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The Pros and Cons of Organized Tours 
Love 'em or hate them? Many women swear by them

As an independent traveler I have tended to steer clear of organized tours - think early departures, delayed by Susie's last-minute packing (not to mention the tiny bottles she swiped from the plane and has been sipping since Sunday)... No thanks, I'd rather go it alone or with a chosen travel partner or two.

Tour groups in ChinaThere's a lot to be said for going it alone

Recently someone asked me to go on an organized tour. I said No because of a scheduling conflict but in truth, I was relieved. The thought of cramming myself into a bus with a bunch of people I didn't know was scary.

But it got me thinking: why the reticence? Have I been shortchanging the guided tour? After all, how can I judge something I don't know? 

So I decided to investigate, and what I found surprised me.

Discovery #1: there are many kinds of organized tours, two of which I tried - and liked.

One is the culinary walking tour.

In a food tour a small group of people, usually under a dozen, walk from place to place meeting local chefs, discovering new foods and learning local history. The group dynamic can be fun as tastes and scents are shared and the guide, often a local expert, shares his or her love for the neighborhood and its culinary delights.

On a visit to New York I tried the Tenement Museum's Lower East Side Food Tour and traveled from Italy to China to Russia and beyond in a few delicious bites. In Istanbul, I experienced the Two Markets Two Continents tour with Istanbul Culinary Walks and ate my way from Europe to Asia and back.

Both tours were fun and I never felt that 'herding' feeling so common when a group of people who don't know one another travel together with a guide.

On the contrary, we were all brought together by our love of food and no one complained about the walking, about the weather, about the guide or about anything else. We knew why we were there and that is often part of the secret: if you share a passion, it's fun to share it with others. But if you're just there for the ride, your and others' boredom will likely show through.

organized toursPart of my multi-stop Istanbul food tour

The other kind of tour I like is the private guided tour.

I've now taken four of these, organized by travel agencies but customized according to my personal tastes. On two occasions there were two of us, myself and Anne Sterck, who takes many of the brilliant photos for Women on the Road so two women. The other two times I was on my own.

The first of these was a ten-day road trip through Albania, organized by Albaniantrip and its hugely resourceful manager Elton Caushi. For ten days a young public health professional, Genci Dervishi, drove us around his country. He was well-versed in recent history, with a strong understanding of its developmental challenges, exactly what I was looking for (and of course I made it to all the traditional tourist sites as well). Albanian isn't an easy language to understand and having Genci along to translate made all the difference in being able to meet local people.

The second private guided tour was a one-week 2000km loop around South Morocco, carefully built by Desert Majesty Tours and its charming manager, Felicity Greenlaw-Weber. In this case, we spent our time in a 4WD and on camelback exploring mountains and deserts in the company of our trusty driver and guide, Mohammed and Mohammed, whom I eventually dubbed 1 and 2 after a couple of days of jovial confusion.

The vehicle made it possible for us to travel on rough tracks across desert areas and into the interior, where we met modern-day nomads who live in caves rather than tents. Our camel driver was trustworthy, chosen by our guide, and we felt safe spending a night in his desert camp despite our lack of a common language. 

The third was a week in Sri Lanka I spent on my own last year prior to three weeks at an ayurvedic clinic. I found the driver almost accidentally but this was one of those cases in which the agency got it all wrong - but the driver salvaged the situation. The agency was a fly-by-night outfit located in the Colombo train station with a very official-looking "I" - like the ones used by Information or Tourism Offices worldwide. The tour was utterly cookie-cutter but my driver so flexible he understood immediately what I was looking for and made all the necessary arrangements.

The fourth was in Kyrgyzstan, with CBT, or Community Based Tourism. It is a collection of local service providers - who provide overnight stays, meals, courses or glimpses into the culture. A good portion of the money you pay goes to them directly, in other words, straight into the local economy. I have nothing but praise for them, especially given the difficult terrain and language difficulties. They offered me a menu of activities based on my preferences - culture, food, big huge vistas... and I chose various activities I was keen to try (like building a yurt, for example).

This type of private or customized travel isn't reserved for the wealthy, by the way, particularly in countries a little further off the tourist path. It does offer a level of freedom and flexibility I wouldn't have found in a traditional group tour.

Moroccan organized toursSometimes having a guide allows you to see things you wouldn't otherwise see - like goats in argan trees in Morocco

Discovery #2: there are definitely advantages to organized travel.

Many traveling women seem to enjoy organized tours so I asked a few of them - they had good reasons.

  • You don't have to lift a finger. Someone else will do it for you - booking the hotels, restaurants, transport from the airport and between cities, everything but the tips. You've just got to show up.
  • Everything is planned (even predictable). You'll have a schedule and an itinerary, which means you'll be able to plan around it, in case you want to try a famous restaurant, or see some friends, for example.
  • Your questions will be answered. Most organized tours have guides so you'll be able to ask about this unusual headress or that traditional building. Often, guides are experts in some aspect of your destination, and may know out-of-the-way gems you would never have found on your own.
  • You'll have instant travel companions, in case you're not in the mood or ready to be on your own (although reading through this section on solo travel might help)
  • Someone else will take care of the 'language issue' for you, if you're not a linguist.
  • Things can often be cheaper: travel agencies and outfitters buy in bulk and can pass on those savings to their customers.
  • You'll see more, and that's a fact. With things organized for you, you won't waste valuable travel time searching for a room, getting lost, or figuring out public transport.
  • There's safety in numbers, and even if you do run into a little trouble, your guide will make sure you're well taken care of. In some parts of the world, being a female traveler means you'll hardly get to see anything because the culture won't allow it; a tour will help you get around some of these constraints.
  • No decisions. If you have a high-powered or stressful job, you might welcome having everything taken care of for you for a few days or weeks.
  • In some countries, an organized tour might be the only way to get to your destination, short of chartering a boat or other unlikely event.
  • And if you're a novice traveler, a group may make you feel less anxious about stepping out into a new country.
organized toursI only had a week in Sri Lanka and having a guide made all the difference - I couldn't have seen half what I did otherwise

Discovery #3: that said, some of my preconceptions were also confirmed.

It's not all rosy and plenty can go wrong when you're in a group, rubbing elbows with people you've never seen before.

  • You may have to spend time with people you don't like. Or who don't like you. What if you have nothing in common - they drink late into the night and you're out jogging by 6am even on holiday? 
  • Your punctualities may not match. What if they delay the bus with their shopping while you're excruciatingly on time, seated five minutes ahead of schedule?
  • You can feel a bit rushed as you're whisked from A to B to C with no time to sit and soak in a locale. This type of travel can become superficial.
  • If the tour is too large your visiting time will be reduced by things like gathering everyone on time, getting on the bus, getting off the bus...
  • Your tour guide might not be as good as she should be - you might have been better off just reading your guidebook.
  • You're stuck with your itinerary. You might want to go to a museum at the time a major walk is scheduled but there may be little flexibility built into the schedule.
  • You're stuck (and this is a big one for me) with the food. Although some groups will cater to your food choices, alternatives might not be satisfactory. And after the fifth 'typical' dish you might be desperately wishing for a pizza!
  • You might feel cheated if there are activities you don't enjoy, a bit like I feel when I eat a meal with friends who drink (I don't) and the bill is split equally.
  • You may be visiting too many shops and not enough real sights.
  • Tours can be tiring; sometimes agencies cram them with every possible destination to make sure you get your money's worth.
  • Your chances of meeting local people are small, as you'll be gazing at them through a window or rushing past them to keep up with the guide.
organized toursHere I am in northern Senegal whipping by on the bus trying to grab a snapshot - very unsatisfying

Discovery #4: it's all about how well you choose.

It's the most boring piece of advice but... do your homework! If you have a recommendation from friends, that's great, you'll be choosing with your eyes open. But if you have no references, your research will be that much more important.

Consider these factors before you book:

  • Size: the smaller the group the more intimate and personal the experience - but the larger the group the bigger the party.
  • Accommodation: quality, and variety - are you in a boring chain hotel every night, or do you alternate between B&B, unusual treehouse hotels and camps, for example?
  • Food flexibility, especially important if you have allergies or food constraints.
  • Cost: of course, you want the most for your investment. But are there any hidden costs? Airport taxes? Extra meals? How much are tips? Drinks? Optional excursions? And the dreaded single supplement? This is where you need to read the fine print.
  • The wow factor, that little extra you can't define but you'll feel it when you find the right agency.
  • Travel time: if you spend all day driving and two hours at a destination, that's not travel - it's transport.
  • Guides: their training, and whether additional local guides - who may know the destination intimately - are included. 
  • Activities: are you just seeing or using more of your senses? Going to a performance? Taking a cooking class? Visiting a perfume factory? 
  • Physical activities: check this, because if you're a slow walker you won't appreciate a highly physical tour, and vice-versa.
  • Compatibility: what is the average age? If it's a 20-year-old party crowd and you're 60, a week or two might be way too long. What are typical customers like? If they match your demographic, you'll have a better chance at compatibility.
  • Shopping: make sure your tour isn't a disguised shopping expedition. You don't need to stop at shops with a tour: that's what 'free time' is for.
  • Speaking of which, make sure there is some free time built into your tour or you'll be exhausted by the end of the day.
  • What is included: there's no point in saving money by going for the cheapest tour only to find out no meals are included. Compare like with like.

Discovery #5: Never judge a book by its cover.

For years I railed against organized tours without knowing enough about them and just agreeing with what I heard. I've changed my mind - at least on certain types of tours, like walking or private or small group tours. I still love to travel on my own, but I'm no longer against group travel - if it's small.

In fact next time someone asks, I won't 'automatically' be busy and if I'm free I'll give it a try. But that said, I'm still a proponent of slow travel, given a chance...