We’re independent travelers who, as a rule, don’t generally sign on to packaged tours. But like all rules, this one is made to be broken.
The conventional case against travel tours is well stated in a recent blog post by Wes Nations (a.k.a. Johnny Vagabond). It’s a view you’ll see time and again in the travel blogosphere: go your own way, flexibility above all, get lost, immerse yourself, avoid the crowds. It’s all great advice, and advice we take to heart, but it really is only half the story.
The other half recognizes that real people face real world constraints in their travels. Tours, despite their well known drawbacks, can play an important and even necessary role in easing those constraints – even for self-proclaimed independent travelers. Here’s how:
You don’t have the ability
Lets face it, sometimes even independent minded people need help. We don’t always have the skills or the equipment to do everything we’d like to do. That’s where well-equipped and experienced tour guides really shine. They let us go spelunking or skydiving or glacier climbing when we’d have absolutely no other way to do it without spending years acquiring the requisite skills.
Real Life Example: We have almost zero whitewater rafting experience; certainly not enough to take on the Class 5 rapids of the Colorado River as it winds its way 277 miles through the Grand Canyon. And yet despite our ineptitude we were still able to spend six glorious days rafting through the canyon thanks to a group trip.
Yes, it was an organized tour. And yes, it is still the best experience we’ve ever had anywhere.
You can’t do it any other way
Plenty of stuff in the world is off limits. If you want to go there, you need to pay a guide.
Real Life Example: Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is a national and historic treasure. Once thought to be the entrance to hell by the Mayans, it is still littered with the remains of ancient offerings once made to appease vengeful gods. It’s a remarkable place and one where entrance is highly restricted. If you want to see it, you’ll need to take a tour.
You don’t have the time
It’s easy for long-term travelers to forget that most of the world’s population doesn’t have the luxury of spending months on end meandering from country to country. As an American you’re lucky if you can get away for a full two-week stretch. More likely you’re out for just a single week. Subtract the two days it takes getting to and from your destination and you have almost no time at all for exploration.
Tours, meanwhile, are super efficient. If you’re looking to maximize a meager allotment of vacation days, tours might be a perfect solution. They can whisk you to all the major sites and have your transportation waiting for you when you’re done.
Real Life Example: In a few days we’ll be taking local ferry transportation through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Because the ferry doesn’t run very frequently, it’s taking us 13 days to get from Juneau to Ketchikan with stops in Petersburg and Sitka. Meanwhile, a Royal Caribbean cruise (route map above) covers far more ground than we will and does it all in only 8 days. If we were limited to a single week’s vacation, a cruise like this might be the only way for us to see this part of the world.
You value convenience
Trips are great. Trip planning sucks. We should know because we do it almost non-stop. It’s so burdensome that I suspect the reason many independent travelers advise “going with the flow” when traveling is because, surprise, surprise, they don’t like to plan. And that is fine. Not planning is certainly one acceptable way to avoid travel’s organizational hassles. Another acceptable way is to outsource the planning to someone else – like a tour company.
Real Life Example: We ran into a tour of backpackers in a Guatemalan boarding house who were traveling on local chicken buses, dining on street food and even breaking up to spend nights in the homes of locals. The only obvious differences between their travels and ours were that we were less scheduled and there were fewer of us. We, however, needed to spend a bunch of our travel time figuring out everything from transportation to food options all on our own.
You want companionship
Not everyone enjoys traveling alone and not everyone has a travel companion. For them, tours offer a way to get out and see the world with a ready-made group of friends. We’ve also found that despite stereotypes to the contrary, tour groups are often packed with a diverse group of interesting people.
You need a nudge out the door
Independent travel is awesome, and we highly recommend it. But not everyone has the confidence to jet off into the world by themselves. If the choice is between going on a tour or not going at all, please book a tour. Tour travel has its drawbacks, but it is still far superior to staying home.
Tour travel is also an excellent “gateway drug” to the harder stuff. It will get you hooked and before long you’ll be mainlining tuk-tuks and street food all on your own.