Everything You Need to Know about Travel Tours (Part 1)

 

IS A TRAVEL TOUR RIGHT FOR YOU?

If you ask a group of people if it is worth doing a travel tour, you will get a lot of different answers. I generally find that most people fall into one of two camps:

  1. The pro-tour group:
    • “Tours are great! Travel companies take care of all the details for me.”
  2. The independent travel group:
    • “Why? It’s so easy to get around, you don’t need a tour to get to the attractions.”
    • “You’ll miss out on the interactions with locals if you’re stuck in a tour.”
    • “Save your money so you can splurge on some-fill-in-the-blank.”  

WHAT I REALLY THOUGHT OF TRAVEL TOURS

I will admit up-front: I fall into the independent traveler camp.

As an independent traveler, the idea of doing a travel tour seems counter-intuitive to me. Why would I give up control over the research when the planning of details is an enjoyment in and of itself? The idea of doing a travel tour also never really crossed my mind in my early travel days, in part due to budget and in part because I didn’t see the necessity. To me, it just seemed like throwing money down the drain. “Why pay for something that I could just figure out on my own?”

My early impression of tour groups had not been favorable, either. Some of the tour groups I had seen had been obnoxiously loud, and it didn’t help when an attraction got crowded quickly with sudden influx of tour groups.

Most of all, I genuinely thought people who do tours were missing out. When I travel, I often ask locals for directions when I get lost. I eat at local restaurants and check out local grocery stores. I try to immerse into the local culture and experience, so I can get a better “feel” of the place I am visiting. Those interactions often add a valuable dimension to the place I am visiting. Tour groups, on the other hand, always seemed to be isolated within their groups.

WHAT CHANGED?

Well, there’s this:

TravelGadgetReview_Koala
Picture taken at Taronga Zoo

Let me take a step back and explain what happened. When my family and I decided to visit Australia for a very special occasion a few years ago, my planning went into high gear. Sydney is an inspiring destination, and it’s an epic trip coming from the East Coast with over 20 hours of flight time each way. I see it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” destination, and I want to make the best out of our time there.

I initially figured we could visit as many places on our own, but it soon became obvious that some of the places we want to visit aren’t very accessible, except by car.  One of the places we want to visit is the Blue Mountains, which is a good 1.5-hour drive away from Sydney’s CBD. I didn’t want to deal with renting a car, so taking a tour suddenly seemed like a good solution.

EMBARKING ON THE FIRST TOUR

I felt a little uneasy the day of the tour. I think it was mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. We dutifully waited at the hotel lobby for pickup at the requested time, but the tour guide/driver didn’t show up!  I kept glancing at the time and a couple of us even went outside to be on the lookout.  I finally ended up calling the company to make sure we did not somehow mis-connect. It turned out the guide/driver was just running a little late.

Once we were picked up, we made a few stops to pick up the others, and we were on our way.

There were around 10 of us in total.   The soft-spoken guide talked into a microphone, and gave us little nuggets of information about Australia along the way. Our guide was particularly knowledgeable on plants and trees native to Australia, and he would point them out to us when we come across them.

During the tour, we got to see and pet koala bears in close range (you’re not allowed to hold them) and fed baby kangaroos. We had lunch at a golf facility to replenish our energy mid-day. We even made a stop to the Sydney Olympic Park. I think the stop was a “drive by”, but the guide was flexible and he gladly made a stop there when there was enough interest from the group.

By the end of the day, I thought that the tour was a smashing success. For a change, it was nice not to have to worry about how to get to a place, or minutia details like where to buy admission tickets. The tour was well planned and well paced, and it felt calming in spite of the crowds at some of the attractions. As it is, our time in Australia was nothing short of amazing, and the tour was one of the highlights.

CAUTION: NOT ALL TOURS ARE CREATED EQUAL!

Because I had such a positive experience with the first tour, I had since taken a few more. I quickly learned that not all tours are created equal.

We had a short stay in Singapore as a stopover, and I wanted to do a highlights tour to cover as much ground as possible. The tour was a great deal, except:

  • There is a “shopping” stop: It’s one of the reasons why some tours are more affordably priced. I was concerned about aggressive sales pitches, but there was absolutely no pressure to buy. However, it took away some valuable time that could have been spent elsewhere.
  • The day felt rushed: I knew it wasn’t a good start when the driver drove like a madman to get us from our hotel to the central location that fed to the main coach bus. I was nearly car sick from that ride. Fortunately, I had time to recover and catch some fresh air while we wait for the other pickups to arrive.

The tour guide was also in a “rushed” mode all day, except at the shopping stop. He warned the group right from the start that he will not wait for late people. He explained that there is a lot planned for the day and he needed to get people back in time for the Singapore Flyer option.

Singapore Flyer
Singapore Flyer

The tour’s agenda was probably too ambitious for its own good. It was so rushed that I even hesitated when a stranger asks if I could take a picture for him at the Botanical Garden. I obliged but quickly ran to catch up with the rest of group. The irony was palpable because the botanical garden is a place where you think you could just relax and smell the roses

It was at this stop that two people didn’t come back before the designated return time. Someone mentioned that he saw the them at the checkout lane at the gift shop. The guide looked visibly frustrated, waited another half-minute, and did another headcount to make sure no one else was missing. He muttered inaudibly something about lateness, and decided to move on without them.

It was pretty incredulous to me.

To his credit, the guide made it abundantly clear that he will not wait if people aren’t back by the designated time. It’s not fair to the busload of people who made it back in time.

On the other hand, I would not be pleased if I were one of the people left behind.

I won’t deny that the tour itself was a tremendous value for the money. We visited a lot of places that we would not otherwise, but it was far too rushed to my liking.   I am of the personal belief that we often rush through life in our fast-paced lives already. I don’t want to feel like I have to constantly rush from point A to B during a vacation too.

That was when I felt the pangs of independent traveler in me kicking in, thinking about how I would have planned the stops differently and which stop I would have skipped altogether… 

HOW TO DECIDE IF TAKING A TOUR MAKES SENSE?

I have since taken a number of tours across countries, and I have a good rule of thumb on when it makes sense to book a tour:

  1. If I am short on time, and I want to get a feel for the highlights.
  2. If there is a language barrier, the tour can fill in the gaps.
  3. If I need transport, taking a tour that takes me from point A to B with local guide commentary is valuable.

If none of the above applies, then I probably don’t need to waste my time or money with a tour.

WHAT I THINK OF TOURS NOW

Having done a number of tours, I can see and appreciate the value that a tour provides. It doesn’t mean that I still don’t think that tour groups are missing out on the local experience, but it is a good alternative for those who don’t want to worry about the nitty-gritty details.

I have been fortunate enough to experience and enjoy best of both worlds, and I guess if I learned anything out of it, it’s that I wouldn’t want anyone to dismiss one as better than the other. I have found great adventures in being an independent traveler, but I have also found great value with travel tours, if you choose the right tour for your needs.

At the end of the day, I find that it’s not really as important whether you’re doing a trip on your own or if you choose to take a tour. No matter your traveling style or preference, all that matters is that you’re out there, seeing the world and creating precious memories with your loved ones.

This is Part 1 of 4 in the Everything You Need to Know About Travel Tours series. In Part 2 of this series, I will go over what to look for in a travel tour.

Leave a Reply