Why Organized Tours Are a Good Option for Travelers

By Nomadic Matt | Published October 21st, 2010

While I always push independent travel and backpacking, I know there are many more ways to travel. In fact, I participate in a lot of different forms of travel. I’ve taken good tours and bad, I’ve enjoyed cruises, and after a week on a luxury tour in Canada, I can tell you that luxury travel is everything it’s cracked up to be.

People are usually shocked to hear that I enjoy organized tours. After all, being shuttled from one place to another with a set itinerary and a guide seems diametrically opposite of independent travel and backpacking. But at the end of the day, travel is about having fun, and not all tours are bad. Many tour companies are quite enjoyable since they don’t shuttle you around, they let you explore places, and they don’t overcharge.

Travel is about exploring the world. It’s about getting to know new places, experiencing new things, and meeting new people. Whether you do that on a cruise, during a gap year, on a bike trip, for a two-week holiday, or on a tour doesn’t matter. All travelers are the same. It’s about pushing your boundaries and seeing the world. How people choose to do that is irrelevant.

When most people think of tours, they usually form an image in their mind of buses filled with tourists who hop out of a bus, snap a photo while their guide offers a brief explanation of a sight’s importance, and then hop back on the bus and go on their merry way. Especially on the budget travel circuit, there’s a tendency to disparage tours because of this stereotype. But not all tours are like this; there are many different kinds. The day trip around the Great Barrier Reef was a tour. So was that walking tour in New York City or that museum trip. The two day sailing trip to the Whitsunday Islands was also a tour.

The fact of the matter is: tours come in all shapes and sizes and we all take them, even if we don’t want to admit it. We don’t think of those little day trips when we think of what a “tour” is, we only think of the big, stereotypical groups. But even the little ones count. Regardless of what we consider a tour, it’s important to recognize that they play an important role in travel. Do I think there are bad tours? Yes. Tours like Contiki or the big buses that just shuffle travelers from destination to destination in comfort are forms of travel that don’t agree with me. They work for some people, just not me — so I don’t recommend them.

My first holiday was on a tour to Costa Rica through Gap Adventures, who tends to focus on independent style tours. I spent 14 days exploring the country, getting lost in the jungle, and making new friends. Most of the people on the tour were also alone and in their late 20s, so we all had something in common. That trip infused me with the travel bug. More importantly, it didn’t try to rush me and it gave me some breathing room. For this first timer, it was the perfect introduction to travel – the right balance between solo experiences and group expeditions.

Tours offer a lot of benefits, especially for new travelers. They can:

  • Provide comfort
  • Reduce stress
  • Give you people to hang out with
  • Provide a local expert
  • Reduce planning
  • Offer convenience

Not everyone is comfortable with just picking up and going to an unknown place on their own. Tours can reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with taking your first trip, which can make people more willing to travel. Many might be anxious about meeting people and find it hard to just chat people up, so tours are the perfect opportunity to get comfortable and make that leap. Traveling alone requires a lot of skills and some people just aren’t ready to dive head first into that, so traveling with a group can be a great way to ease into the unknown world. After a great tour, a natural second step for some travelers might be to attempt a solo journey.

Moreover, the guides can really deepen your knowledge of a place. My guide in Costa Rica got out of our way to let us do what we wanted. My Aboriginal guide in Kakadu National Park helped shared the history and significance of the land to the local people. My tour guide in Thailand was my own personal biologist, teaching us about the local wildlife that I would have never have known otherwise.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with tour groups. In fact, I encourage people to consider taking them, regardless of how you typically travel. Having a guide to teach you about your destinations can be more fulfilling than just exploring them them on your own. I’ve taken long tours as well as day trips, so before you talk disparagingly about them, remember that all forms of travel have their time and place and that organized tours can also be a wonderful way to see the world.

comments 27 Comments

Great post! I actually did a post this summer on reasons to try a tour group – tours do get a bad rap sometimes but I think there can be a lot of advantages. My first trip out of the country was actually a Contiki tour – a 23 day whirlwind around Europe. While I wouldn’t do it again now, at the time it was the perfect introduction to travel for me and gave me the confidence to later go back to a lot of the same places to explore more in-depth. One of the best things I enjoy about tours (and I’ve done several others since that first one) is meeting people – I am still good friends with a lot of the people I have met on tours and have visited them in their countries and hosted them in mine.

NomadicMatt

I agree. I think tours are great for newbie travelers who might not be fully ready to venture out on their own.

Thanks for that Matt! My husband and I (late 40’s) wanted to see more of the world than an all inclusive resort experience and did a GAP adventure tour of Peru in 2008. We were hooked and since have done a tour with them of Central America and this year, East Africa. We think they’re perfect for seeing parts of the world that may be a little “scary” for us inexperienced travelers. You’re right. They take the stress out of it and leave enough independence to enjoy seeing what’s out there. We keep saying someday we’ll go back to some of these places on our own and spend more time in areas that really interested us but for now, there’s so much more to see that we’ll likely take another GAP tour. Next I think is Indochina….maybe the middle East or North Africa. Who knows?

I agree, Matt. :-) While I love exploring and adventuring off on my own, sometimes it’s wonderful to be taken care of, pampered, with all the niggling details taken care of. And I especially love having a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide along to bring places to life with legends, stories and history.

In my experience, you either have a group that REALLY rocks or a group that sucks so much, you’re ready to go off on your own–or worse, else go home entirely. Though I like being with mid-sized groups just as much as I like venturing off solo–all depends on my mood!

NomadicMatt

I like tours that also give you personal time to wander off and do your own thing. I’m too independent to always be with people!

To be honest, I don’t know many people who have never taken a tour backpacking. I usually avoid them for cost reasons, but every one I’ve been on I tend to take away the advantage of meeting people. It’s actually easier then striking up a conversation in a hostel as you know the other persons time schedule and situation straight away.

NomadicMatt

I hate the tours that run people like cattle. 30 minutes to see anything is not enough time.

Good post. I think there are good tours and bad tours (like you mention) and good backpacking and bad backpacking. In reality most backpackers on the SE Asia and Australasia circuit may as well be on a contiki tour – catching the same AC backpacker minibuses and staying in the same hostels.

For the most part, Dan and I are usually go on our own but that doesn’t mean we’re anti-tours. We’ve had great experiences on trekking tours & cruises (Antarctica with Gap Adventures) and market tours. Even the tours that were the stereotypical conveyor belt (e.g., cheap Mekong Delta tour in Vietnam), we ended up having a good time with the other travelers because they were so ridiculous. You often learn something, even if it isn’t what the tour intended you to learn! And, it is nice to turn your brain off for a couple of days and not wonder where you’re going to sleep each night.

After a few days I’m usually ready to be on my own again, but it is nice to incorporate quality tours (i.e., do your research so you’re not spending the whole time on a bus) into a trip from time to time.

I’m often traveling on my own and I’ve found that the best times I’ve had traveling were when I was on a tour, ironically many with Contiki. I don’t really like staying in hostels and in hotels it can be hard to meet people. But I do think there are different tours for different people. While I have loved the Contiki tours I have done, they are NOT for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that a smaller group tour that is slower paced wont suit a lot of people too. Whether you’re looking for a one day tour or a 6 month tour it’s important to know what you want to get out of it and what the tour will provide. If those two things don’t match then you probably wont have a good time.

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional tour to mix things up a bit.

NomadicMatt

Variety is the spice of life!

Jim

Agree with Matt, mix it up a bit.You have to remember that not everyone has the vacation time to mooch around a country in their 2-3 weeks .So a small group tour can offer real advantages where you can afford the tour and get around in a limited amount of time.
We’re lucky enough to be able to mix it up, and the best travelling experiences have come from say having 1-2 weeks independantly, then hopping on a small group tour , kicking back , watching out the window ,not having to worry where to find a bed, and experiencing the company of others.Just got back-1 week independant Ethiopia/2 weeks Gap Adventure tour.4 weeks independant UK.
Wanna do it cheaply and you’ve got plenty of time, go independant.
Got the dosh, and short on time, take a tour.

Wendy

I have never really done a tour, but have been considering it for a trip next year to India. Any pointers for finding a good company to go through?

NomadicMatt

I highly recommend GAP Adventures. They are by far my favorite. They do a good mix of organized activities but solo time to wander off and they have a strong commitment to local communities. I took them in 2004 as my first trip overseas and have used them ever since!

Robert

We just came back from our first tour around Egypt with GAP adventures and loved it. We had a fun group and saw and did more than would ever be remotely possible under your own steam. Our tour guide also cut through all the hassle that seems to go with travelling in parts of the Middle East meaning we could focus on the history and not the paperwork/baksheesh culture that seemed to be everywhere.

Yes, we arrived at some of the smaller temples, had a 30 minute tour and were then given 30 minutes to make our own way around… and that suited us perfectly, otherwise we just had to ask the guide for more time! A few hours at many temples with a sprinkling of history gave us a far more impressive feeling for the scope of the ancient civilisation than a day contemplating one.

But maybe (shock!) people enjoy travelling in different ways and to judge your own view as superior is somewhat arrogant.

Although people who just go to Sharm El Sheik for two weeks suck balls. Damn.

NomadicMatt

Yes! Another lover of Gap Adventures. They are a great company huh?

I have bad experience traveling in a tour group. Not with the travel agent that held the tour..but with the tour participants. There is a woman…late 30’s who always came late, complaining about everything, and for other participants…she is very annoying. But, yes…traveling in a tour group is perfect for newbie traveler…

NomadicMatt

I’ve had mixed experiences. Sometimes you just get bad people but that’s life.

Trvller

Great post! I do have to agree with some of the comments. I’ve taken some good tours and a few. My first tour was with Contiki and I loved it but didn’t love the second tour. I think the fellow travellers in the group does make a difference and also the tour manager you have. I’ve also travelled with Imaginative Traveller which has a smaller group and loved it because it was an intimate group and we all enjoyed the company and I still keep in touch with them. The worse tour group was with Cosmos, you are literally on the bus most of the time, and they have locals who take you to their shops for shopping as opposed to giving you some free time. That is one group I would stay away from if you want independent time.

I can honestly say that I have been one of those people that “isn’t a fan of tours” in the traditional sense of the word, but you’re completely right. I still have done the cruise and a tour package for family vacations and they definitely reduce stress and can still be a great way to see a country. I think we’re so used to the model of seeing the huge luxury buses shipping people through third world countries for each stop and staying at Hilton’s (my only large tour was through China, and I was not a fan of the tour method) that we forget that they can still be a great way to travel for a stress-free trip. Many tours also have “free days” where you explore a city and it is up to the participants whether they hang out at the McDo and hotel or explore. I’ve always heard about your blog, but I’ve only now started reading. Amazing.

NomadicMatt

Great to have you hear! Don’t be stranger!

TravelEm

I have done several tours over the years, across Canada, with Titan HiTours and they have always been brilliant. I have loved every single one of them and met some nice people. Of course there are always some people who cannot be pleased no matter what, but thats normal anywhere. Titan’s tours give you plenty of time at places of interest to explore before getting back on the coach and they have pick up and drop off at your front door, so it takes the stress out of getting to the airports.

I loved this so much I initially applied to live in Canada, before realising that living somewhere is not for me, I love to travel and cannot just settle, therefore, I am now looking into the possibility of becoming a tour manager/director helping other people enjoy what I love so much. I just hope it works out.

Matt, love your site.
I am off on my first major trip at 57… Yeah I know an old so and so…

Being a tour driver myself, I have opted for a bus tour as I have often told my passengers, its a good way to sample a country, well mine anyway, and then go back by yourself and do your own thing.

I’m coming to the USA, can’t wait.

Jan

I’m looking for a tour group for Panama. It is for a week. I looked at GAP web site, they just did not have what I wanted. Any other suggestions?
Thanks, Jan

Ivan Millen

As well as GAP I have used Intrepid Travel too. They are also awsome with small groups, good guides and lots of fun.

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