of tour that fits with your own ethos.

 

Safety

While travelling alone is far from unsafe if you take a few sensible precautions, organised group trips are an inherently safer option. Being in a group reduces the individual risk of being a victim of petty crime, and having guaranteed accommodation every night means you won’t get caught out wandering round at 3am in a dodgy part of town looking for somewhere to stay.

There’s also at least a reasonable chance that the coach or truck that you’re travelling on has been serviced recently, and most organised tours tend to avoid areas that are particularly high risk, or at least have some form of security available (convoys, guards, etc). Not having to worry so much about personal safety will make any trip a lot more enjoyable.

 

The Cons

Price

With only a few exceptions — and regardless of what it might say in the brochure — tours are more expensive than doing it yourself.  The tour companies have significant overheads to cover that you don’t: salaries for guides and office staff, advertising and commissions to name just a few.  Unless you’re travelling to an area where transport and accommodation is very limited and expensive, you can expect to add at least 25% or more (sometimes much more) onto the costs of self-guided travel.

 

Flexibility

Probably the biggest reason to avoid any tour is the inherent lack of flexibility. On an organised trip of any length you can guarantee that there will be several places that you barely scratch the surface of before you are hustled back on the bus and moved on to your next destination. One or two days is nowhere near enough to explore most cities of any size, and even many of the smaller locations on the tourist trail have far more to see than a quick overnight stay will allow.

While the better tour companies build a little time and flexibility into the schedule, you are ultimately competing against both the clock and your fellow passengers when trying to spend an extra day here or a few more hours there. If you prefer to travel slowly, experience more and see things in your own time, your best – indeed, only – option is to dance to your own beat.

 

pub crowd

Travel companions

The best thing about group travel is often the people that you are travelling with. The worst thing about group travel is also often the people that you are travelling with. From the snorer in the bunk below you and the group that spend every night smashed and every day hung over, to the person who tells you several times a day how much better everything is at home, there’s a travel cliché or two on every tour.

While you can probably put up with people that bother you for a few days, even the small things start to grate during trips that last weeks or months. The structured nature of most group travel exacerbates the situation even more, as it’s often hard to get away for any length of time. Spending several hours on a bus each day with someone that you want to smother with a pillow is not usually what you had in mind when checking out the tour brochure…

 

The Bottom Line

If you’re new to travelling, going to a challenging part of the world, or just don’t feel like arranging everything yourself, a tour could well be the best option. Certainly if you feel that your choice is between taking an organised trip or not going at all, start checking the tour websites now! If you spend the time up front finding and researching a tour company that fits with your goals for the trip (partying, exploring, volunteering, etc), you are much more likely to have a great experience.

Once you have a few group trips under your belt and are looking for more flexible, self-guided and cheaper travel, however, there’s nothing that compares to doing it yourself. You get a lot more out of your experiences (both good and bad), tend to meet a lot more locals in more ‘real world’ situations and get to see and do exactly what you want and go wherever the mood takes you.

In almost every case, the extra effort required up front more than pays off in the long run. With the vast array of resources available to travellers these days, arranging your own perfect itinerary is infinitely easier than it was even a decade ago. Get out there and give it a go!

6 Comments

  1. Reply

    Nigel Dean

    March 4, 2010

    Really good article - I have experienced both forms of travel and can vouch for David's comments. I think it is horses for courses - whereas I feel really comfortable doing my own thing in English speaking, left hand drive countries it is a bit different when they speak differently. Having said that I cannot claim to be the bravest of travellers!

  2. Reply

    John

    March 15, 2010

    I enjoy doing a bit of both. When in a new country, I'll often book a day tour just to get my feet on the ground

  3. Reply

    Dave

    March 15, 2010

    Hi John, thanks for stopping by.

    I agree, doing short half or full day tours in a new city or country can be really useful to help orient yourself - I often do the same thing myself, especially if transportation is a bit of an issue. Mixing up these sort of quick group trips with independent travel can really help give you the best of both worlds eh?

  4. Reply

    Carmen Sandiego

    April 6, 2010

    DIY is definitely the best way to go unless you are travelling alone and/or you're the type of person that couldn't organise a rendezvous with a lady friend in a house of disrepute. As we slide into a technologically advanced world, there are certainly enough travel advice websites around (Yahoo Travel, Virtual Tourist, Lonely Planet etc) to assist with planning your own itinerary and figuring out where the top 5 places to get mugged are... and avoiding them. In any event, there's probably just as much risk of being the victim of petty crime in Frankston North :-)

  5. Reply

    @_thetraveller_

    October 15, 2010

    I find a mix of both is good... I like doing it alone, but sometimes it can get really complicated or almost impossible to see some areas without a tour company.
    Great post kiwi!


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