When speaking of traveling “independently,” I am referring to that type of travel whereby one makes all the arrangements himself, and either travels alone, with a friend, family, or in a small group. In this scenario, you are the one designing your own schedule and finding your own transportation, lodging and meals. You are the “boss” of your own itinerary. As a result, this type of travel lends itself to providing the most flexibility, challenge and creativity.
In regards to “traveling with a tour group,” I am referring to that type of travel whereby one joins an already scheduled tour, which operates on a fixed itinerary. Organized usually by a professional tour company or organization of some sort, this form of travel allows one to know in advance what you will see, when you will see it, how you will get there, and where you will stay. Overall, it lends to a more “stress free” vacation, as someone else worries about all the details.
So which type of travel is the best independent or with an organized tour group? Well, that is for you to decide. However, I have a number of questions listed below that will help you choose the type of travel which might be best suited for you. Then, following the questions, I have provided further insights into the advantages and disadvantages of each type of travel.
The best way to determine which type of travel might be best for you is to consider the following points:
• How many people will be going?
• What is the health of the individuals?
• Do you prefer to design your own itinerary?
• Do you prefer to have everything arranged for you?
• What are the ages of the people in your group is anyone very young or old?
• How much time do you have for the trip?
• What type of accommodations do you prefer?
• Does anyone have any foreign-language skills?
• Do you prefer your freedom and independence?
• Do you mind adhering to a tour group’s fixed schedule?
• Do you mind traveling alone in a foreign country?
• Does anyone have familiarity with the particular sites you want to see?
• Has anyone traveled to the shrines before?
• Does anyone have experience traveling abroad?
• What is the expense of independent travel versus tour travel?
After having backpacked independently through 18 European countries and leading guided tours as well, I believe you must address five crucial points in deciding what type of travel is best for your needs.
1) The Physical Health of the Individuals
If anyone may potentially need special care or help, an organized tour group would be a much better option than traveling independently in a foreign country. It simply goes without saying that if someone should require medical attention while on a trip, they would be in much better hands if they are under the leadership of a professional tour group director. As this group leader or coordinator is usually one who is a native of the foreign country and speaks the local language, they are oftentimes able to help avoid all those logistical “headaches” and nightmares that one may encounter if they had to seek out help on their own. Hence, before making the decision to travel independently, one must first take into consideration their age, physical condition and recent medical history.
2) The Rigidity of Fixed Schedules vs. the Flexibility of Customized Schedules
Are you one who prefers to “travel on a whim” and change your itinerary at a moment’s notice to see something new, or stay in a place you really like longer? If so, that might be a strong indication that you are a candidate for traveling independently. Or, are you someone that prefers to know in advance exactly what you will be paying and exactly what you will be seeing? Are you also someone who would prefer to have someone else take care of the details and logistics while you sit back and relax, and concentrate solely on the trip or pilgrimage itself? If so, an organized tour just might be right for you.
3) The Foreign Language Skills of Those Traveling
If the only language you speak is English, then you must seriously look at the pros and cons of traveling independently. Oftentimes, if you are unable to speak the language of the country your are traveling in, then everything becomes a trial buying groceries, reserving a hotel room, getting on the right train, and figuring out the times of certain events and activities. And most importantly, you can potentially miss out on lots of excellent information about the destination if you do not know the language.
However, by being on an organized tour with a group leader who speaks the native tongue, this problem is essentially eliminated. But despite all the reasons for joining an organized tour group, if you do not speak the language, there are also reasons for traveling independently too. For some people, especially college-age students and the like, there can be no greater excitement or adventure than having to force yourself to “communicate” with the locals by essentially playing charades. On the other hand, if you are someone who does have foreign language skills, then this too might be a great argument for you to travel independently. Oftentimes, if you are one who has this speaking ability, you undoubtedly meet new people and form special friendships with the locals, which adds great memories and experiences to any trip.
4) The Social Aspect
If you are traveling independently, you must first look at whether you will be traveling alone, with a friend, family or in a group. If you are traveling solo, this can provide for a great opportunity to meet people on trains, in restaurants and at the points of interest themselves. But it can also possibly provide for some “lonely” times. When planning to travel with friends or family, this can surely prove to be a great time to strengthen bonds and bring back home memories that will last a lifetime. On the other hand, as many people can attest, traveling in this way can also “test” friendships and the like. Hence, it’s important to consider with whom you might be traveling, and whether it will have the possibility of enhancing or weakening the relationship.
In regards to traveling as part of an organized tour, much of the previous information also applies. However, the biggest difference between traveling independently and in an organized tour in terms of the social aspect is that in the latter case you have many more people with whom you can talk, laugh and share. This of course can add greatly to the experience, and it is quite common that special friendships are borne because of this friendships that continue to flourish long after everyone returns home.
It is difficult to say whether one type of travel is cheaper than the other, as this depends almost entirely upon one’s spending habits. The advantage of traveling independently is, of course, that one can look for bargain airfares, bargain hotels, and bargain meals. One potential problem to this however, is the fact that unexpected costs can arise while en route. For example, you may arrive at a train station late at night and find that the only way to arrive at your hotel is via taxi cab often an expensive proposition. Hence, if you throw in a few of these episodes during the course of your trip, this can greatly throw off your budget.
Organized tours, on the other hand, although rarely cheap, also tend not to be too expensive. And if it’s a good tour company, there should be few unexpected costs once on the trip. Hence, before you even leave for your pilgrimage, you essentially know your costs up front, which can prove to be very helpful in budgeting your own expenses. Overall, if you are intent on traveling independently on a light budget, you can almost always do so. And, if you are intent on traveling according to your means (whether that be budget, moderate, or extravagant), you can almost always achieve this too by choosing the right organized tour group and itinerary.
So, in a nutshell, which type of travel is best? Well, as I mentioned before, that is for you decide. There is no right or wrong answer. But the great thing is this – no matter how you decide to go, the experiences are oftentimes unforgettable. Journeys to special places can serve as life-changing experiences. Whether one travels independently or with an organized group, the experience is forever.