Group Tours vs Independent Travel.
Before our recent trip to Georgia and Armenia we’d always travelled independently. In Georgia and Armenia we tried something new: taking part in an 8 day intensive tour of both countries. The groups that we joined were in the 50 – 65 age range, the participants mostly from the UK, Australia and South Africa. In our first group (in Georgia) we were with 5 other people. In the second group (in Armenia) there were 9 other people.
It was interesting. There were aspects of group travel that were great. There were others that we didn’t like so much.
Here are the pros and cons of group tours vs independent travel. And some thoughts.
Pros of Group Tours
See more in less time. Every morning at around 9 am we would pile into the minibus. There would usually be 4-5 stops in a day at different highlights (most far from each other), usually with a lunch break in between. We would usually finish our tour every day around 5 pm (on average). If you have 3 days in a country there’s no better way to see as much of it. We saw lots.
Somebody else organizes it. That means no stress, no worry, no hassle. As the person between us who organizes everything it was like a holiday for me. I would usually fall asleep in the van, waking up when we got to our next destination. That was nice.
Everything is explained by a guide. I usually research things and tell Lissette what I’ve read when we visit a site. But on a tour you have an experience guide who will tell you everything you need to know. That’s great.
Safety. The guide will save you getting hassled or getting screwed on prices. In some places it’s reason enough to have a guide. Morocco (which I recently wrote about) would be a good place to discover on a group tour. India is another.
Cost. It can actually be cheaper travelling as a group instead of travelling independently. The tour that we took part in cost 850 Euro per person, including 8 nights accommodation and all the touring. If the average person were to come to Georgia/Armenia and book their own hotel and rent a car (which they would have to do to see all the sites outside the capital) it would probably cost about the same if not more.
Cons of a Group Tour
Feeling restricted. You have to follow a schedule and stick with the group. Sometimes you just want to wander off and take photos. Or sometimes you just want to get away from people. You can’t. Or sometimes, like during one day of touring in Georgia, our guide brought us to a few places where as much time was allotted to the tourist site as to the souvenir shops around it. That didn’t make me happy: we had 20 minutes to rush through the site only to spent equal time wandering through tourist shops? The problem is that some people on the tour might have requested to do some souvenir shopping so you’re stuck doing what the majority want.
Guide. A tour will only be as good as the guide. If you have a bad guide you won’t get much out of your tour. In our case we had an excellent guide on the Armenian portion of the tour. He was one of the best guides we’ve had anywhere. On the Georgia portion of the tour the guide was just average. It makes a big difference in your appreciation of the tour…and of the country you’re visiting.
The other participants. I said above that a tour will only be as good as the guide. That’s only half of it. The other half are the people you’re on tour with – they can either make it a really great and enjoyable tour or a sucky experience where you’re stuck with people that you can’t stand. On the Armenia portion we had an ok group. It was a larger group and we didn’t really feel that there was an overall connection within the group. There were, however, a few individuals that we personally connected with that made it interesting. On the Georgia part of the tour we had a smaller group which I think helped – there was a really fun spirit within the group. We actually felt sad saying goodbye after 3 days with them.
I would say to anyone thinking of travelling as part of a tour to ask about the average age of fellow participants: being in our early 50’s now I don’t think we would have been very happy being part of a group with a whole bunch of twenty-somethings…Having said that you never know what the people will be like or if you get along.
Scheduling. On a group tour you’re going on tour no matter what. It can be pretty exhausting. A few of the days on our itinerary were long, starting around at 9:00 am and finishing around 8 pm. Then you’re up early the next day getting in that minivan again…I’m not used to travelling this way and one day brought it up to the people on tour: “don’t you people find this exhausting?”. They looked at me like I was crazy. All the participants were “tour travellers”: that’s how they travel.
Note: for people reading this who don’t know how we usually travel I wrote this on how we “slow travel”. I recently had someone in Georgia, on describing how we travelled, come up with a different description: “Ah, you’re lazy travellers!” said she. We had to laugh because I guess there’s some truth to it.
All I’m saying is that “tour travellers” travel very differently then what we do and at a very different pace. If you’re an independent traveller used to travelling at your own speed and being flexible with your itinerary then you might find travelling as part of a tour very different…
The above were the pros and cons that we saw/felt. I’m sure people may have other points to add.
I’m going to have a few people pissed at me for saying this, but one of the thoughts I sometimes had during our tour was “are these people actually travelling??”.*
* Of course they are, but let me just put this out there…
When we were with our group in Georgia I would sometimes shake my head at the things people would ask of the guide. “Sisi, could you please arrange a taxi for me to go to the restaurant?”. “Sisi, can you book a restaurant reservation for me?”. “Sisi, could you accompany me to go shopping for ____?”. “Sisi, could you arrange to stop somewhere where I can exchange money?”. I felt sorry for Sisi who became more of a personal assistant than a tour guide to some of the people on the tour.
Most of these people had travelled to tons of countries (some more than we’ve been) yet in many ways I didn’t find them very travel-savvy. When I mentioned to a few of them that they should use an ATM to get cash (instead of exchanging their Pounds or Euros at an exchange dealer) they would look at me like I was talking crazy. I mean, who carries around a huge pile of foreign currency with them? And why can’t they ask reception at the hotel to call them a taxi or to book a restaurant reservation?
Maybe that’s another con of travelling in a tour group: you get too insulated from the details and logistics of travel (that you would otherwise have to deal with if travelling independently). It doesn’t mean all “tour travellers” are like this: some of the people we met did travel independently and didn’t just do tours.
Anyway, just a thought…
Would we travel as part of a Tour Group again?
Yes. We would do it if: a) we didn’t have much time somewhere, b) if it was an “exotic” destination that we didn’t feel comfortable with, c) or if it is a country which requires a lot of driving in the countryside (as was the case with both Georgia and Armenia). I don’t enjoy driving in foreign places, I find it stressful.
Note: Stride Travel is #1 in the US when it comes to booking multi-day excursions and adventure travel, most of it aimed at the 50 – 75 age bracket. If it’s something that interests you have a look at their many tours here.
I also think group tours are a good thing as we get older. I mentioned that we found being part of a tour a bit restrictive – but we’re also younger and more energetic than most of the people that were in our tour. As we get older and have less mobility (or less patience for organizing things) I can see us doing more group travel.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on all the above.
Related: Why you should travel solo, even if in a relationship. If you could – where would you go?
Related: What is Slow Travel? And why it’s how we travel
Related: The absolute worst thing about being a full time traveller
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Way back when, I was a very good skier(younger) and belonged to a ski club. They put together trips for club members that were a real savings. Once you were at the ski area you were sort of on your own. You could do things with other members or not. I had already been doing travel agent work since high school, so I knew a bargain when I saw it. I used another club for their packages to Switzerland. But after awhile I began to see thru the pricing and ventured off on my own. There were many high maintenance travellers in that ski club. They didn’t want to do anything by themselves and really ran the trip leaders ragged. But the trip leaders travelled for free, so they had to earn that some how. I just got bugged that the pricing for packages wasn’t as good as it could have been, actually becoming very expensive in 2000s.
In 1996, I wanted to go Hong Kong before the handover. But tour companies were pricing 2 week trips to China, with 3 nights at the end of the tour in Hong Kong for the same as airfare and 4 nights just in Hong Kong. So I purchased the package for 2 weeks to China and Hong Kong. No way I could come close to the package pricing. China was just coming into its big travel boom and English was not all that prevalent. So the tour package was great because of price and the English speaking guides.
But since the China trip I have gone all over the world, doing it by myself. I think I do very well with getting around and pricing/affordability. But in 2017, we wanted to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. Someone gave me a lead on Vietnamese tour company who could do a private tour for 1/3 of what international tour operators were charging. This company truly created for us a bespoke/custom tour with English guides, nice hotels, flights, and all day private tours and transfers. Two weeks for about $1500/person. Including flights to Cambodia, where I took over and hired a local guide in Siem Reap. If I went back to Vietnam, I would email and use that tour company again without even shopping around. We had a very intensive Vietnam tour. The tour company gave us a Vietnamese cel phone that was programmed to call their local agents in each city in case anything went amiss. We actually felt spoiled after that trip!
Now I mostly arrange things on my own. Doing local tours for places that are difficult to go myself. Just in Panama, did a local day tour to the San Blas islands. These islands are run by the Guna Yala tribes as an autonomous region. You have to use them. They control the Comarca territory. One cannot take a rent-a-car to that territory. The indigenous people were so nice and so helpful. San Blas was truly like a different world.
But other than what I have mentioned, I usually travel independently now. I still look at tours. Have not needed to use one, but I would if I had to. For India you would be wise to take a tour.
Hi John! Great comment. You’ve nailed the reasons why we won’t write off the idea of group tours – the more exotic places that require some kind of local expertise. You’ve summed them up nicely, now I want to go to Vietnam and Panama 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to write this comment, greatly appreciated!
Here is the Vietnam tour company: Nguyen Thai Hau (Mr.) | Sales Dept.| V’explore Travel Co. Ltd |No. 33 Street 1, Do Thanh compound, District 3, HCMC, Vietnam
Tel: +84 8 3832 9868 | Fax: +84 8 3832 9867 /Cell phone: +84 913 746 654 [email protected] / http://www.vexploretravel.com [email protected] | http://www.visitindochina.net
Just so everyone can try them. Prices have probably gone up since 2017, but they were great for us!
The 1st website very professional, looks good. That’s the Vietnamese company. The 2nd website (visitindochina.net) doesn’t seem to work John. Which company is that for?
I think it was a subsidiary that did tours for all of the Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam). Probably they closed it because of Covid. If you want to use them, email Mr. Nguyen. I think he was a co-owner.
Thank you John.
Thanks for this. I love a recommendation for a local company 😊
I like that you talk about what to expect from both styles of traveling. My partner and I are quite shy but want to make sure we get out and see cool things when we travel. We’ve been back and forth on if group traveling is right for us.
Hey, loved reading your article.
I agree with you on your views. I personally would love to travel with a group as it feels more like a vacation and is more relaxed, plus we get to meet and interact with new travelers.
I’m looking at a couple of tours in CEntral Asia later this year. But I think they will be private ones which I think will be great. And considering the difficulty getting to some places means this is the best way to do it. Also tours make sense when you only have a limited time on the ground as it were and you want to cram heaps in. But at the same time, living to someone else’s clock was not good for me. (past experiences) and personally I like time by myself. I think tours are great for a short time. they work well for me mixed in with predominantly independent travel. everything in moderation, right?
I 100% agree with you Andy and when we were doing the tour I kept thinking “wouldn’t it be great to have day in between?”. I know that’s not very economical but I also felt the same about being on someone else’s clock. I like being with others but I prefer time alone and being always with people can get to me…
I love independent travelling, but I don’t rule out doing group tours. I have had a mixture of experiences with tour groups, some very good and few bad ones. It is important to ask the right questions before booking a tour, but there are still lots of things that can go wrong. Finding a reputable company, not going with the cheapest option and choosing small group tours usually works well. But again there are no guarantees, like you have already pointed out, there are so many factors that can influence the outcome…such as the kind of guide you get, the other members of the group etc. But it is all part of the adventure 🙂 Great post.
Thank you so much Gilda. Agree with all your points 🙂
I like day tours. Takes away the hassle and at night you are free from the herd but it depends on value. Sometimes it’s cheaper, sometimes way more expensive.
For example river longtail tours in Bangkok 1000 baht. On a public boat 15 baht.
We bought a tour once, in the beginning of our travel career. It was Greece, and that was the last time. Never again. We prefer to rent a car and be free.
You’re right. But you have to be comfortable driving. I would never drive in a European city that I’m not familiar with or some of these more “exotic” countries where people have their own way of driving. I still have nightmares of Sumatra. Never in a million years would I drive in such a place…
I have not been to Sumatra, but I have been to Vietnam. It’s the same.
In my mind, Europe is very comfortable for drivers, especially Spain and Germany.
Sumatra a lot wilder and believe me, the drivers take all kinds of risks. Something happens it was meant to be, the rationality of religion…
Agree about most of Europe Victor and we’ll do some driving when we go to Spain next year. You’re right having your own set of wheels the best.
Driving holidays are awesome as long as you have time to stop a lot. I want to do a drive from Ubon to Loei along the Mekong.
L - Franglais27
I am like you and take a combination of group tours and independent travel. Where I am travelling solely to some countries where it may not be ideal for a woman to be by herself then I would certainly opt for solo travel.
Equally, should there be countries where the infrastructure is not as developed or I wish to cover a large breadth on a short timescale then I would also opt for a tour as well which also has the sociable benefits of meeting new people.
You’re very right, tours can be great if you’re a solo woman traveller. All good points.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment L 🙂
Thanks, Frank, good observations here about organized tours. We generally avoid them too, for all the reasons you list. However, this past year we took a semi-custom tour of some sites in Turkey that I thought was very well done. Rather than travelling in a group all together, the tour organization linked us up (and I mean physically transported us) to a series of individual organized tours over a period of several days.
We started with a group in Gallipoli, mostly Aussies and Kiwis. Learned some interesting WWI history, and had some great conversations with our fellow tour-ists. Then the two of us were taken to a hotel, and the next day joined a group touring Pergamon and Troy.
At one point there were just the two of us in a 20-person van. We stopped at a rural rug co-op where we met a dozen other tour-ists for lunch (and an informative demo/sales pitch on rugs), then we were off to see Pergamon and Troy. Afterwards, a driver in a small car took just the two of us to a hotel in Canakkale. The next morning he met us and we rode the ferry across the Dardanelles to a restaurant where we joined a group for lunch. After that we all boarded a bus to Istanbul, arriving after dark.
(And I have NEVER been happier to NOT be driving as that huge bus wound its way along the busy highways, and then the narrow streets of Istanbul, dropping passengers at their hotels!)
While a bit pricey, the structure of the tour avoided some of the pitfalls you describe while allowing us to see a lot of things in a short time, with no real logistical planning on our part (for a change!) It was a good experience.
Sounds like a good experience Paul! Yes, I would NOT want to be driving in Istanbul either…
I’d add another reason to do a group tour:if you are traveling somewhere with limited tourist infrastructure, so you wouldn’t want to have to figure out which restaurants or hotels are safe. So, generally, we have enjoyed independent travel in Western Europe, Argentina, Chile, and Australia, but have enjoyed tours in Slovenia, South Africa (motorcycle tours where they rented the BMWs and we just had to pack our gear, so another reason to let someone else drive the details), Morocco and Romania. Also, when my husband hasn’t been with me, I’ve taken short tours (like three days in Northern Ireland, which was fantastic…had no idea Londonderry still has locked high fences around the Protestant neighborhood) because there’s always someone to talk to, they arranged the driving, tickets and timing to events and museums that would be difficult to arrange.
Thanks Dee. Good points and I like you point about a tour being good for solo women – Lissette gets a bit nervous when I’m not with her and I think a short tour would be a great way for her to enjoy a place without me while also meeting other people.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
Great post. I’ve often considered a group tour, mainly because of the lower perceived cost; and maybe as a means to see if the area is something to return to independently. However, I just returned from Australia – great ocean drive – even in the winter the hordes from tour buses turn me off from considering a group tour for now. Everywhere we went it reminded me of your Kyoto Meltdown post. I call it competitive sightseeing: being strategic in where you go and when, to avoid the horde of selfie sticks, model posing, group selfies and clusters of people.
I’ll stick with the independent travel until I can’t mentally handle it on my own.
You are right Randy. We didn’t see that many tourists in Tbilisi and Yerevan but when we went on those tours we saw a lot of other tourists in tour groups (especially in Georgia). Shocked us how some of the sites were packed. So I guess a lot of people take tours…But on the other hand, if we had done it independently those people would still have been there ruining our views.
I don’t know how old you are Randy but I remember the 80’s and 90’s where there weren’t so many people everywhere. Travel back then seemed to be a much more authentic experience.
Great post, Frank. All the reasons you listed as cons of group travel are the reasons we don’t travel with a group. We’re far too independent and we like to go where we want to go (or not) when we want to go.
With that being said though, we did take 1 small group tour and it worked out really well. We were in Aix en Provence, France and we wanted to see several places in the region including Avignon, Orange, the Pont du Gard and the caves of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We don’t drive when we’re in Europe and we couldn’t easily get to the places by public transit. We booked a tour through the tourism office in Aix. I think we paid $110/person which was fairly steep but well-worth it. There were only 8 of us on the tour and the guide only spoke English, did not translate to other languages. With the group we managed to visit all of the above mentioned places in 1 day. It actually proved to be a really nice day.
Our neighbors are currently on a 3-week big group tour in Scotland and Wales, and it’s not their first. They enjoy it, they just have to show up and that’s what they like about.
I’d consider another small tour, but have zero interest in big group tours. I know myself well enough to know it would make me crazy.
We think alike Patti. As I mentioned our tours were pretty small and even at that I noticed the different when we went from 5 to 9 other people. And then I see these Korean tour groups with 50 to 60 people. No frigin way…
But different people have their preferences. I know MANY people only travel with tours. I just couldn’t…but I can see throwing the occasional group tour in there depending on the destination.
I enjoyed your comments and totally see both sides of the deal; we do the same: consider the country’s ups and downs and then decide if we want to do a tour or book our own way. Coming up we have chosen to book with a tour company to give us a private tour, drivers and tours and lodging all just for the 2 of us, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. I have high expectations. 😉
We’ve travelled those countries independently Cheryl and it can be done – but buses are shitty and if you want a better experience you’re doing the right thing. We’re full-time travellers so we can’t be taking tours, we’d be broke in no time. But if someone is taking a 2 week vacation once a year I totally agree in paying a little more for a better experience. When I was in Morocco (for 5 weeks) I did most of my travels by public bus…but I had 2 long trips where I hired a driver and it really was a highlight. So sometimes it really is worth it splurging just a little bit…
I hope you enjoy your trip. Don’t be shy to write me privately if you have any questions on Croatia (we’ve only been to Kotor in Montenegro…but will have a much more extensive trip there late this year/early next year)
Agree totally with you. Although we only travel for 1-2 week increments, we manage 2-3 trips a year and have only taken 1 group tour. Being with a group took some getting used to, but did have all the advantages you mentioned. Tours are perfect for getting a feel for places that you might want to come back to in more depth later, or ‘exotic’ locations that are more challenging to navigate. Other than that, until we are much older (we’re 60 now) we will continue to travel independently as much as possible.
Thanks for taking the time to comment Teri. Totally agree with all your points.We feel the same way about travelling independently but we’re open to visiting certain destinations by tour. We’ve been nervous about India – and as you say maybe a group tour is a good introduction to a country.