Backpacking is all about independent travel, but is backpacking solo all it is cracked up to be? should backpackers take a step back from that and travel with tour groups?
Independent travel is in my opinion the best way to travel. It’s cheaper, offers you more freedom and more chances to delve deeper into the countries you visit, and is often pure indulgence at the most basic level. You can do what you want, when you want. The only person you have to worry about pleasing is yourself, and that is an awesome thing. That is why I consider myself a backpacker, an independent traveller. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years and I love it!
But is it really all that? Is that really for everyone? I would still argue that it is the best way to travel, and it can be for everyone, but not all of the time. Sometimes it can be nice to let someone do some logistical organising for you as I did last year on an awesome tour through Spain, sometimes people who have never travelled before need that little bit of a safety net or hand to hold as they test the waters.
And sometimes, just sometimes, backpackers who spend a lot of time on the road just want a small, local tour group to take them on a trip they don’t want to organise themselves.
This is where organised tours can really come into their own. So what are the benefits of a backpacker joining a tour group?
It can give you a bit of confidence.
If you have never travelled before and are nervous about taking that step yourself for the first time, then going with an organised tour can be a great way for you to build up that little bit of confidence and push you just enough outside of your comfort zone that you feel ready to explore on your own and independently afterward, without actually terrifying you!
Even if you are an experienced backpacker with a hundred odd countries under your belt and tales of daring do and adventure in every far flung corner of the globe, sometimes it is nice to sit back and let someone else organise the logistics like transport and accommodation for you. Finding the right operator with the right balance is essential and you can scale it up or down depending on how much freedom you want. Operators such as Nomads Spain are amazing at organising the basics for your entire trip so that you don’t have to worry about doing that yourself, but then give you the freedom to explore as you choose. Or if you are already travelling there are always tons of local tour operators offering small groups (sometimes as little as two or three people to a group) the chance to see specific sites in that area you find yourself in, and the truth is sometimes it is cheaper and easier to use them than it is to organise and pay for local public transport yourself. I found this option much better when visiting the Semenggoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation centre in Borneo for example, because it only opened up for visitors at specific times to minimise the tourism impact on the orangs (which is an awesome thing!) My accommodation offered a ‘half day tour’ where a minibus picked me up, took me there, waited till it closed and then brought me straight back, for pretty much the same price as a local bus would have cost! Sometimes it is a no brainer.
Sometimes it is necessary.
There are certain places in the world where for various reasons it is necessary to get a guided tour for at least part of it, for specific trips such as the Inca Trail or the sunrise tours at Mount Bromo for example. This can obviously take some of the logistical burden off your back, and whilst in many cases they tend to over time fall more into the mass package tourism class of tour groups, they are often technically there to regulate the tourism industry and protect the site everyone wants to see. These tours don’t always get it right and many have a lot of improvements to make, but finding the right group tour and supporting ethical operators you can do your part to help control the damage of mass tourism.
Seeing the hidden spots that you can’t get to alone.
Another advantage closely related to the mandatory group tours is that many local tour operators may have access to areas or sites that you may not have heard of or may not be allowed into if you were travelling independently, especially in difficult to reach places.
Having someone to lean on.
Travelling solo is great, and seeing some of the world’s most amazing and popular sites on your own terms is a singularly amazing experience. You get to see the things you want to see, spend as long as you want there and focus on the specific aspects that interest you. But it does take work. You have to do a bit of research beforehand, you have to read up on the place or site you are visiting or you have to pay for one of those recorded tours that make you feel like you are on a school trip. But by joining a small tour group you will have the benefit of a guide who will show you around, answer all your daft questions and even show you things from a local perspective that you may never have realised otherwise, and when you are used to travelling solo that is a nice thing to have.
Supporting the local economy.
Obviously this generally doesn’t include the majority of international mass package operators, but if you find a small local tour company on your travels and book through them, then you can do a lot of good by supporting the local economy, because odds are local operators are using local guides and local businesses that are reliant on tourists and travellers for their income. Obviously there are questions you can ask the operator beforehand to ensure this is the case, but by getting an organised tour like this from time to time you can also contribute to the local economy and ensure that tourism can have a positive impact on local communities, as opposed to paying a hell of a lot more so that international companies are the only ones who benefit.
Ready made friends.
Making friends when you are travelling is not difficult, in many cases all you have to do is say hello, and backpackers are a notoriously friendly bunch! But if you aren’t use to travelling on your own and are nervous about meeting people or maybe you are a little shy, then organised tours can give you the perfect opportunity to meet new people and bond with them over a shared experience, and you really can bond quickly on short tours like these where you are all thrown together. And even if you are travelling as a couple then organised group tours can give you that chance to step out of your comfort zone and talk to somebody other than your partner, and after a few months of travelling in each others company, that is the sort of thing that can often save relationships!
Shortcut to the highlights.
A good tour group with a good guide will let you get to the best of a destination far more quickly than you probably would have been able to do it yourself. Local guides know the destination best, and have spent years honing their knowledge. It is a mine of experience that is worth tapping.
A safe back up.
One major advantage of taking an organised tour, especially if you are trekking somewhere remote, is access to quick and easy back up if anything goes wrong, because the local guides will have access to a network that you simply won’t. I always remember a jungle trek in northern Thailand with a small group of people from both mine and a neighbouring hostel where a woman fell and sprained her ankle pretty badly. The ankle was okay and we could have got her out of there but our guides arranged a detour to a small village where a car met us to take her back to Chiang Mai. Those small details that you might not even realise you are getting with an organised tour can make a huge difference.
Going on a tour doesn’t make you a ‘failed backpacker’ and just because you travel independently that doesn’t mean you can’t join a group from time to time either.
I would never really go as far to say mass package tourism or package tours are a good thing completely because independent travel just cannot be beaten, and there are definitely package tour operators to avoid, but sometimes, just sometimes, backpackers can have the best of both worlds.
Just pick an operator that works closely with local communities, uses local guides where one is necessary or supports local businesses, and allows you to choose the level of independence you like.
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