I’m a relative newbie when it comes to group travel. I only recently went on my first group tour with G Adventures three years ago and I absolutely loved it, however, they’re not for everyone.
Until now, my holidays have been DIY trips which I have organised completely myself, from the flights and hotels to activities and internal travel. I still love doing these types of trips but it all depends on where I’m travelling to and how much time I have. There are definitely pros and cons to both travel styles. So if you’re planning your next trip and not quite sure which way to go, keep reading…
1. Control over your itinerary
What I love about planning my own trips is the freedom to decide where I go, how I spend my time and how I set my budget. Whether I want to splash out or stay in a budget hotel, eat out everyday or self-cater, spend several days in one place or keep moving, it is all entirely up to me. This style has suited me very well during my travels around Europe as it is a relatively easy continent to navigate alone and has great transport connections.
With group tours on the other hand, the itinerary is fixed and you choose the one that best suits you from the selection of trips on offer. You’re in a given place for a set number of days and there’s no wiggle room if you want to spend longer there; you have to move with the group.
I think that both options have their benefits and downsides, it all depends on what you’re looking for and where you are travelling to. If you don’t want the hassle of arranging your travel and like the convenience of having everything booked and ready for you, go with a group tour. It’s hassle free, they arrange all of your accommodation, internal transport and, depending on your tour operator, some meals and excursions. All you have to do it turn up.
When you plan a trip entirely yourself, although you have full control of how you spend your time, the burden is on you to ensure that all of your bookings are in place and it’s up to you navigate yourself around. If something goes wrong, it’s down to you to resolve it.
If you want to get off the beaten track or wish to have a longer stay somewhere in particular, an independently planned trip is your best bet. If you’re not bothered about planning every detail, then most group tours will cover a country’s tourist spots and allow you seethe ‘highlights’. If this is sufficient for you, then a group tour may be better.
Group tours are great and super convenient but they’re not cheap! You pay for the luxury of having everything prearranged for you in addition to private transport as well as having your own personal tour guide chaperoning you around a country. In a lot of cases, you’d probably be able cover the same itinerary for cheaper if you do it yourself and can plan it to fit your own budget.
If you’re looking to make that dollar stretch a bit further, then a group tour is probably not the thriftiest option. Try planning your own itinerary using online resources (such as this amazing blog) or alternatively going onto the website of tour operators and use their itineraries as a guideline to plan your own.
3. Short of Time
If like me you have a full-time job with limited annual leave, you’ll know those precious days are like gold dust (even more so if you’re a US citizen – still not over the fact they only get 10 days a year!). You’ll therefore want to make those days count and make the most of your time in a country. Planning independently can be time-consuming and if you’re in a country that is hard to navigate, is huge or has unreliable transport connections, you won’t want to be faffing about and wasting time in transit.
Tour operators provide comprehensive travel itineraries which can cover a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time. G adventures offer a “classic” tour option which includes private vehicles, allowing you to bypass using public transport and waiting for connections so that you can maximise your time in a given destination.
I generally take one long trip a year to one country as I really like to see as much as I can whilst I’m there without feeling too rushed. For my last two tours I opted for the longer 3-week itineraries which enabled me to see a good portion of the countries during my time there. The ground I covered in those 3 weeks is something I would have struggled to do if I were travelling alone.
Of course, the shortcoming of this is that you travel at a faster pace; not ideal if you prefer a more relaxed approach to travel. So if you are tight on time and want to see a reasonable chunk of what a country has to offer, go for a group tour. If however you’re fortunate enough to be backpacking or on a gap year and can afford to travel at a more relaxed pace, give independent travel a go. Or, alternatively mix and match; do a portion of your trip by group tour and when you feel you have found your feet, do the rest independently. I met a few people who did just that and it seemed to work for them.
4. The Country
I’m from London and I personally would not spend money on a group tour for travelling anywhere in Europe. Most people understand English so language is not really a barrier, the transport infrastructure is really good and easy to navigate by yourself and Europe is generally a safe travel destination (provided you exercise normal caution) so you can travel alone with relative ease.
If travelling outside of Europe to more ‘off the beaten track’ locations such as South America, I personally prefer a group tour. South America is a huge continent, the distances are vast, the travel infrastructure isn’t always reliable and I don’t speak much Spanish making it a little more difficult to get around alone.
There are also some countries which may be deemed less safe than others which may put some people off from traveling there alone. Of course, finding your way around and dealing with language barriers and public transport is all a part of the travelling adventure, so I try and travel independently where I can to have these experiences, but as a female travelling to South America alone, I just felt more secure doing it with a group. I discuss this in more detail below. This is of course purely down to personal preference, you may disagree.
One of my main reasons for travelling with a group tour to South America was for safety as I was travelling by myself. These countries are not as dangerous as they once were but they aren’t 100% safe either. I’m sure if I had more time to plan and took the right precautions I could have done it alone, but I just felt that the tour route was the best option for me. I never felt threatened during my time there but I would have felt a little uneasy travelling completely alone and limited in terms of what I could do i.e. going out/ travelling at night, but that’s just me and everyone is different. I saw a lot of women travelling solo so don’t let me scare you off.
Another reason is that group tour companies have an obligation to ensure that the hotels, restaurants, drivers and vehicles they use are vetted. In countries such as Peru where safety standards aren’t always high, it was reassuring to know this was the case. This is not something you can necessarily ensure if you’re travelling alone. If you’ve always wanted to visit a country but have concerns about safety, a group tour is ideal and I couldn’t recommend it more, especially for solo female travellers.
6. Meeting New People
I’m an independent person and I enjoy my own company. Travelling alone allows me to go to a place of my choosing without having to compromise and have experiences I probably wouldn’t have if I went with a group of friends. However, although I do like some ‘me time’ and exploring alone, I think I would get pretty lonely if I were to travel for an extended period completely alone. Group tours allow you to have some companionship and someone to share your experiences with whilst also having the freedom of being able to go off by yourself when you want to. I therefore feel that a group tour gives me the happy medium of not being completely alone but also having the choice to venture off by myself every few days.
When you join a group tour, you travel alone from your home country, but when you arrive at your destination, you are united with your trip companions, many of whom will have also travelled by themselves. These are the people you will be spending the next few weeks with. Over the course of your trip, you really bond with your fellow travellers and guide who, by the end of it, become like a little family.
Also, if don’t fancy the thought of backpacking and staying in hostels, group tours offer a great way of meeting slightly older travellers with a shared passion for adventure travel. Most people joining the tours tend to be professionals in their late 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s. What I especially love about these tours is that they bring together people from all nationalities and ages and you really get to meet some interesting and worldly people. You’re generally with the same group throughout your trip which allows you to get to know each other and form some lifelong friendships (and in some cases, romances!).
7. Local Tour Guides
With group tours you have the privilege of a local tour guide to accompany you throughout the duration of your trip. Locals know the area well, can offer recommendations, assist with translation and can share their history, customs and traditions with you. My guides have really made my trips extra special through their bubbly personalities, ability to keep everyone engaged, making us giggle during long journeys and early wake-ups and sharing their unique experiences with us.
My Peruvian guide was really knowledgeable about Peruvian history, it was fascinating travelling around his country with him. Each evening we would gather to hear stories about the Incas. As we made our way up through the different regions, so his stories would progress, as he wove them into the different landscapes and sites we visited. It was as if he could resurrect history back to life with his words, transporting us back to Incan times. Each evening would end with a cliff hanger, leaving us in eager anticipation of what awaited us the next morning. He was clearly very proud of his country and heritage and took great pride in sharing it with us through his storytelling. It truly added an extra dimension to my experience in Peru as it allowed me to appreciate the cultural and historical significance of the places I visited.
It was also reassuring to know that we had someone with us in case anything went wrong. We had some instances where group members fell ill and needed to be seen by a doctor. Having an experienced guide with us to help in an emergency was really useful. If those people were travelling alone, it would have been a scary situation they would have had to deal with themselves.
8. Meals and Excursions
With some of the big tour operators, the price is inclusive of some meals (normally breakfast and sometimes lunch) and excursions. This way you know what’s included in the price at the outset. It’s handy when meals are included as it means you don’t have to scurry around looking for somewhere to eat. If you’re a big foodie and you like to choose where you eat, this arrangement may not suit you. You are free to opt out of group meals but as the price is inclusive, you’d still be paying for them. The same goes for excursions. So it all comes down to how much flexibility you want. The tours that had some but not all meals/ excursions included worked well for me.
9. Detours and Tourist Stops
As mentioned above, when travelling with a group tour, you are tied to a set itinerary and sometimes they will have ‘included excursions.’ These are little detours enroute to a destination to local attractions such as villages or wineries to learn how regional products are made. I can see why tour companies like to include these as they help to support local businesses by bringing the custom of tourists to the area.
During my Peru tour however, it felt as if we were being directed to places which were purpose built for tourists with an end goal of selling souvenirs to us – not quite the rustic and authentic experiences we had in mind. I recall seeing woven shawls and bags in these villages and being told that they were one of a kind handmade items. As pretty as they were, I later saw the exact same items on sale in town, of course at much lower prices. Aside from feeling a little conned, these detours can cut into your already limited time which could be spent in more interesting places. For example, we spent an entire day in Peru visiting a weaving village, pottery village and restaurant. They were pleasant enough places to visit, but in all honestly, I would have rather have spent the day exploring the surrounding Sacred Valley region or Cusco (where we only had a day) instead of being shuttled from one tourist spot to the next. It just felt like a bit of a wasted day.
If you travel independently, you have the say over where you go. But don’t get me wrong, it’s good to spend your money on local products and businesses, it’s just nice to have some control and not feel pressured into spending money on things you don’t really want or need.
Hopefully the above factors will help you to decide a travel style that’s best suited to you for your next adventure!