When I first started travelling, I was staunchly against tours. Firstly because of the cost — most tours seemed overpriced — and secondly because I wanted to do things as independently as possible. But I overcame my prejudice enough to jump on a few tours, and I’ve realised that sometimes a tour is exactly the right thing to do.
Day tours can be a great addition to an otherwise completely independent trip. You organise your transport and accommodation, but a guide shows you around your destination. We like to do a walking tour as soon as possible after we arrive in a city, because it’s a way to get our heads around the city layout while also learning a bit about the history, culture and attractions.
Plus, these days you have a wide range of options to choose from, and you’ll probably be able to find a tour that suits your interests. If you’re a history buff, you can do a tour that focuses on the history of your destination; if you love to eat, food tours are becoming more and more popular. Urban Adventures offers some great evening tours that introduce visitors to local snacks, like the Lisbon Sunset, Fado and Dinner tour or the Cicchetti of Venice trip.
A day tour that takes you to attractions outside the city is also worth considering if you don’t have your own transport. We did a tour to the Twelve Apostles near Melbourne, Australia — since we didn’t have a car it would have been difficult to get there ourselves, and the tour included added extras like a billy tea stop and commentary.
Some of these tours are also great value if you’re travelling alone — while a group of four can hire a car to go wine tasting, a tour might make better financial sense if you’re by yourself.
Two to five days
Even if you’re staunchly independent, a short overnight trip is worth considering if it’s difficult or expensive to visit the destination by yourself.
For example, Adventure Tours Australia offer a tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs, passing through Coober Pedy and stopping at Uluru. If you want to do this trip by yourself, you pretty much need to fit out a 4×4 with a lot of equipment, as driving through the outback is a dangerous enterprise if you’re not experienced.
Similarly, Kangaroo Island in South Australia is easy to get to and around if you have your own vehicle, but almost impossible if you don’t. However, Surf and Sun’s overnight trip transports you from Adelaide, takes you to most of the major sights and several of the lesser ones, and gives you the chance to sleep in a swag if you’re so inclined. It’s similar in price to organising it all yourself, but you see more and don’t have to do all the work.
Longer tours aren’t often aimed at the independent travel market, and the daily cost is usually quite a lot more expensive than what you’d pay if you organised it all yourself — you have to decide if this markup is worth it for you. If you’re extremely busy and don’t want to do trip planning, if you’re unsure your destination and want security, or if you’re travelling by yourself and want to be with other travellers, then a longer tour could be a suitable choice for you. If you’d really prefer to be independent, though, you could do a shorter tour (3-7 days) at the beginning of your trip, then go off on your own.
Many companies offer bare-bones tours that cater to independent travellers: you pay for transport, accommodation, and a guide, but everything else is extra. Intrepid’s Basix range is an example of this kind of trip.
A hop-on, hop-off bus tour like those offered by Stray is another example of a bare-bones trip. You pay for transport only, which saves you the hassle of constantly researching and booking bus and train trips, and you can choose your route based on which attractions you want to visit — and the company will probably have worked very hard to create routes that visit all the most popular sights in a destination. Your driver or guide might even organise accommodation for you, but you’ll usually have to pay for it separately.
Do your research, though
While tours are often a great choice, it’s always worth doing a little bit of research to make sure you’re getting value for money.
Sometimes “tours” consist of not much more than transport to the tourist attraction, and public transport would serve just as well. When we were living in Malta, we booked a trip to Greece that included flights and accommodation, activities had to be booked separately. The activities were obviously where the company made their money: one “shopping day,” which cost €50, consisted of nothing more than transport to and from a shopping centre: €0.50 each way on public bus.
Similarly, in Krakow, a wealth of tour operators will take you to and from Auschwitz in time to arrive for a tour in English, but you can get there a lot more cheaply by public bus. (By the way, definitely join one of the guided tours of Auschwitz; you can enter for free without a guide, but if you do just one guided tour on your trip, this should be it.)
It’s worth spending five minutes checking tour inclusions and alternatives before booking, so you know what you’re paying for!
Your research could also include finding out about the tour company and making sure that some of its profits are staying in your destination. If not, keep looking. As a general rule try to use local rather than global companies; however, many global companies work with local partners — which means that local businesses are making money and you don’t have to find a local operator in every one of your destinations.
Note: this article was originally published in 2013, but was updated in 2017 with new photos and links. Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means we get a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking them. We love it when you do that. 🙂