To take a tour or not…
While backpackers like keeping their travels independent and free from tour itineraries, it is really hard to avoid them in its entirety. Many backpackers say “tours are for square”, but the fact is, today we have a wide variety of tours that let us choose with much flexibility how we want to spend our vacations.
There are many tour niches: we can visit the everyday tourist attractions with Viator, or go for adventure with G Adventures, or be conscious of our carbon footprint with Intrepid Travel, and many more…
Here are some of the pros and cons commonly found when you travel on a tour.
- You have travel companions – It’s good to share most of your trip with the same familiar faces.
- Safety – Safety should be a high priority for any traveler.
- It’s easier to get off the beaten path – Traveling to rural areas in less developed countries or just going out of the countryside is very achievable on a tour.
- There are many budget options – There are many trip styles that can accommodate any budget
- There is great diversity – Tours can come with various types of cultural shock and levels of activity.
- Little planning is required – Everything is planned for you.
- Your trip can be sustainable – Tour companies are taking an eco-friendly approach by offsetting their carbon emissions and by donating to environmental causes.
- You can see more in less time – Tours are great to move from place to place efficiently. Good if you want to see many places but don’t have a lot of time.
- You don’t get to pick your tour guide – Tour guides can be a hit or a miss.
- You don’t get to pick your roommate if traveling solo – Although rare, you can end up with an “incompatible” roommate.
- Tours can cost more than traveling independent – Generally, organized tours cost more than independent travel.
- Costs can add up with optional activities – Optional activities can make a significant increase to the total cost of your trip.
- Everything is planned – There is no spontaneity on what to do next.
- Set itineraries – You can’t stay longer on a city that you loved or leave earlier from a dreadful place.
Is it worth it to take a tour, or would you rather do it on your own? Well, the previous points should have helped on that decision. If doing a tour is for you, then great! Now, how should you choose a tour? What should make you decide between one tour and the other?
Here are some questions you should ask yourself and search in order to reach an informed decision.
- Is the site (place desired to go) accessible by simple and/or local transportation?
- How much would it cost to take a tour vs. doing it on my own?
- Are special permits needed (for example, Machu Picchu), and does the tour cover them?
- How tight or relaxed is the tour schedule? Does it follow my desired itinerary? Is there flexibility and time to do things on my own pace?
- Will the tour itinerary satisfy what I want to achieve on my trip?
Once you have an answer to some of these questions you will have an idea if doing the tour works for you or if traveling independent will satisfy you best.
When selecting a tour company, you will find that many of them offer similar itineraries for the same tour. Now, which one do you choose? Take a look at each company’s qualities regarding these points:
Experience and reputation – Look around on the Internet and on travel message boards for previous customer comments. Not necessarily the biggest and well-established companies are the best. Small local companies can be as good as the big ones and can often do a better job. Tripadvisor.com is a good and highly recommended website to find reviews from previous customers about different tours and tour companies from around the world.
Guides – Are their guides knowledgeable or do they just recite information? It is always preferred to have a local guide or long term resident that knows the local language, has travel experience, and knows his/her way around the city.
Cost – Cost is a very important factor when deciding to take a tour. Not all companies include the same perks for the same price. And some of them might not include extra fees that have to be paid once you get to your destination. So, make sure to know what exactly is included in your price and what is not.
There are many sites like viator.com that help you make a reservation on tour all around the world, even local ones not so accessible on the Internet. But it is good to know that viator.com and other similar sites are the “middleman” for many of their tours; meaning that the tour could cost you slightly more because you are paying some servicing fees. In many cases it is really minimal. If possible, go directly to the tour company’s website and reserve there or if you’re really flexible on your dates, wait till you are at your destination and reserve the tour directly at the tour company. This way it will be much cheaper.
Schedule – How is the tour schedule run? Some tour will consume all your time in activities to the point of exhaustion while others wont have an organized schedule and make you feel like you are wasting your time and money. Try to find a tour with a good balance or that has a schedule you desire.
Market – Many tour companies concentrate on different markets like couples, older people, young adventurers, families, eco-friendly, etc. Make sure your tour targets your market.
Sustainability – Even though most people will ignore this point, now a day there is a growing trend on eco-tourism that is slowly making its mark on the travel industry. This focuses on the environmental impact you create while taking the tour. Many eco-tour companies measure your carbon footprint during your tour with the intention of producing the smallest carbon footprint possible. These companies tend to avoid big buses, fancy hotels, flying, and highly polluting vehicles. They tend organize your tour in ways it conserves energy. It is a way to enjoy nature and local habitats without producing much waste. Just make sure that it is a certified eco-friendly company and not just one that is hopping on the “green” trend to produce profits.
Once you narrow down your options and decide which way to go, there is a big chance that your experience will be very positive and rewarding. You will see that even when backpackers shun the idea of taking tours, there is a lot to see and experience through them.
I personally recommend two world renowned tour companies that not only offer amazing (and cheap!) tours all around the world, from a couple days long up to a couple months, but also have a conscious approach towards the environment and local tourism of each country. These are G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. I highly recommend signing up to their newsletter to receive special offers and incredible savings on last minute deals. Plus, if you become a returning customer, your next trips can have additional discounts.