Smart Travel: Pros & Cons of Guided Tours

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Did you read too many Jack London books while growing up, and now dream of making your way through the world alone, living on your wits and daring? Or, do you prefer to leave the tough stuff to the pros when you travel, and enjoy the guidance and company of others? Whether you think tours and guides are inherently evil, or the cat's meow, there are pro and cons to each means of travel. The key is knowing who you are, and what's important to you. 

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Today, I'm breaking it down, and thinking through the benefits and drawbacks of both methods. First up is the downside of joining tours or hiring a guide:

  • Unknown Experts: You don't know who your guide will be, and there's nothing worse than tapping your toes while listening to someone annoying drone on and on about endless facts. Hopefully you are lucky and get an informed and entertaining guide who enhances your experience instead of dooming it to boredom.

  • Endless Masses of People: We've all seen those long lines of people, following their fearless leader with a tall flag and a megaphone. If the idea of being in that large group fills you with dread, consider independent travel instead.

  • Group Interests: Tour groups in general resort to common denominators, so trips will revolve mostly around well-known, famous sites and sights. This might be frustrating if you learn midway through your trip that the Gutenberg Museum (filled with delicious books, typography and bookplates) is just around the corner from your hotel in Mainz, Germany, yet you can't just slip away to take advantage of your proximity. Unless the tour is designed for you, or has some flexibility built in, you're out of luck.

  • Tight Schedules: There's nothing worse than having to get up and out the door at 6am, when all you want to do is sleep late and then take advantage of your full European breakfast of cured meats, cheese, and Prosecco. It's a vacation, after all.

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All that said, sometimes it totally makes sense to join forces, and ask for help. Here are a few times I did join a tour group and/or hire a guide, and why:
  • Difficult Travel Conditions: I went to Vietnam in 2004 and had heard beforehand that — due to lack of infrastructure — it can be a tough country to navigate as an independent traveler. Given the time we had, it was infinitely more convenient to join a merry band of others and head off to Ha Long Bay together as a small pack. It was a great experience, and I didn't feel like cattle. I would happily do that again. 

  • Adventures: There was no way I was going to self-drive while on safari in East Africa. I had images of us changing flat tires in the middle of the Serengeti, surrounded by lions and drooling hyenas. Instead, we hired one of the many, many companies around to take us in a jeep. (That's our jeep above acting as a buffer between our group and a very large elephant hanging out by our campground bathrooms one fine morning.) Not only were we safe and sound, but were also free to take our thousands of photos and enjoy the scenery.

  • Insider Info: Safari tour guides also constantly keep each other in the loop, via cell phone, about animals in the vicinity, and where all the action is. That type of info ensured we saw more animals that we would have on our own. 

  • Short Term, Individual Needs: Don't forget, you can also hire a guide for just the day, or even a few hours. I've hired local residents (like the lovely Amy, pictured in the lead photo, who cycled around Guilin, China with us one beautiful day) to take me around a particular area or sight, to get the most information and details I wouldn't pick up from a written guide, or to get around poor museum translations and my lack of language skills.
Other reasons to consider hiring a guide or joining a group:

  • Comfort from Others: You might be traveling alone, and want the emotional comfort of having other people nearby to help you, or just keep you company. Some tours also deal with luggage, so there's no need to haul your own damn suitcase around, packed to the gills with souvenirs and purchases.
  • Less Red Tape: Everyone wishes they could stare off mindlessly into space while someone else takes care of airline tickets, government forms, and ticket lines. Or, to have someone that knows such-and-such museum is closed on Tuesday from 2-4pm. Some people have travel partners that excel in the details. With a tour guide, the rest of you get a reprieve from your own disorganization. 

These are just a few pros and cons, but maybe you have more? Let us know your own travel experiences in the comments.

(Images: Dabney Frake)


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When Dabney's not writing around here, she's digging through other people's attics for fun and interesting stuff, or running around with her bloodhound Friday. Originally from the East Coast, she's still shocked to find herself living in Missouri.

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