Last Updated on October 23, 2022 by Christine Kaaloa
When is booking a tour worth the splurge over doing it yourself?
If you’re a new solo traveler who feels uncomfortable and nervous about being in a new city, take a guided city highlights day tour (i.e. walking, city highlights, guided bus tour, food tour) at the beginning of your trip to get confident.
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 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 in this post.
READ Top 5 Challenges of Solo Travel which no one expects
Myth: Independent travelers experience more authentic and local culture vs guided tours.
There’s a tendency for independent travelers to think tours are only for wealthy “vacationers” or that guided tours are “touristy”. Some think that those, who book tours are incapable of independent travel, unimaginative or don’t value an authentic experience. This is simply not the case.
Going independent does not mean that you’re experiencing “local” in a deeper way than other travelers, especially if you walk away ignorant or misinformed of what you just experienced.
Independent travel is not a sign of being a true traveler nor will it guarantee you’ll experience cultural authenticity. It means that you’re doing a trip by yourself and you’ll need to rely on your independent means to get around and rely on the local culture as a resource for your travel understanding. Let me tell you– generating the latter part is not easy. Locals aren’t just going to invite you into their home or befriend you, unless you’re a famous YouTuber.
Additionally, there may be a language barrier that presents problems of misinterpretation or locals may give you a colored perspective on their lifestyle choices, which is not indicative of the overall society. Living in Korea, I got many one-sided perspectives from locals that turned out to be inaccurate. A guide on a tour is prepared to talk on the part of their countrymen and will try his/her best to give you an unfiltered truth of his overall country.
Myth 2: Tours are more expensive than independent travel.
Taking tours has advantages and prices can range from expensive to free. Yes, free. Keep reading…
Depending upon destination, taking a guided tour can be cheaper than planning and taking it on your own. When I traveled Vietnam, there were a wealth of budget day tours – some under $20- which offered a day tour, a meal and in come cases, a decent hotel stay!
This made it much more cost-effective to take tours because they were getting out to places that would’ve been much more time-consuming and costly to get to on my own by hiring a driver or even public transportation (yes, I calculated it and the tour had me coming out ahead!). It also trimmed my trip-planning time and stress. Sure, I was in a bus with other “tourists” and there was an obligatory stop at a local shop where they hope you buy something from a local craftsman; but this only offered a positive impact on the sustainability of a community.
READ: How to find good budget tours in Vietnam
Reasons to book a tour if you’re a solo traveler
Is solo travel easy? No. Solo travel has many challenges. But… I still love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
But as a woman traveling alone (and filming myself doing it), I know I have to find smart ways to minimize my challenges. So I like to mix and match tours with independent travel. Whether it’s a meh tour or one that gave me an experience of a lifetime, I always learn something new, try something different and gained invaluable information I wouldn’t have sourced on my own. I have never regretted a tour experience… even my worst one!
There are good advantages to day tours and it will enhance your first solo trip :
With a guided tour, you get a friendly introduction to the city along with stories from a local guide whom you can ask questions! After taking a day tour, you should’ve gotten a better perspective of how to tackle the city. Your city map is now better filled in with what buildings and neighborhoods look like up close.
2. Travel Confidence
Taking tours can build your confidence to try new things because you have a guide to educate you and to create safe experiences for you. How many times have you felt timid about trying the local cuisine or felt frustrated that you didn’t have a local friend to shed insight on a temple’s religious rituals?
If I take a food tour, then I know I can try new cuisine without worrying about getting sick from the food. One tour I took let us sample betel nut! This was huge on my bucket list because I had seen many cultures succumb to it and was always curious about its effects, but too chicken to buy one for myself. Food tours are a launching ground to experiencing local food confidently on your own!
With day tours, you get the highlights and touristy stuff out of the way so you do not feel like you’re missing out (cause you might because missing out). After the tour, you’ve not got more freedom for you to enjoy the city and your own interests at your leisure.
4. Easy & Stress-free travel
Tours are especially helpful for solo travelers, who want to alleviate some of the weight of trip planning and minimize the stress of planning a day’s itinerary, transportation and getting lost. Tours offer easy and quick access to difficult-to-reach or tricky locations and you minimize the stress of getting lost.
Making friends. On tours, you have the opportunity to meet other travelers, make friends and have company in your activities. There have only been a couple of tours where I’ve not made friends or chat with the people on the tour, typically because the other travelers were closed off.
- Local recommendations:
A guide will give you local and historical insight which can increase your quality of experience. He can also give you city tips and recommendations to enhance your trip.
- Help to take your selfie photos.
You can ask your guide or the people on your tour for help taking your selfies. An arms reach with your mobile phone can only fit in limited views of larger landscapes.
- Enhanced Trip Quality
Tours are for the traveler who wants to gain insight and knowledge about local culture. Tours aid cultural appreciation and deepen your local understanding of a destination. You gain a more informed experience of the city, which means you’re not *guessing* at what culture is about! Why do they drink tea with this weird cup? Why are there no trash cans in public areas? How do churches/temples conduct their prayers and why do devotees clap three times?
I used to misinterpret rituals and local interests a lot as a solo traveler and it really wasn’t fun or enlightening for me to walk away from a culture with curiosities that never got answers. A city tour will satiate your curiosity.
9. Time efficiency
You can experience *more* in a shorter time. Tour itineraries are planned to get you the maximum attractions in the minimum amount of time and dollars.
10. Solo. Travel Safety and safe experiences
Other reasons to book a tour :
- Local insight into the culture & you have someone to answer your questions
- You can indulge in personalized experiences
- Learn a new hobby, skill or activity.
- Create a more interesting trip itinerary
Read 14 Ways to Enjoy your Nights Alone
8 Types of Tours Travelers Take
The beauty of taking tours is that you get local help and guidance in your experience. And there are a variety of options you can choose to tailor the experiences you want. Knowing your available resources will help enrich your solo trip planning.
1. Full package tours
Full package tours take you through a country or many countries. They are all-inclusive from hotels, transportation, food and activities. They cover a large sample platter of the city/country’s highlights in a compact schedule. You will hit all the popular tourist attractions and your food experiences will be safe. Best of all, you get a tour and local guide, who assist with any travel upsets from lost baggage to getting sick to interpreting the culture. Drawbacks: Package tours are a one-size fits all tour experience. There are tight schedules, and minimal freedom and itineraries may slide in commission shopping experiences. You will feel a little like cattle, impersonally shuffled around and often you’ll be visiting landmarks at the same time as other tours, which you’ll be head-butting with the tourist crowds. At the end of the tour, you’ll have to assess a tip for both, your tour guide and local guide for the number of days you’ve been with them.
Travel Style: This is for the traveler that doesn’t want to deal with research and trip planning, booking arrangements or dealing with the stress of travel. You just want to enjoy the destination and narrow the possibility of bad experiences.
The following recommended tour operators focus on responsible tourism tours:
Tip: Do not assume all package tours are expensive. In some countries like Vietnam, shopping for and booking a tour locally is actually cheaper than doing it yourself or going through a concierge.
2. Day Tours
Day tours are similar to full package tours but on a city level. They range anywhere from half day to full day, allowing you to see a city’s most popular tourist attractions in a compressed time. Day tours are mostly all-inclusive (excluding lunch/dinner), exposing you to a city’s highlights. Some tour fees only cover admission to main landmarks on the itinerary, while additional stopovers or activities are your responsibility to pay for if you want. I love taking day tours for a quick city overview, freeing my time to explore specific parts of the city later on my own. Some of my tours are sponsored due to my blogging work like my ‘Sex in the City’ film location tour or occasional walking/food tours in cities like New York, Taipei, Bangkok. Some tours have taken a unique and exciting boutique slant, such as a Bangkok night tuk-tuk tour with street food experiences and sightseeing.
Day tours I really love are the ones that cover the popular hard-to-reach sights. They are very worthwhile, chopping a potential three-day D.I.Y. itinerary (and the stress of planning it) down to one day! For instance, I took a speedboat tour of KoPhi Phi –it was one of the unsafe tours I’ve taken, but it skirt me off to different islands, so while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it for all travelers, I don’t regret it.
Travel Style: Similar to travelers of full package tours, you want an overview of a city and to be able to enjoy it without the stress and work of research and planning public transportation/taxis/drivers. You want to utilize your time to see a city vs get lost in it.
How I book day tours: Depending upon the country, I may find tours when I’m in the city through travel agents on the street. But these days I’ve gotten to book some of them online through reputable search engines like GetyourGuide or Klook which cull budget tour options.
3. Free city/ walking tours
Some cities offer free walking tours, run by volunteer organizations, goodwill guides or a government tourism office. You just have to know to look. Most free city walking tours have a set itinerary, last 2-3 hours and operate if there are enough travelers to make a tour. Some allow you to show up; but many require you to confirm your dates of interest.
Goodwill guides or volunteer tours- mostly students and retirees- show you around but do not have a set itinerary (my family took one in Seoul). They can create an excursion or make recommendations based on your interests but do not expect them to plan your entire trip itinerary. You pay for their transportation, admission into sights and food, but you have an inexpensive local guide to show you around! Goodwill guides are not available at the last minute- you need to book them in advance so the organization can find match a guide with your interest.
Are these free city tours really free? Yes and no. Free city tours are cheaper than budget tours, but most volunteer guides operate on tips and this is not a bad exchange. All locals who give their time and local insight are offering an invaluable opportunity at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in a commercial tour. Remember to tip well!
How much should you tip: An average half-day tour ballparks are around $60-80, so I tip around $5-20, based upon the time, how much I am shown. If it was a personal guide I certainly tip more than I do a group tour with ten or more people.
Lastly, you have government tours run by a government or city tourism office. They do not always have the sexiest tours as they can offer anything from historical tours to tours to industrial centers like waste/water management plants. Their tours offer you a more informed understanding of city operations. Some are free; others might have an inexpensive fee like $5+.
How to find a free city tour?: I do a Google search for “free city walking tours + (insert name of city)” . So far I’ve found free walking tours in Kolkata, Taipei, Japan, Seoul and more.
4. Hire a guide
Hire a guide if you want insight, guidance and a flexible itinerary. 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. You can find them through a tourism office, tour agent (who will book them or offer you a tour with a guide) or your hotel.
My Sapa trekking guide below was the young Hmong girl, with an attending family. I booked this Sapa trekking tour through a Vietnamese travel agency (booking tours in Vietnam was tricky but worthwhile). Then,there is always booking a personal guide online. In Siem Reap, I made friends with a group of travelers at my hotel and we split the costs to pay for our guide.
Travel Style: You want flexibility in your sightseeing itinerary with trusted recommendations and local insight.
5. Specialty Tours
Specialty tours are focused on specialized activities or interests. They last anywhere from half day to several days. Independent boutique companies run personal tours, mixing unique local experiences with sightseeing landmarks. Although it’s easy to assume most come with a costly price tag, the actual cost depends upon your destination and your ability to do some creative research. You can improve your photography skills with a photo tour, enhance your yoga practice by booking a yoga retreat or yoga teacher training (I did that here), learn to cook your favorite foreign dish or get scuba certified.
Culture & Food tours & Cooking classes: For the traveler who wants to sightsee a city and culture through its food. Take a cooking class that takes you shopping at a local market or merge city sightseeing with a food excursion on a food tour.
Recommended: One of my favorite sustainable organizations for cultural and food activity tours is Backstreet Academy. Backpacker prices and it employs authentic craftsmen, local homemakers and students with unique cultural skills; you’re supporting community sustainability.
Outdoor & Activity Tours: For adventure travelers and outdoorsmen or those who wonder if maybe they should be. I never considered myself a female Indiana Jones until I took my first trekking tour and it liberated me. I loved being outdoors! Since I’ve taken activity tours from caving, trekking, and scuba diving and strive to incorporate that into my YouTube videos to inspire solo adventurers.
Scuba diving ordinarily can be quite expensive in western countries, but did you know it is cheaper to get diving certified in Southeast Asia? The Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia are water adventure countries… I got my PADI scuba certification in Thailand, paid a fraction of the cost of the U.S.; in fact, you can tour several of Thailand’s best dive sites for the cost of one dive site in the U.S.. Check out my liveaboard experience in the Similan Islands!
Responsible Wildlife Tours: I love seeing animals in the wild. Although wildlife tours aren’t nearly as common as city tours, I’ve found some destinations offer responsible night safaris, wetland safaris, and gaming safaris . You can also visit wildlife sanctuaries.
Okay, you get the idea. When it comes to itinerary planning, you’re only limited by your imagination.
6. Hire a Driver and Car
When a country is large and landmark sights are spread apart, a driver and a car will offer flexibility and control in your itinerary. Drivers come with preset itineraries; others, not. You book them by the day or package. Drivers are not tour guides. 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. Prices range on what country and city. Take your guidebook with you. They are not known to have English-speaking guides. Korea had the best hop-on hop-off bus tours orchestrated by the Official Korea Tourism Board (or you can book online Seoul and Busan ). I was surprised that Delhi had an inexpensive bus tour too! I was on a bus with a lot of Indian travelers. I’m surprised I didn’t see foreign travelers on it, but it’s likely foreign travelers don’t know about it.
Travel Type: For D.I.Y travelers who want a lot of flexibility, while reducing transportation stress and getting lost.
Recommended search engine sights to find budget hop-on hop-off tour buses here and here.
8. My secret: Booking Point to point travel
The next tip is a big secret to how I plan my trips… booking point-to-point travel through local travel agents. I rely on tourism offices and local travel agents to find me the best deal. Going through a travel agent is easier and speedier; 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. These days I have also been resorting to GetyourGuide and Klook for budget options.
Tip: Shop around for a travel agent you trust. Visit backpacker districts for a flux of agents. Ask your hotel or local travel agent to book point-to-point travel for you.
Note: This post has affiliate links to companies I have used and would recommend.
Watch Reasons to Book a Tour (Video)
What are your favorite tours and which would you splurge?
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Hello! I’m going to India in March, and I was wondering which you would recommend- booking a tour or DIY (which what I usually prefer)? I’m looking into a Golden Triangle + Varanasi itinerary. Thank you!
Rob Wieland Tour?
I’ve found tours are a great way to get to know a city quickly. They help me get my bearings and give me the confidence to explore further on my own. When I was in Varanasi earlier this year, I was lucky enough to find Roobaroo Walks. Their tours went off the beaten path and showed me a side of the city I would have never have seen on my own.
Thanks for sharing. I was looking for tours when I was in Varanasi as there were certain places I wanted to see, which aren’t easy to find or get to on my own. And yes, they really help with bearings and confidence. Food tours help me gain confidence with local food. =D
Stephani – We’re really happy that you carry fond memories of your experience with us, and that you found it to be an enabler for exploring the city better afterwards. It’s one of the things we actively try for 🙂
GRRRL TRAVELER – your blog is quite interesting and insightful! We’ve found a couple of ideas here that we are now planning to explore in our tours as well! Thank you so much! Keep up the great work 🙂
There’s no way in a million years I would have ever tried Paan if I hadn’t been introduced to it on your food tour. It was an experience my mouth will never forget!
I love tours, viator.com is my best friend while traveling. Their often performed by professionals who are very knowledgeable. I usually have my best and most memorable moments from tours.
Yasss Viator is established as a reputable tour company when you’re looking to book online. They make trip planning from home very easy and the tours are solid. 😉 Where did you do a tour with them?
GRRRL TRAVELER Japan; Mt Fuji, Kyoto, Tokyo then China; Great Wall and shopping tours. As many as I’ve done, there are some I’ve missed too like how to make sushi, and tea ceremony in japan. I did the tea ceremony in China though. I really like how organized the companies are and how they really pack in a ton to each adventure.
Michelle you’ve taken a lot. Yeah tour companies are getting better than they used to be. I’d love one on going inside sumo or geisha stables lol.
GRRRL TRAVELER That sounds awesome!! In Japan you can dress and be given lessons in both. Proper tour guides are a wealth of knowledge.