Tours versus independent travel: Eight reasons why you should take a tour

I'm a very independent traveller. I've hitchhiked down the Turkish coast and into the rugged mountains of western China. I've travelled on public transport through Syria and Iran, driven across Romania and backpacked the Trans-Sumatran Highway.

Until a few years ago, I'd never dared to take a coach tour. Coach tours, surely, would be full of retirees doing their knitting, passing around caramels and needing a guide just to find their way from hotel room to lobby.

Alternatively, they'd be full of 20-somethings keen to party and bonk their way from city to city in a haze of hangovers.

Either way, coach tours were low-budget, unsophisticated, cookie-cutter holidays for uncertain travellers. They certainly weren't for me. Then, some years ago, I did a coach tour of eastern Canada and had to eat my words.

Since then, I've been only too happy to catch a coach.

Coach tours have changed over the last decade in the same way as cruising: more luxurious, more varied, and appealing to an increasingly wider range of people. Passenger numbers are booming.

So if you've never considered joining a coach-tour here are a few reasons that might change your mind.

The people

People on coach tours are more various than you might imagine. True, many are retirees, but they're often experienced travellers.

I've talked to fellow passengers who did the hippy trail to India in their youth, or were mountaineers or camping enthusiasts. They still go on independent holidays, but they just don't want the hassle any more.

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You'll also find many singles on coach tours, nearly always women who want to travel with friends or make new ones. Many appreciate the security offered by an organised tour.

And because coach touring isn't generally geared towards families (though Trafalgar has a "Family Experiences" category) you'll have kids-free time.

Friendships are made in the back of coach. Some arrange to meet again on other tours. 

Meals can be convivial when compared to the quiet dinners of couples travelling alone.

"You meet new people and build camaraderie among your travel group. Many of our guests have made friends for life travelling with us," says Maureen Styles, a product manager for APT and Travelmarvel.

The spice of life

Coach touring isn't the unimaginative, middle-of-the-road holiday it might once have been.

You might be surprised at some of the destinations and styles of travel now on offer by coach: some are themed on food, wine, photography or jazz.

Many are part of longer holidays that involve city stays, river cruises or train journeys.

AAT Kings has a new Kakadu tour in 2015 combined with a Kimberley cruise; Evergreen Tours takes you on a coach tour through Europe's alpine nations before a river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam.

If you're the adventurous outdoors type, AAT Kings might have you snorkelling in Queensland, swimming under the waterfalls of Litchfield National Park or camping in the Bungle Bungles.

APT offers adventure coach touring in the Kimberley and other regions of the outback on custom-made 4WD vehicles that carry no more than 20 passengers.

Getting involved 

Contemporary coach tours place much more emphasis on participation rather than observation. It isn't just about looking out a coach window.

"Today's travellers aren't content with just seeing sights and ticking off boxes. Coach touring has evolved to provide guests with more active, immersive experiences allowing them to make a real connection with the places and people they meet," says Trafalgar's managing director Matthew Cameron-Smith.

With Trafalgar, that can mean "Be my Guest" dining experiences in local homes, hitting the markets of Florence with a local chef, or visiting a family-run wine estate in southern France.

With Insight Vacations, it might be enjoying a Friday night Shabat dinner in Tel Aviv, meeting huskies at the home of Scandinavian dog racer Roger Dahl, or tasting the experimental flavours - such as gorgonzola cheese and walnut - of gelato maker Sergio Dondoli in Tuscany.

Here in Australia, AAT Kings has added new immersive cultural experiences such as an indigenous walking tour of Fremantle and a chance to meet local providores at Salamanca Markets in Hobart.

Upmarket forces

If you haven't been on a coach since your school days, you're in for a surprise.

Top-range coaches can cost more than $400,000 and have facilities to match.

Many have on-board toilets, wide seats with decent legroom, drop-down video screens and quiet interiors.

The best have plugs for iPods and mobiles and free Wi-Fi allowing passengers to catch up on emails, or to Facebook or Instagram their experiences.

Insight Vacations offers premium accommodation in its Gold category of travel; you might stay in Venice in a five-star hotel right on the Grand Canal.

Scenic Tours offers Connoisseur's Choice, a premium small-group experience that might see you on a chartered flight over the Masai Mara in Kenya.

Money matters

Coach tours are generally good value. Big tour companies use their buying power to get special deals from airlines and from hotels and service providers.

Could you do it yourself for less? Possibly, but you might not necessarily get the same quality of experience.

With a coach tour, you'll know the cost of your holiday up front, though you should look closely at exclusions.

If you have a fixed budget, you can avoid the sometimes nasty surprises and cost overruns of individual travel - especially fuel, which nears $2 a litre in some parts of Europe and can quickly add to the mounting holiday bill.

Talking of fuel, and for those with a green conscience, a coach tour is far more eco-friendly than driving yourself.

It takes 20 cars off the road and is about five times more fuel-efficient per passenger.

Free wheeling

One of my favourite reasons to take a coach tour is not having to drive. No hassles, no honking, no worry about what the speed limit might be, or what side of the road you should be on.

We all know how energy-sapping it can be to concentrate on foreign roads and navigate unfamiliar places while our partner screams directions in our ear.

And have you tried parking in a European old town? No easy task, unless you have Houdini-like parallel-parking skills and the ability to read ticket machines in Portuguese or Czech.

On a coach, without the need for driver or map-reader, nobody misses out on the view.

Elevated seats and large windows mean you get a great outlook akin to being on a train.

You can see over hedges and crash barriers and stone walls.

Or you can also have a good chat, catch up on emails or read a book if the landscape is momentarily uninteresting.

Independence days

You won't spend as much time on the coach as you might think. There are still tours that cover 10 countries in two weeks (not necessarily a bad thing if you want a quick overview) but many now focus on specific regions, and linger in cities for two or three nights.

Trafalgar, for example, offers an "At Leisure" category dedicated to longer stays at each stop and a promise of no departures before 9am.

Contiki, once infamous for its pinball speed, now has "Easy Pace" tours with a two-night minimum stay in each destination, late starts and more free time.

Choices have changed too. Coach touring was once like a school excursion, strict with its itinerary and timetable and a rather regimented, whirlwind affair.

True, the five-minute stop for a photo op is still alive and well but, beyond that, you have less exacting routines.

Some itineraries, such as Contiki's "In-depth Explorer" or Insight Vacations' "Easy Pace" tours, offer a variety of options and more free time to explore by yourself.

Some no longer include every minute or every meal, recognising that travellers occasionally want to go it alone.

Flexi time

When it comes to time, consider how much of it you might save when you leave the organisation to someone else.

"Coach touring offers more time in the places you want to explore, rather than spending time working out how to get there or what to see when you're there," says Scenic Tours' product manager Aleisha Fittler.

"Relax. Everything is taken care of."

Coach-tour itineraries have been put together by experts who consider value and timing, and have then been honed over years of practical experience.

Putting together a similar itinerary yourself can take hours of research among car-hire companies, hotels and tours, and then you're the one obliged to road-test it yourself.

There are many things, such as meals and entrance tickets, that are difficult to organise in advance.

Many companies have special-access tickets to major sights, such as the Louvre or Tower of London.

If you think coach touring is about being herded around, check out the queues for individual travellers outside the Vatican: they snake between metal barriers for hundreds of metres as happy tour passengers stroll past.

Sometimes, it just might be good to abandon your preconceptions and explore another way to travel.

You might find it surprisingly rewarding.

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