Guided Tours vs Independent Travel

Planning a trip can be fun, but it can also be stressful. There’s a lot to consider – what to see, how much to spend, and the amount of time to stay in one place. So do you choose to do a guided tour and have a fairly relaxed trip knowing that everything has been pre-arranged, or do you elect to plan your own travel – which can be cheaper but take more time to arrange?

Guided tours certainly have their place in the world of backpacking – if you’re short on time, guided tours mean that you can cram in plenty of adventure and culture in just a few days. Tours are also a great way to meet other solo backpackers and to spend your time with.

Independent travel on the other hand can be significantly cheaper, so if you have plenty of time but not much money this might be the better choice for you. Most long-term backpackers are advocates of independent travel but it’s important to note that many backpacker veterans actually started their trips with guided tours, to develop a good foundation to the world of backpacking.

Tour group

Guided Tours

The Advantages of a Guided Tour

Inside Scoop
In general, tour leaders are a knowledgable, fun bunch who know your destination back to front and are able to help ease you in with plenty of fun facts, top tips and amusing tales. Your tour leader will most likely have taken this tour before, so you’ll also have a lot of inside scoop on some of the best spots in town.

Safety
There is definitely safety in numbers and when it comes to traveling the world it doesn’t get much safer than arranging a guided tour with an experienced tour leader.

Instant Friends
You should have a great group of like-minded backpackers to travel with. Particularly if you are backpacking alone, it can be fun to share your experiences with people who are interested in seeing and doing a lot of the same things are you.

Convenience
Having everything arranged for you means you don’t have to worry about bus schedules or which hostel to stay in.

In-Country Partnerships
Your tour company will have partnered with local specialists to provide the best possible adventures, which takes the headache out of choosing a rafting company at random. Many tour companies emphasize responsible tourism, choosing businesses to support the local economy.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunities
There are some places around the world that are logistically impossible to reach without the help of a guided tour. Whether you’re interested in trekking to a remote location or somewhere with travel restrictions, some things are difficult – if not virtually impossible – to be explored independently.

The Disadvantages of Guided Tours

Cost
There’s no denying it, even budget guided tours are going to cost more than independent travel. Some guided tours can be extremely expensive so be sure to shop around.

Group Dynamics
If you don’t like the people in your group, there’s not much you can do about it. If a large group of friends sign up together that you haven’t met before, you could feel like the outsider.

Limited Flexibility
Guided tours tend to try and “pack it in,” which means you might feel like you are constantly being rushed from one attraction to the next.

Set Activities
The cost of your tour will cover set activities and meals. If you’re not keen to go horse-riding up a mountain side then no problem, you don’t have to do it, but sometimes these expenses can make their way into your tour costs.

You Might Not Leave Your Comfort Zone
One of the best ways to get to the heart of a place is to get lost, screw up a restaurant order, and have a laugh with the locals. On a guided tour, you are less likely to have to take the initiative and may miss out on a truly wonderful self-learning experience.

Independent Travel

The Advantages of Going Alone

Flexibility
Independent travel is the ultimate freedom. You get up when you want, you go where you want, you do what you want. If you find somewhere, or someone, you like and fancy sticking around for a few weeks then you can; you don’t need to worry about sticking to a timeline.

Price
Independent travel is considerably cheaper than going on a guided tour and will enable you to stretch your budget further and travel longer. Most activities provided on a guided tour can be arranged in-country for cheaper so you won’t necessarily miss out on much by organizing everything yourself.

Pick Your Travel Buddies
It can be relatively easy to make friends while traveling solo and you can meet more people as you make your way through your trip. You’re not stuck with same people for a set period of time.

New Skills
Independent travel is a challenge but, like any challenge, it comes with its rewards. Backpackers who hit the road by themselves and dive headfirst into the whirlwind of organizing everything on their own will quickly acquire great time management, haggling and language skills. Independent travel can be the ultimate confidence booster.

Cultural Immersion
Independent travelers have a better chance to meet with locals. Whether it’s haggling with a taxi driver, shopping at the local night markets or discussing Buddhism with orange-robed monks, your chances of getting a feel for the local culture are greatly improved.

The Disadvantages of Going Alone

It Can Be Tiring
Organizing absolutely everything by yourself can prove exhausting. There’s only so many times in one day you are going to have the mental energy to haggle for Tuk Tuks or use your bad Vietnamese to try and order a vegetarian option.

You Have to Look After Yourself
If you get sick while traveling and you are on your own, it can really suck. People you meet in dorms are likely to be friendly to you but nobody is going to take time out of their day to look after someone they have just met.

It’s More Dangerous
Independent travel has an added element of risk – if something does go wrong you are going to have to deal with the consequences yourself.

You May Get Lonely
You may also find yourself being a bit lonely; sometimes a couple of days can pass where you won’t really meet anybody and if you are a little shy it can sometimes be hard to wander up to new groups of people everyday.

What’s Best For Me?

Choosing between a guided tour and traveling alone is a very personal choice, so it is a good idea to ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you limited for time?
  • Do you like spending time alone?
  • Is personal space important to you?
  • Can you share a room with a stranger?
  • How about sharing a dorm with seven strangers?
  • Do you have a set weekly budget?
  • Is there something you want to see which is only possible with a guided tour?
  • Are you worried about arranging transport by yourself?
  • Is this your first trip?
  • How safe are the destinations you are visiting?

A Balanced Approach

If you’re a first-time backpacker, consider signing up for a short guided tour followed by some independent travel afterwards. Being on a guided tour will give you the confidence and know-how you need to properly explore an area by yourself once the tour has ended. You could also meet people on the guided tour who are in the same situation as you, and are keen to find a travel buddy for further adventures once the tour is over.

There are a huge range of tour companies out there, so it’s important to find the right one for you. Tours focus on everything from partying to birdwatching. If you’re a social butterfly, interested in having someone else be in the driver’s seat, consider signing up for a tour from a company aimed specifically at first-time backpackers.

There is no “right” approach as both independent travel and guided tours have their merits. While most seasoned backpackers end up gravitating towards solo travel as it’s ultimately cheaper and more flexible, guided tours are an excellent introduction for first-time backpackers and enable even the most well-trodden adventurers to reach destinations such as the Darien Gap or Antarctica, which would otherwise be impossible to visit.