Destinations Magazine

Tours Vs Going It Alone

By Kellyabroad @kelly_abroad
Tours vs going it alone

Contiki’s LA to the bay, 2010

One of the first girls out of our group of girlfriends to go overseas was Kristen. One year when we were about 18 she booked a wickedly long European summer camping trip with Contiki and came home a few months later with bleached blonde hair and tales of calling her parents from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I of course was unbelievably jealous and somewhat stumped at how seemingly easy it had been for her to go to all these places from the glossy brochures, have a jaw-dropping time and come home relatively unscathed. Where I came from it was unheard of.

That’s the beauty of tour groups. The hardest part is deciding where you want to go and booking the flights. Once you’ve done that you’ve pretty much managed to coordinate 75 percent of your trip with the click of a mouse and the supply of a few credit card digits.

My first trip to the United States I did two Contiki tours, a four day Los Angeles introduction and a four day New York City break. I believe I paid about $1,200 NZ a piece and that included hotel accommodation in both cities, a tour guide, breakfasts, a handful of dinners, a day tour of each city and guided ‘optional’ tours (where you have the option of partaking in, for example, a helicopter ride of the Hudson. You pay extra but the tour guide organises your tickets and transportation etc.). You also get a bus load of ready-made friends and a pretty groovy group picture to take home.

I loved my trips so much I booked three more 18 months later. A ten day Californian road trip, a seven day tour of London, Paris and Rome and a two week ‘Island Hopping’ tour around the Greek islands. Each tour was $2,000 a piece and included pretty much everything except your flights, food and alcohol.

Despite the fact I’ve always found Contiki very good value for money, I made a somewhat unconscious decision after my last tour that I wouldn’t do another again. Why? Several reasons. Number one, these days I have less money and more street smarts. Although tour groups can be (and I admit I’ve only ever gone with Contiki) excellent value for money, they are still significantly more expensive for me than if I travel independently.

Case in point. A quick perusal of Contiki’s current tours brings up a ten day tour of Argentina and Brazil for $2470 NZ per person. This includes nine nights in a twin- share hotel room, nine breakfasts and three dinners, coach transfers and two flights (from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls to Rio). It looks as if entrance fees, one bike tour, and a boat ride in Brazil are also included. Broken down this is $274 per day, over nine days (not ten because the tour ends the morning of the tenth day.)

Over the past 11 days in Argentina my brother Mark and I arrived in Buenos Aires, traveled to Iguazu Falls by coach and then bussed down to Cordoba (no, not Rio, but the bus rides cost roughly the same so we could have gone to Rio for the same price if that’s what our itinerary had been.) We slept in dorms the whole time which gave us access to nine breakfasts. We paid entrance fees and transfer fees to Iguazu Falls. We paid for a walking tour in La Boca but aside from that have used public transportation or walked around the city. We’ve eaten at restaurants every single night except for two nights when we took overnight buses and had snacks instead, and last night when I cooked at the hostel.

A quick glance at my bank account tells me I have spent $788 NZ in 10 days. Which is a grand total of $78 per day. That’s $58 US per day for my American readers. And that total includes a couple of souviners purchased at the markets, an emergency poncho at Iguazu Falls and some serious steak and wine dinners. It includes everything I’ve spent, even ATM fees, whereas the sum we arrive at for Contiki’s nine day tour of Brazil and Argentina doesn’t cover your souviner shopping, any emergency supplies (medicines, clothing) or most of your food.

It’s a bit of a no brainer really in terms of funds. But of course, if we were solely concerned with money then these tour companies would never succeed. And they do.

Why should you take a tour?

You don’t have to sweat the small stuff

They take care of all your details. They figure out out how to get from A to B, what time you need to leave, where to buy your tickets, where to stay, what to see. They translate, they direct, they plan. They coordinate everything. If a detail goes astray, if something goes wrong, it’s something they will fix. If something isn’t running on time you wouldn’t know about it. You’ll be downstairs at the bar having an extra wine while your guide is frantically calling the bus company. In other words they do the legwork for you. You don’t need to worry about a thing except making sure you’ve got your wallet and your passport. Don’t know what to see or do in a city or how to do it? No problem, Contiki will whip up an itinerary for you. No idea what building you’re looking at? No problem, your tour guide will tell you and will answer any questions you may have about the city, where the nearest ATM might be, the best place to get a coffee and what souviner you should buy your mum.

It’s a strange city

I mean really strange. I’m not talking homeless people in NYC strange or rude waiters in Paris strange. I mean, for example, places where they don’t speak any English. At all. Or, somewhere that’s politically unstable. Somewhere that could be uncomfortable for a single or female traveller. Cities in Egypt spring to mind. Anywhere that could pose more difficulties traveling to independantly, it’s worth thinking about a tour.

You’re nervous

The more you travel the less nervous you become about going to a new destination. But you have to walk before you can run and joining a tour for your first trip abroad softens the blows of culture shock a little bit and ensures you’re in a safe comfortable environment the majority of the time.

You don’t want to be on your own

Probably the best thing about joining a tour is the fact you’re guaranteed to meet people. Unlike when you travel alone and you can sometimes go for days without meeting, or even talking to somebody for that matter, joining a group ensures you’re in the company of like-minded individuals who are usually just as keen to meet people as you are. Even if you don’t find anybody in the group who you’ll become BFFs with, just having company for meals or outings is a plus.

They’re usually pretty good value

Again, I can’t speak for most tour companies, but Contiki has always been good value, sometimes in accommodation alone. Once in Rome I had a gorgeous hotel suite to myself, complete with a four poster bed and ensuite. I have no idea how I managed to snag that while the rest of my comrades slept in twin rooms, but I’m positive the nightly rate of that room cost more than my net worth.

Besides that, Contiki always surprised me with little extras. Yes, technically, you’ve paid for those extras. But it was always nice to learn that they’ve booked you tickets for a broadway show (in London we saw Chicago), or your included dinner that night is on a canal boat tour (Amsterdam.)

Which brings me to my next point…

You’ll probably do stuff you wouldn’t have done alone

There is no way I would have booked, planned, thought to do or attempted the following on my own -

A hot air balloon ride at sunrise (Pheonix)
A sex show (Amsterdam)
A helicopter ride of the Hudson (New York City)
A wedding at a Little White Chapel (Las Vegas)
Jumping off boats into the Med (Greek Islands)
A bike ride in peak traffic (Paris)
Disneyland without friends or a small child (Los Angeles)
A day trip to Venice Beach or Santa Monica (Los Angeles)
A baseball game (Pheonix)

Just to name but a few.

So, all good reasons right? Despite them, here are some reasons why I won’t take tours anymore-

Why should I go alone?

I don’t like feeling like cattle

After a few days on an organised tour you start to feel like livestock. Walk here, slowly, to the left. Stop. Everybody here? Okay, on the bus. One hour here. Another hour there. Don’t be late. Pee now, eat later. Buy stuff from here. Anybody recognise this? It’s the sound of a very good tour guide who has been programmed to control 85% of your day. It starts to wear a bit thin after awhile. Worst of all is the looks you inevitably get when you’re part of a big group. Shudder.

You won’t always like your comrades

Fifty people on a bus and you’re bound to run into problems eventually. While I’ve never partaken in any kind of girly people drama that some people like to involve themselves in, a group of fifty people, particularly when they start drinking, can sometimes be problematic. Every single tour I’ve done I’ve always met one amazing friend who I still talk to today (Renee, Fi and Kristy). And I’ve also 49 people whom I don’t care to speak to again. It happens sometimes. Invariably you may also find your tour is filled with couples who are just not interested in meeting new people.

It can be exhausting

I’m a pretty lazy traveller. I get up late, I spend way too long lazing over lunch. I walk slow. I photograph slow. I tend to get distracted by shopping centres and parks. And puppies. On an organised tour there is no room for slow pokes. You will be up early and out late. Your day will be crammed with activities. For some of you, this might be an ideal scenario. For most of us I suspect, particularly if you are travelling for long periods of time, it’s nice to have a sleep in or take a day off.

There’s no room for spontaneity

Say you get your sea legs and you want to venture out on your own- spend an extra day or two here. Speed through there. Try a different restaurant, walk down a different street. Get a bit lost. There isn’t too much room for individual manouvering on a group tour.

You won’t learn as much

I’m sure there are lots of people who would probably disagree with me on this point, but I’m going to throw it out there. Your biggest lessons, your triumphs, your disappointments, they only ever come from something, somewhere you’ve been and done on your own. There’s not a hell of a lot you’re going to learn on a company crafted schedule. You’re not forced to learn any new phrases, or meet new people. You won’t get lost and found again. You wont know how hard it is and how easy it is to be on your own in a strange city. You won’t be forced to bend or adapt. And of course no, if you can avoid having to bend or adapt, why wouldn’t you? But then, why did you decide to travel in the first place?

Do you prefer group tours or venturing out on your own? Can you recomend a particular tour company other than Contiki?

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