Planning a vacation can be super exciting, however, there is a lot of research that needs to go into a vacation. Although booking with a travel agent can make it easier, the decisions still come down to you. Transportation and lodging are two of the most important decisions for any trip, but so is the decision of whether you will take a tour or go about everything on your own. I’ve noticed some travelers despise touring with every ounce of their being and frown upon anyone traveling with a tour company. I personally don’t understand why they are so concerned with how others choose to travel. Do what is best for you and don’t concern yourself with what others are doing. And if you aren’t sure what to do, I wrote this to provide you with valuable information that will help you decipher when to use a tour company and when to explore on your own.
Roaming, doing your research, following your own path.
You are always exploring something new when you go on a trip but for the purpose of this blog, exploring is defined as traveling without any form of a guide (besides maps & GPS of course). You are in full control of what you see, where you will go, and how much time you spend there.
The greatest benefit to exploring is the amount of freedom you get. That’s the main reason why some will decide to avoid tours. Exploring gives you the benefit of waking up and going to sleep at anytime, allows for lazy days, but also lets you fit in as much as you possibly can. I don’t like saying that exploring is more relaxing than touring because that isn’t the case. Touring gives you the benefit of doing very little work. All you are required to do is book, show up, listen, and walk. Sometimes you will even sit in a bus or van for hours. Yes, exploring gives you the benefit of being as lazy as you want, but you won’t see anything! You have to figure out where you’re going and how you will get to each place. Or you’ll have to spend hours walking around aimlessly.
Different types of exploring:
Roaming/freestyle exploring– This type of exploring can be very rewarding or go horribly wrong. Roaming is where you walk around the city with no destination in mind. What you walk past is sudden and will always be a surprise. I spent a day doing this in London and it was amazing. We came across an outdoor market, gorgeous stores, Hyde Park, and much more! It made seeing things that much more exciting since we would walk down a street and be filled with joy when we realize Hyde Park is right before our eyes. We didn’t need to take a subway, or bus, or label our map with numbers. We could enjoy the sights organically. However, when I did this in Venice, Italy, I spent 3 hours totally lost on my own. I couldn’t use my phone and I couldn’t find the streets I was lost on anywhere on my paper map. I was on the outskirts praying to come across a water bus stop so I could hitch a ride back to ANYTHING that was remotely familiar to me.
Planned exploring– The idea behind this is having everything you will see/do planned without a tour company. You’ve made all the decisions and made all the arrangements yourself. This is an option many experienced travelers take. They know how to get around any city, language barriers don’t terrify them, and they often know how to get the best prices for museum admissions, hotels, passes, etc. The downside to this is it requires thought and work on your end. No one will be there to hold your hand while crossing the streets (not literally) and tell you the history of the city (this is literally lol). This is not for people who are clueless and lazy.
My favorite thing about exploring is stumbling upon things completely unexpectedly. It’s a gift you didn’t have to plan for. -Ayla Boswell
Visiting a number of places, going with a group, following a guide.
There are amazing benefits if you choose to tour. Touring allows you to see exactly what you wanted with a guide helping you get around. You’ll also get the added benefit of your guide describing everything and informing you on the history. For me, touring is a must in certain cities. Many times when I go on a cruise I will take a tour at the ports that I am unfamiliar with. It’s very convenient since I will not have to worry about finding transportation and using my cell phone. Wifi on the cruise ships is very expensive so it’s often impossible for me to do my own research and planning after I arrive to places outside the USA. The last thing I would want is to waste my valuable time looking for free wifi when I could be seeing a brand new city. When my friend and I went to Turkey, we used tours provided by our cruise since places like Ephesus and the Virgin Mary House are faraway from the ports. We would have had to rent a car or walk & take public transportation. Both would take too long and ships are only in one port for a day or half a day. So touring is often necessary when you have limited time, are in an unfamiliar place, or public transportation/walking isn’t possible. There are some cities (like London) where public transportation is reliable, quick, and can get you a few blocks from any place you desire. London is also well-known which means not much planning is require since everyone already knows what they need to see and do when they go there. Now, if I go some place in Asia, I would probably do tours because I can’t speak or read the languages, don’t know much about any one city or culture there, and would like to not waste time by staying in one place for too long.
Different types of touring:
Walking tours– These are very popular if you’re traveling on a budget since they are cheap. I’ve been on a free walking tour in Barcelona where I was only require to give the guide a tip of any amount at the end of the tour. These tours often meet in one location and from there they will walk you around for a few hours while telling you about the culture and different sights. These are often unnecessary if you know how to read a map and have a guide book, however, I’ve learned a lot that I never would have if I didn’t take these tours. They often tell you things that you might not have know anything about until they informed you on the subject. So even though they aren’t necessary, there is value in taking a walking tour.
Day/half-day tours– These are popular and the tours I often take when traveling by cruise or in large, unfamiliar cities where I have a short amount of time. They are also great options for seeing towns or locations that aren’t accessible with public transportation. These tours are often by bus and on-foot. A guide will meet you at the bus and stay with you while you go to anywhere from one to fifteen different stops. You will often SEE more places but you wont have time to stop at all of them. These tours are often fast-paced, but you will learn a lot. The time spent on the bus or walking with the tour guide will provide you with interesting and/or valuable information. There are many places I’ve been to using a day tour that I don’t think I would have been able to see if it wasn’t for the fact that I took a tour to get there.
Guided Trip/Vacation Tours– You will usually meet in the airport nearest to where the tour company is based in and all fly together. Sometimes you will be responsible for your flights to and from a city but they have everything else covered for you. It all depends on the company! The specific details can vary from tour to tour as well. I’ve gone on a 9-day tour around British Columbia where a bus picked us up from three different hotels in Vancouver and from there they drove us around, let us off at different stops, and provided us with all the tickets, admissions, hotel stays, as well as breakfast and dinner everyday. I loved this tour because we didn’t have to worry about driving ourselves, finding a new hotel every night, and figuring out where to eat. There’s also tours around multiple countries in Europe and Asia that will have a combination of flights, trains, buses, and walking. They almost always include breakfast at the hotel and one addition meal throughout each day. I haven’t done one of these myself, but I would love to. The only downsides is how exhausted you feel because of busy days and early wakeup calls. If you don’t require much sleep, it won’t be a struggle for you. (I personally need 8-10 hours to function like a peaceful human-being.) They want to fit in as much as possible so some nights they will want you to sleep on the airplane, bus, or train. If this all sounds like a nightmare to you, one day tours or exploring on your own is best. As I said before, it will just require more planning.
Some questions you could ask yourself before deciding what you want to do are:
How much do I already know about this place? If you are going someplace you have never even heard of (Yes, this really happens. I’ve been that person.), taking a tour is a great option. You will hear all about the city and be taken to some or all of the most popular sights.
How much preparation and research am I willing to or have to do? If you are a type A personality and like to do months of research by reading every travel blog, magazine, book, and website that talks about the place you’re visiting, exploring would be best for you. You know everything there is about the place and already have the stops you must visit mapped out and saved on your phone. You may regret taking a tour because there’s no way they will hit all the stops you dreamed about or give you the perfect amount of time at each one. If you hate research and this vacation is all about relaxation with minimal planning, go with a tour group or decide once you arrive if you want to take any day tours.
Do I care about what “tourists” are doing? Some people go to foreign countries not to see Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower but to experience a new culture. They want to live like a local the whole time they are there. If this sounds good to you, tours should be avoided. Many tours will only take you to the famous sights and streets they can tell you the history of. There are tours that will give you local experiences but you’ll be doing this with a tour guide. If you want a true local experience, you need to go freestyle exploring and ask locals what you should do. Your hotel and many travel sites will only tell you about things for tourists. Ask employees in small stores, your waiters, and people in bars what is their favorite thing to do in the city. But don’t forget, tour guides are usually locals too! Many hidden gems I’ve discovered on trips were recommended to me by my tour guides.
Now, of course these aren’t all the options you have when taking a vacation. You can always have a combination of tours and exploring like I do. You may even decided to relax inside your all-inclusive resort the entire time. No matter what you decide, it’s your vacation and you should always do what’s best for you. Not what some travel blogger said to do. 😉