I have been faced with this challenging decision many times while travelling. The choice between booking a tour and knowing what I will see and getting out there exploring on my own. At times it can be an easy choice, but in other cities, it can be difficult to choose.
Given the time exploring a city on your own can be a great experience. You can find your own way, find hidden gems and go at your own pace. But at the same time, you can also run some risks in safety and lack of knowledge of the area.
Many factors can lead you to go either way when deciding between booking a tour and exploring alone. Things like cost, safety, time, knowledge, ease of access and special access can all come into play.
The cost of a tour can play a significant role in the perceived value of the tour. Likewise, the cost you might incur can impact the value of exploring alone. With this being a variable factor depending on the city and the country every time.
Given the time in a city that has many well-known landmarks and is safe to move around exploring on your own can be great. You can often do so on foot or at a low cost on public transport. However, if you have limited time and want to maximise seeing the important sights, a city tour is an option. It might cost some money, but you are trading money for a more efficient use of your time.
An excellent example of this often occurs when travelling on a cruise ship. When I visited the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia as part of a Mediterranean cruise, I happily paid for a city tour. At the time the tour cost me $69.95 (USD) for the transfer from the ship to the town and a four-hour walking tour of the city. I could have covered the same ground on my own, but would have had to work out public transport and would not have received any of the commentary.
Long Distance Tours
Another example can be tours where transport is essential. A tour I took when in Melbourne, Australia to see the penguins on Phillip Island was rather cost-effective. I booked the tour at the cost of $130 (AUD) to go from Melbourne to Phillip Island and see the Penguin Parade. The tour included dinner and entrance to the Penguin Parade.
If I added up the costs involved to do this tour myself I easily would have spent more. Things like hiring a car, the entrance fees at the penguin parade and dinner. But additionally, I would have also missed out on the commentary and additional stops the tour made due to local knowledge by the tour guide.
On some occasions, I have seen the ability to get access to some locations and area’s work both ways. Where private establishments might not allow tour groups but will allow individuals access. Likewise where a tour can either get access or get preferential access to a landmark.
I was on a tour in Europe one time, and the tour guide was taking us to see a particular church. However, upon arrival, the security for the church would not allow the tour group access.
The tour guide had explained this would likely happen, but on rare occasions, they would be allowed access to small groups. It seemed we had too many people in the group on this day. While we were there, the security did provide access to two other tourists that arrived as they were individuals. While it might be a rare occurrence, it can happen and may even be more likely in some countries.
The opposite can also be true at times where landmarks will give preferential access to tour groups. Primarily as a result of either pre-booking a time slot or booking a regular time slot.
I encountered this in Barcelona when trying to visit La Sagrada Familia. Unless you arrive very early in the morning or are part of a pre-booked tour, you will likely spend a lot of time waiting in line. That is unless you have pre-booked your ticket. But unless you had a chance to research in advance you may not even know about this.
The safety of yourself and potentially those you are travelling with can be a concern in some cities or countries. While I could not even begin to list which you may want to show caution in, as it can change. Staying safe is always a consideration.
There are even periods where a city that may be ordinarily safe is not safe. It is these times where an organised tour, while not removing all the risks, may help to improve your safety. Ultimately this is something you need to look at and consider in your circumstances. Just don’t take unnecessary risks.
Unfortunately when we are travelling time is not always on our side. There are times when we might visit a city for convenience, or as an unplanned side trip. In some cases, you may have a chance to explore in other situations you might want to see something while maximising your time.
There is also the consideration that a tour can save you a lot of time when travelling. On a tour, you are going to be taken from landmark to landmark in a time effective manner. If you are exploring on your own and taking public transport, this rarely takes the most direct and useful route for you.
One great example which I have already mentioned above is travelling by cruise ship. You often arrive in a city with just a few hours to see and explore. Some areas lend themselves to self-exploration in a small area. But in general if you want to see the highlights in the time you have a tour can be a great option.
Often when travelling, you may end up with a day or even just a few hours to fill in a city. Often if you do want to see something a tour can be a great way to do this. I had an overnight stop in Seoul, South Korea when flying to Europe; they offered some short evening tour options here.
One aspect of making this choice can be around how much you want to know vs. how much you want to research. When you are exploring on your own, there can be minimal information available in some cases. While with a tour, it might be a fixed set of information but the guide usually has local knowledge of the area.
Exploring On Your Own
I took this option when I visited the English Countryside on my first overseas trip. I rented a car and headed off to explore. The advantage was many of the sights I wanted to visit were English Heritage sites. Many of these had audio guided tours available, and plenty of plaques with information.
Taking a Guided Tour
When I was visiting the Azores as part of my Transatlantic Cruise, I took two tours. Each time the guide was able to provide information at various locations. The locations had no signage or signage in another language, so it greatly helped to know what we were seeing. Additionally, from my point of view, they were able to provide place names and spelling to help me better identify areas later on for my blog.
There is one occasion that tours can be beneficial. That is where particular landmarks might offer some form of special access. But they only offer this access through authorised guided tours. It is unfortunate in some cases that this is the case, but in some countries, it can be a fact of life for tourism. So it can be a consideration at times.
It is also worth keeping in mind that some tours offered are literally the only way you will see an area. Take for example the hot air balloon experience below. You can likely visit some of the area from the ground but you would not get a view like this any other way.
A finally note that I will make for those considering the option of exploring on their own. It is an excellent idea to take some time and do a little research on your destination. More specifically on individual attractions that you may like to visit.
I have come across a few that are good to plan in advance. The first is one mentioned above in Barcelona La Sagrada Familia. While another is in San Francisco to visit Alcatraz Island. A third is the World Trade Centre Memorial in New York City.
For those above and other similar landmarks, it can vary from time of year to day of the week. But taking that time to research ahead of time will save you being disappointed when you are in the city.
Making The Decision
I hope that I have given you some food for thought on deciding whether you should book a tour or make your own plans. Here are the most important points to remember in a quick list.
- Cost: Think about if paying for a tour will help you to use your time more effectively.
- Getting Access: Consider if you will find it easier or harder to get access. It can vary between being alone or part of a tour as well.
- Safety: Is the city or country safe to explore on your own, or would a tour make it safer.
- Time: Do you have limited time or will a tour save you time.
- Local Knowledge: How much information do you want to have to find out for yourself vs. the local knowledge a guide can provide.
- Special Access: In some places, you just might not be able to access specific places without being on an authorised tour.
- Planning Ahead: Research popular destinations you may want to visit in advance to avoid missing out.
In the end, whether you are exploring on your own or taking a tour, make the most of it. Enjoy the destination and have a wonderfuly time exploring with a guide or by yourself.