Organised tours or solo slow-travel?

There is so much debate in the travel community about organised tours vs. the ‘real experience’ of plotting your own trip and going it solo. Is one really better than the other? I’ve done both, so here are my thoughts.

There are positives and negatives to either approach. What is best really depends on what’s best for you- given your own preferences, your travel experience, your budget, and the time that you have.

Getting into travel

The first time I travelled outside of Europe I was (for our generation) relatively older to be doing so, at 22 (shock horror, I know).  I desperately wanted to go to India, I was travelling on my own, I have anxiety issues anyway,  was a bit nervous about safety, making friends, being able to cope logistically in a very different culture, and I also only had three weeks of annual leave to do it. So I booked a tour with the very popular travel company G Adventures.

Travelling with a group ‘yolo’ tour in India (2015) turned out to be really fun.

It was the one of the choices I’ve ever made. I didn’t have to do any time-consuming planning or booking (which can be hard when you have a demanding full-time job), I arrived in Delhi and landed with a really fun group of people around my age. We travelled on local transport (tuk-tuks, busses, and the dreaded long sleeper trains) but with a local guide to shepherd us about, point us in the right direction, and most importantly, show us what the best local thali dishes were to try (in places where we wouldn’t get food poisoning).

It was a great gateway into travel for me. I’ve since gone back to India without needing a tour. While it is true that you end up treading exactly the same path as so many others before you, you’re able to see all the highlights of a region (and they’re usually highlights for a reason), in a short space of time, in a way that would probably be impossible to achieve on your own. Best of all, you easily make travel companions to share your experiences with, and can form friendships that last years.

We still travelled like locals while on a tour with G Adventures.

Making logistically challenging trips easier

Another great reason to choose a tour is when it is logistically otherwise going to be difficult or beyond your budget as a solo traveller to experience a region you really want to see. For that reason, the following year, when I really wanted to go on safari in southern Africa, I booked a tour again. While it was expensive for my budget at that time, it was relatively far cheaper than if you have to rent a private 4×4, guides at the national parks, and pay to stay in lodges etc. We travelled in a giant ‘overlander’ (a big bus truck) for three weeks, camped, cooked our own food and washed our own dishes and, because there are such vast expanses of wildness in the places I went (Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa) it didn’t feel touristy and you really did feel connected to nature.

Gaining valuable knowledge

We were also blessed with the most amazing guide who knew EVERYTHING about the animals and plants, culture, history, politics of the places, and his passionate explanations of everything we saw really made the experience. I saw all the ‘Big 5’, and was able to do some flexible ‘extras’ such as bungee jumping over Victoria Falls and skydiving over the Namibian desert. Again, I fitted so many mind-blowing, life changing experiences into three weeks of leave, it was well worth the just over £3k it cost me (including flights, extras, booze and souvenirs bought there- the tour price was about half of that total). So actually not bad for what you got.

Having to push-start the truck for a 6am start in Namibia, 2016.

The cost difference is extraordinary

So, the downsides of tours? It is GENERALLY relatively pretty expensive compared to doing it for yourself (though there are differing options from basic to luxury depending on your budget). For comparison’s sake, while backpacking solo I spent closer to £7k in seven months, as opposed to £3k in three weeks on a tour! You are tied to a very tight schedule and there is no possibility of straying off the path. If anyone in the group annoys you, you’re stuck with them for three weeks on your holiday (thankfully I’ve been pretty lucky with the two I’ve been on in having great people).  It’s so full on, and with so many early starts to make the itinerary,  that I felt so exhausted after getting back from both that I felt like I needed another holiday to recover from the holiday.

Finding your own way

I have to admit that, having developed the confidence from those trips enough to go backpacking on my own, proper-styley, I am way less likely to book a tour again. Now that I have done so on a seven month solo backpacking trip through South and Central America,  I’ve realised just how much cheaper it can be, how much more real your experience feels, and I also love the flexibility. You can just go to the bus station and decide where you want to go that day. If you like a place, you can stay there a few days and get to know it better. You can go ‘off the beaten path’ and have some more unusual experiences. You can still easily make friends in hostels if you feel like it, but when you need your own space, you can just go do your own thing too. There is literally nothing like the freedom of deciding what you want to do each day, and just going with that.

Heading off for my first solo adventure in Latin America, 2017.

Challenges can be worth it

It’s not all easy. While some do none at all, I did end up spending a lot of time each day doing research on places and logistics for the days coming up, which felt almost like a part-time job but was the best way to make sure I didn’t miss anything because I hadn’t known the only bus leaves at 6am, or that you have to pre-book to get into X. It can also get lonely at times. Even though you make friends you’re unlikely to spend the whole route together, and making connections with people only to never see them again after the two days you spend together, on repeat, can be exhausting. Occasionally you get into sticky situations, get lost, or end up on a bus going in the opposite direction because your grasp of the language is so bad.. But you also gain so much from the adventure, from forcing yourself to be independent, from talking to locals rather than just your travelling peers- and that in itself I think is invaluable.

I doubt I’d have stayed with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon on a group tour. Ecuador, 2017.

There is a lot of judgement from people who are experienced travellers of people who pick tours. I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to act all high-and-mighty about it. Sadly, unless you are literally Levison Wood, it’s pretty unlikely you are going to be having 100% authentic, un-touristy experiences these days even if you are plotting your own backpacking trip. Also, for a lot of people, the prospect of travelling is pretty daunting and can seem inaccessible. For people feeling anxious about travelling alone, I do really think tours are often the best way in. I’d also still consider booking one if I try again to fit in seeing as much as possible into a short time of annual leave. It IS really hard when you only have so much time- and depending on your situation the extra money might be worth not being lost in a Chinese train station and messing up your whole trip.

It’s all down to personal preference

So- pick what’s right for you, and don’t judge others. The most important thing is to travel as sustainably as possible, and to act with total respect for the culture and wildlife you are having the privilege to experience. G-Adventures and other companies give a percentage of their profits to local NGOs. If you’re going on your own, pick eco-hostels, locally run tours, and don’t get involved in the aspects of tourism that tear communities and people apart (drugs and sex trafficking being high on that list). Make friends with locals, make the effort to learn a bit of the language, and be mindful of what has put you in the position to be able to have these experiences in the first place.

So I’ll conclude with a summary of pros and cons. Just have a think about what from this list is most important to you.

Pros and cons of travelling in a group tour

ProsCons
ConvenienceLack of flexibility
SecurityIntense schedules
Ease of making friendsNo choice in companions
Knowledgeable guidesStuck on tourist trail
Fitting in a lot in a short timeExpensive
Making challenging travel destinations accessibleLess able to give directly to local businesses
Little planning time requiredLimited interactions with local people

Self guided travel pros and cons

ProsCons
More unique experiencesLoneliness
FlexibilityChallenging logistically
IndependenceRequires a lot of time for planning
Making friends with localsProblems WILL arise
Taking time for yourselfLess security (no one knows where you are)
Enjoying slow travelSometimes miss booking places for activities

What do you think? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts below.

New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen