With an ever-expanding market catering to backpackers seeking adventurous escapes, the possibilities are now endless for how you want to go about planning your next trip. There are hundreds of options for every traveller out there. So how do you decide which option is best for you? Don't worry, I'm here to share my experience as well as advice from fellow travellers.
First of all, let's talk about tours. I have been to Bali, Vietnam & Cambodia, and Thailand all with backpacker's tours and I find them a fantastic way to experience a country, particularly as a solo traveller. These kinds of tours ensure that you still feel like a backpacker, but you have the safety net of the tour company at the same time. Just because you have booked a tour, it does not make you a 'fake backpacker' or some obnoxious tourist distancing themselves from the local community in their five-star all-inclusive... Backpacker's tours offer many advantages, some of which I have listed below.
I cannot emphasise enough how invaluable having a local guide can be. I've recently been on a G Adventures tour through Vietnam and Cambodia, and our CEO (Chief Experience Officer), Sita, was an absolute gem! Sita is from Bangkok, and so she knows all about the local customs, foods, scams, squatter toilets for dummies.. the list goes on! She soon had us feeling like expert travellers too. G Adventures are particularly good at this style of travel with sourcing local guides, and at every place we stopped, we had a guide who had grown up/lived there and had extensive knowledge of the place. If you're a lover of history and culture like me, a local guide is going to give you an insight like no textbook or google search could, and you can fire away with all of your burning questions.
One of the most obvious reasons for going with an organised tour is that it takes all of the stress out of it for you. You just need to show up and enjoy the trip and let your guide deal with the paperwork.
In my experience, being with a tour group ensures you have a safety net in various ways. I have recently learned through an incident on an overnight train in Thailand how glad I was to be part of a tour group and have a guide to take care of me and sort out getting me away from the scene quickly and calmly. Find out more about this here.
In my opinion, a tour is going to be a good starting point for less experienced travellers as they will feel safe and a tour will help them to build up their confidence in the country they are visiting. You can always opt to do some onward travel by yourself after the tour, by which time you have gotten to know the country with the safety and knowledge of a local guide.
This is different in every case, but quite often a tour can be a more cost-effective way of seeing lots of places. A tour is also a guaranteed way to pack lots in to a short period of time. Want to go from Hanoi to Saigon in a week? Totally possible! On this one, my advice would be if there are a lot of sights you want to see in a place and there is a tour which stops by most, if not all of them, then go with the tour. A tour is likely to have deals with local companies and it is a lot more hassle-free for you.
Further to this point, if you have paid for an organised tour before departure, there is less to think about in terms of your budget, as you will only need to accommodate your costs for meals that are not included and personal spending such as souvenirs and onward travel. I find this much simpler and reassuring, knowing that the important stuff such as where I'm going to sleep is already paid for and taken care of.
Guaranteed travel buddies
Another advantage to opting for a tour, particularly as a solo traveller, is having guaranteed travel buddies as soon as you land. You'll be travelling with these people for the whole tour, making countless memories together. You will get to know them really well! Like, you'll know about that weird mole on their left butt cheek or something by the end of it! You'll find you know these friends and all of their little quirks more so than your friends back home, because that is the result of throwing a random group of people together on a journey through a foreign country. If you are planning some onward travel after the tour, it is likely that you will stick with the friends you have made on your tour, so it is also a great way to find travel buddies with the advantage of already knowing whether or not you can stand living with them!
Not everybody is going to like the same place equally and a tour company has to cater to everybody's likes and dislikes. As a result, you lose the freedom to stay on or leave a place early according to your own likes and dislikes of a place. A tour is on a time limit, and this means that I have often found myself rushed through a temple or monument when I really want to stand and soak it in for longer and take photographs of every angle. This happened a few times on my trip to Bali where I felt like our leader ushered us through the temple, took a few selfies and went back out again, without allowing us time to really soak up the place and learn about its history.
Lack of choice in accommodation
This never was an issue for me personally, but others on my tours found that they did not like some of the chosen accommodation, and of course being on a tour, there wasn't much they could do about it. My advice on avoiding disappointment would be to try and get hold of a detailed itinerary of your tour and look up all of the accommodation on the route. Google is a wonderful tool for this, use it! The same can happen with meals. Even if they are not included, your guide will often take you to a restaurant together as a group and it may not be to your taste or budget.
Tied to a schedule
In relation to my first point, tours are designed to pack a lot in to a short space of time. One disadvantage I experienced with this is that should an activity need to be cancelled, due to bad weather for instance, you'll more than likely miss out on seeing that place altogether because the next day you could be moving on to your next destination. On my G Adventures tour, our overnight cruise around Halong Bay was cancelled due to a storm coming in. Although the company were very good at arranging an alternative of equal value, had I been travelling alone I would have opted to stay an extra night in Hanoi and wait out the storm.
Although you may have booked on to a tour because it ticks off a lot of places you want to see, you may find that there are still places you would like to see which the tour goes whizzing past. This is unfortunately just luck of the draw, and had you booked everything yourself, you may have equally found you would not have seen absolutely everything you wanted to for various reasons.
Okay, so we've talked about backpacker's tours, now let's weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of planning everything yourself. This is something I have had less experience in personally, I have only ever planned trips on the end of a tour. However, I have asked around fellow backpackers to fill me in on their experiences of "winging it", and here is what we have come up with...
You are your own boss!
One of the obvious advantages here is that you are in the drivers' seat. You can come and go as you please and every decision down to your accommodation and food is entirely yours. If you are travelling solo, there is no need to compromise. So, if you want to stand at the Angkor Wat Temples and spend three hours taking pictures of that one brick because it looks interesting, you can! Nobody is going to rush you or judge (well, maybe a little, it's only a brick!), but you get my point, your time is your own to spend however you please.
Moreover, you have the flexibility to stay longer in one place if you're loving it or equally you can leave early if you're not feeling the vibe. Your schedule is your own and you can adjust it to suit you. As previously mentioned, if there is an activity you want to do which is written off due to bad weather for example, you have the freedom to wait it out and try again the next day, whereas you do not have this option with a tour.
By planning your trip yourself, you can take advantage of great last minute deals on sites such as Booking.com, Expedia, Skyscanner and AirBnB. Not only are you selecting where you want to stay, you decide on your budget and have the option to shop around and find the deals which best cater to your wants and needs. If you are feeling really brave, these sites are great for people who are literally winging it and planning each day as it comes as you can really grab yourself a deal.
Hostels are full of other solo travellers looking to make friends and explore!
I'm not saying that if you go on a tour you are constantly surrounded by people, because you can still choose how much you want to interact with the rest of your group and you can use your free time to have some alone time. However, it is easier to choose how sociable you want to be with people if you are travelling by yourself around hostels. If you feel you need some down time then you are an individual, travelling alone, and people wouldn't question it if you wanted to wonder off by yourself. Equally, it is so easy to meet like-minded people to make plans with, and what's more, many hostels offer tours of the local attractions and even day trips to further afield. So if you wanted to make up your itinerary as you go along with your new roomies, it is fairly easy to do so. The choice is entirely yours.
You are out of the tour group "bubble"
Although a tour group is a fabulous option for solo travellers, as you are guaranteed to meet people and make new friends, this often causes you to stay in your tour group "bubble", and this can sometimes affect the way you interact with locals and other backpackers/expats in the areas you are visiting. This wouldn’t be a problem to a lot of people, myself included, but I know some of you more hardened backpackers out there like the prospect of constantly meeting fresh faces and feeling like you can really immerse yourself in the local community. Plus, you are less likely to stand out as an obvious tourist if you are travelling solo or with a buddy as opposed to a group tour. If you are seeking that true "survivory-authentic" Leo DiCaprio in The Beach experience with the local community, then you’re likely to find travelling solo more exciting than a group tour. But this did not bother me, and being on a backpacker’s tour initially built up my confidence with the local customs and environment to then go off and explore a little on my own and with friends I had made on the tours.
Planning everything yourself is a lot more stressful and gives you a lot more to have to think about.
Safety & local knowledge
As previously mentioned, my G Adventures CEO was amazing and I felt safe in her hands at all times. Sita was from Bangkok and therefore knew all of the local do's and don'ts, tourist scams, safety advice, etc. This proved invaluable particularly when crossing borders.
*Tip There is a known scam at the border from Cambodia into Thailand, which even locals fall victim to. If it wasn't for Sita telling us you DO NOT have to pay to pass through this border (unless you're applying for a visa or second entry in to Thailand...), it is a trick played by the border control police!! I would have assumed I needed to pay to cross into Thailand, and I have known friends from back home fall victim to this too.
I hate to admit it, but females especially need to watch out for their safety when travelling alone. Even in modern first-world countries, you would not wonder round at night on your own and this would limit you if you wanted to go out at night in a foreign country. You are less likely to drink and let loose because you need to watch your back and have your guards up. Whereas when you are in a group, surrounded by people you know and have built up a trust with, you don't need to be quite as "on-guard".
You could actually see less of a place
Again, another advantage of the local guide is that they know places down the backstreets or slightly off the beaten track that you wouldn't necessarily know about or brave on your own. You could end up just sticking to the main touristy spots anyway and not gaining anything from arranging it yourself.
Although many of the main cities in foreign countries will have the English translation on signs, working out how to get from A to B can become a real nightmare in less built up areas! You do not want to keep forking out on taxis everywhere and even Tuk Tuks can eat away at your budget. Public transport is a cheaper option and allows for that authentic experience of a country. However, they can also be a real headache to try and navigate and could cut into your time a bit if you are on a tight schedule.
There is a happy medium!
So, from this I am not saying you should definitely do a tour or you should definitely do it all by yourself. Assess how you want to plan your trip, how much control you want over it, your budget and the time you have, and take it from there. You can opt for just booking a flight and winging it around (you brave person!) to fully booked and prepaid flights and tours, and everything in-between.
Winging it, touring it and everything in-between...
STA Travel's 'Tailor-Made'option is one example of the best of both worlds - because you decide exactly what you want to do, but let a travel expert take care of the paperwork. You can basically make your own tour by choosing exactly where you want to go, how long for and with however much money. If this option is even too much hassle, then opt for an existing tour. There are many to choose from and you can find out about the tours I have been on so far by clicking here.
However you go about it, you are going to see some amazing places at the end of the day, no matter how you get there. Do your research, seek advice from fellow backpackers and get out there and explore!
How do you go about planning your trips? Any advice to first-timers? Leave your comments below!