We’ve all been there: planning a trip and booking a tour seems like the easiest option, (even if it’s not always the most economical). But sometimes a tour can be not only easier, but safer — as well as the best way to learn about an experience a destination that you could never do on your own. Other times though, a tour can bog in the company of tourists and keep you from exploring the genuine side of where you are at your own pace.
My husband and I have done both during our travels, and I can honestly say I don’t have a clear-cut answer. It depends on a variety of factors, including your personal goals for a destination, your budget, and the time you are able to commit to preparing for your visit.
So when asking yourself the age old question: To take the tour or not take the tour? Consider the following questions to determine whether or not it’s right for you, your group size, and your destination.
What Kind of Tour Are You Interested In?
In general, there are four kinds of tours.
You’ll mainly find these in museums and historical sites. For a small fee, (generally $3-15), you get a headset that will guide you through the rooms of the site, providing information and stories. You can pause them if you’d like, or rewind if you missed something. I usually find these to be worth the money, and like them because they let you move at your own pace. (My favorites have been at the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Palace of Versailles in France). But you can also download podcasts or other audio guides to your phone ahead of time, which often give you the same information for free. We did this in Rome at several sites and really enjoyed exploring on our own.
Guided Group Tours
If you’re traveling alone or in a small group this is a great way to learn and is less expensive than hiring a personal guide. Most tourist sites will offer group tours, often at a pre-set time. They’re generally inexpensive, informative, and allow you to step away when the tour is done. But you also run the risk of being in a group with people who move slower than you do, who ask a lot of questions, or who have different priorities.
Guided Personal Tours
Hiring a personal guide for your group can be a great way to move at the pace you like, ask all of the questions you want, and get more attention. But they can also be pricy. We haven’t done this ourselves, but I think if a place really interests you, it would be a good option.
These tours that often last all (or most of) the day, have been some of our favorites. You pay a company to coordinate the entire day for you.They usually pick you up and drop you off at your hotel or accommodation and include meals, transportation, and the tour itself. We have done several of these excursions and I highly recommend them — though I think one or two per trip is more than enough. (Doing one every day would be exhausting!).
Some of our favorite excursions have been to the Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand, Cinque Terre from Florence, Italy, and to a Nicaraguan volcano from Costa Rica. Just make sure to read reviews online to make sure that others had a good experience with the specific company. Often you get what you pay for, but excursion tours we learned that planning the logistics on our own isn’t necessarily feasible and it’s worth it to pay a little more for the experience.
Can You Explore the Destination on Your Own?
This is where you should start before you book any tour. Generally, we like to have the freedom to explore a place at our own pace – especially since our time is usually restricted. But there are certain experiences that we know we cannot logistically do on our own, and for those we tend to book an excursion.
We were in Melbourne, Australia and debated between taking a tour to do the Great Ocean Road or attempting to do it on our own. There were four adults and one child with us, and it would cost about $500 for all of us to take a tour for the day. In the end, we decided to attempt it on our own and rented a car — mostly because we didn’t know how well my daughter would do in a large group on a bus all day. It ended up being a magical day, where we saw more than we would have on the tour, all while saving serious money. Tours often take long bathroom stops, and give you a couple hours to eat each meal. I loved that we didn’t have to wait for anyone, and were able to meet my daughter’s needs without slowing anyone else down. But an experience like the elephant farm in Thailand isn’t feasible on your own, since a tour is required to even enter the camp.
My best advice: If you can do it alone, you’ll save money, and it will take less than a couple hours of planning — do it yourself. If the logistics are too much to work out, are overwhelming you, or if you are not comfortable driving in a new place, a guided tour is a better and safer choice.
What Do You Want Out of Your Tour?
This is probably the most important question to ask yourself. If you’re enthralled with the history of a place, want to learn about the details, and feel like you would miss something valuable doing it on your own, a tour is probably the right thing for you.
We took a group tour in Machu Picchu and I wish we had explored it on our own since I felt like our large group slowed us down and distracted us from the experience. But our guided tour in the underground of the colosseum in Rome was totally worth it and we had a great experience. My general rule is that if I’m more excited about the visuals, or the sights of a place (like breathtaking Machu Picchu) it’s better to go at it alone. If the history or details of a place interest me — a guide is a better bet.
Ultimately, it comes down to what you want out of the experience, and whether or not you think it’s possible and safe to do on your own.
Now we want to hear from you: To take the tour or not take the tour? What’s your approach to this age-old travel question?