There always seems to be a negative attitude among independent travelers about going on group tours. Many view tours as inauthentic travel, while others see nothing wrong with them. Personally, I like tours and am in the “group tours are fine” camp. My first trip overseas was on a tour to Costa Rica. There are some places in the world where you do have to go on a tour because it’s simply too hard or too complicated to go on your own. Examples of this include going on safari in Africa, scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveling to Antarctica, and climbing Machu Picchu (just to name a few).
When many friends and readers found out I was taking a tour of Japan, they wondered why I would tour a country that has such good infrastructure and a well-trodden tourist trail. It’s not really a “need a tour group” country after all. And as an experienced and well-known lover of independent travel, it seemed a bit out of character for me.
As an experienced traveler, it’s easy for me to think of travel as “easy.” You take the leap, you go somewhere, and it all works out in the end. Navigating a city is like navigating your home. You walk, you sightsee, you take the train. It’s really not that hard once you take the first step. Sure, there are language barriers but overall, navigating places anywhere in the world is essentially the same – you figure out the bus system, you go places, you eat, you drink, you sleep and you repeat it all the next day.
But not everyone feels that way.
I’ve said in the past that tours are great for people who might be nervous about traveling alone or aren’t used to travel. I used to be that snobby traveler who thought group tours were stupid and the people not enlightened about independent travel. Then I started working in travel and realized that not everyone finds travel easy — and, more importantly, that every form of travel serves a purpose.
While in Cambodia, I met some people on the G Adventure tours in the area and I wondered “why travel Southeast Asia in a group when you can do it for $20 dollars a day by yourself? Why not save money and travel longer?”
And the response I heard most often? Fear.
People didn’t know much about the area or what to expect and that information gap lead to fear about going alone and finding their own way. So they signed up for a tour because they were afraid – afraid they wouldn’t meet people, unsure of their safety, and insecure about how to travel.
The next time, they said, they probably would travel alone. The tour gave them the confidence they needed.
But Japan is not Southeast Asia. It’s a lot more developed. So I was a bit curious about travel here and I wanted the opportunity to ask people – why on Earth would you take a tour to a country that can easily be explored alone?
And when I asked people on my tour that same question, what did I get? The same response I got in Cambodia.
And I could see where my fellow tour members were coming from. Even I, an experienced traveler, scratched my head at the Tokyo subway map. I got lost a few times. It was confusing not having any signs in English or having most of the population not speak my language. Japan is developed, but it’s also not very easy.
For me that challenge is par for the course — but for someone who hasn’t previously traveled, that could be intimidating. And as I spoke to the people on my tour, I reinforced a conclusion I came to a while ago – that tours are great for people who need to wet their feet when it comes to travel – even if that means traveling around a first world country.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Independent travel is not for everyone so let’s just celebrate what gets people out of their homes and into the world.
I know I will.
And the tour itself?
It was definitely interesting taking a tour through a highly developed country. Most of the G Adventures tours I take are to destinations like the Galapagos where you need a guide and registered operator. After all, quick country tours aren’t often my thing. I usually don’t spend only two weeks in a country. I am a slow traveler. If I did Japan on my own pace, I would spend two months there, seeing every little bit of it.
But that being said, I thought the itinerary was very well designed. It fit in a lot of different places around the country. We hit the major cities of Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and a few smaller cities like Takayama that I had never heard of. For a tour that aimed to show the highlights of Japan, I think it succeeded.
It was perfect for someone on a short holiday who wanted to see a lot of the country.
And as always I enjoyed the fact that G Adventures offers small group tours. There were 15 of us on the trip and that allowed us all to get to know each other, as well as fit into small local restaurants without being that obnoxious tour group that takes over the place, thus ruining the local experience we came to see. (I may approve of tours in theory but those big 50 seater bus tours that shuffle tourists from sight to sight? No way. I just can’t accept those. I have my limits!)
I can’t say I have real complaints about the tour. It would have been nice if we had been able to spend more time in Tokyo as a group and if they made the fish market an included group activity instead of an optional one. But those are really minor complaints.
As tours go, it was great and had all the elements an epic tour should have – a well thought out itinerary, a small group, a nice and knowledgeable guide, and a mixture of well- and lesser-known destinations.
Editor’s note: Two weeks of my trip was covered by G Adventures as part of my Wanderer in Residence partnership, though I paid for my own food. My third week in Japan was fully paid by me. You can get 10% off all their tours with the code “2014GONOMADIC“. Use it when you visit their website to save hundreds on any tour you book.