Are Guided Tours Always Completely Lame?

tour group posting at Machu Picchu on a cloudy morning

posing with my tour group at Machu Picchu

There was a time when I refused to think about joining an organized tour. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck on a big bus with a huge group of possibly annoying strangers, forced to stick to someone else’s idea of the best itinerary.

But I’ve learned that there are as many tour styles as there are traveler personalities, and it only took one excellent experience to win me over. There are some benefits of guided tours. When you find a company whose travel style and philosophy match your own, a tour can be an efficient and low-stress way to see a new place.

When does a guided tour makes sense?

Even though I’ve become a fan of certain types of tours, it’s not always my first choice. If a place is easy to travel independently I’ll usually go my own way. However, here are some situations when I lean towards the benefits of guided tours:

  • When traveling solo due to a lack of available travel buddies (I call it “paying for friends”!)
  • In remote locations, or places where tourism infrastructure or transportation links are not well developed
  • Visiting a new country with a high culture shock rating, including those with conservative norms around the roles and rights of women
  • When I want to pack as much as possible into a short amount of time, especially if the distance from home is substantial (i.e. I may not get back there any time soon)
  • For those times when I want a stress-free vacation where someone else makes all the arrangements.

Finding the right tour

It’s easy to conduct online research about almost any tour company, whether they’re large international organizations, or established local outfitters. Here are some things to look for:

  • Price point: Consider what’s included and what’s not, since this varies widely between companies. Some include meals, entry tickets, airport transfers, etc, while others do not.
  • Group sizes: Trips involving larger groups are often more affordable. However, smaller groups will get you in and out of places more efficiently, provide access to places that can’t accommodate large groups (like small, family-run restaurants) and have a smaller impact on the places you visit. They’ll also provide a more personalized experience.
  • Scheduling: Some tours have practically every minute scheduled, while others incorporate plenty of free time. Also look at how often you’ll be switching hotels – packing and unpacking every night may not be for you.
  • Activity level: Make sure you’re prepared for the physical demands of the trip, especially for active trips.
  • Accommodations: Check that the style of lodging looks comfortable for you. Some trips include nights of camping, home stays, or other alternative accommodations.
  • Modes of transport: Will the trip be conducted from a private, dedicated group vehicle, or via local transportation? Private transport is often more efficient, while trips that incorporate local transportation can offer more colourful, immersive experiences.
  • Responsible tourism: Read up on each company’s approach to managing the impact of their activities on environments and cultures, and choose an operator whose philosophy feels good to you.
  • Traveler profile: This one can be trickier to assess, because many operators want to sell trips to anyone willing to buy. You can get clues from photos used on the company’s website and marketing materials, and by reading online reviews. Look for operators whose clients remind you a bit of yourself and your friends. After all, you’ll be stuck with them for a while!
3 women with drinks at a safari lodge. Social connections is one of the benefits of guided tours.

evening socializing in Ranthambore, India

My favourite tour companies

I tend to like smaller trips offering authentic cultural experiences and a good mix of scheduled and free time. I also look for organizations that travel responsibly and offer ways to give back to the communities visited. And of course, good value for money.

G Adventures

Headquartered in Canada, this is the company I’ve use most. I’ve traveled to India, Peru, Ecuador, Croatia and Jordan with them. These are some of the reasons they’re a great choice for me:

  • Groups are small and itineraries are usually heavy on cultural immersion
  • They offer trips on every continent and a wide range of trip stlyes. These include more independent budget itineraries, active trips and “comfort” itineraries with upgraded accommodations and more included meals
  • Most of their tours offer a healthy amount of free time
  • The guides are always fantastic – they call them CEO’s, or Chief Experience Officers
  • You won’t be penalized for going solo if you’re comfortable sharing a room with someone of the same gender. Alternatively, you can pay a bit more for your own room if you prefer.
  • They have a “lifetime deposit” policy – if you put a deposit down on a trip and then can’t go for any reason, they’ll keep it on file to apply to any future trip. No expiry
  • They support many of the communities visited through their Planeterra Foundation.

Explore Worldwide

This company is similar to G Adventures and based out of the UK. They offer great value with their included cancellation insurance and free airport transfers.

When I traveled to Cuba with Explore, they put together an efficient 8-day itinerary covering Havana, the Vinales Valley, Trinidad, and a few other stops along the way. Since Cuba’s transportation network is practically non-existent, this would have been impossible with independent travel. They also provided options for some unique local experiences.

I was thrilled to take salsa dancing lessons from a local teacher arranged by our guide. Our instructor welcomed us into her living room, where an old record player provided the soundtrack and family portraits of past generations adorned the walls. We practiced our steps while grandmother looked on from her rocking chair in the next room.

The guide also took us to a small town paladare – a local home-based restaurant. The food was delicious, from the ajiaco (vegetable soup) to the grilled lobster with salad, rice & beans, and finally a unique dessert of preserved oranges. And we were serenaded by a local musician while we dined.

lunch at a paladare in Cuba, demonstrating one of the benefits of guided tours - finding hidden gems

group lunch in Cuba

These are experiences I would not have discovered on my own.

Intrepid

Along similar lines is Australia-based Intrepid Travel. Of all of the companies I’ve traveled with, they focus the most on working with local suppliers. They provide an Intrepid leader for the whole trip, but at most local stops they contract local guides to show the group around the sites.

Intrepid also uses public transportation wherever possible, so travelers often take a local train or bus between towns instead of a private mini-van. It’s about as close as you can get to independent travel.

traveling by boat in the Mekong Delta, demonstrating one of the benefits of guided tours - getting help to navigate local transport

local transport on the Mekong River in Vietnam

One of my favourite Asia memories is the overnight train between Hanoi and Hue on my Intrepid tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. Our group was mixed in with locals in 4-bed sleeper cars. When a few of us pulled out a deck of cards to pass the time, two Vietnamese travelers joined us in a hilarious game of “Asshole” played largely with sign language and lots of laughter.

In this case, it was the perfect balance of having the logistics arranged by the tour company while still having the opportunity for connecting with local people. Of course, each trip is different, and you’ll have to decide whether the benefits of guided tours outweigh the “cons” in your situation.

Happy touring,

Mona signature

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