Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pros and Cons of the Organized Tour

For a lot of people, travel is about independence.  It's about choosing where to go, what to do, who to interact with completely by yourself.  It's about the sense of self-discovery that accompanies discovering new places, often at random and without forethought.

The idea of organized tours, then, turns off a lot of serious travelers.  "How can you achieve that gratifying sense of discovery on a trip that someone else planned?" they ask. To them, a structured trip that thousands of others have taken could never compare to travelling alone and experiencing something completely unique.

And to a point, I agree with this logic.  Independence is a big reason why I decided to uproot myself and moved overseas 5 months ago.  But as important as abstract ideals like independence and discovery are to me, they may be outweighed by practicalities like budgeting and safety.  Besides, I've had profoundly memorable experiences both travelling independently and on tours. When considering an organized tour, then, I think it's important to keep several things in mind:

1. Safety- A few nights ago, a Scottish friend did a rather insulting impression of me trying to drive a car in the U.K.  Even though I called him some of my choicest swear words, he made me realize how much safer it is for visitors to take a guide-driven bus Scotland than to try and brave the Highland roads on their own.  Plus, these tours guarantee you won't end up lost, in a bad neighborhood, or unable to find accommodation.

2. Tour Sizes- One of the best travel experiences I've had was on a tour with only 3 other people.  In just a few days together we felt completely comfortable together- we all knew each others names and backgrounds, we had our own set of inside jokes, and we knew that we'd keep in touch (and for the record, we do still keep in touch). In addition to being more personal than huge groups, small groups are more practical.  You're able to customize the tour to the group's wishes and because simple toilet and snack stops don't take all day, you have more time for sightseeing.

3. Partying- A quick look at the names and tag lines of many popular tours (Shamrocker, Wild in Scotland, and Haggis: Wild & Sexy) shows that organized trips frequently involve a lot of alcohol, and, well, some shenanigans.  I don't mind a bit of nighttime partying as long as my days on tour are filled with history and sightseeing.  Others might find the drunken revelry exhausting and childish.

4. Money- Nobody, except big nerds, loves doing all the math to figure out the cheapest way to travel, but in order to get the most fun possible out of time abroad, it's necessary to add up the expenses involved in each of your options, and then compare them.  In my experience, budget backpacker tours always were cheaper than renting a car and exploring on my own. Still, I'm sure this isn't always the case. So keep the calculator handy.

5. Local Perspective- The best tours have local guides who tell you historic and legendary stories, and can answer any questions you might pose.  I would never choose a tour operator whose guides didn't have a good reputation, as a guide's local perspective is the greatest benefit of choosing an organized tour.

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