When is booking a tour worth the splurge over doing-it-yourself?
Although I’m mostly a do-it-yourself traveler, over the years I’ve found many excellent reasons to book a tour in order to create a more unique, personal, fun and memorable trip. I’ve taking anything from an “11 European countries in 21 days” tour, to one day tours, activity tours and of course food tours.
If saving time and traveling deeper is important to you, consider some of the following options:
I don’t hate on tours
There’s a tendency for independent travelers to think tours are only for the wealthy or the “vacationers”. You might think those, who book tours are unimaginative or don’t value an authentic experience. This is simply not the case. Taking tours has several advantages and prices can range from expensive to free… yes, free. They are especially helpful for solo travelers, who want to alleviate some of the weight of trip planning and minimize their getting lost time. They can also add to a more brag-worthy and interesting trip!
A do-it-yourself trip doesn’t always mean cheaper expenses or experiencing more authenticity. In some cases, it can be cheaper to take a tour vs planning it on your own and going local does no good if you don’t understand it, it’s unguided or you can’t translate it. The latter, I can attest, is very frustrating, especially when I want to understand foodie cultures and what I’m seeing of temples or religious rituals.
Reasons travelers should splurge on a tour
- Easy navigation
- Easy and quick access to difficult or tricky locations
- Local insight into the culture
- You have someone to answer your questions
- Safety and safe experiences
- You can indulge in personalized experiences
- Learn a new hobby, skill or activity.
- Minimize the stress of getting lost
- Minimize the stress of planning a day’s itinerary and transportation
- Experience more in a shorter time
- Create a more interesting trip itinerary
8 Reasons to book a tour
1. Full package tours
Full package tours are all-inclusive from hotels, transportation, food and activities. They cover a large sample platter of the country or city in a compact amount of time. Package tours offer both, tour and local guides to give you an insightful understanding of a place. The tour guides assist you with any travel upsets you encounter from lost baggage to getting sick and they make sure the group is all accounted for. Local guides are your local experts in the city.
Drawbacks: Package tours stick to a tight schedule so your time at a place can be limited. Itineraries also slide in occasional commission shopping. Some travelers like shopping for souvenirs, other don’t . At the end of the tour, you’ll have to assess a tip for both, your tour guide and local guide for the amount of days you’ve been with them.
Tip: Book your tour in the country versus online. Online sellers are merely a middleman reselling a local tour. Also, don’t assume all package tours are expensive. In some countries like Vietnam, booking a tour is actually cheaper than doing it yourself.
2. Day Tours
Full/ Half Day tours: Day tours range anywhere from half day to full day.They allow you to see city highlights in a compressed amount of time. The drawbacks are that they stick to a tight schedule and there’s no flexibility to spend a longer time at a location. Some tours are all-inclusive, offering a general sightseeing experience, occasionally fattened by a shopping excursion and a quick lunch. Some tour fees only cover the admission to the main landmark, while additional stopovers on the itinerary are your responsibility to pay for if you want to enter. Occasionally, you find tour gems, where the company offers a little more flair and a unique way to see the place.
I took a ‘Sex in the City’ film location tour in New York; it lasted 3-4 hours juggling us between bus, walking and shopping, while seeing the sites. They integrated a sex toy shop stopover (as their commission shop), highlighting the episode where Rachel introduces “The Rabbit”. There was my infamous speedboat tour of KoPhi Phi, which was one of the worst tours I’ve taken. But it got me out to hard-to-reach sights, included a great lunch and took me to snorkeling spots where I got bit by sea lice! Day tours can be a hit or miss. I find them either through travel agents on the street or via reputable search engines like Viator.
3. Free city walking tours
These days, I always do a Google search for “free city walking tours” .Some cities offer free walking tours, run by a volunteer organizations or the government tourism office. Remember my Kolkata Food Tour video? The foodie tour I took was a volunteer run walking food tour, based on donations.
4. Hire a guide
Hiring a guide is if you want insight, guidance and a flexible itinerary. Guides generally have their own itinerary but the experience is of a personal nature and you can tweak the amount of time you spend in a spot. Often, you find guides lingering around landmarks offering their services. Some you can find through a tourism office, tour agent or your hotel.
5. Specialty: Cultural and Activity Tours
Specialty tours are focused around themes like specialized skills, activities or interests. They can last anywhere from half day to several days. They give your trip itinerary added sparkle, adventure and cultural insight. They help you forge a personal and immersive bond with your destination and its culture, making it more memorable than just sightseeing.
There are many independent boutique companies which run their personal tours, mixing unique local experiences with sightseeing landmarks. …Like a cooking class that takes you shopping at a local produce market! Or hopping aboard a tuk tuk tour to see Bangkok at night. Foodies always appreciate a food tour to sample the city’s best (this was a fave tour of mine) .
If you’re looking for something sporty, there’s activity tours like caving, trekking, scuba diving. You can even get certified; for instance, I got my PADI scuba certification in Thailand and paid a fraction of the normal cost had I gotten certified in the U.S. Activity tours can last longer than a day and they’re mostly all-inclusive. I took a 3-4 day trekking tour in Sapa with an overnight homestay. Aside from booking through local agents, I recommend Viator as a reliable and trustworthy tour search engine (although being a third party vendor, they’re occasionally hit or miss too).
6. Hire a Driver and Car
When a country is large and cities or landmark sights are spread apart, but you want flexibility and the ability to control some of your experiences, hire a driver and a car. Sometimes drivers come with preset itineraries or you can tell them where you want to go. You’ll be booking them by the day or by a package if you go through a tour agency. Keep in mind, drivers are not always tour guides and you might get one who doesn’t speak your language. If an English speaking driver is important to you, you should request it with your agent.
7. Hop on, hop off tour buses
Hop on hop off buses take a circular route and you can hop on and hop off at whatever destinations you want, spending whatever time you need in a place. If you want to spend extra time in a certain area, you would just miss the schedule of the pick up bus. That takes a lot of stress and planning out-of-the-way. The prices will range depending upon what country you go to, what city you go to. I also would not rely on any bus headphones or on-board guides for in-depth information. Take your guide book with you. Fave hop on-hop off buses : Seoul, Delhi, Busan, Athens
8. My secret: Booking Point to point travel
I like to wing a lot of my travels, so the next tip is a big secret to how I plan my trips… booking point to point travel. There are pockets in a city, where travel agents are plentiful and your hotel or hostel has more booking power than you think. So when I’m winging my trips, I rely on tourism offices and travel agents to find me the best deal. Going through a travel agent is easier and speedier and usually, his/her commission is worth the loss of a stressful three hours researching on Google. Travel agents have knowledge of their city, activity tours and transportation timetables. I look to them to find me the times and dates i’m looking for.
Tip: Shop around for a travel agent you trust. I never take the first agent I see. I also rely on my hotel to direct me to the best travel agents or to help me book that point to point travel on my own. Booking point to point travel by using travel agents has helped me in many different cities, anywhere from Turkey, India, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar..