Awkward or Amazing?
Mostly amazing with occasional showers of awkward
I pride myself on being an independent traveller
In fact, I’m almost more proud of organizing a 3 week independent Trans-Mongolian Railway journey at half the budget of package versions than of obtaining a PhD. To be fair, if you made a bucket to bucket comparison of the blood, sweat and tears shed to accomplish both feats, I think it would be a pretty close call.
I love making travel arrangements. Searching for flight deals, reading hostel reviews, pouring through travel guides and articles and dreaming up elaborate itineraries make me tick. I find joy in tackling these chores like a two-year old – messily and with enthusiasm, but most importantly – by myself.
I don’t mind using travel service providers like Kyrgyzstan’s CBT for treks or day trips or Russia’s HOFA for home stays. It’s perfectly fine to delegate – you are after all going on holiday. But the thought of spending weeks following someone waving a giant sunflower from tourist attraction to tourist attraction always had me heading for the hills.
This year, I signed up for my first multi-day organized group tour ever
Why did I give in? A friend who’s epic round the world adventures inspired my own trip suggested that I book a trip to do the Inca Trail with G Adventures. As I paged through their Book of Dreams, I came across an itinerary for discovering the highlands and jungles of Ecuador. In the end it was the offer of a jungle homestay that lured me into the web of organized group tours like a giant Amazonian scorpion spider.
I was pleasantly surprised by my 2 week trip around Ecuador. I think the combination of a fairly flexible itinerary, a chilled out tour guide and good group dynamic worked well for me. I had a lot of time for myself and there were plenty of other solo travellers in the group. I could easily have been stuck with a minute-by-minute travel plan run by Mrs Rottenmeier with a bunch of honeymoon couples.
4 Things I loved about the group tour
I’ve already written about the many benefits of solo travel, but let’s face it – some things are more fun with a crew. Like birthdays. No need to resort to putting a sign on your back that says “It’s my birthday!” in the hope that someone will congratulate you in person. Oh no, because when you’re on a tour – you’ll get a cake and candles and a 6 piece band to celebrate your special day. If you’re lucky you’ll have made friends who are actually happy to treat you like a birthday girl – even if that means doing a 14 km uphill trek in the rain.
Cheesy photo opportunities
You know what I’m talking about. The group jump shot, the jazz hands arrangement, perspective shots, yoga poses on the equator – any kind of pose really. Solo travellers are limited to scenery shots, selfies and the occasion awkward fake smile shots offered by strangers. But if you’re on a tour you somehow have a licence to be cheesy. And that’s awesome.
No need to plan or problem solve
Stuck on a canoe that ran out of fuel on an Amazon tributary river? Relax – let your guide sort it out. All you need to worry about is spotting monkeys in the trees. (This actually happened on my tour)
You get to see places that you probably would have missed on your own
It’s not that these places are impossible to see independently. Not at all. But I have to admit that there were a few things on the itinerary that I would have skipped if I had to do it on my own. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I probably would have been too lazy to take the 3 busses and a pickup truck to get there. And I would have missed out.
And 3 things I didn’t like about group tours
People seem to lose the ability to take action
I’m not an expert in group travel, but what if, instead of staring at the ground for ten minutes when the guide asks us asked to split into groups of three, we actually split into groups of three? Surely stashing 8 women into two triple rooms and two twin rooms shouldn’t have been so difficult? I’m just asking questions.
Less control over your expenses
This basically comes down to restaurant expenses. Inevitably, if you travel in a group you are going to eat at more expensive places. And why not? Your guide wants to show you the best his country has to offer (and rightly so) which doesn’t include plastic chairs, harsh lighting and a massive plate of fried chicken and rice for $2. It’s important to share meals with the group – friendships are best nurtured over steaming dishes and ice cold cervezas. But if everyone else is spending Euros and Pound Sterling and you are stuck with a rapidly declining pile of South African Rands, it’s slightly more complicated.
No need to plan or problem solve
No, I didn’t accidently copy/paste this subtitle from the pro’s list. It’s nice to sit back and relax, but for me, half the fun is in the logistics and the other half in dealing with the unexpected.
Would I book a group tour again?
This exact trip? Absolutely! I enjoyed every minute and I made a lot of friends. But then again, I can say that for a lot of my experiences over the past 5 months. While I’m not completely converted to group travel, I will certainly consider it again in the future.
Life List Entry: Joined a 16 day group tour in Ecuador (and liked it)