Updated on May 10th, 2021
To tour or not to tour, that is the question! When you are considering your first solo trip, it’s tempting to go for a tour group as the easiest & safest way to explore a destination. But is it really the best choice for you? Here I give you 15 reasons to consider when deciding between a tour or travelling independently.”
Anywhere you fancy…
With all that has happened to travel over the last 12 months, one of the big questions, when we start again, is, how? This is especially true if you are looking to travel solo for the first time. There are loads of options & with over 30 years travelling, I believe I have experienced most of them! Through the years I have explored the world on package holidays, budget backpacking, group, self-guided & day tours, as a family, as a couple, with friends & much of it solo. But, whoever I am with, my favoured way is to travel independently. I have the power to decide where I go, why, for how long & what to do when I’m there (Sue Where? Why? What? – get it?!).
Taking a group tour is a very tempting option, especially when you are looking to travel solo for the first time. In the recent Solo Female Travel Survey, of the women questioned who are yet to travel alone, 50% would consider a women-only tour as their first option. 40% would prefer a mixed-gender group, but a tour none the less.
Before we go any further, I just wanted to give you a definition of what I mean by each of these terms:
When I talk about a tour, I am not thinking of a coach trip. I am talking small group tour, usually around 12-16 people, over a number of days or weeks to see the highlights of a destination. There is a guide on hand for everything you need. Accommodation is organised, transport is sorted, most meals are paid for & additional activities available as options. I have so far enjoyed tours in Peru, Bolivia, Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Central & East Africa & Namibia.
Basically, by this I mean you are on your own! You are in charge of your agenda, choose where you sleep & eat, where you go, when you go there & who you go with. It may sound daunting, but it represents true freedom, but more work. My most recent independent adventure was when I spent 6 months in the Caribbean, going “where the wind took me”. It was a magical experience of highs, lows & lots of new friends. I learned the benefits of not overplanning so I could take advantage of every opportunity. You can read all about the experience here or check out the video above.
So, if you have questions about which is the better option for you, then read on:
1. I want to meet people
If this is what you are looking for then the obvious choice is to go on a group tour. Whether it’s because you want to make friends, share the excitement of new activities, or just safety in numbers, then a tour sounds just what you’re looking for.
On all my tours I have met some amazing people & made some lifelong friends.”
However, I have also met lots of people when I have been travelling independently, especially solo. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I genuinely meet more people when I am alone. I am open to connections rather than resting on my laurels with others around me. Travelling independently, you can also choose whether you stay with them or move in different directions when they start to annoy you…unlike a tour!
2. What if I don’t get on with the people I am on tour with?
Big question! I have been lucky but in a group, with a small number of people, there is always the chance that some may clash.
A friend of mine once booked the trip of a lifetime to Africa & for the first part hated who she was with & was miserable. I felt desperately sorry for her! Thankfully the whole group changed for the better halfway through, but it is always a risk.”
If you are the type of person who is tolerant to others differences & ready to embrace all that is living closely with a group of strangers, then a tour may be a good option. However, if living with others in close proximity day in, day out is not your idea of a holiday, then independent travel could be more up your street.
3. I want to meet people with similar interests
Automatically on a tour, you will be mixing with people who share your interests. In addition, many tour companies offer specific options designated by age groups (18 – 30), those who want a deeper cultural experience, wellness or activity focussed & plenty more besides. There are a few companies which cater for women only tours & with the growing population of solo female travellers, I hope these will only increase. To find more options & companies, read this article.
4. I am worried about safety
What drives a lot of people towards a tour is the feeling of safety they provide. There will always be someone looking out for you, whose job is to keep you safe. The guides will advise on where not to go & why & are there to sort stuff out if anything goes wrong.
They can extricate you from challenging situations or even just provide safety in numbers & a local who speaks the language.”
However, that is not to say travelling independently is not safe. It is as long as you are sensible about where you go & what you do. For all the information you need, check out my 15 Top Safety Tips for Travelling Alone as a Woman.
5. Will it be COVID safe?
Tour companies are going out of their way to make sure their tours are as safe as possible. The impact on their business has been so great, they cannot afford not to. For example, I have taken tours of Peru, Costa Rica & the Galapagos with G Adventures. They have already reduced the size of their groups & increased the use of private vehicles, now with assigned seating. All the guides have to be up to date on local & international guidance. Accommodation will be in smaller hotels, limiting contact, & all restaurants will be chosen accordingly.
If you are in a group, then you are automatically creating a “bubble”. They are also offering tours specifically designed for ready-made bubbles of family & friends to travel together.”
However, group tours will always be more challenging to create social distance & the best way to get that is to travel independently. I wrote a whole blog post about how to make sure you are travelling safely during COVID. Check it out here.
6. I only have a short break & want to see everything
A tour is perfect if you have limited time & a number of attractions to tick off your list. The whole itinerary has been planned to make the most of your time. However, sometimes the pace can feel a little relentless. For example, in Peru, we had taken a night bus to Arequipa & had the rest of the day to make the most of being there. I just wanted to sleep but felt a need to get out & explore the city. When the 2-hour walking tour I had opted for, was still going after 3 hours, I was losing my enthusiasm. I dreamed of just sitting in a café & watching the world go by.
If you like to appreciate your surroundings, relax & want to experience life like a local, then being on the tour could be challenging. This is where travelling independently really comes into its own. You can choose to stop where you want, stay where you like, adapt as you go or remain longer should you really fall in love with a place.
You can make the most of any interactions, recommendations & opportunities that come your way. If time is not of the essence, then why rush?”
8. I want to know all about the place I am visiting
On a guided tour you have an expert on the country & culture whenever you need questions answered or as much information as you can handle. They can advise you on anything from the best sites to the most authentic activities. A guide can tell you what food to order, where from & how to eat it. They can inform on the past, present & future direction of a destination & what the mood of the population is. For real insights into a destination then it is hard to beat.
Travelling independently means more personal research & reading is required & you may never get to the level of understanding that you can from human interaction. However, there are always the opportunities to take a one-day tour & quiz the guide, ask the locals at a restaurant, get into a chat with anyone & find out their perspective.
9. I love immersing myself in the local culture
On the face of it having a local guide can enable you to access more of the local culture. However, the nature of being in a tour group will always mean you are getting a more sanitised, tourist-friendly viewpoint & can feel a little detached.
Travelling independently, you can take your time to track down some truly authentic experiences to immerse yourself in which can be magical.”
10. What if I don’t speak the language?
If you go in a group, you don’t need any language skills. Everything can be done for you, even down to ordering in a restaurant. But, for me, this means you miss out on the opportunity to truly engage with the locals. Even learning a few words can help you to connect. It’s amazing how far you can get with pointing, gesturing & a ready smile!
11. What if something goes wrong?
This is one of the big reasons why a tour is a very tempting option. If you lose your luggage, become ill or any other myriad of problems, you have someone to help you sort this out. Even with simple everyday tasks like where to get your laundry done or how much you should be paying for a taxi.
Independent travel means that you are on your own. But to me that is half the fun. This is where you discover your potential for communication, the kindness of strangers & develop your self belief.”
12. I really value my privacy
For most tours, you can choose to have a single room if you need some privacy, but this will come with a supplementary cost (never popular with solo travellers). Sharing a room is a great way to make friends quickly but it is not for everyone. Travelling independently enables you to choose where & when you want to interact with others. If you need your own space, then is no better way to enjoy as much as you like!
13. I have a limited budget
There is no getting away from the fact that going with a tour group will be more expensive. But there will also be fewer hidden costs to surprise you along the way. By paying upfront it can also help to spread the costs a little.
Independent travel will be cheaper & more flexible, allowing you to choose your accommodation style, food options, activities & everything else to suit your budget. You can save & splurge wherever it is important to you to maximise your enjoyment of the experience. But you will need to keep an eye on what you are spending at all times & shoulder any unexpected expenses.
14. I’m not naturally punctual 😉
On a tour, they run on a schedule & anything which delays you from being on time will impact the group. If you do not adhere to the agreed timings, you run the risk of seriously annoying your fellow travellers. If you like timings to be flexible, then independent travel could be more suited to your needs.
If you are a little disorganised, then a tour is perfect as you are not actually in charge of anything. Although most tickets are electronic nowadays, this doesn’t always apply if you are on public transport. On a tour, this is all taken care of by your guide. Much as I love just following people & being told what to do, I also miss the buzz of negotiating things by myself.
When I have been on tours, I sometimes find myself looking on with jealousy at those who are just doing it by themselves. For me, that is part of the fun of travelling.”
Finally, although taking a tour is a great choice for your first solo trip, I hope I have been able to clarify whether it truly is the right option for you. On a guided tour you will never grow as much as when you have explored under your own steam. Those precious moments where you have truly found a hidden gem, met a fascinating person or just observed the world go by in a different culture. Personally, I don’t believe you can beat the freedom of independent travel. There is a huge sense of achievement that comes from negotiating the world on your own.
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