Travelling Independently vs Small Group Tour – which is best for your first solo trip?

Travelling Independently vs Small Group Tour – which is best for your first solo trip?

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.”

Where?

Anywhere you fancy…

SueWhereWhyWhat, Machu Picchu & Lake Titicaca, PeruWhy?

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 Isabela-Darwin-Lake-&-Tagus-Covetours, 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.

The biggest concerns were those of safety, loneliness & budgets all of which I have comprehensive guides on tackling – just click on the links above.

Before we go any further, I just wanted to give you a definition of what I mean by each of these terms:

Mango cocktails for lunch. The Galápagos Islands, EcuadorGroup Tour

White water rafting, Costa RicaWhen 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.

Travelling Independently

Sunrise Yoga Hike, ViñalesBasically, 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

SueWhereWhyWhat and young Baboons, N/a'ankuse, Namibia, AfricaIf 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.”

10 Essential Things to Know before Visiting the Amazon in PeruIf 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

Havana, tourist car trip, CubaAutomatically 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.

However, travelling independently is just as good to meet like-minded people, it just depends where you go. Check out my posts on avoiding loneliness & adult learning vacations for loads more ideas.

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?

Isabela-Elizabeth-Bay-PangaTour 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.

7. I prefer to take my time & get to know a place

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

Ziplinning, Costa Rica Quest-TourOn 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

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaOn 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?

The Group, Viñales, HikeIf 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.

15. I struggle with organisation

The Baranco Wall. Mount Kilimanjaro, TanzaniaIf 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.”

Group shot of the Hikers and Guides, Inca Trail, PeruFinally, 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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Travelling Independently vs Small Group Tour – which is best for your first solo trip?

20 Comments

  1. Sue, this is a great post. Both options have pros and cons, but for me I prefer to travel independently. But I have joined tours in the past and will again in the future. I like small tour groups.

    1. Thank you Gilda & I think I’m with you on all these points. For me it depends where I’m going & what I want to do. If it will be more fun with others, I will opt for the group.

  2. I must admit that we generally travel on our own. We did one small group tour and it was a mixed success. Many of your points about group travel were right on for us. The one great thing about the group tour was meeting other people with a great love of travel. Even though we thought we travelled a lot, we realized how many people travel a lot too. The one thing we liked was the tour leader who took us to places we would never have visited on our own. Even if we did get tired of his stories by the end of the trip! The biggest issue for this introvert was the challenge with having people around for such long hours every day.

    1. Thank you Linda & that’s a really good point. Sometimes just having people around you all the time can be exhausting!

  3. We generally travel independently, but there are definitely times when group tours are exactly what we need — like when we are too busy to plan and execute a complicated trip itinerary on our own. I totally identify with many of the points you feature here. Really, I just like to be able to do my own thing and go where I want to go when I want to go there! I know plenty of people who do not like group tours, but if you know what you’re looking for and pick the right company, they aren’t always that bad.

    1. Thank you Jenn & I agree with what you say. Group tours definitely have a place but if you are a confident traveller, they are less of an attractive option.

  4. My husband and I travel on own all the time! We love renting a car and doing our own itinerary using google maps and our plans. We have done one group train tour in the past. The challenge is having to make small talk or feel no one is talking to us. I would advice travel on your own – we are mature enough to make safety decisions on our own, be flexible about how long we want to stay in a destination or just get out of that place. I have an Australian friend in her 50s who travels solo all over the world including India and says she has had no issues whatsoever. I would vote for traveling alone or at best, with your best friend whom you know well. 🙂

    1. Thank you Jan & I agree with your points. I travel alone a lot too, but I know for the first trip solo it can be a daunting prospect. That’s why for many people they choose a tour at least as a starting point. It really helped me to build up my confidence again to take on the world solo.

  5. Sue, this is such a valuable post for travellers in general, not just for first timers. You have given an insight to the main considerations of meeting people, safety and interests. I have had a good mix of travels and I select what suits best for the type of holiday I like to experience. I think I would like to visit South America and Africa as part of a package holiday while road-tripping Canada. Informative and a great post.

    1. Thank you Georgina & I’m glad you found the post useful. I couldn’t agree more – some places you will feel confident to go alone, others more so in a group. Often the “where” is the biggest deciding factor.

  6. I’ve been travelling solo forever – but I’m also a very open person and not exactly shy. I think that for people who are more bashful it’s much harder and I can imagine that they might get a bit lonely from time to time. Also, I love to plan and organize which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Hence, why not rely on the help and company of others….after all, all that counts is that you have a great time and a smooth experience, right?! 🙂

    1. Thank you Renata & I totally agree. Half the excitement of a trip is in the planning! Whichever helps you get the experience you are looking for is the most important factor.

  7. We were given some sage advice while on a road trip with a group of people. Our tour leader said it is best not to share a vehicle, except if you are a couple and preferably to have your own room/accommodation to sleep in at night. Being in groups can be challenging at times and these are the times when you can have alone time. Your blog rings true in so many ways and each has its place depending on where you are going and what you are doing. Great post once again, Sue.

    1. Thank Alma & as always I appreciate your thoughts. It is a personal decision but being in a group can be challenging & definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

  8. I actually enjoy planning my trips and working off of my own schedule. But I would possibly like to do a group tour if I was too busy to plan my own things.

  9. Such a great informative post that is jam-packed with information. Having never travelled in a tour group or solo having read your post I think I would go for the tour group for a feeling of security.

    1. Thank you, Angela, glad you found the post useful & it gave you a starting point to decide which would be the best option for you. Sue x

  10. Thanks for this. We almost always travel independently but sometimes a guide is helpful. I like your comparisons and helpful information. Each situation is different and taking the time to weigh all options is important.

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