Planning the perfect travel adventure involves making a lot of choices. You can make decisions easier by outsourcing it to a tour group, but guided tours won't give you with the same experience as going it alone. Here's how to decide the best approach for you.
Types Of Guided Tours
Generally, you run into four kinds of guided tour options when travelling.
- Audio tours: Often found in museums or historical sites, audio tours give you the chance to explore at your own pace while still soaking in lots of information. If you want your travel experience to be about exploring on your own, this is a great way to do that while still getting plenty of educational information on what you're seeing. You won't find audio tours outside of certain sights, so be prepared to do your research for other parts of your trip — like understanding daily life or the local culture.
- Personal guide: Hiring someone to escort you (and your travel companions) around one on one makes for a customised tour. You often get to dictate where you and your guide will spend time. You also get the chance to ask many more questions than you would with a larger group and you get more specialised attention.
- Group guided experience: If you're travelling alone or in a small group and want a less expensive way to have a guided tour, this is your best bet. You'll have a chance to meet others while still being able to step away after the tour is over. Group guided tours are often pre-set to visit a certain sight or do a certain activity — making them an easy way to get a more coordinated experience for that sight or activity without committing to a group experience for your entire trip.
- Entire trip is coordinated by a guide or company: This tour type can be a lot more expensive than if you organised the trip on your own, but you may have access to sights you'd otherwise miss. However, you often have to stick to a predetermined schedule set by the company. If you want a very hands-off travel experience, this is the guided tour for you. Do your research before booking to make sure you're using a high quality company, then you won't have to worry about anything during your actual trip.
Which of the above types you choose (if any at all) depends largely on what you want out of your vacation.
The Pros And Cons Of Guided Tours
Guided tours can have a big impact on your overall travel experience. They offer a complete package for you to enjoy without thinking about destinations or timetables, but they can also be stifling and leave you no room to explore. . If you're not sure, here's what you should think about.
- Tour guides can offer a safer experience, especially if you're in a city or country known for not being the safest spot. Even if you're in a safe place (like Singapore), you may want to use a guide to help you navigate. In some countries, almost no locals speak English (this makes ordering food and asking for directions difficult) and signs will often not be in English.
- You get your own translator who can help you communicate both in terms of language and cultural practices. With their assistance, you'll be able to avoid getting yourself into sticky situations.
- Some activities, like river rafting and adventure sports, generally are not available without a guide.
- With a great guide, you'll have an easier time learning about complex or overwhelming attractions. One example comes from a TripAdvisor user Mary P. on her recent trip to Costa Rica. She shares that using a guide to see the wildlife improved the experience because her tour guide was very knowledgeable and was also able to quickly set up a telescope for tour members to catch glimpses of birds and butterflies.
- You may get discounts or special entry available only to tour groups. Some museums open early to let tour groups get a head start, then they let smaller or individual travellers filter through afterwards.
- Often, you have a certain level of comfort with a guided tour. This applies both to accommodations and how you feel. When I was with a group in Kyoto, Japan, many people felt uncomfortable because the country is so monoethnic. As foreigners they had no chance of fitting in and when we went place, often drew stares from locals. If you're in a tour group, at least you can embrace the experience with others there to support you.
- If you don't have a lot of time to see the sights, using a tour guide will help you get the most out of your trip. For more control over your schedule, consider hiring a private guide instead of going with a pre-set tour.
- A guided tour isn't the best deal for your money when a guidebook (or your own research) will work just fine. I used Rick Steves' guidebook to navigate around Italy's sights on my own. You can always supplement your research or guidebook with apps like Next Stop, Hear Planet, or an audio app from your guidebook company.
- With a guided tour, you won't have total control over what you see and when. Fodor's user TinaLee204 explained that she spent so much time on the "educational" part of her guided tour of the Vatican that she wound up missing out on the part that interested her the most.
- Travelling in a big tour group is one of the easiest ways to identify yourself as a tourist. Even if you're not dressed out of place for the location, with a giant camera hanging around your neck, others in your group may be — and this makes everyone in the group a target for pickpockets and scammers. However, as I mentioned in the Pros section, being spotted as a tourist is unavoidable in some countries — particularly those that are monoethnic.
- The cost of guided tours can eat into a tight travel budget. Tours are pretty expensive — even audio guides sometimes cost as much as lunch.
- If your destination is pretty safe and you know the language, can get by without knowing the language, or you know someone who speaks the language, then you probably don't need a tour guide to help you get around.
- There are just some sights that no tour group is going to show you. For example, I went to a local outdoor market every week in Rome. It was meant for residents and I would never have gone there if I'd stuck to only guided tours.
Think about what kind of experience you want from your trip before you jump into searching for a guided tour.
What Make A Good Tour Company Or Guide
If you decide to use a tour company or guide during your trip, you need to check a few factors before handing over your money.
- Quality: Most legitimate tour companies and guides know that their reputation can make or break their business, so you should be able to find reviews online. Check out reviews of the service both on their own site and third party sites. A few places you can find trustworthy guides are sites like TripAdvisor, Any Road, and Rick Steves' site. If you know anyone who has travelled to the same place, ask them for recommendations. You also want to make sure that the tour isn't a scam and that you'll be safe. Take the time to ensure you'll be getting a high quality experience.
- Cost: Confirm how much they cost, including taxes and fees. Keep exchange rates in mind so you're not surprised by the final bill. You want to make sure you're booking something that doesn't blow your trip's budget. If you plan to stick to a strict budget, you should figure out beforehand how much you're willing to spend on all guides total.
- Activities: You want to get your money's worth, so don't be afraid to ask for an exact breakdown of the company or guide's planned schedule of activities.
- Cancellation Policy: In case you have to end up cancelling your booking, know if you'll be able to get part or all of your money back. If not, it is up to you to judge the risk of going through with the reservation.
The tour industry is known for delivering disappointing guide experiences after you've already paid when pre-booking. Make sure you check all of the above before moving forward with a tour company or guide to get the experience you deserve.
Find Opportunities To Meet Locals And Other Travellers
Regardless of whether or not you choose to book a tour guide, there are plenty of opportunities to meet locals and other travellers who can make your experience memorable. Even in a large group (like a tour group), it's easy. For example, your tour guide is probably a local. When there are lulls in the tour (like transportation times), ask your guide about their life to get a feel for what locals experience. You might even win them over and get an invitation for dinner or to go out with them and their friends after the tour ends. Even if not, you may find out where the locals hang out so you can try something a little more authentic during your free time.
You can also use guided tours as a great way to meet other travellers who are on their own or in smaller groups. When I made a solo trip to Lisbon, I took a day tour through my hostel that lead to me making some new friends for the trip. While I was mainly looking to spend some time alone during my visit, it was nice to have a day where I engaged with others.
If you're travelling alone or in a smaller group and decide not to take any guided tours, there are still plenty of ways for you to meet new people. You can seek out organisations that you belong to at home, use sites/apps like Meet Up or EventBrite to find events, or just head to local gathering spots like bars or cafes.
Guided tours have their pros and cons, but remember, you don't have to be a camera-toting tourist, or alone in a strange land. Choose the experience that sounds good to you, and will make you feel at home wherever you roam.