Travel

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.

Travel

The problem with counting countries

‘Globetrotter. 28 countries’ ‘Travelling the world. 36 countries’.

It’s the Instagram age and more and more people are showing off how well-travelled they are not just by sharing experiences, but listing the numbers of countries they have been to on their social profiles.

I get the temptation. Travelling is such a perspective-changing experience it can be hard to not show off sometimes. I’ve definitely been guilty of dropping in conversations ‘Oh this time in Botswana’… or ‘exactly the same thing happened to me in Peru!’

But in my view counting countries is a really flawed approach to sharing your travel experience.

Listing the number of countries you have been to on your instagram profile is the new norm.

It’s superficial

It emphasises the quantity of countries you have been to rather than the quality of your experiences there. To add another notch on the list all you have to have done is been in that country. Technically I’ve been to Dubai, but since I’ve never left the airport, I don’t feel I can claim I have travelled there. But a lot of people who ‘count countries’ would do so and use that growing number to assert some sort of superiority about how well-travelled they are.

I have been to Zambia for a day. I spent three months in Nicaragua. The depth of my understanding of Nicaragua is therefore much greater than that of Zambia, but in the country counting model, they equate to the same difference.

Can you ever really have ‘done’ a country?

Another phrase I find frustrating is ‘oh yeah I’ve done [Mexico, for example]’. Most people who say this have been there max two weeks. What does it mean to have ‘done’ a place? Is that even possible? It comes across extremely arrogant.

On a different angle, I have friends who may not have been to as many different countries as I have, but have moved their lives full time to living in a different country, continent, or culture. The richness of their experience of those places is far superior to the two weeks I might spend somewhere. It means having friends, relationships, neighbours there, and forcing yourself to integrate somewhere completely new. I have a much greater respect of that sort of effort to change your life experience of the world.

It discourages returning to somewhere you’ve been

This approach also discourages going back to places that you have been before and loved. When this competitiveness takes over and the goal is to just keep adding to your list, you might miss out on developing a long term love of one place because it’s already ‘done’. It may be less of a priority than the plan to reach ’30 by 30′.

India was the first place I travelled to outside of Europe. It blew my mind, but in the three weeks I spent there I knew I barely scratched the surface. Travelling in a tour, I hadn’t got to know many local people. And while I saw more amazing sights than I thought possible in that time, in Rajasthan I’d only seen one corner of a vast and extremely varied country.

 I went back a few years later to Kerala- the opposite side- and had a completely different experience of culture, food, religion, environment. Better yet, through an invite to a friend’s wedding it was possible to make friends there, go shopping in local places I’d never otherwise have known about, eat home-made cooking, and be treated as one of the family- and the connection I have with India has become more special because of that. And yet still with five weeks down, I know there is much, much more to see in India that’s probably ever possible in a lifetime, and I’ll keep going back.


Returning to India to see a different part of the country with local friends gave me a different perspective and different understanding of it as a place.

It encourages an unsustainable approach to travel

Country-hopping as much as possible means more flights, less engagement with local communities, and less authentic connections with what makes that place different to anywhere you have been before.

In my view slow travel is the ultimate form of travel, if you have the time to be able to do so. Spending longer in each destination means that you really get to know a place. Travelling with locals on busses, boats, and trains, gives you a real sense of what it’s like to live there. And it’s considerably less damaging to the environment.

I get that for shorter trips and when you’re tied into a work contract, sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you’re doing lots of shorter trips for the numbers you’re just not going to have the same depth of experience, and you’ll leave a hefty carbon footprint to boot.

Slow travelling with locals helps to reduce your carbon footprint

It contributes to elitism

Travellers are generally great: interesting (and interested), open minded, adventurous types that I love to meet, make friends, and explore with. However, there’s definitely an elitism that arises when you get into conversations in groups of travellers. ‘You haven’t travelled until you’ve been to [X place]!’, or ‘Aww, this is your first time out of Europe/the States?’

Who really cares how many places you have been? It’s the stories that matter. It’s how you engaged.

While budget travel is definitely possible, and the reality for most travellers, there’s no doubt that the majority of those who have clocked up 30+ countries have had to be pretty privileged to be able to do so. Whether it’s being able to take that amount of time off work or just being wealthy enough to afford to take multiple holidays a year, this is not normal and not the reality for the vast majority of people.

Travel should be inclusive.

 I am passionate about travel because of the degree to which it can open up your world and give you new perspectives. But for many travel is only going to be possible in their own backyard, or neighbouring country. That does not mean that those travellers are less valid. Travel should not just be a rich kid’s game.

Unfortunately Instagram makes it seem that way. By making it seem that you are not a real traveller unless you’re constantly able to be on the go, with 37 countries under your belt, staying in luxury pads and snapping shots with equipment worth thousands of dollars, it may discourage people who have been less able to travel from even trying.

There’s a better way to inspire others

I can understand the desire to run a tally in your own head, (for all I’ve said I know how many countries I’ve been to and have been pleased to know it’s grown in the last few years). It might be exciting to make a personal goal to visit 30 countries before you’re 30. But what I don’t get is why anyone else needs to know.

Obviously people who share their travels for a living want to show they know their stuff. But will knowing your ‘numbers’ make your followers want to travel more? Or just feel inexperienced? Or inadequate if they are never going to be able to manage that?

The travel community is a wonderful space full of [wanderful] people. If as travellers, bloggers, instagrammers, or whatever we might be, want to inspire more people to go over borders and expand their horizons, there’s a better way. It should be about the stories we can tell, the photographs, the sharing of how it is possible for those who don’t have a huge wad of cash to fall back on. We need to stop counting and go back to basics, focus on why we started travelling in the first place. And share the joy, not the smugness.