When you’re traveling for an extended period or are on a budget vacation, you often choose the cheapest option available for getting to where you need to go. You have more time than money, so a little extra hassle of a crowded local bus or walking long distances isn’t such a big deal.
Sometimes though, especially in big, spread-out cities, it can make a lot of sense to book a local organized tour instead for sightseeing.
I just experienced this first-hand again, in Mexico City, and more on that in a minute. There are plenty of other places though where this is the case:
- wine districts (like around Mendoza or Santiago)
- places where attractions are not well-served by public transport (most of the non-urban U.S.)
- places where the sites are quite spread out (desert castles of Jordan)
- where you are not allowed in if not on a tour (the DMZ in Korea)
- where it would just plain cost you more to do it on your own (parts of tour-focused countries like Egypt & Vietnam).
Mexico City falls into several of those categories. Sure, you can get to the canals of Xocimilco or the pyramids of Teotihuacán on your own using public transportation, but it’s a hassle and it takes a lot of time. For the former you then have to hire a boat when you get there and probably pay more than you would have coming with a company that does this every day. For the latter, you can’t just hop in the van and head back in air conditioned comfort when it’s time to leave and you’re 90% on your way to sunstroke.
The other reason to book one of these trips locally in Mexico City is that they throw in lots of other stops that would have taken you another few hours to get to on top. We booked a Xochimilco trip through Viator ($44 adults, $22 kids) that actually went through a good local company called Olympic Tours. On the way we stopped at the World Trade Center, where they have the cool murals pictured here. Then we went to Frida Kahlo’s blue house and strolled the square in Coyoacan. Then we took our fun boat ride at the advertised spot.
We didn’t book the Teotihuacán trip until a day before, at the Mundo Joven youth hostel right behind the cathedral in the main square. They use Wayak Tours and I’d gone with them before and had a good trip. It was $30 each for that one, which included water, a snack, a good bilingual guide, and again, extra stops. This one first hit the ruins of Tlatelolco and the Plaza of Three Cultures where a church was built with stones from the ruins and a government massacre of student protestors happened. After that it was the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its venerated shroud on display in a building that holds 10,000 of the faithful. Neither of these are probably worth making a trip to on your own, but are quite interesting if someone is going to bring you there, explain it all, and whisk you away again after.
I’ll admit I get bored or downright exasperated with guides who drone on and on about details you wouldn’t care about even if there were a test about it for your college class. But the guides on these trips are used to people like me and will only drone on if people start asking lots of questions. As locals though, they provide a lot of cultural background and manage to hit both the big picture and the small details that matter without overwhelming you. In both cases, I felt like I got insight that I couldn’t have found by just opening up a guidebook (or worse, a smartphone app).
Have you taken a local tour that was a great value—or one that was a big waste?