Updated post: 28/02/2019 | February 2019
Over the past 30 or so years I have travelled in many different ways. I have worked abroad, travelled with a partner, with an elderly parent, with a friend or with a group of friends and travelled alone. In recent years, on over a dozen occasions, I have eschewed solo travel for group travel on an organised tour.
Each of these styles of travel has its pros and cons, and it is impossible to state definitively which is the best. As with most things in life, it’s all about what’s right for you, based on your experience and your personal preferences and priorities. But wouldn’t it be better if you could make that choice armed with some more information?
If you are planning to travel alone, one of the key decisions is whether to go independently or on a group tour. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of group travel to help you make that important decision.
Introducing the group tour
This is a large and growing market and there are many companies catering to different budgets, different styles of travel and, to some extent, different age groups.
In 2004, I went on my first group tour, which was with the now-defunct Bales Worldwide to India. It was a pretty upmarket trip with a luxury air-conditioned coach to whisk us from one 5-star hotel to the next. Subsequent group tours have been more modest, largely travelling with Explore and Exodus Travel and, for the most part, great experiences.
Let’s take a look at why a group tour can be a great idea.
The advantages of group travel
1. It takes the pain out of organisation
Now I know that some people love planning a trip, and this first stage may be an important part of the overall experience. But for others, it can be an utter pain and time suck. Let someone else do the hard work for you and just show up at the airport for your flight.
2. It can be time efficient
As a working woman, this is the greatest advantage of group travel for me.
As your transport and transfers are taken care of, you can hit the ground running. You don’t need to spend time arranging transport from A to B.
Also, group tour itineraries are smart about how they use transport from one hotel to the next by including sights en-route. In a nutshell, you get to cover larger distances and see more things, in a shorter space of time. This can be invaluable if you have limited time to explore an area.
Also, tour groups can also queue jump at attractions as they get their own entrances. Some even offer earlier entrances to beat the crowds.
3. Your itinerary will be assembled by those in the know
Tour companies employ country or area experts to advise on itineraries and then usually source the tours from operators in that country. Therefore, you can be reasonably confident that the ‘must see’ sights will be included. If I am travelling independently, I cheekily often check our tour group itineraries to get a sense of what might work.
Of course, this means that you will be treading the same well-worn path as others and there may be little opportunity to veer off the tourist trail. But let’s face it: would you really visit Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat, or leave Guatemala before exploring the delights of Antigua?
4. You will get valuable information about the country, its people and its culture
Tour leaders can be a deep mine of information. Increasingly, group tours are led by locals who will be able to provide the cultural insight that you won’t be able to get from a guidebook or the web.
Tour leaders do vary in their quality. Some are excellent and give you just enough information at just the right time. With others, there is the danger of information overload, but at least you will be well-informed.
5. The tour operator will sort things out of things go wrong
This is especially important when it comes to complex itineraries. My recent solo travel trip to Argentina involved five domestic flights over 16 days. If one of these flights had been cancelled, there was a risk that my arrangements would have collapsed like a house of cards.
Also if you are unlucky enough to fall ill whilst away, your tour leader should be able to provide assistance.
6. It may save you money
I say ‘may’ because this is a bit of a contentious one. Tour operators get exclusive group discounts on room rates that will not be available to you as an independent traveller. But perhaps more importantly, single occupancy of a room is often available for a reasonable supplement. And to save more cash, many companies will pair you up with a suitable roommate if you don’t mind sharing. This can be a bit of a lottery though.
Group tour operators are waking up to the fact that solo travellers are a growing and potentially lucrative market. As a response, many are offering single supplements for a modest price or have abolished this on selected tours.
7. You will have ready-made travelling companions
Loneliness and not being able to share the moment is one of the biggest drawbacks to solo travel. But with group travel, you get instant companionship. It’s a peculiar thing. Bonds form quickly and often more intensively than in ‘real life’, and those you have known for only a matter of a few weeks can feel like old friends. An added bonus is that some of these relationships can persist once back on home soil.
Group dynamics are always interesting. I have had fantastic groups where everyone bonded and there was no-one you wouldn’t want to sit next to at dinner (always a good yardstick for me). However, on the flip-side, I have been on a few group tours where one or more individuals have made it difficult for others at times. The makeup of your group is beyond anyone’s control. Just make sure that pain-in-the-neck isn’t you.
8. There’s safety in numbers
If you are anxious about your personal safety when travelling alone, the security of a group tour may be the answer for you. In addition to the support of the tour leader, the group members do tend to look out for each other.
9. Independent travel may not be a viable option
The visa conditions of a few countries stipulate that you must be escorted at all times. Therefore, unless a private guided tour is a viable option, a group tour may be the only way forward. For example, I visited Libya and Iran on a group tour for this reason.
Another reason for considering a group tour is if the country’s tourism infrastructure is immature. This shouldn’t stop you from visiting the country independently, but this may be more challenging on the ground and incur more expense.
10. You will not be so reliant on limited language skills
Again, this isn’t a deal breaker. I have travelled around South America with very little Spanish, and through the Middle East with only five words of Arabic. But at times this was difficult, and if you are anxious that your limited language skills will be a barrier to having a great trip then it is worth considering a group tour.
So, those are ten good reasons for considering travelling with an organised tour. But now let’s look at the disadvantages of group travel.
The disadvantages of group travel
1. You cannot choose when and where your travel
Although group tour operators offer time-efficient, tried & tested itineraries they may not necessarily tick all the boxes for you. The travel dates and timespan may not be a good fit. Or you might want to spend more time in one location and skip one stop completely. The beauty of solo travel is that you are in complete control of when and where you travel
2. You lose freedom and independence
Some people love a strict itinerary, and an exacting schedule does force you into an early start each day (sometimes a very early start). However, this isn’t for everyone.
Travelling independently, you can choose to have a lie in or a lazy day if you wish. Or perhaps you fancy a few days without a fixed agenda? No problem. You can just go where your mood takes you.
Or, if like me, maybe you want to spend longer capturing images of places you have visited? No need to rush those holiday photographs. You have the freedom to wait for exactly the right moment. Maybe this is when the light is right or when that pesky tour group has moved out of shot.
3. You cannot move at your own pace
Make no mistake; tour groups can move slowly. Like a convoy of trucks, they are only as fast as the slowest member. That can be frustrating when you just want to get a move on.
However, it can work the opposite way too. Maybe you want to slowly absorb what you are seeing and the group is racing ahead? It can be frustrating to arrive at a place that you have long wanted to visit, only to be told that you have half an hour to take a look at it
4. You cannot choose your own accommodation
With most tour groups you have no control over the choice of hotel. Also, many don’t reveal where you will be staying until just prior to departure. On escorted tour trips I have stayed in ‘city centre’ hotels that were miles from the main attractions, and in mosquito-ridden fleapits.
My days of staying in grungy hotels are behind me and, as a flashpacker, I now look for a decent bed to sleep in. Although I have stayed in some fabulous hotels with tour groups – take a bow Sri Lanka – this is not a guarantee.
5. It may cost more
Hang about, you are thinking. Didn’t Bridget just say that a tour group can save you money? Well, it depends on the circumstances.
It would be naïve to think that the cost of a tour leader and local guides, as well as operational profit, isn’t built into the cost of a group tour. Therefore, group tours can work out to be more expensive. So, compare how much it would cost you to follow a similar itinerary independently.
6. You sacrifice privacy and the opportunity to be alone
If you value your own space, you may struggle with group travel. Examine the schedule. If it is a packed one, then opportunities for solitude and reflection will be limited.
7. You may have to put up with difficult travelling companions
Group travel requires tolerance, and when you travel with a group there may be someone who you wouldn’t choose to spend time with under different circumstances. At best this can make things awkward, at worst it makes the experience an unenjoyable one.
8. You may not be able to get under the skin of a country
There is nothing like navigating around a country to allow you to get to know it. Also solo travel forces you to talk to locals more than you would on a group tour.
Reflecting on places I have been to on a group tour vs solo travel, I feel that whilst the tour leader fed us lots of information, my understanding of the country and its people was relatively superficial.
9. You lose the opportunity for self-determination
For me, self-determination is one of the most important reasons for solo travel.
Navigating unfamiliar cultures in unfamiliar territories is a real confidence booster. This sense of achievement can be a transformative process, not only at the time but spilling over into other areas of your life on your return home.
Stepping out of your comfort zone can force you to do things you might never have contemplated before.
Solo travel vs group travel – the verdict
So which is it going to be for you? As you can see there is no easy answer and there are pros and cons to each travel style. The important thing is to just take the plunge and do it,. Whether you decide to go it alone or join a group tour, don’t let fear hold you back.
I will leave you with a final thought. Over the years a mix and match approach has worked extremely well for me. What do I mean by this? Well, I book a group tour to anchor the trip and then travel independently either side of this. So perhaps you don’t need to make a choice after all?