Figuring Out Why Someone Would Take a Tour in a First World Country

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 11th, 2012

g adventures tour in Japan with nomadic mattThere 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.

Fear of the unknown.

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?
g adventures tour in Japan with nomadic matt
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.

comments 35 Comments

The other benefit of tours that you touch on only very briefly is their incredible efficiency. There really is no better way to see a lot of a place in a very short period of time.

It’s easy for those of us who travel full-time to forget that most people are trying to travel on a week’s long vacation. With that amount of time, they might hit a city or two by themselves. With a tour, they can often see most of the highlights of a typical small country.

That efficiency comes with several costs, of course; not least of which is a lack of cultural emersion. But for someone who wants to see a lot in a very limited amount of time, tours really are hard to beat.

I’m thinking there’s a balance of tour and independent travel. I’ll bet tours get a lot more people out to see some of the world than there are independents. Nothing wrong with getting comfortable with a country on tour first, the go exploring on your own. And besides, I figure the tour companies might at least help subsidize some of the journey.

I did a tour in Beijing, and it was my first trip abroad. For me, it was perfect because it made sure I got to all the main sites I wanted to see, without the worry of logistics. At the time, I didn’t care too much about seeing off the beaten path spots, and needed someone to hold my hand. I’m far more experienced now, and haven’t taken a tour since, but I still look back on that trip and think it was one of my best yet…

I think you’ve hit on something really true here. All travelers have to decide where their limit is when it comes to planning and independence. The language barrier has got to be one of the most intimidating aspects of travel and so I can see how people choose essentially to have someone there to translate for them.

The only issue I have with tours is they all seem very expensive, especially when you’re trying to leverage your money to last longer.

They do save on time though and that is worth it sometimes. Especially for the adventure tours like Mt Kilimanjaro, Antartica or Aurora in Scandinavia as it must be quite difficult to navigate to good spots in these places where a guide becomes invaluable.

Locating the good spots is something of an art form which also needs a huge helping of luck. Likewise saving the time travelling between sights if you’re on a tight schedule. A group tour I did in Rome (my first time abroad on my own) had the staff queueing for tickets so we could skip them and walked around using a route to see most of the sights very quickly, which was something I appreciated and don’t often achieve when I’m on my own.

That’s where I always end up Rob too – I’ve priced tours before because I wanted to save some time or just thought it would be interesting – but they invariably end up twice the price as what I would pay travelling independently, staying at the same standard of accomodation. Someone is making quite a big margin – and I don’t think its the tour guide

NomadicMatt

They can be and there are a lot of tours that are very expensive. You really have to do your research and look at the numbers. Some tour companies charge very high rates. For what, I’m not sure but they seem to get away with it!

Audrey

Thanks. That was a very encouraging article.

I used to be a tour guide for an American company that would run fast paced, “see everything” tours for 18-30 year olds. We had groups of less than 13 and they were always heaps of fun.

In one week I’d take these passengers from Los Angeles, to the Grand Canyon, to Las Vegas (with a limo party), to Yosemite Valley and then up to San Francisco for an adventure cruise! Try an adventure like that on your own in a week. As a foreigner, you might be able to pull it off, but not the way we did it. We knew the cool spots to stop along the way, we get deals on food, limos, drinks and activities that you would end up paying full price for on your own.

Bottom line, I’m with you 100%. Those tremendous busses are a sterile way to experience a new country… but the small groups for people with a short amount of time, they are ideal.

I have traveled many times with groups and independently. Ideally, I will go to a country on a tour and take sometime on both sides of the tour to see what’s not on the tour. Often, I tour with my mom (who has no fear, has ridden a bicycle across at least 15 countries, and has been to all 7 continents), but she doesn’t like hostels and likes to have at least part of the trip planned. So, we throw a group tour in the middle of our vacations and get the best of both worlds. One way is not better than the other and both are better than staying home!

Jess

We did a group tour (Cosmos) through Europe. It was a very cost effective, efficient, easy way to see a large amount of things in a short space of time. For us coming from NZ, going to to Europe is very often a once in a lifetime thing as its so expensive and we wanted to cram as much in as we could. It was a really well run tour that spent 2 days in most major cities which gave you a good taste of the cities. If we ever go again we will travel independently, as we will know where we want to go next time.

NomadicMatt

Tours can be a great way for people to get their feet wet. I find a lot of people take them their first trip and then go alone the next time.

Angie

Japan was actually the first country I had ever visited alone, and I would recommend anyone traveling to this location to find some way of socializing with others. Tours could be a way to do so, or at least booking in an active English-speaking hostel.

I found the language barrier very difficult in Japan, b/c the Japanese don’t pander to foreigners at all, which I have seen a ton of in most other Asian countries. I could see a guide with language skills convenient, ordering food and also for navigating the streets since Tokyo is laid out using a blocks system instead of using street names like in western cities (something I didn’t even know before arrival). Kyoto is a bit easier to get around!

I ran tours for a couple of years. I read a Rick Steves quote that advised travelers on tours to be nice to their guide because the guide knows many things that you don’t. I have to agree. In groups where I loved the travelers, I’d rent party buses and cruise the town, take individuals to my favorite local restaurant instead of leaving them to fend for themselves and squeezed in many extra stops into itineraries. When travelers acted entitled, the motivation wasn’t as strong. There are pros and cons to both, but this is a great article! Loved your note that you saw things you never would have thought to check out.

Tom

Nothing wrong with small tours! Everyone likes to travel differently, whether you’re young, old or uncertain about it all it’s the perfect way to take that first travelling step and see a country without feeling the pressure of having to organise things on your own.

A big part of the reason I don’t do tours like this is the fact that they are quite expensive compared to doing it on your own. If you’re willing to explore and chat to people you can also find a lot of the ‘cool’ spots by yourself – but having someone who knows the area helps too :)

One good thing about tours that hasn’t really been touched on: if you’re in a place with a really rich history, it can be quite difficult to understand the depth and importance of what you’re seeing without being on a tour or conducting much more research than most people are willing to.

NomadicMatt

Guides can add a lot of value and history to places you wouldn’t get by showing up alone. That’s very true.

Since I work on a cruise ship, I go on a LOT of tours. It’s definitely more efficient when you are on a shorter timescale. Sure, I could make my own way to Pompeii but it’s so much more enjoyable and convenient to be taken there and have a guided tour. You may have less freedom and less of a “thrill” but I feel I get more out of the experience than if I had done it myself.

Soooo….to answer the opening question, it seems you went on a tour through a first world country because it was free?

I guess my next question is whether you would have gone on a tour and loved it so much if you had to pay the normal cost for it? These sponsored posts don’t help those of us that have to balance costs with benefits.

NomadicMatt

Kevin,

This trip was part of my ongoing partnership with them. As part of that partnership, I get a few free trips a year. (I also give away trips for readers too) See more details here: http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/a-wanderer-in-residence/

But this post isn’t about costs. It’s about why people take tours and why for some people that is OK. I spent added time in Japan traveling on my own. There is a post coming next week on the costs of traveling Japan and how to save money doing so.

However, long term readers know that I only partner with companies I actually personally use. I have been using G Adventures since I started traveling in 2003, way before I started this blog. If you feel that I am not giving you trusted information because I work with brands then I would suggest this website might not be for you. There is a reason why I only work with 3 companies and have no ads – it is because I maintain a fierce streak of independence. That being said if companies I use want to work with me and it helps provide better information for readers, then I am going to do it.

I hear you Matt. It’s just that your second paragraph said your friends were wondering why you would take an organized tour. You never really answered the question. I just pointed out the obvious answer to the question. I’m not knocking it. By all means, take as many free tours as you can get your hands on. I know I would.

As for whether people should take organized tours in general, I say sure, if the benefits outweigh the costs. As many commenters have pointed out, sometimes time is limited, so it makes sense to take a tour in order to see and do more in a smaller amount of time. For those who have time to spare, organized tours tend to be more expensive and less authentic, in my opinion. But to each their own.

Keep up the good blogging. I’ve been reading it for years.

NomadicMatt

I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. I get to choose my tours and I chose Japan. Scroll back a few weeks and see my “OMG! I’m going to Japan!” post!

Delhi

I have the same questions as Kevin. The tour you went to costs $4100. I can plan a trip for way lower than that. I am sure you can do even better. My questions is: if your trip to Japan was not comped, would you have a taken a tour to Japan, shelling 4 grands?

I love your blog. I just want to hear you out to decide if I should take a tour or not.

NomadicMatt

There is no doubt you can do Japan cheaper than the tour. There are normally sales on that trip and that also includes the 700 dollars it costs for the rail pass. You can see today’s post for ways to save money on Japan. Is this tour expensive? Yes. But for many people the piece of mind is worth the price.

I get free tours with my partnership with G Adventures. I chose Japan because I have always wanted to go there. I can really choose anywhere!

Elize

Each to his own I say :)

I often look at the travel agency or tour operator sites to get a feel for what they offer, and then plan something similar on my own. That way I do my own thing and but see some of the highlights I might have missed.

NomadicMatt

But like you said, to each their own!

The reason I do tours lately can be summed up in your quote:

“It was perfect for someone on a short holiday who wanted to see a lot of the country.”

As someone who did the long term travel thing but currently works a “real” job and has limited vacation time, tours fit into my schedule at the moment. I currently don’t care to try to make my money last as long as possible, I just want to see and experience as many things as I can in the shortest amount of time.

The real key is to pick the right one to fit your needs or maybe mix up companies (one week, one company; another week, a different one) just in case you end up with crap people/company.

Good to hear you not knock tours and such. I sometimes get the feeling that there are travel “snobs” out there (especially within the travel blogging community), judging and criticizing someone else’s adventures because other people aren’t “trekking through the Amazon for five months while observing the tendencies of local native peoples” or “making homemade naan in the mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan while on a 10 year RTW trip” – you get the point. For most of us, those kinds of travels are impractical – sometimes a Carnival Cruise or a quick group tour is just the ticket :)

Great post – I also forget that so many people are afraid of the unknown. I agree with everyone mentioning the time savings though. For people that travel on a very limited time frame, not getting lost and having someone else drive while you sleep is awesome. My first international trip was a guided tour around Italy and without the passion and deep, DEEP knowledge of our guide it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.

Great post Matt – can’t wait to see you speak at TBEX!

At certain times in our lives we have more money than time. That’s when the right tour is a good option—even in developed, first world countries. Then there’s the language thing which becomes more of an obstacle when you don’t even share an alphabet with the country you’re visiting. There’s a good reason you see the omnipresent Japanese tour group when traveling outside of southeast Asia. A small tour group (or even a large tour group) can become a nightmare if there are any group members with borderline personality disorders on them.
If you don’t have the money or the time, one option is to travel independently in terms of food and lodging, but do day tours in certain places.

I’ve been traveling independently and although it saves money, it does get a little tiring when you don’t really have a planned itinerary (which I am terrible at) but then that’s also a benefit because I’m constantly surprised in what I find in a new country.

Maybe on my next trip to another country, I’ll definitely consider taking a tour. Hopefully that next trip will be to Japan. Great post Matt!

Very thoughtful post Matt. As an independent traveler, or backpacker which sounds cooler, I also often wondered why people would spend triple the amount of money to visit a country with a tour company when they could do it on their own. But you’re very right. Tours do serve a purpose and they’re great for inexperienced travelers who want to explore the world but aren’t confident enough yet to do it on their own. The problem with tour companies is that a lot of them are not into ethical tourism. They’ll make money exploring locals and taking you places to do things that are not environmentally friendly. Thankfully, in the past few years there has been a rise in companies like G Adventures, that provides ethical trips. Their founder, Brunce Poon Tip, is an inspiration. I’ve seen him speak at an event in Toronto last year, and was so impressed with his commitment to providing exciting trips, helping locals, and ensuring ethical tourism in every aspect. I’m a Gap Year Consultant at WIDISM, an innovative life coaching company helping youth in transition, and I often recommend G Adventures to clients and friends wanting to “wet their feet” and begin to explore our magnificent world. Thanks for the post Matt!
Camila

Cal

I couldn’t even figure out how to use the phone when I was in Tokyo.

Hmmm… $4100 for a tour though? That’s not cheap. That’s high roller stuff, I would definitely pass on that.

Great info though, thanks for sharing.

Additional benefit of tours you touch on only incredibly briefly is their awesome efficiency. There really is not any better way to see many a place in a very short timeframe. It’s easy for those of people who travel full-time to forget that many people are trying to travel using a week’s long vacation. With that period, they might hit some sort of city or two alone. With a tour, they can often see the vast majority of highlights of a usual small country.

Just the post I was looking for! I travel internationally at least once a year, always independently, under $50 a day, hostels etc. And I’ve spent my fair amount of time shunning organized tours. But I’ll be leaving my job next month and taking some time off to travel, but unfortunately not many of my friends have the ability or desire to do so (sad!). As a young female I am nervous to take a solo trip (esp as I am interested in Central America with very little Spanish skills!), so I have been looking into smaller group tours, as you’ve said, to get my feet wet.

I’ve not yet made up my mind which path to take, but this post and all the great commenters have certainly given me lots of food for thought!

Maybe when I return to life in London, I’ll finally take the plunge and get on one of those those open roof bus tours…

Leave a comment