A long time ago—like back in the 70s, I went on an “all-inclusive” escorted tour to Israel. You can read about that here.
In a recent post about independent travel, “Do-It-Yourself Travel,” I touched on my aversion to these types of tours, and today I will give you the main reasons I don’t use them as well as a few reasons why someone might consider them.
The Disadvantages of Escorted Tours
I avoid “all-inclusive” escorted tours, for two main reasons: One, they tend to be very pricey. They usually provide lodging and meals that I consider to be unnecessarily expensive. They include (sometimes hefty) admissions to some sites that I have no interest in. There are several middle-men who each get a cut of your fare. Two, you are pretty much locked into their schedule with little time to explore on your own.
There are other disadvantages:
- You are herded from place to place on a specific schedule. “Be back on the bus by 2:00,” is the guide’s mantra.
- You cannot pick and choose which sites you wish to visit.
- You only stay two to three days in each location (often much less)—you do not get a chance to absorb the place before you have to move on.
- They tend to concentrate on the larger cities with the most tourist sights and things to do.
- If you are not enjoying some aspect of the trip, you are stuck waiting for the group.
- If you discover something that is especially interesting to you, you cannot linger to explore it for as long as you wish.
- If you have a special connection with a local, you cannot linger for another hour—or few days—getting to know them.
- If you get tired or sick, you can’t take a day off without missing a part of the tour.
- For better or worse, you are stuck with the same group of tourists day in and day out.
- They are just so sterile—you never get your hands dirty (metaphorically speaking).
I spent an entire day visiting the New Lanark Mill Heritage Site in Scotland. Several tour groups came and went while I was there. The exhibits were closing as I left, but I still had time to hike another hour or so up the river to some raging waterfalls. You can read about that excursion here.
What About Thematic Tours?
Thematic tours do focus on a specific topic, like cooking, fishing, photography. My weakness might be any tours that focus on the fiber arts.
The nice thing about these tours is that the agency and guides do everything for you—transportation, lodging, food, site tours and excursions. They organize special workshops and events for your group. You get to travel with other people who share your special interest.
A few times, I have been tempted to join such a tour—until I:
- noticed that a great deal of time, the itinerary had you spending up to a day moving from one place to another;
- noticed that it included visiting sights that are not related to the theme and in which I have no interest;
- realized a “12-day tour,” for example, includes the first and last days in which you are transferred from/to the airport and fed a meal (In other words, it is really only ten full days of activity.);
- looked at the price!
Here is an example: One twelve-day thematic fiber tour to Peru has a price tag of over $3800. (Remember, that means only ten full days.) That is a daily cost of over $300 which does not cover airfare or transfer to the first hotel. Looking more closely at the tour brochure I saw that only about a total of 30 hours are spent exploring the fiber arts—the rest of the time is spent visiting the typical tourist sights.
In contrast, my 3½-month trip to Peru cost me $4,320 (not including round-trip airfare to Lima). That is less than $40 per day. I could choose where and when I wanted to go and change plans on a whim.
I made lasting friendships with many people on that trip. I was invited to parties. I could wander from village to village on a whim. I could eat in establishments so “local” that all heads turned in my direction as I walked in. When I found a place I enjoyed eating, I could return time and again becoming friends with the servers who greeted me warmly as I entered. If I felt a special attraction to a village, I could stay a month—or three. With a little guest kitchen, I could shop at the market like a local and learn from vendors how to prepare their food. If I wanted to, I could take days off from traveling pursuits to follow a creative urge—writing or knitting. Or I could spend hours with local women in the town plaza—all of us spinning or knitting together while they sold their wares to visitors.
In 2014 and again in 2015, I spent several weeks in Huarocondo, a small Peruvian village in Peru, hiking in the hills and visiting with locals.
Some Advantages of Escorted Tours
- You don’t have to worry about lodging or transportation; all reservations are made for you.
- A (hopefully knowledgeable) guide escorts you everywhere, and answers questions, solves problems, and makes suggestions.
- Many of your meals are included, meaning you don’t have to search for the best places to eat.
- Special meals, workshops demonstrations, or performances are arranged for you with local teachers, artisans, and performers.
- Your guide will take you through the various attractions and point out the most interesting things.
- If your time is limited, it is a good way to experience more things and see more sites in a small amount of time.
- They are usually very secure—alleviating many fears new travelers have.
Best of Both Worlds
If you have never traveled to a region where the culture is vastly different from yours, if you are a new traveler, or if you are truly afraid of going abroad without help, a guided excursion could be a perfect fit for your first trip. But you might schedule a few days (or more) after the tour ends to remain in the country and try some independent traveling. By that time, you will be more comfortable in your new surroundings. It will be easier for you to visit places the tour did not include, return to a location that was on the tour and explore it more deeply, or meet some locals who share similar interests.
Another option is to take advantage of short tours that you can join once you have arrived in a region. These last only a day or few days and often you can target a certain topic that you have a special interest in. For example, in Peru, I joined a two-day guided excursion over the Andes to visit small family-owned organic cacao and coffee farms. There were only five people on the tour, which made it very intimate. We each had a chance to participate in the processing of the coffee and cacao.
Picking coffee beans in Peru.
When I wanted to visit the jungle near Manu in Peru, I found that visitors can only go there if accompanied by a certified guide. So, I signed up for a 4-day excursion, choosing a tour agency highly recommended by a friend with similar interests to mine. I did enjoy having an excellent naturalist-guide who could provide a wealth of information about the plants, animals, and people who live there.
Following my naturalist guide through the jungle in Peru.
The Choice is Yours
However you decide to travel, always keep in mind the reasons you are traveling to a region. Ask yourself such questions as:
- Do I want to see as much as possible during my stay because I may never return?
- Do I want a “taster” tour, because then I will be more comfortable in future travels, and know what places I might like to return to?
- Would I prefer to decide, as I travel, where to go and how long to stay?
- Do I want to be able to choose how long I stay in one location based on my own interests?
I hope this article has been helpful as you make future travel plans. Please feel free share your experiences of escorted and/or independent travel in the comments.
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