I have been traveling since 2008, and over half of the countries I have visited, I explored on an organized tour. Judge me if you want (It’s ok, I sort of judge myself for it sometimes too), but at the time, organized tours were exactly what I wanted/needed.
In 2008, I spent 6 weeks traveling around Europe, 3 of those were in the company of 25+ Australians on a Contiki Tour. In 2010, when I spent 4 weeks backpacking through Australia, I once again choose to spend 1/3 of my time on a Contiki bus. My trips in 2011 were no exception, only this time it was 2 weeks in Greece with Busabout, followed by 2 weeks in Turkey with Topdeck. Needless to say, I’ve had my fair share of organized tour experiences and over the years I’ve gained a great understanding of the pros and cons that come with organized travel.
“Oh you traveled with a tour”, you’ll hear people say, “that’s not a real travel experience. You are just horded around from sight to sight like sheep. ”
But the reality is, that blanket statement couldn’t be further away from the truth. (At least in my humble opinion) Depending on the tour company and the trip itinerary, you could be in for some amazing off the beaten track experiences.
No matter what people say, the ultimate decision is yours to make. So today I wanted to share a few of my own observations and experiences to help you get a better understanding of whether an organized tour is right for you.
Organized Tours are More Expensive
Guided tours come with a certain level of convenience and for that, they do charge a premium. If you are traveling on a tight budget, organized guided tours may not be the best choice for you. Your accommodation will almost always be pre-selected and never the cheapest option on the market. Same goes for your transportation and a lot of meals. After all, even budget tour companies try to maintain a certain level of comfort standards on their trips. While you might be perfectly fine with sharing a dorm room with 10-14 other people to get the cheapest price, you’ll almost never have that option with a tour company.
Want to save on daily expenses by eating street food or cooking your own meals 3 times a day? Don’t expect to have that option when you are traveling on a tour. While many of your meals may be covered in the tour package, they are never cheap when you calculate it on a per meal basis.
On top of that, many tour companies offer a number of “optional activities” like group dinners out, shows, excursions, etc. These are never cheap, but you’ll probably end up signing up for them anyway. If your whole travel group is going out for dinner, you won’t want to be the only one staying behind.
When I traveled around Europe with Contiki, my daily budget worked out to be around $150-$200 per day (once you include extra activities and drinks out). A few years later, when I was living in London, my weekend getaways around Europe would cost me no more than $50-$100 per day, and I wasn’t even trying very hard to save on costs!
You Don’t Spend a Lot of Time in Each Place
Organized tours are extremely efficient in getting you from one attraction to another in a very short period of time. But the challenge is that while you tick off all the sights, you may not get a lot of time to relax and feel the pulse of life in each place you visit. Sure you might get 2-3 days in each city, but is that ever enough? If you are the kind of person that likes to unpack, get into the groove of things and discover slowly, a guided tour may not be for you. You’ll be off to a new place before you know it.
After spending just 2 days in Cape Tribulation, a small village in the middle of the Daintree Rainforest, on my Australian Contiki Tour, I knew I wanted to unpack my bags and stay a while. But I had no choice. We were off before sunrise the next day… And I never got to go back.
You Can’t Pick Your Travel Companions
Depending on the tour company you’ll be looking at anywhere from 5-30 other travelers joining you on the tour. If you are lucky, you’ll all get along and become best friends and great travel companions. But you could just as easily end up with someone you really don’t mesh with well. It’s not like a hostel where if you meet someone you don’t like, you can just switch rooms, or switch hostels to stay away from each other. On a group tour, you have no choice. You are stuck on the same bus/train/plane and are forced to be around each other at all excursions and events. There is no running away from your bad luck.
My European Contiki trip was filled with all kinds of drama. There were tears, fights, and ruined days and nights. At times, it felt like the trip was more about the relationships on the bus, then the sights outside.
You Can’t Choose Your Accommodation
Accommodation on many guided tours is pretty stock standard: basic 2-3 star hotels, that will be comfortable, clean, but nothing out of the ordinary. Unless accommodation is a part of the experience, like a camping trip, or a luxury tour, it is unlikely that you will get to experience anything worth writing home about. Some tours do incorporate home-stays and a few cool and different hotels in their itineraries, but that’s more of an exception than the rule. But how can the same quirky hotel suit the taste of 30 travelers from around the world? It can’t.
On my trip through Europe our accommodation in Lucerne was an old jail. It was cool and I personally really enjoyed it, but for every person that thought it was a neat addition to the trip, there were 2 others that were terrified to sleep that night.
You Can’t Be Flexible With Your Plans
It is common practice for Organized Tours to cram your itinerary with activities and plan out your days down to the minute, leaving you no time to explore on your own. You’ll often have to follow a strict schedule. You’ll get up when you are told, eat when you are told, and your explorations will only last as long as you are told. And for most tour companies the rules goes, “if you are late, we won’t wait”. Some people love it, they feel like they are really getting the most out of their trip, but many feel exhausted by the constant need to Go! Go! Go!
One of the things I was looking forward to the most on my trip to Turkey with Topdeck was a visit to Ephesus. I couldn’t wait to walk the ancient streets, to learn about each ruin, to explore, to understand and to really take it all in. I was devastated when I found out that our Ephesus visit was only going to last a few hours. In the end, I had barely even scratched the surface of Ephesus and I was longing for more. It was then and there, that I made a promise to myself to never go on another organized tour again.
That was 3 years ago… and I’ve kept my promise…
But don’t get turned off from organized travel too quickly. With every con of group travel, there are just as many, if not more pros.
Easy to Plan, Easy to Travel
If the idea of figuring out your own travel plans makes you cringe, an organized tour could be exactly what you need. Speak to a travel agent, tell them what you are after, and they’ll easily recommend you a handful of tours that suit your needs. Organized tour itineraries will cover all the major sights and attractions. And the packaged deals will even take care of most of your accommodation and meals. You won’t have to worry about spending days/weeks searching for good hotels online, researching for things to do in each city or finding good places to eat at. You’ll know exactly what to expect on your trip and have nothing left to do, but look forward to your amazing holiday!
And if you are after a different kind of trip, there are plenty of tour companies that offer unique tours. You can find tour companies that incorporate home stays, off the beaten path experiences, and unique cultural events into their itineraries, making sure that your experience in the country is everything you would have wanted to do on your own, minus the hassle!
When you are on the road, you won’t have to worry about things going wrong. That’s what your tour manager is there for. They’ll be your guide throughout the trip and the best source of local information, no matter where you go. Want to know a great place to eat for lunch? Your guide will have a suggestion. Need some ideas for how to best spend your free day in the city? Your guide will have a long list of suggestions. And if something does go wrong on the trip, you’ll have an experienced trouble shooter there to solve any of your problems.
Ideal for First Time Travelers
When I was planning my first trip to Europe, I was completely overwhelmed. I had no previous travel experience and I had no idea where to even start. So a Contiki tour was a perfect introduction to my European adventure. After 3 weeks with Contiki, I felt confident enough to be able to get around Europe on my own.
If you are longing to travel and explore, but don’t feel confident that you can plan a good trip, why not let the pros do the work for you? Yes, it may cost you a bit more and you may not get to see everything you want, but it will be a perfect introduction to what could end up being a never ending adventure abroad. All you need is a little bit of travel confidence and an organized tour can give you just that!
Great for Solo Travelers
Remember the part where you travel with 5-30 travel companions? Well it’s not all bad! In fact, it is very likely that you’ll meet fantastic people that you’ll have lots in common. You won’t ever have to worry about being alone, you’ll always have someone else to share the experience with and to remember the adventures. And if you are lucky, you’ll walk away with friendships that last for years and years after.
My European Contiki trip may have had its fair share of issues, but it also allowed me to meet a friend, who after 6 years, I still have the pleasure of calling one of my closest friends. And for that, I will forever be grateful to Contiki!
There is no arguing about it. Traveling in a group with a qualified tour guide and a professionally trained bus driver is definitely safer than hopping around local chicken busses, hitch-hiking with locals, and trying to get yourself around unknown cities. There are scams and unpleasant experiences on every corner. Want to try street food in a new country? Your travel guide will point you to the best stall in the area, ensuring that you get to try authentic local cuisine without getting food poisoning. Want to hit up the town at night, your guide will navigate you safe and traveler friendly places that you are bound to enjoy!
But the best thing about Organized Travel is that it…
… Allows You to Push Further!
There are still a lot of places in the world that are really hard to access on your own. No matter how experienced you are and how adventurous you are, you can’t get to places like the Galapagos Islands or Machu Picchu without traveling with an organized tour. You can’t go gorilla trekking in Uganda or climb to Base Camp Mt Everest without a guide. You can’t organize your own overland trek in Mongolia or set off on your own adventure in Antarctica.
There are still places where even the most experienced travelers will choose an organized tour. And sooner than later, I too, will go back on my promise to “never go on another organized tour again”. I may no longer be interested in Contiki trips, or Topdeck trips, or Busabout trips, but there are plenty of G Adventures trips and Intrepid trips high on my list.
My travel style has changed and so have my views on organized travel. At the end of the day, there is something out there for everyone. It all comes down to where you are going, who you are going with and what kind of experience you are after.