Updated: 12 April, 2017.
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 begin. Some people love them, some people hate them, and nearly every traveller has an opinion on them.
Popularised by the likes of Contiki and Top Deck, there are now an 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 them completely, however, preferring to go solo, or travel with a small group of friends.
There are benefits to either approach, and some people find themselves taking a combination of both during their travels. While I personally much prefer travelling independently, there are certain places and situations where I happily consider taking a group tour.
So, the big question: are organised tours right for you?
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, 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 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 you may struggle to manage alone.
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 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’s the type of tour that fits with your own ethos.
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 the coach or truck 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.
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.
Probably the biggest reason to avoid any tour is the inherent lack of flexibility. On an organised trip of any length, you can guarantee there will be several places you barely scratch the surface of before being 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.
The best thing about group travel is often the people you’re travelling with. The worst thing about group travel is also often the people you’re travelling with. The snorer in the bunk below you, the group that spends every night drunk and every day hung over, 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 you want to smother with a pillow is not usually what you had in mind when checking out the tour brochure…
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 your choice is between taking an organised trip or not going at all, start checking the tour websites now!
If you spend the time to find 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. Day tours, in particular, are often a good way of experiencing something new without having to deal with transport and other hassles.
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!
Tour group image via Mario Mancuso