Just Ask Outpost: our senior travel advisor, for undisclosed reasons, goes in disguise to answer this pressing travel question: is it better to wander independently, or is tour-grouping the better way to go?   

By Simon Vaughan, Senior Editor, Outpost Travel Media

One of my favourite pastimes is to simply wander the streets of somewhere new, alone. It’s when I’m on my own—with only a vague route in my mind and a rough map in my head (possibly backed up by a hard copy in my pocket!)—that I really discover a place, its people and its corners.

No conversation to distract me. No compromises to be made. No one to persuade or negotiate with when the road reaches a fork.

Yet I’ll be the first to admit that travelling alone can also be lonely, never more so than when I am utterly lost or when it’s time to eat. I am not the sort to strike up conversations with complete strangers (I am British after all, and was raised never to speak until formally introduced!). However, I generally respond cordially if approached, and heaven forbid, may even be willing to become your acquaintance.

However, contrarily, some of my greatest travel experiences have come in small groups where I’ve made lifelong friendships with similarly-minded travellers from all over the world; or been led by social maestros who were also superbly knowledgeable leaders; or seen things and had experiences I’d absolutely never have found on my own; all while not having to constantly worry about language, the time, the next bus, or straying so far off-the-beaten path as to make my next appearance be on the side of a milk carton.

It can be tough to choose between group travel and independent travel, and both choices require sacrifice.

On the one hand: autonomy, complete freedom of movement, manifest destiny. On the other: possibly safety, perhaps sanity, and certainly two-for-one meal deals.

So here’s my answer to a few key questions you might have when going back and forth about whether to go it alone or do it by group, based on my own years of travelling as well as working for tour operators. Just call me Opie (OP).

Question#1 Dear Opie: If two’s company and three’s a crowd, how many is a group, and just how independent does independent travel have to be to still be independent? Signed: Confused

Dear Confused: In travel there are groups and then there are groups, and there’s independent and then there’s independent. Let’s start with some examples. For the sake of simplification, let’s divide “group travel” into two subsections: small-group and large(r)-group.

Small-group travel is generally limited to a maximum of 12 to 14 people per group, though many will operate with as few as an intimate four customers, and sometimes even just a startlingly uncomfortable two. Small-group travel provides an intimacy and an access that large groups are denied (like strolling within the ropes at Stonehenge; try doing that one on your own without being arrested). Everyone gets to know everyone, small locally-owned accommodation can be utilized, public transport may be used instead of private vehicles, and the group can usually coast around without attracting too much attention.

In addition, small-group travel can be highly specialized and focused on a particular subject that might not appeal to the average traveller, and led by a guide who is a subject matter expert. Even inveterate independent travellers can usually adjust to small-group travel without a fit of agoraphobia.

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For those who believe there’s safety in numbers, more conventional group travel often starts with a minimum of 30 to 40 people, and if demand is there, sometimes additional buses can be added to double or even triple that number. Due to the size of the group only large hotels and restaurants can generally be used, and visits to museums and other sights are often led by umbrella-wielding guides. By their very nature, conventional group travel rarely ventures far from the severely beaten path, but they do tend to offer excellent salad bars.

As for independent travel, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to be either alone or fully unreliant to travel “independently.”

While independent travellers can hitchhike, cycle, use public transport or hire their own vehicle and simply drift on a whim, scattered throughout the world are also a number of hop-on/hop-off bus companies catering to them. Operating on a specific circuit and a regular schedule, these backpacker buses stop at or near key tourist sights, and often begin/end each day at hostels or campsites. Users can lock in their entire schedule beforehand, or just play it by ear. The service enables almost complete independence with a support network all in the company of similarly minded travellers.

It’s often the perfect solution for first-time independent travellers, or those who relish their independence but fancy a somewhat easier experience. And yes, it is still independent travel!

Question#2 Dear Opie: I’ve been printing money in my basement…I mean, collecting pennies in jars since I was four years old and now want to cash them in for some serious travelling. What do you advise, and how do I even start? Signed: His Excellency Count R. Phitter.

Dear Count R. Phitter: There are a few factors that determine which mode of travel stretches your budget further, but first you have to realize just what any group tour really entails. The obvious inclusions are transportation, accommodation, a tour leader, and maybe a few entrance fees and some meals. What you may not realize is that what you’re also getting is organization, expertise, security and peace of mind—and all of that comes with a price.

The bottom line with cost is that budget tours can nearly always be done cheaper when done independently, while high-end tours are often much less expensive with a group. But that’s just factoring in the tangible components without considering the hidden bonuses already mentioned.

If you choose a more prominent travel company that carries hundreds of thousands of travellers each year, there’s a good chance the price they’ve negotiated for your deluxe hotel room is a fraction of the best price you can find, even with countless hours spent online. If you add hired car transport or private transfers between properties, VIP entrance fees with private tour guides and a few dinners at some of the best restaurants along the way, you’ll quickly discover that your independence comes with a hefty surcharge.

However, if you prefer to mix and mingle with the local people and travel on packed so called “chicken buses,” or stay in family-owned hotels and eat street food, then doing it all independently will unquestionably be cheaper.

But—and this is important—you’ll have to spend a lot of time doing the leg work yourself: locating acceptable and available accommodation or spending hours queuing for train tickets (yes, in many countries that happens), all in a language you might not understand (never assume everybody in the service industry speaks English). What you save in escudos you may well lose in days.

There are other factors to consider when budgeting for your travels: if going independent, every single thing you do comes out of your own pocket, so you tend to spend accordingly; with group travel it’s important to check the fine print, and to pay attention to meals and entrance fees. Not all may be included upfront, and they can significantly—and sometimes unexpectedly—increase your bottom line.

If you have the time and the temperament and are happy with no frills, then independent budget travel is almost certainly the least expensive option. For all other cases, group travel may be a more economical alternative.

Question#3 Dear Opie: I have seven days of vacation and want to see the world. What’s the best way to make use of my limited time Signed: Lee On Parole

Dear Lee On Parole: On idly flicking through the TV channels one lazy Saturday afternoon many years ago, I came across a movie entitled If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. It was a 1960s comedy set on an organized coach tour of Europe, and though I believe I quickly continued my televisual travels to other channels, I’ve always enjoyed the title.

There is a belief that organized tours race from place to place, ticking off as many sights along the way as possible. Or as one young traveller once described to me: “Drive-drive. Photo-photo. Drive-drive!”

In many cases that is indeed true. Most organized tours have been designed to maximize our limited vacation time by ensuring everyone gets to see as much as possible and in the shortest amount of time, even down to coinciding start and finish dates with flight times.

Since they often have private transportation, can prebook museum entrance times and restaurant reservations and have refined the route over many thousands of departures, travel companies and tour operators have it down to an art—quite frankly, most independent travellers would struggle to cover half as much territory.

It may not be the ideal way to see a place, but if you’ve only got seven days before the warden notices you’re missing, it’s hard to beat an organized tour.

However, you also need to ask yourself whether a little of a lot is better than a lot of a little. Let’s say you arrive in Bruges, Belgium one idyllic midsummer morning and find yourself absolutely captivated by its medieval architecture, canals and cobblestones. You quickly realize this is a place where you want to kickback and explore, not to mention sample a few brews in a charming cafe. Alas, your tour is leaving in exactly 13 minutes, and there are two other places you’re seeing that day.

Now, if you’re on your own you can sit down with your friends, pull out your guidebook or favourite app and, over a couple of pints of that local brew—and maybe some moules-frites—decide to amend your itinerary to spend more time in Bruges and less in Antwerp. Before you’ve even left a tip the change is done and the diamond markets will just have to wait until next time.

If you really do want to see everything, take the group tour as there’s no better way to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. But if you prefer flexibility or a more comprehensive visit, going your own way is likely the better bet.

Question#4: Dear Opie: I’m antisocial and hate making new friends. Should I travel independently or with a group? Signed: A Not-So-Unhappy Hermit

Dear Not-So-Unhappy: I am still friends with people I met travelling more than 20 years ago. Fellow travellers, former tour leaders, local guides—they have all entered my web of friends, and we shall remain forever linked by our uniquely shared experiences, even if only via annual Christmas card or occasional email.

Meeting people is one of the great highlights of travel. The friendships you make on the road will often last at least as long as the memories of the sights and experiences that attracted you in the first place.

Whether travelling alone on a group tour or with friends independently, it’s not unusual to make friendships that can literally last a lifetime. And thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to remain connected or to assemble an impressive portfolio of free couches to sleep on around the world.

So which is better for making friends—independent travel or tour-group travel? 

When travelling independently—especially if alone—you quickly find yourself part of a travelling community. Even if you’re quite introverted or socially inept at home, there’s something about a sweltering hostel, a swaying train, a packed bus station or a bustling airport that draws complete strangers together.

Perhaps you share identical weathered backpacks, sport similar obscure beer-brand T-shirts or have the same odd tan lines on your feet, but you’ll invariably find yourself quickly and frequently hooking up with fellow indies. When travelling independently, you’ll likely only remain alone for as long as you want to remain alone.

As strange as it may sound, it’s sometimes easier to be alone in a group than it is when actually alone! Group dynamics being what they are, unless you’re on a small-group tour of five or six people, it’s usually fairly easy to slip into a corner and avoid the splintering of the large group into smaller cliques, if you so desire.

Of course, you can just as easily be the life of the party—but you don’t have to be unless you want to be, despite the best efforts of some tour leaders.

If you want to make new friends, try either independent travel or small-group travel. If you wish to continue your antisocial existence I suggest you travel with a larger group, where you can hide at a table-for-one behind the salad bar.

Question#5 Dear Opie: I hate museums, galleries and anything intellectually stimulating. Would I enjoy a group tour? Signed: Phil I. Stein

Dear Phil I. Stein: Organized tours provide a detailed itinerary of not only the route the tour will take, but also the places and sights visited along the way. Barring unforeseeable issues like labour disruptions, road closures or weather problems, tour operators generally stick to those itineraries, reasoning it was those very inclusions that attracted the customers in the first place.

Many even have a policy that if the majority of participants want to skip a particular attraction but there’s one person who wants to stick to the itinerary, the tour must do so; otherwise they aren’t delivering the product they originally advertised and sold.

So, if you don’t like looking at Renaissance masterpieces, it’s probably best not to book a tour entitled “Oil and Canvas: Treasures of the Romantic Age.”

Take Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. Widely regarded as one of the greatest natural spots on Earth, the perfect volcanic caldera is home to one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles. For more than a century the crater has been fulfilling the often lifelong dreams of travellers, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts—but it’s still not enough to make everyone happy.

On a five-week overland trip from Harare, Zimbabwe to Nairobi, Kenya, some of my truck mates preferred to be dropped off by the pool of a nearby luxury lodge rather than actually visit a spot once voted one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. While the rest of us had a day none of us will ever forget, a select few had martinis they likely barely remembered the next morning.

While specialist tours tend to attract like-minded people there for the main points of the trip, there are inevitably those who didn’t read the trip description closely enough.

Like another travel mate who on day three of a 10-day Kenyan safari confessed that he didn’t “like the heat” and “wasn’t much interested in animals.”

If choosing any group tour remember that what you see will indeed be what you get—and depending on where you are there may not even be the opportunity to opt out of certain activities.

Question#6 Dear Opie: I will eat anything, anytime, anywhere, but I don’t like it when people watch me eat. Ever. Are there group tours that will allow me to eat alone? Signed: Hy Eena

Dear Hy Ena: If making new friends is one of the main highlights of travel, trying great new food is likely a close second.

There’s just something about exotic surroundings that can turn the most timid of nibblers at home into an adventurous diner on the road. It’s not unheard of for someone who faints at the sight of quinoa to find themselves devouring witchetty grubs while abroad. But having the freedom to eat quinoa or witchetty grubs is the key to happy travelling.

I have foodie friends who decide where they’re going to dine every night of their independent travels before they’ve even left home. They spend weeks online researching the best or most authentic restaurants, learning the schedules of the celebrity chefs, and booking the best table in the house according to independent online reviews. They even know what they’re going to order before the menu arrives at their table and how they’ll have it prepared.

But most of us have a far more relaxed attitude to eating while travelling. We may want to try new things and sample the local delicacies, search out some homestyle comfort foods or just stick tightly to our budgets, but mostly we just take it as it comes.

However, there also remain those for whom the whole notion of eating independently while travelling is traumatizing. From finding a suitable eatery to deciphering the menu—never mind actually ordering—some just give up and grab a pot of noodles to suck down in the safety of their rooms. Fortunately, there’s something for everyone.

Unless in remote places with no choice, many small-group tours include no meals other than breakfast. In the evening, the tour leader generally announces where he or she is going to eat and invites any and all to join them. As many tour leaders are local or have been there countless times before, their choices are often street food or fabulously authentic little places you’d never find on your own.

But if you’d rather be on your own, no one will raise an eyebrow if you opt for solitude and go your own way. Alternatively, some group tours include every meal, transport to and from the venue, a fixed menu and everything except alcohol. It may take away some of the fun, but it can also take away some people’s stress.

Finally, one of the fastest growing niche travel areas involves cuisine. Organized small-group tours that include food preparation classes, market shopping, meals in private homes and of course, fine dining and authentic noshing throughout. They cost a bit more, but for many people the idea is well worth chewing on.

  • Simon Vaughan writes the very tongue-in-cheek “Excess Baggage” column for Outpost, but is also a seasoned travel-industry expert. Though his advice here is real, the “askers” (clearly) are not! This first appeared in our magazine and has been adapted.

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