If you’re taking one of your first trips, a huge decision to be made is whether or not to take an organized group tour or to go on a solo trip that you plan yourself. So far, I’ve been on group day tours, private tours, business tours, educational tours, and two major organized tours. My big tours were a Trafalgar Tour I went on by myself, and a Fez Tour that my husband and I took for our honeymoon (click on the links to see what the trips were).
Although I enjoyed the tours, and most definitely enjoyed the private tours, there were also aspects of the organized tours I didn’t enjoy or that took some getting used to. When you’re making such an important decision about how you want to travel, it can affect your entire travel experience, so it’s important to know the pros and cons of taking organized tours.
The Cons of Organized Tours:
1. Cost. The biggest issue with group tours is the cost. Many of these multi-day trips cost thousands of dollars because lodging, most ground transportation, and some meals are all added into the cost. The price can go up or down depending on the company you choose, the country you’re visiting, and the size of the tour group. Another big factor is if it’s a luxury or budget tour. If you were to go solo, you would be in charge of your expenses for the most part since you can choose to eat at cheap places, cook at home, or book low-cost accommodations, such as hostels, to save money.
Another way costs add up comes from the meals not covered by the cost of your trip. When I took a Trafalgar Tour, several meals were at rest stops. One of the meals I got ended up being 60 Euro because I didn’t understand how the food pricing worked–I thought it was a buffet but the cost was actually per item or per set meal, not a flat price, and I had accidentally made a huge a la carte meal for myself.
Tours also don’t include the cost of extra expenses, like travel insurance, souvenirs, and the tips that are expected for the tour guide and bus driver, so definitely take these costs into consideration for your budget.
Finally, the tours I’ve taken offered special excursions, and they had a price tag attached. This was especially true for Trafalgar Tours–many of the fun things I did cost extra money, some of them as much as 80 Euro or more. On one hand, you have cool activities to choose from–all you gotta do is fork over the cash. On the other hand, if you’re pinching pennies it’s expensive, and if you’re tired of having the company of your fellow travelers all day, it can feel less enjoyable if you’re in search of anonymity and solitude.
Pro Tip: follow your favorite tour companies via email or social media. This year, several companies like Tour Radar and Travel Talk Tours had amazing annual sales, like buy one get one free or steep percentages off full-price. This can help make an organized tour more affordable.
2. Luggage Limits. With Fez Travel, there weren’t any luggage limitations, which was amazing. However, with Trafalgar Tours, there was a strict luggage limit: you could have a large suitcase, a personal item, and a carry-on bag that didn’t have wheels. Thus, I found myself using a duffle bag and struggling with space. Moreover, the limit wasn’t actually strictly enforced by Trafalgar, so although I followed the rules, some people still brought roll-on bags and got away with it, which made me feel resentful because I followed the rules while others didn’t.
3. Roommates. If you’re a single person on a group tour, you can save money by opting to have a roommate–if you want a room to yourself, you have to pay a single supplement fee. Fortunately, I really lucked out on my Trafalgar Tour since even though I didn’t pay for a single supplement, the other singles had already been paired up and there was no one to pair me with, so I got all my rooms to myself! But if you aren’t so lucky, you’re playing Russian Roulette and need to hope you’re paired with a good roommate.
Sharing a room with someone just to save money restricts your freedom–you have to stay properly clothed the entire time, you need to be considerate how late you stay out, you need to share a bathroom, and more.
4. Getting up early. Some people hate getting up early instead of sleeping in. You can’t relax when you want, unless you want to miss out on activities you’re technically paying for.
5. Being on the Clock. Although you have an itinerary, it can be hard to decipher the exact amount of time you’ll be somewhere, and you’re at the mercy of the tour company. Your tour guide might decide to have a late start or take you on a detour. Some fellow travelers might be late or hold things up. You might not know if you’re arriving somewhere in the morning or afternoon due to driving time, traffic, and the aforementioned issues. Since you’re at the mercy of an itinerary, you might spend longer or shorter than you want in certain places. If you unexpectedly have free time, you might waste precious time trying to figure out what to do since you weren’t able to plan ahead.
Pro Tip: Always have a list of a few top things you want to do in each location, that way you’ll know where to run to if you get a chance.
Another aspect of the time issue is you can’t take as long or as short as you want at places. If you only are given an hour at a museum, that’s all you’ll get–you can’t stay two or more hours. You might visit an outdoor attraction when the lighting is too harsh and there’s tons of people around, which will affect the quality of your photos. If you get to a city late and leave the next morning, you will miss some attractions that aren’t open really late or early.
In some ways, being on a tour can feel like a loss of independence since you can’t do what you want, when you want, for as long as you want. Moreover, if you get sick, you may be stuck traveling while sick or need to make alternative arrangements. When my husband got food poisoning, it was on a travel day, so he was on the bus feeling miserable and throwing up into plastic bags–had we been on our own time, we possibly could have adjusted our schedule and stayed in one place until he felt better.
6. Tricky Wording. On my Trafalgar Tour, I thought we were going to see Chillon Castle in Montreaux because the itinerary said we would be “viewing” the castle. It turned out “viewing” actually meant “point it out as we drive by it.” Luckily, it was a free day, so I skipped an expensive optional excursion and opted to go explore the castle and town on my own.
Now that you know some of the downfalls of taking a group tour, let’s break down the positives about them.
7. Difficult personalities. Although you’ll mean tons of great people, there might also be some people who aren’t enjoying themselves and are very vocal about it. One issue I’ve run into is people who don’t have the same travel philosophy as me. I try to assimilate as much as possible in a new culture and not to demand everything be the way it is back home–I’m visiting someone else’s land. But sometimes there will be tour members who criticize overworked wait staff at restaurants, complain about food that seemed perfectly good to me, or criticize aspects of the culture. If I was near them at the time, I felt very embarrassed because I want to be as respectful as possible.
Let’s move on to the positives now, lest you think tours are terrible–they aren’t!
The Pros of Organized Tours:
1. Less Stress. The biggest convenience of an organized tour is that you have a company and tour guide to transport you and plan everything. You’re not stuck making all the arrangements yourself or figuring out how to get from point A to Point B, especially when it comes to rural areas with limited public transportation. When you’re on your own, you can lose time if you get lost or you can get stuck somewhere you don’t want to be if you miss the last train out of town. Taking a tour relieves some of the stress of planning. The company is responsible for making sure you get everywhere safely and on time when you’re doing organized activities (but not when you’re on free time) . The company has scoped out the hotels and done all the legwork and reservations so you don’t have to. That doesn’t mean all the hotels will be perfect or the optional activities might not be cheesy at times, but it does mean you have way less to worry about.
2. Safety. There also is the advantage of safety in numbers since you’re with other travelers. For example, during my Trafalgar Tour, some ladies took me under their wing and were worried about me going off on my own, so they’d accompany me sometimes when I wanted to go exploring. They kept an eye on me and got concerned when I wasn’t in my room at one point. Basically, they knew I liked going out and exploring on my own, so if something had happened to me, they would have noticed I was missing and alerted the tour guide. If you are completely on your own, it might take longer for people to realize you’re missing should the worst ever happen.
3. An Easier Time Adjusting. On a tour, you have FULL SUPPORT and help, particularly if you’re in a country you’re not familiar with. You don’t need to worry so much about the language barrier since you have a tour guide and will be taken to some more touristy places with people who might speak your language.
If you’re in a country that’s radically different from your own, if you’re new to travel, or if you’re an anxious person (like me), I’d recommend having a few day tours or having a full multi-day tour to help you get your bearings and figure out how the country works. When we went to Greece and Turkey for our honeymoon, I wanted to plan the trip and have us do it solo, but eventually we decided to go with a tour so we could worry less and cover more ground. Now, we feel much more comfortable and believe that we could go to Greece on our own without the need for a full-blown tour since we were able to get a good sense of how things work with the training wheels on.
Day tours with locals and organized tours can do wonders with helping you get acclimated so you can fly solo with confidence.
3. The ability to see more. Another huge benefit of an organized tour is being able to cram in as many sights as possible. If you value quantity over in-depth exploration, or have limited vacation time, organized tours can be great to ensure you see as much as possible in a short amount of time. This also means that if you extend your trip at the end or return to the same country later, you will know if you want to return and explore somewhere more or if you want to see new places. So far I’ve taken tours covering multiple countries, but if you book a tour covering a single country, you’ll likely get a more in-depth tour than you would on a tour covering multiple countries.
4. Being on the clock. This con is also a pro! If you hate getting up early, you’d start your day late and miss more things if left to your own devices. So being forced to stick to a schedule can help ensure that you see and experience a lot of things instead of giving in to temptation and sleeping the day away.
5. Familiarity. With a tour, some of the culture shock is less dramatic. You’re with people that can communicate with you since most of you will speak the same language or have a language in common. If you were totally solo, you have to rely on yourself and might not be able to easily communicate with people around you, which can feel alienating and lonely at times.
6. A guide. One of the benefits of group travel is being with a seasoned tour guide. They know the area and can tell you if it’s safe or not, and can help with translations, emergencies, and dinner/activity recommendations.
On our Fez Tour, our guide for Turkey was really great and told us a lot of interesting history and commentary that enriched our experience. He was able to help us communicate and get what we needed when my husband was sick. His years of education in college to prepare for being a tour guide had definitely paid off.
On the other hand, on our Greece portion of the trip, we only had a tour leader. A tour leader doesn’t give as much commentary and is supposed to just oversee us and help coordinate stuff. Basically, knowledge and authority-wise, a tour leader could be compared to a babysitter while a tour guide is like your mom. One has more experience and responsibilities than the other!
If you take a group tour, you need to research what company has tours that fits your lifestyle. For example, Trafalgar tours had only a few young people. When I talked with a young couple near my age on the tour, I found out that our reasoning for taking Trafalgar was similar: Trafalgar is more mature and professional, as opposed to the horror stories we’d heard about tours that were solely-focused on the under-thirties crowd. We wanted to take a serious tour, not just hop on a party bus. In our Fez tour, my husband and I got a good mix of ages, and again the tour was focused on the aspects we were interested in, like museums and culture.
Ultimately, it’s up to you if you want to play it safe or spread your wings and fly solo. There’s a lot of pros and cons to group tours, so it’s important to do your research and do some soul-searching so you can know what you want out of a trip and if you want others along for the journey or not.
If you have any questions or comments about group tours, be sure to leave them below and I’ll answer them as best as I can! If you have good stories or horror stories about organized tours, feel free to discuss them below as well so we can all learn from each other!