On my three long trips around the world as a backpacker, I was a staunchly independent traveler who definitely looked down on the sheep who were on an organized travel tour. Those idiots!
Now that I’m making a real living though instead of living off meager savings like I was in those days, my eyes have opened to the benefits of letting someone else take care of all the arrangements. I just took a South America highlights tour with Intrepid Travel and had a great time. It would have been a pain in the rear to do on my own.
In my “pure” backpacker days, paying extra to have someone else make arrangements just seemed like a rip-off. I could only see it as a way to support their overhead and profit margins. “You could do that trip for half the price on your own—or less,” is the usual shoestring traveler objection.
Really though, this is just a manifestation of the old time vs. money aspect. If you have a year at your disposal and are in no real hurry to get anywhere (or return to work), you can afford to take your time. You can afford to get stuck somewhere. You can live with being uncomfortable if it’ll save you lots of cash to use at your next stop. The only time you book a tour is when it’s something you can’t physically do on your own, and even then you book it locally because that’s far cheaper in most cases.
If you’re actually working now though, instead of coasting on savings or a meager online income, you might have passed the line on the time vs. money equation. If you’re not on a super-tight budget, here’s why an organized tour can make a lot of sense.
1) Some things are hard to set up on your own.
There are some adventures around the world that you just plain can’t do on your own because of regulations. The Inca Trail in Peru, a multi-day Galapagos cruise, a European river cruise, a trip to Bhutan. Other times it just makes more sense because of the set-up difficulty. Hiking to Gocta Falls in Peru you can do on your own. Trying to get to all the other sites in the Amazonas region, however, is really tough as an independent traveler.
On this particular Intrepid tour I was on, we had a ferry ride, a domestic flight, three long bus trips, multiple private van trips, and more border crossings that I can confidently count by memory. Some of this would have been really tough, if not impossible to set up as an independent traveler. One experience we had was three nights on a ranch in Uruguay that was way out in the middle of nowhere in farm country. Without driving for hours in a rental car and hoping to find it—after somehow booking ahead for a place with no internet or phone—I couldn’t have done this myself.
We also visited both sides of Iguazu Falls over two days after taking an overnight bus from Uruguay. That you can do on your own but…
2) Travel logistics can be easier for groups than solo/couple travelers.
Our time in Iguazu Falls can best be described as “frictionless.” We had our hotel breakfast at a place we didn’t have to choose or book, piled in the van at the designated time to beat the crowds, and handed the guide our passports. We zoomed straight to the site, then waltzed through the entrance of the falls park with tickets that the guide handed us. When we all went for the optional boat ride on the Argentina side, the guide sorted it all out and said, “Pay me back tonight.”
We had some autonomy now and then, like where to eat lunch and how to spend some free time, but for the hard parts, all the friction was gone.
3) You avoid a heap of uncertainty.
I mentioned the hotel that was already booked for us, which was the case in every place. We just showed up and checked in. We never had to worry about what time a bus was coming, where to get a taxi, how much the ferry costs, or whether we could afford to visit both sides of Iguazu Falls or not. It was all there on the itinerary. Done!
As a budget traveler, you spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with uncertainty. Where are we going to stay? Where do we get the bus? How do we know which bus it is? What if nobody there speaks my language? Where are we going to eat? Some of that is part of the adventure, but resolving all that uncertainty requires a lot of your brain power and as a couple, gives you a lot of little things to argue about.
4) A guide will be there to answer questions.
When I first started traveling, it was the prehistoric days before the internet. So everyone carried a guidebook. Couples sometimes had two different ones shared between them. Now a whole lot of travelers are willfully ignorant of where they’re landing, assuming they’ll be able to rely on Google to figure it all out for them. The problem with that leap we’ve made, however, is that you lose out on that big chunk of knowledge a guidebook gave you in terms of history, customs, cultural understanding, and context.
A good guide or tour leader can fill that gap. A qualified guide can also be your living Google, but probably has a lot more knowledge than the articles that will pop up on a search engine, plus he or she will be more reliable than Wikipedia. These conversations can go well beyond the facts too, filling in the cultural knowledge holes and getting you answers to burning questions you may not even be able to find the answers to online.
Sure, some guides are going to spout b.s. that you can’t rely on, especially if you sign up for a free 3-hour walking tour in some city, but if you book with a reliable tour company that takes care of its workers and contractors you are going to get a good guide. There’s an escalating scale too. Try to book the very cheapest boat trip in the Galapagos Islands, for example, and you’re going to end up with a guide that couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Book a day tour with a company that has two middling reviews on TripAdvisor instead of one that has more than 100 positive reviews and you’re going to get what you paid for.
5) There’s some built-in quality control.
It’s not just the guide quality that’s going to be better if you book with a company that has a good reputation. Your hotels will be appropriate for the tour cost (sometimes surprising you to the upside even). The transportation won’t be nasty. The restaurants you go to probably won’t make you sick. There won’t be any time you’re standing by the road for hours unless there’s a flat tire or something else unavoidable.
These tour companies are usually hiring the same providers over and over again throughout the year. The local inbound operators know that if they screw up, that future business could evaporate. So the hotels aren’t going to leave you without hot water or set out an included breakfast that’s just stale toast and jam. The drivers aren’t going to show up in a van with seats that are falling apart. If it’s a bike tour, the bikes are going to be good quality and well-maintained.
If you go zip-lining or or waterfall jumping, you can have some confidence that the proper safety standards are in place. Because it’s not just the local company’s reputation that’s on the line, it’s also the bigger international company’s reputation at stake.
6) An organized travel tour can often be a better value, especially for hotels.
In my backpacker days, I scoffed the hardest at the organized travel tour participants I saw on the Annapurna Circuit, clumped together in groups. Some of them were literally paying 10X or more what I was for the exact same experience—or worse. Some of those groups were camping, while we independent trekkers were sleeping in a bed in a tea house, for a few bucks a night.
When you’re not in one of the World’s Cheapest Destinations, however, an organized tour can actually turn out to be a better deal that you could work out on your own, especially at the mid-range level. That’s because these tour companies have worked out volume deals at the hotels where they’re putting up guests and have negotiated good rates with the inbound operator (sometimes called a destination management company, or DMC). If you went to hire than van and driver, you might pay $500 a day, whereas the company that sends them business every couple weeks may be paying them $300 per day. The hotel you’d find on Expedia for $90 a night may be more like $55 for the company booking 8 rooms at once on a regular basis.
These organized tour companies don’t get a better deal on everything, like public buses and most admission charges, for instance, but they get a lot of breaks that can add up to a significant discount. You don’t see those individual line items, but they keep prices at a level that often seems like a steal. You can tour the greatest hits of Italy for 8 days, for instance, for less than $1.400 per person double. My 10-day Buenos Aires to Rio tour I took starts at $1,904 per person double with all lodging, local transportation, admission charges, and a bunch of meals.
Yeah, you could do it for less money on your own, but not if you are staying on the same hotels and getting from place to place with the same comfort level. If you take one of their tours that lasts three or four weeks, the per-day cost goes down even lower.
Sure, I still travel on my own more often than not. Plus in some locations, I’m not really moving around that much, so there’s no need for help or guidance. There are times it can make a lot of sense to be in a group though and sometimes it can be a lot more fun as well. You’ve got some travel companions for a week or three instead of being on your own or spending week #43 with your significant other only. If you’ve got a decent income and need to maximize your vacation time, rethink the idea of taking an organized travel tour. You might just have your best trip ever.