Updated 4 August 2017 — 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.
I was recently invited 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 guided travel tours? After all, how can I judge something I don't know?
So I decided to investigate. I read what I could, and I talked to women who love tours and women who dislike them intensely.
What I found surprised me.
Many traveling women seem to enjoy organized tours so I asked a few of them why - and they had good reasons.
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.
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. Pick a tour and Search online for any reviews or comments about that tour.
Consider these factors before you book:
Five tour types are, in my opinion, the exception. I could easily take them and not experience most of the disadvantages of package tours.
These include food walking tours, private organised tours, day tours, solo or single tours and all-women tours.
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 have 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.
My first experience 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 me 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 I tried 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, I had not one but two escorts, a driver and a guide, Mohammed and Mohammed, whom I eventually dubbed 1 and 2 after a couple of days of jovial confusion. We divided our time between a 4WD and regular camel rides and explored mountains and deserts.
The vehicle and flexibility 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. The language issue was taken care of by our guide and I felt perfectly safe spending the night in several desert camps.
The third was a week in Sri Lanka, when I toured the country prior to spending 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. CBT 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 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. In most countries, I was able to hire my private tour for around US$100-150 per day.
I'm often in a city for a day or two at most, with little time to orient myself. If I know long enough ahead of time, I can do plenty of research and get myself organized to see as much as possible. But sometimes, that's simply not possible and that's when I decide a tour for a day or even half a day would at least show me the highlights. I use Get Your Guide, which represents local guides and outfits in most countries and sells things like city day passes and hop-on hop-off bus tickets - everything I need when I'm only in town for a day.
You may have even less time, but you can still get to see the sights. If you happen to be connecting to another flight with a long layover, these airports offer city tours which are organized to get you back to the airport on time for your flight.
Now I'm moving out of my comfort zone because I've never tried one of these, but I'm told that while they are organized, they tend to be different from the larger package tours.
Solo or singles tours tend to be smaller, often limited to a dozen or so people, which makes them far more flexible than massive groups. Also, since they're made up of individual travelers, chances are you'll find greater compatibility since everyone is in the same situation. I will definitely have to try one of these so I can talk about it in greater depth.
Again, this isn't something I've ever tried but like the solo tour, these groups tend to be smaller and compatibility far greater, which eliminates some of the bigger problems you face on organized tours.
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 slow travel or solo travel, but I'm no longer dead-set 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.