In Defense of Travel Tours


Tours can allow even independent minded travelers to do things they otherwise could not.

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

Carlsbad Cavern

Shannon descends into Carlsbad’s Lower Cave thanks to the equipment and expertise of a guide.

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

Crystal Maiden ATM, Belize

If you want to see the Crystal Maiden, you have to take a tour.

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.

This cruise covers far more ground in 8 days than we can in 13 - perfect for time-strapped travelers

This cruise covers twice the ground in 8 days than we can in 13 on our own, making it perfect for time-strapped travelers.

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.

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24 Comments on “In Defense of Travel Tours”

  1. lidipiri June 24, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    On my trip to Southeast Asia last year I was faced for the first time traveling alone in an area I knew little or nothing about. So I decided on a tour. However, I was careful. I didn’t want to be part of hundreds or even thirties so I chose a tour that only allowed up to 16 people. First part was done with only 11 and I thought it the perfect number. It gave me the opportunity to do things I would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise and to visit and explore 6 countries. I did the next 20 days after the tour alone and enjoyed it too. Would I take another tour? Yes! But only under specific conditions.


    • Brian June 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

      You make a good point and one that is made implicitly in the article: not all tours are the same. Some are good, some are bad, some are useful, some are necessary. We’ll take the good, useful and necessary ones when they suit us and go are own way the rest of the time.


  2. TinLizzie72 June 24, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    I’m happy with independent travel, but when I travel with my parents and aunt & uncle, we do more organized tour type things. It’s easier for them, and allows me to spend time with them in another location. So that’s another added benefit.


    • Brian June 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      True, and a benefit I hadn’t considered. Often when family and friends travel together the burden of tour director falls unfairly on one person. Perhaps it might benefit that poor sap to just outsource the job to a professional.


  3. mytimetotravel June 24, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    I actually enjoy the planning phase, so that’s not a problem for me. But even though the more I travel solo the more I enjoy it, I do take tours occasionally, usually when using public transport is going to be more inconvenient than usual – Sicily for instance – or to break up a longer trip. It’s also good for some built-in companionship – I’ve made some good friends on tours – but you have to be very careful which company you choose! Day tours are a whole different thing, of course.


  4. Sarahlynn Pablo June 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    So glad to read this! I’m good at a lot of things and enjoy planning my own trips, but hey, I’m not going to become an expert at outdoor equipment just so I can enjoy it.


    • Brian June 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      Yup. There are so many things we’d never have done if we had to become experts first.


  5. charleyabraham June 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    Very thorough & concise & fair capture of the objections to and answers for traveling by organized tours. That the headaches of planning make for some of the snob appeal in “going with the flow” is insightful! 🙂 My very limited experience – london, rome, paris, delhi & several u.s. national parks on my own; israel, greece, turkey, egypt & se alaska with tour groups – bear out these lessons well. Very wise & helpful post; sharing it happily!


    • Brian June 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

      Sharing is the currency we’re paid in so thanks for that. 😉


  6. June 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    We love the planning stage as much as the trip itself…but that’s just us. We’re currently occupied researching and planning our 3 to 4 month trip to Namibia, Africa this coming fall and winter…and loving it!

    One thing I haven’t heard anybody mention regarding the drawbacks of group tours or activities is that there’s always a moron or two in the group. You know, that one person who simply doesn’t think they have to be back at the bus for 2:00pm like everybody else. Stuff like that drives us crazy and is certainly one of the main reasons we avoid doing things that require you to be with a group.


    • Brian June 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

      It is true that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Perhaps we’ve been lucky but that hasn’t been much of a problem for us. Although we mostly only do tours for things we can’t do on our own. In those instances the guides keep folks in line for safety reasons. That tends to cut down on the jackass factor a great deal. 🙂


  7. andytallman101 June 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    Great post. Good to see someone showing the pros and cons of both sides. For me, if the person I’m talking to is travelling to somewhere totally new for them I always recommend doing a tour first then doing some independent travelling (if they have enough time). The tours let you get a feel for the place and allow you to see the major sights, then you can pick and choose what you want to do at a more leisurely pace.


  8. waysofwanderers June 25, 2013 at 3:30 am #

    You make some good points! I’ve never done a full-on, multi-day, guided tour, but I often like to mix in a few day-trip tours with independent travel. When you first arrive, they can be a good way to get an overview of a new place before you branch out on your own. I enjoy researching for trips, but tour guides often share little details and interesting fact that I don’t come across in my own research. Plus, sometimes it’s just nice having someone walk you around and tell you about a place, rather than having your guidebook open the entire time you’re there.


    • Brian June 25, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      All true. Thanks for your comment.


  9. Megan June 25, 2013 at 4:01 am #

    Great points. I never really understood why people judge one kind of travel over another. The goal is to just GO!


    • Brian June 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      Because people like to feel superior so they form cliques (e.g. travelers v. tourists). It’s silly and petty and all too common.

      Travel is a personal experience. The only way to do it wrong is if you’re not enjoying yourself. Everything else, is all good.


  10. Pat June 25, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Great post, Brian. I was just thinking about this. I took students to England & Scotland several times with the goal to teach students how to study the culture by becoming as immersed as possible. There has to be some planning of course – so I was the planner. I love that kind of travel but in order to give some guidance to the students it took a lot of work on my part AND I drew from a packaged tour I had been on several years previous. There are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of travel. As I am aging and have some physical issues I can’t do the independent thing as easily – especially overseas. And then when I have gotten into remote areas that don’t get many tourists, language becomes a big issue. When I traveled around Kyrgyzstan we hired a driver and guide – one was Russian and the other Kyrgyz. Because we had help we were able to get into homes (including a yurt) and meet people we wouldn’t have been able to do in a rented car on our own. Whenever I look at tours now, I always evaluate how much free time is available because that helps me have the best of both. Maybe I should do my own post on this subject. 🙂 If I do I will do a link to yours.


    • Brian June 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

      Sounds like you’ve had some great experiences.

      By all means, keep the conversation going with a post of your own.


  11. Crista June 25, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    great post. i’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to traveling, i always want to go where no one else is going but i realize that sometimes you must rely on someone else to get you where you need/want to go.


  12. Suzy June 30, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    I am not the biggest fan of tours, but these are some great points as to why they can work. For me, it is sometimes the people on the tour that annoy me more than anything. However, I always find that when I do have to take a tour for whatever reason, I always get a good story out of it.


  13. Touring NH July 1, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    As a photographer, I like to go on my own as much as possible. I can stand in front of a waterfall for an hour taking pictures and enjoying it. All too often I feel rushed when I take a tour. On our cruise to the Med earlier this year, we took a tour (arranged by the cruise line) to Krka National Park. There are 17 waterfalls there, including the tallest one in Europe. We only had 2 hours there. Not nearly enough time to photograph the waterfalls and all of the interesting plants and wildlife we saw. But, you make a great point, that sometimes places are so restricted that a tour is the only way to get the experience.


    • Brian July 1, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

      Yeah, it’s a balancing act. We generally won’t sign on to tours for places we can get to ourselves for the reasons you, and others, mention. What you gain in convenience you lose in flexibility. Often we find tours lingering in places we’d have rushed through and rushing through places we’d like to linger. And photography is especially hard on someone else’s schedule. But again, some places (like Antelope Canyon ) can only be photographed by going on a tour. So we go and do the best we can.



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