As you might have guessed, I’m a strong proponent of independent travel. Yep, that’s where the “indie” in “Indie Travel Podcast” comes from. But travelling independently isn’t for everyone. In this article, I want to discuss the pros and cons of going it alone versus going with an organisation.
That said, independent travel doesn’t have to be done alone. Craig and I travel independently all the time, but rarely go solo. In this sense, independent travel really means organising all aspects of your trip yourself, rather than choosing an all-inclusive package or letting the travel agent sort it all out for you. I wouldn’t include a cruise, a Contiki trip or most volunteering holidays as independent travel, but neither would I relegate these experiences to the realms of wasted time. In fact, one of these packages might be exactly what you need in a vacation. So how do you choose how to travel?
First, consider travelling independently. There are a multitude of benefits to travelling on your own bat, which can be summarised as follows: you get a more genuine experience and it costs you a lot less.
Most tour companies charge you an umbrella price for a variety of services, and you rarely know the individual charges for each aspect of your trip. This makes it easier for them to inflate the prices of each item, or just to add a large percentage on to the real cost. And fair enough really, that’s where they make their money. But if you travel by local bus instead of by flash air-conditioned coach, you’re not only probably paying one-tenth of the price you would on a tour, but you’re travelling the way the locals travel, giving you an experience of daily life wherever you are. However, while you won’t have to wait while Mrs Beasley finishes her cup of tea in a rest stop, you might get caught trying to catch a bus that’s finished its round for the day or doesn’t run on Sundays. It’s happened to me, it’ll happen to you – we got out of it by sticking out our thumbs (though I’m not usually a supporter of this form of transport), which was a great way to meet a couple of cool locals.
Travelling independently allows you to call the shots. You can change your plans at the last minute, stay longer somewhere you like or get out of somewhere you don’t quickly. You can see the places you want to see and avoid the tourist traps that many tour companies corral you into. You can find your own restaurant for dinner and discover niches not mentioned anywhere in any guidebook. But perhaps best of all, you never feel like a sheep.
However, there are a lot of situations where choosing an organised tour is a better option than travelling independently:
1. You’re short on time.
You’ve got one week in Europe and you want to see the Colosseum, the Eiffel tower, the Berlin wall and the Tower of London. Since these are all quite major attractions, you might be able to find a tour that would accommodate you, and you’d have to do very little preparation.
2. You feel a bit unsafe in the area you’re travelling in.
Quite a lot of paid-up indie travellers choose a tour when they are going somewhere where they feel a little unsafe. Solo women travellers especially might book a tour when going somewhere like Morocco or Saudi Arabia, but shun a tour in France or Australia.
3. You’re going to be travelling somewhere for a while and want to get a handle on it.
If you are completely unfamiliar with a region, starting a longer trip with a short organised tour to see the main sights might be worth considering. Your guide could give you some tips about local life to ease you gently into the culture.
4. You want the experience of travelling with a group of like-minded people.
There are tours for all sorts of people out there, and if you want to meet some people like you, a tour aimed at your demographic could be just what you’re after. This could be as vague as “young people” or as specific as “Shakespeare enthusiasts” or “professional singles aged between 25-30.” You usually travel with the same people for the duration of your trip, so it’s great for shared experiences. Can be difficult if there’s someone you don’t like much though!
5. It’s ridiculously difficult to get around!
Probably my favourite reason for choosing a tour. Some places are just impossible to travel in – the bus schedules are erratic or non-existent, there are no hostels and you don’t know a word of the language. If you can find a tour to take you around a place like this, you might be on to a winner.
Remember, it’s your trip. Choose the best option for you, whether that’s an organised tour, or off-the-cuff independent travel. Whatever you do, spend a bit of time looking into the options available, and be prepared to use different strategies for different destinations. Travel well!
This article was originally published in June, 2008.