Since you will want to make the most of your gap year experience, chances are you will be asking yourself should you join an organised tour or travel independently? Hopefully this handy guide will help you make up your mind.
I have been backpacking the world now for over fifteen years, and I am a huge advocate for independent travel, but I also know that on occasion a guided tour can be a good idea too. The problem is knowing which way to choose.
Independent travel vs guided tours.
The gap year industry is full of flashy brochures and sales pitches that promise you the ultimate experience with everything organised and planned for you in advance. When you start planning your gap year and start looking at flight prices, you can’t fail to be bombarded with packages that sell everything from the ultimate Macchu Picchu trek to a luxurious spa experience in Bali, from cookery classes in India to adventure activities in Thailand, it seems every whim and activity is catered for. At a price.
But many of these organised activities are barely more than package tours with a slightly snazzier PR image. They completely fail to see the irony that by packaging up the ‘gap year experience’ they are missing the entire point of backpacking and independent travel. They are taking the essence of what independent travel is and replacing it with an easy package tour option, and they are charging you a hell of a lot more for the privilege!
The big secret the travel industry doesn’t want you to know!
This secret is so big, so well guarded in the travel industry it is almost like breaking the magic circle, but get ready because I am about to blow the lid off one of the most closely held truths in the industry that every travel agent, tour agency and travel provider hope you will never find out. Are you ready?
You don’t need them!
Okay, so it wasn’t a massive secret. Men in black aren’t swooping down on me from unmarked black helicopters as I write this. It’s more of a hidden common sense truth that everyone should know but turns a blind eye to.
The way the traditional travel industry has turned the gap year into a marketable sales pitch and sold the ‘independent travel adventure’ as a neatly packaged itinerary is nothing short of an all out con, and the way people blindly follow the package tour itinerary model whilst being sold on the ‘independent adventure’ paradigm is nothing short of bewildering, especially when you consider the complete lack of appreciation for the irony involved.
Independent travel should be just that! Independent!
If you want to go somewhere, explore any given country and immerse yourself in the culture, then just go! Do just that! Get your plane ticket, figure out which places you want to see and then travel round to see them. It really is just that simple.
You really don’t need a packaged itinerary taking you from A to E via B, C and D on a fixed timetable. It doesn’t matter what flashy moniker they come up with, the ‘Indochina experience’, the ‘ultimate gringo trail adventure’ or ‘Buenos Aries to Rio unplugged’, there are a whole range of tours out there selling you a package you don’t really need.
Go to any tour operator from the gap year industry such as STA travel, G Adventures or Intrepid Travel for example and you will see a lot of tours giving you a fixed route over a fixed amount of time. Often they will look something like this in the brochures or websites:
Basically they give you a pre planned itinerary and sort out all the little logistical things out for you such as accommodation, where to eat, local guides and so on, but they charge you through the nose for it. Don’t be fooled into thinking it is a great deal by the flashy sales pitch, it isn’t.
That transport you are taking, you will be paying a premium for it. That nice hotel you are staying in? There are probably a dozen guesthouses on the same street for a fraction of the price and maybe even better quality. Those special ‘tours’ and ‘experiences’ you will have? You can sort out yourself just as easily and probably cheaper on the ground. And do you think all your food, entry fees and other essentials are included in the price? Nope, you’ll still have to hand over a lump sum for all of that when you arrive. That hefty price you are paying is predominantly for the admin and logistics of each trip, and lets not forget the high profit margins of the companies themselves of course.
Because here is the trick, why not take that itinerary you like the look of and just do it yourself? For free? Without paying them a single penny! I told you that you didn’t need them!
Of course the main attraction of this is the huge savings you will have that can then be used on extending your travels or having even more awesome experiences, but the best thing is you don’t have to follow the pre set plan religiously. Don’t want to visit La Paz? Scratch it off your itinerary. Want to spend longer in Cartagena? Do it! You can do what you want! You can have a rough itinerary in mind based on these trips, but then you can tailor them to your own wants and needs as much as you like! Yes you will have to sort out your own accommodation along the way, but that really isn’t difficult. You will have to organise transport too, but again that isn’t hard. There are a whole range of tips and advice on this website alone to walk you through the logistical things you need to do to travel independently, all it takes is a little bit of confidence.
Saying that, pre booked tours aren’t all bad.
There is the rub though, the confidence. Not every first time traveller has this. I can absolutely understand that, and one thing these pre booked guided tours can give you as a first time traveller is that confidence.
Think of it as kind of like staying in the shallow end of the pool before you venture out to the deep end.
Many backpackers take one of these tours to get their feet wet, to get the ‘experience’ with someone holding their hand for lack of a better term, ease themselves into the backpacker lifestyle and then go on to travel on their own after the tour ends. That is great, if it gets people travelling independently and gives them the self confidence they need then I’m all for it.
They can also be a gateway for solo travellers who are nervous about travelling on their own to go it alone with the assurance that they are certain to have a group of people to meet, travel with and possibly even make friends with for a set amount of time. Again, if some first time travellers need this then who am I to argue? If you find this to be a benefit to you then that is fantastic. Go for it.
Of course the downside to this is that the experience can be made or broken by the group. You can never know who your travel partners for the next few weeks or months are going to be until you actually get there and start the pre planned trip. To be fair many of these organisations now are pretty good at keeping group sizes small and tailoring trips to certain ages and comfort/travel styles, and obviously interests too – provided of course you picked a tour with a specific focus such as photography or cuisine – but there are never any assurances. You may get one of these tours and fall in love with your group, or you may be stuck with the group from hell.
It is important to remember though that as daunting as it may appear at first, travelling solo is amazingly easy once you get into the swing of things, especially in major backpacker hubs such as South East Asia, Europe and Australia. The popular backpacker routes are always full of backpackers just like yourself filling up the same hostel beds, catching the same night buses and trains or heading to the same destinations. All you have to do is say ‘hi’. Once you have the confidence to do that, you can see how truly awesome solo travel really is.
What about tour agencies on the ground?
This is where the pros and cons get a little bit muddied, as local tour agencies are often a world away from the pre booked industry that you have to deal with before you arrive but are still essentially the same thing. As any backpacker will tell you, as much as independent travel is the best way to go, sometimes getting that day tour from the hostel or joining a group tour for an extended trek can be an important and amazing part of any independent travel adventure.
Not all tour agencies are created equal.
Sometimes when you have been backpacking independently for a while the constant booking of accommodation, transport, permits and so on can get to be a little tiresome. Sometimes when you want a specific experience or to head to a specific out of the way location it is just nice to pay that little bit extra at a local tour agency and go and put your feet up with a mango juice instead.
For some experiences such as caving, rafting or trekking to a particular village, mountain top or religious site it can work out a little easier to let the local experts sort a few things out for you.
Other times it is absolutely necessary to pre book certain tours such as the Machu Picchu trail, going on an ethical and responsible wildlife safari or for climbing Mount Kinabalu in Sabah or Mount Bromo in Indonesia for example. In some instances the cost of using a small, local agency to organise things for you isn’t even that much more than the cost of doing it yourself.
My point is, although it is never really necessary to pre book tours and experiences before you leave for your trip (unless of course you really do need that crutch to boost your confidence at first) sometimes booking an experience or two in country is something to consider.
There is a world of difference between a large gap year industry tour operator and a small local tour agency who will organise a day trip or an experience for you, and in fact these small, local tours and experiences can make up an absolutely invaluable part of the gap year experience. So yes, it is absolutely true that independent travel is absolutely the best way to go most of the time, and you can very easily do many of these things off your own back with a little initiative, but sometimes it is useful to use the expertise and convenience of a local tour agency too.
Is there a need to book before you go?
I have travelled independently for the better part of two decades now, and I have never pre booked any package tour before I have left home. I have always found it easy, cheap and flexible to just turn up, explore and take my time to immerse myself in a country.
But what I have done quite frequently over the years is book small independent tours, treks or experiences when I have arrived at a destination using small, local travel agencies.
I can arrive in any given town, shop around, see which ones seem to be the best and go with them on tours that I will tailor for myself. From jungle treks in Chiang Mai to Amazon treks in well, the Amazon, the list is endless. I have visited places that may have been a logistical hassle for me to get to on my own quite easily on a day minibus from a local agency (at not much more than what public transport would have cost), and I didn’t have to deal with the taxi mafia either which is always a bonus.
I have even found it nice to have a local guide from time to time which enhanced my visit to any given place, the Sarawak cultural village just outside of Kuching is a great example of this. I could have very easily got the bus, bought my own ticket and wandered around the place at my own leisure. But with a tour bought one evening from my hotel we were picked up in the next morning, and the two of us had a really nice tour guide all to ourselves, she walked with us, talked to us, told us about the unique cultural aspects of each part of the village and show us things we never could have read in a guide book. We weren’t part of a huge group. This was our own personal tour guide, for me and my travel partner at the time. After that we were dropped back at our hotel with a smile. All that for just – literally – the equivalent of a few British pounds for the day.
You don’t have to use these agencies all of the time of course, with only a few exceptions it really is easy to organise these things yourself most of the time, but the point is you have a choice. Use your judgement on which method is best for you at any given time.
You can go independent most of the time, but every now and then just pick up a guided trek or an activity from a tour group, it is completely up to you.
Contributing to the local economy.
Using local tour agencies and local guides in this way – as opposed to lining the pockets of big profit multinational organisations – is also an excellent way of contributing to the local economy and making travel and tourism in any given region sustainable and responsible. Many of the larger gap year industry providers such as Intrepid Travel for example do make efforts toward sustainable tourism such as hiring local guides and so on, but in my personal opinion, it will always be a better option to support and spend your money on the true local economy instead of spending much more to make a large corporation’s profit margins bigger.
Tours and travel agencies do have their pros and cons, just as independent travel does. It is important to weigh each one up for yourself and decide what is best for you. It is just as important to remember that although tours can sometimes be useful, you don’t need them to travel. Use them from time to time as it suits you, but don’t think for a second that they are the only way you can see and experience the world, I don’t care what the travel agent with the glossy gap year brochure tells you.
One of the absolute best things about travel, real independent travel, is the freedom it gives you and that applies in choosing the way you travel too. Just because I have found a way that works for me, that doesn’t mean it will be right for the next person. So by all means take an organised tour from time to time, get a pre booked group tour from one of the larger gap year industry providers if you want to and you think it will be right for you on your first trip, but remember that nothing is set in stone. Just remember that you have choices, and lots of them.
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