People often say to me, "I wish I could travel like you do." And the reality is, they probably can. It's all a matter of priorities. But I want to discourage you from taking an escorted package tour. You don't need one. Occasionally a package will save you money, but usually it'll cost you twice what you'd pay if you simply went on your own. I know it's scary to just get on a plane and go somewhere foreign without anyone holding your hand. But that's part of the whole 'getting out of the rut' thing. I was scared, too, and so was everyone else who did it for the first time. Here are my 10 reasons why you shouldn't take a tour:
1. A package tour will cost you more money.
Occasionally, there's a tour company that's packaged its ingredients so well it actually saves its customers money. But generally you pay quite a bit extra for your escorted group versus being on your own.
This doesn't mean that you have to wander around lost, by the way.
It does mean that you must get yourself to a hostel or a hotel, and then let the people there help you plan the rest of your trip with your feet already on the ground, so to speak. Nearly every lodging can help you organise sightseeing, and some have dedicated tour desks. You'll have more freedom to choose; you'll find different options and can go sightseeing for the day with a group; or, my preference, you can hire a private guide.
You'd be amazed how often you end up with these private guides anyway. You pay for an escorted trip from the US, but when you get to your destination, you often get handed over to a local expert guide who might just be this person, anyway, at a higher markup. This happened to me in Kenya: I booked a safari directly for an amazingly low price, and the owner told me that he often works for US travel agencies that book his services and mark them up as much as 400 per cent.
2. You get hit with sneaky fees.
Keep in mind when you see prices advertised for tours, they don't include everything. Those are like used car prices - they're designed to lure you in. Once they've got you, then they smack on a whole bunch of fees and taxes that are sometimes laughable. The bargain basement tours won't even include entrance fees to some of the major sites you want to see, so you need to make sure you have enough money to cover those.
3. You won't meet any locals.
You will likely spend all your time tromping around with a bunch of people like you. Why not just stay home? You could probably walk around an ethnic neighborhood and meet more people from different countries than you'll meet on your whole tour. Believe me, when locals see a tour bus disgorging its contents, they scatter like mice, unless they want to sell you something.
And keep in mind that when you book and pay for things in a foreign location, that money is more likely to stay in the hands of the local people, who probably need it.
4. You don't get to do what you want to do.
When I was just out of college, I took a few package tours. I rapidly learned that, just when I was starting to have fun somewhere, I had to pack up my suitcase and move on. If I fell in love with a city, too bad. On to the next one tomorrow.
5. You're on someone else's schedule.
Really, this is the big one for me. When my friends and I went to Machu Picchu two years ago, I arranged our day trip there by train to arrive early in the morning and depart late at night. It's expensive - around $200 for the day including travel and pricey entrance tickets. So I wanted to get the most out of it.
I had already gotten a recommendation for a private tour guide, called him up and booked his day. So when our train arrived around 9 am, Hector was waiting at the station. For his guide fee of $50, he took us to the gates to buy our tickets and then up to the archaeological site, where he spent the next four hours walking around with us, at our own pace, and describing what life was like there when it was a royal palace for the Inca emperor.
While Hector was strolling around with us, we watched all the tour groups traipse past, usually led by a guide holding up a flag or an umbrella to be easily located. These people were being marched along to the orders of the guide, so they could keep on schedule, make it to their pre-booked luncheon and then get back on their trains. There was no solitude, no chance to sit down and contemplate the mysteries of this great mountaintop city. No thanks.
6. The 'Harold factor'
I was 22 the first time I went to Europe. I joined a motorcoach tour by myself to criss-cross the continent in 22 days. Typically, these motorcoach tours rotate the seating every day. But inevitably what happens is that you end up stuck with the same dreary people, day after day. The same whiners. The same guy complaining that everything's not exactly like it is back home.
Harold was one of those guys, and I couldn't get away from him. He was the guy in the restaurant yelling, "But the sign in your window says you speak ENGLISH!" The one telling you "those people" would never get away with that kind of thing back home.
7. The cattle call.
Nothing epitomises a package tour more than being forced to do things as a herd. Really, you might as well be in the Army. You all have to use the bathroom at the same time, get out of bed and eat breakfast at the same time.
I took my kids to Egypt a few years ago, just before the civil unrest there. I arranged with the hotel desk clerk in Luxor to hire a private guide for $62 per day to take us to the famous tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was hot, so we agreed to get up extra early and be there at dawn, hoping to avoid both the heat and the crowds.
Arriving at the remote valley in the guide's car at dawn, I was dismayed to see tour bus after tour bus already lined up and parked. More kept arriving, and people would step down off the buses with big laminated cards hung around their necks, like kindergartners get the first day of school.
We paid our hefty fees, which included the rights to visit three of the 39 tombs then open to tourists. And we paid extra to see King Tut's tomb. I'd been looking forward to this, reading books and hoping to study the paintings and inscriptions I knew I'd find in the tombs. So my heart sank when I saw the long lines outside some of them, knowing I'd get no time inside.
"Why do some tombs have lines and some don't?" I asked my guide. "Are those the ones you have to see?"
"No, not at all," he told me. "Those are the tombs that the tour guides told people to go into. So they're all waiting there in line."
I decided to skip those, even if they were the most famous. And, instead, I ducked by myself into tombs with no lines, which were smaller but also brilliantly painted and decorated and gave me time to study them in detail.
8. The food.
Now, I'm sure there are pricey tours that feed their clients well. I can't speak to that, never having been on one. Your basic motorcoach tour is going to feed you a hard roll for breakfast with a cold little pat of butter and jam. Then, any included lunch or dinner is going to be banquet-style food doled out en masse. As you might guess, it ain't haute cuisine.
9. The souvenir stores.
On a typical tour, you can absolutely guarantee that numerous times, the bus will pull up at some annoying tourist trap and you'll be herded inside to buy overpriced junk, so the tour company can get a commission off your sales. Admittedly, even private guides can suck you into this. I specifically told our guide, Nibal, who took us to the pyramids of Giza, that I didn't want to go to any of those shops, and somehow we ended up in a papyrus store anyway.
"Just to show you how they make the paintings," she said.
And, guess what? I ended up buying one that resides in my closet to this very day.
10. The Internet.
Not that long ago, it was hard to just take the leap of faith and get on a plane to a foreign country, not knowing what you would face when you got there. Nowadays, though, there are countless Internet resources detailing everywhere you want to go.
Every little hotel in Bhutan is listed on Tripadvisor.com, where you can read reviews from real travellers who've been there and see photos, too. I like staying in small guesthouses and hostels with private rooms, and numerous websites offer reviews and booking for those, including Hostelbookers.com and Hostelz.com. Just go on and start reading. There are also websites that help you book the services of local guides before you get there, such as Vayable.com. Search for anything on the Lonely Planet's Thorntree online travel forum at Lonelyplanet.com/thorntree.
Have I convinced you yet? There are times when a package tour is warranted: if you want to go with a group from your local museum, for example, to study the flying cockroach in Madagascar. Or the Holy Land with a religious group. You'll pay more for a trip like this - I estimate my local museum's trip to Day of the Dead in Mexico costs four times as much as when I've simply gone on my own - but you'll likely find travel mates with similar interests, and the museum director will probably come along, too.
There also are special trips. If your graduate wants to backpack the world but it makes you nervous, you can send him on a Contiki.com trip, which will scratch that wanderlust but keep him safer in a group of supervised, like-minded young adults.
Otherwise, though, I really encourage you to do what I do: Buy a Lonely Planet guidebook to a place that interests you - or check one out of the library - and read it, cover to cover. Lonely Planet books are designed for independent travellers and provide detailed information on how to get from Point A to Point B without a guide, including where to go and when. Sometimes, I just read my Lonely Planets for fantasy.
Make sure to buy travel insurance, including medical, so you're protected.
And, when you do go, let me know what happens!