The cold war of tour companies vs DIY trips is one that has been silently waged since the proliferation of package holidays in the ’70s and ’80s.
The middle classes of the UK had come to rise under Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government and people wanted to travel abroad easily and conveniently but didn’t want to organize anything themselves. The mainstream travel industry had been born!
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These days with the focus moving towards real, cultural and experiential travel, there’s a lot of stigmas attached to tour companies and organized trips, particularly amongst backpackers. A lot of tours are designed for people on tight schedules and a limited amount of time to see everything that they can.
On the other hand, many travelers prefer to go their way, avoiding tour companies at all costs and organizing all of their transportation, food, accommodation, which can save a lot of money and often leads to more interesting interactions and situations. While backpacking undoubtedly has a cooler image, there are advantages and disadvantages to both travel styles.
So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using tour companies over DIY trips.
Organized Tours with Tour Companies
When you’re short on time and only have a week or two of annual leave before you have to get back to your daily grind of 9 to 5 life, it can be really helpful to have everything organized for you and to know where you are going to be, so you can get a few items ticked off of that bucket list and be back in time to keep your job!
While you don’t have any choice over what your social group is like, with the right people an organized tour can be as fun as you want to make it and often the right attitude of one or two people can improve the dynamic of the whole group. We took some organized tours and they were both awesome because we had great people involved, passengers, tour guides, drivers, everyone had an attitude that contributed to making the whole experience worthwhile and memorable.
Again, if you have a limited time frame, but you still want to travel, then a good tour company can make sure that you get to see the best locations, the most interesting cultural attractions, and the most exciting activities that a country has to offer, without spending the extra time that a backpacker has to discover all of these and other things for themselves.
However, there is a compromise:
If you don’t want to go ‘Full Tour,’ you can always plan most of the trip yourself; cheap flights, hostels, general itinerary, etc. then enlist a good, reputable tour company to show you around the city, national park or wherever you happen to be at the time. Day tours and walking tours, with the right guide, can show you a side to a city and its history that you may never see normally if you simply pass through. A city is so much more than its architecture and famous landmarks; cities are built on people, stories, and legends and it’s these hidden histories, passed down through generations, that bring cities to life.
Think; booking a cheap flight to London, choosing your hostel or even couch surfing, walking around the city and seeing some sights, then deciding you want to see and learn more from an expert city guide, who can tell you things you would never find out on your own.
Think; organizing your cheap trip Rome, exploring on public transport to get the full flavor of this incredibly historic city, stopping for pastries and cappuccinos along the way, before deciding to take a guided tour of the most secretive and long-standing institutions in the history of the human race – The Vatican.
“Ok, everyone, off the bus, take some pictures of the medium-sized Buddha!” “Ok, everyone, back on the bus, the next group is here to take some pictures of the medium-sized Buddha!” We’ve all heard it and some of us have been the unlucky ones on the bus. With some poor quality tour companies, you feel like you’re being herded from tourist hot spot to tacky night market like fat cash cows ready for a damn good milking at every turn…and paying a lot of money for the experience!
Once again it comes down to the people you have around you – If your tour guide is a characterless little dictator who just wants to get to the end of the tour so he can get the next group through and make the next buck, then a tour can suck. Likewise, if the group you are with is dead inside, then no matter how great your guide is and how much you try, the tour is going to suck!
One of the best things about going backpacking for the first time in the sense of freedom that comes with not knowing where you’re going next, being able to make plans at a second’s notice, meet new friends and make new plans just as quickly.
Many of the best experiences I have had in life have been born out of random situations and unplanned, last-minute decisions and those are the experiences I will remember for the rest of my life. I’ll always remember hitchhiking down the Carretera Austral in Chile, because we took the wrong Patagonian ferry, since without that one simple mistake through lack of planning we found the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen and met the most inspiring people.
How can you forget a German towing a 20kg trailer behind him, on foot, because his mountain bike had snapped and he simply refused to give up? You don’t, that’s how!
Some people enjoy being told what to do, but the ability to make any decision you want, when you want is a huge part of travel. Stop when you want, decide to spend longer in a town or on a beach just because you need to chill and recharge for a bit, or even jump off a cliff into a river, just because you can – The ability to make our own decisions, without question, is the principal reason that most of us travel in the first place! We looked at the cost of tours to Machu Picchu and laughed, then cried, then walked 30kms along the train line to see the city ruins instead, paying under $70 per person, including ticket and hostel. We were free to make that decision because we traveling on our own, not with a guided tour – here’s our Machu Picchu DIY Guide.
How we perceive any situation in life is largely down to the people involved and when you travel you meet more new people in a week than you normally meet in a year at home! Hearing peoples’ stories and finding out what they’re doing with their lives is one of the most interesting things about backpacking and it gives you the inspiration and courage to try new things yourself.
Until we met people on the road with various ways to support themselves, we had never thought about being Yoga teachers, massage therapists, and travel writers!
The only real cost to balance out all of the benefits is time. You can always find a way to reduce costs and save money, but the real trade-off is time and if you have enough of it, you can do anything! It could be said that another disadvantage is the amount of time and effort it takes to plan and organize everything, but in my mind, trying to figure out how to get from a beach in Guatemala to a treehouse on the side of a volcano in Costa Rica is all part of the fun, right?!
The travel solution?
In conclusion, and slightly predictably, there are plus points and minus points to both styles of travel. Backpacking and DIY trips can certainly save you money and be more fulfilling if you have the time and flexibility for that type of travel. If not, then a good tour with a great guide can be a good alternative, getting you to a few bucket list destinations and taking the organization out of your hands, all within your timeframe. You will, however, run the gauntlet with the rest of your group being a bunch of zombies, or annoying pratts, or both.
One other option and the best option, in my opinion, would be a combination of the two – Organize most of your trip so that you know where and when you’re going to be as accurate as you want or need to know, then keep you exact itinerary free for smaller, organized tours and activities that you can plan along the way. In this way, you can be sure to maintain some of that priceless freedom that comes with backpacking, whilst adding real value with informative tours that you find along the way.
With all of the innovations in travel experiences and the ability to book almost anything from anywhere in the world, we can all find our perfect blend of travel styles. The ideal travel style needn’t be a fight of tour companies vs DIY trips; with the right combination and understanding of each others’ needs and responsibilities, we can all travel exactly the way that works for us.
How do you like to travel? Let us know your perfect travel style in the comments below.
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