The Pros and Cons of Organized Tours

The Old Town of Poznan, Poland
The Old Town of Poznan, Poland

We’ve all been there. As soon as you arrive to a new city, pushy tour salesmen begin to approach you and try to convince you to take an organized tour with them (and a bunch of strangers) to explore the city/museum/ruins/castle arguing that it’s the best and most economical way of exploring said places.

Of course, a well-seasoned traveler is quick to brush aside those “deals” and decide to explore everything on his own and yet…after 26 months of traveling, I have learned that sometimes, just sometimes, organized tours are definitely worth it and here’s why:

Pros of Organized Tours #01:  It allows you to see places that you wouldn’t normally be aware of.

One of my best experiences of the “Mexican Independence Route” tour taken at Guanajuato was the chance of seeing how five women of a little town called Santa Rosa improved their economy by grouping their resources together and taking the initiative of making jam and selling it in bulk to a very famous Mexican chain of restaurants.

Also, we were able to visit the grave of one of Mexico’s greatest Mariachis at a graveyard located out-of-town. If I had decided to take a regular bus from Guanajuato to Dolores, I would have missed seeing this unique attractions.

Pros of Organized Tours #02: You hear about the sights from the point of view of a local.

Sure, I always read Wikipedia to know more about the sights I will visit and yet, hearing them from a local its a totally new experience.

Even when it leads to awkward moments such as the time at Vietnam’s “Hilton” Hotel (which is in fact, a former prison) where a local Vietnamese guide ranted for 20 minutes to a group of Americans about how their country destroyed his! I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and look at their shocked reactions!

Pros of Organized Tours #03: It saves you the hassle of having to negotiate prices.

This is specially true at places such as the Giza Pyramids of Egypt, I decided to go there by myself and got targeted at the entrance where a couple of Egyptians chased me and begged me to ride their camel for “whatever you want to pay afterwards”. Suffice to say, they were scammers.

With an organized tour you don’t have to worry about that. Except for the premium price of course, each guide has to make his commission after all!

Pros of Organized Tours #04: Sometimes, organized tours are the ONLY way of visiting a place.

When I was investigating for alternatives to explore the Colca Canyon at Peru and the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, I was shocked to find that there were no other alternatives other than taking an organized tour. The first one it’s because it is very costly to go there and come back to Arequipa/Puno (and impractical because of your luggage) so the tour of going from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon and ending in Puno (near the Titicaca Lake) is the best option money and time-wise since you can leave your luggage at the tour bus.

And the Salar de Uyuni? Well, unless you want to rent an used-up Bolivian car and risk getting lost in the vastness of the salt desert, a tour is your only option.

Pros of Organized Tours #05: You can actually meet other interesting people.

This is true, specially in places like the ones mentioned in #4, where all travelers, from backpackers to luxury-travelers meet up since there is no other option available. I’ve met even some of my good online friends in organized tours, actually.

So hey, it’s a money well-spent, specially because all of those funny unique photos taken at the Uyuni Salt Desert.

Cons of Organized Tours #01: It wastes your time at over-priced souvenir shops.

Every single time a guide says “Now, we’re going to have a demonstration of how the locals make textiles/candies/alcohol/jewelry/stone carvings/silver/whatever”, I just roll my eyes by instinct. Extra points if the guide elaborates a complex history about how the owners of the craft shop at Agra are actually the descendants of the guy who did the decoration of the Taj Mahal or how the Papyrus workshop at Luxor is actually an interactive museum where you can buy the works of art.

The worst part? People actually fall for the trap and the guide will hate you forever if you decide to share your knowledge to warn them.

Cons of Organized Tours #02: There is a pre-set itinerary and most of the times, it starts later than usual.

Most organized tours start around 9:00 to 10:00 am in order to ensure that everybody has enough time to have a breakfast and a shower. Sadly, it is not uncommon to wait up to 20 minutes for lazy people who couldn’t be on time.

This annoyance increases at souvenir shops and restaurants since the guide has an incentive to keep you there while always limiting your time at the cultural attractions, where he receives no fee at all. And of course, there’s no way the tour will leave without the late tourists. Sadly.

Cons of Organized Tours #03: The danger of group thinking means that there’s a chance you won’t be able to see/do everything.

When the daily tour of Guanajuato’s haunted houses and mines was coming to a close we were already behind schedule so the guide had the “amazing” idea of convincing us that the Mummies of Guanajuato Museum, the main attraction of the city by far was not worth it because only 60 of the 120 mummies were on display and the entrance fee was high (4 USD).

At this point I had more than enough and decided to rebel against the guide and convince my fellow tourists to vote yes and visit the museum. When we arrived the guide told us that we had only 20 minutes but, because it was already the last stop before taking us to our hotels, I told everyone inside to take our time. After all, the tour couldn’t leave without us. We came out almost one hour later.

Cons of Organized Tours #04: You will have to adapt to people who might not be as outdoorsy as you.

When I visited Machu Picchu I was very glad to see travelers of all ages enjoying the place. As usual, I eavesdropped to learn what the tour guide was saying (after all, it’s a free world!) and I was saddened to hear that he put it to a vote to decide whether to climb Huayna Picchu or not.

Since the tour group consisted of senior citizens mostly, the young people got left out and the guide told them to either come back  to the city or go on their own and arrange their own transportation back. Is it just me or some tour guides are extremely unethical?

Cons of Organized Tours #05: Organized tours are less rewarding that individual solo travel.

This is actually a very controversial topic. In my opinion, you are less likely to encounter true amazing rewarding experiences with organized tours. It’s not the same to explore Paris on foot and getting lost than to take the Tour Bus or a private car.

Organized tours do not test your abilities to adapt in the same way that solo traveling does, after all, there’s nothing like sleeping on a train station during the cold European winter because you missed the last train and there were no hotels available. But hey, that’s just my point of view, what’s yours?

Have you ever taken organized tours? What are your good and bad experiences? Share your thoughts and let me know what you think!

The Old Town of Poznan, Poland
The Old Town of Poznan, Poland

57 Comments

  • Great post! We loved the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato and it definitely was worth more than 20 minutes!

    We like to take the Hop On/Hop Off bus tours when we arrive in a new city because it’s a way to get a lay of the land and we can do it jet-lagged after a long overseas flight while acclimating to the new time zone. Normally we will go it alone after that.

    The Middle East was a bit more daunting so we signed up for an extensive, yet inexpensive guided tour through Egypt and Jordan. It made life easier having a driver and a guide to navigate getting visas at the airport, pushing to the front of the chaotic line at the Egyptian Museum while keeping the scammers away. Yes, we made the requisite stops at the papyrus “museum”, the carpet “school” and the perfumery. There was one other couple with us but only for a couple of days. The rest of the time we were alone.

    We also hired the driver to take us on our off time to restaurants, shops and 6th of October City to tour the movie sets (long story, read my Egypt blog for that hilarious diversion!)

    Our Egyptian tour operator arranged for flights to Luxor and all hotels and then on to Jordan where a driver/guide met us and took us to Jerash and down to Aqaba by way of Petra and Wadi Rum. He dropped us at the crossing to Israel where we had another driver/guide (booked separately) waiting for us.

    All of them were great additions to our trips and in the right situation I would use a guided tour again. That said, the thought of a 12-day escorted bus tour makes my skin crawl! Maybe someone else has a good experience with one of those that they can share.

    • I think that customized personal tours are very good, specially if the price is low and the language of the country in question is extremely different from the one we’re used to. I did a two-week Indian roadtrip through Agra and Rajasthan and I totally loved it. Specially because the price was actually cheaper than traveling by train!

  • What I like less about organized tours is the sensation of not really “living” the place (as you could do by exploring it by yourself), but just watching it from a sort of cocoon. Just like being only a tourist and not a traveller.
    But if the guide is a good one, if he/she really loves and knows well the place and is able to transmit such passion – then also organized tours can be enriching experiences.

  • I’ve been on a guided tour and the only bad thing about it was that we couldn’t linger and stay longer. However, we did leave our hotels early all the time… around 8, at the latest. Breakfast was at 6″30 to 7:30 and leave at 8 promptly.

    I think being on a guided tour has more advantages than disadvantages. No time is ever wasted.

    • You got lucky regarding the pick-up time haha In which country did this happen? And yes, I agree on the lingering part. I still cannot believe that we only got to spend one hour at the magnificent Colca Canyon, I didn’t even get to see the baby Condors!

  • We agree with all your pros and cons! A few other pros we feel include seeing major things in a short span of time (if time is your enemy), skipping queues is a huge one that saves time & also transportation to places that sometimes you will spend ages poring over guidebooks, internet site and public transport timetables to try and see if you can get there.
    A few other cons – lack of freedom to be able to stay somewhere for longer because the itinerary doesn’t allow it, sometimes spending more time travelling between important sites thank at the actual sites because the tour promised to see this and this and this – overall, it mostly comes down to lack of flexibility being the con.
    We do both organised and independent travel – it all depends on where we are going and what we want to do. We’ve had both great experiences and horror experiences with both so keep an open mind for both styles of travelling!
    Great article and certainly has stimulated lots of thoughts for us :)

    • Thanks for your comment! The queue factor hasn’t happened to me yet since most of the organized tours I took where to places without an admittance fee or isolated enough that no one really goes there without a tour. I did, however use the Firenze Card to skip the enormous queue of the Accademia and the Uffizi Gallery :D

  • This article is spot-on! Thanks for sharing.

    I have traveled independently and in sort of a tour. At age 19 I did a study abroad program in India in which we traveled throughout India as a group of American students with a professor and tour guide. At that time in my life, I don’t think that I would have been able to handle or figure out traveling solo in India, so having that structure and someone else to plan everything was really beneficial. At this point, however, I’d love to go back to India alone to see what that experience would be like.

    In a solo travel to Barcelona a year ago, I did, however, take a free walking tour with my hostel. That was actually really cool because I was able to get to know more people in the hostel as well as have a nice introduction to the city.

    I can see the benefits of certain tours, but I ultimately feel like it is hard for a traveler to understand the culture and meet local people whilst walking and riding around in a big group of foreigners or people from one’s own home country.

    • One of the best advices I’ve heard from a expat college of mine is: If you really want to have an unique cultural experience, you have to ditch the ones who are like you.

      While his words sounded quite harsh, he does has a point. When I was a exchange student in France, I did my best not to fall in the Mexican clique of my other colleagues because I knew that was the easiest and most convenient thing to do. Instead, I hanged out with Moroccan, Portuguese, American, Indian, British, Brazilian and Portuguese students and had the time of my life learning about other cultures, languages and different styles of thinking.

      Funny enough, I only interacted with a couple of French students…while in France. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake.

  • I’m generally opposed to tours for places that I can explore on my own. However, a lot of national parks and protected areas only allow tours to enter to cut down on the amount of people wandering around making messes and I can understand that. I did a sea kayaking tour in Milford Sound in NZ last weekend–usually I would try to rent my own kayak and go explore but that’s not an option there–anyway, it was awesome and such a better way to see the place than your average cruise boat!

    • I didn’t know that about NZ, I will definitely keep that in mind for when I go there later this year.

      The situation of protected places in Third-World countries is a little bit sketchier, for example, altough 99% of the visitors to Halong Bay take a cruise or a boat, I’m sure that there is a way to bring your own kayak and explore the bay since there’s no authority to tell you otherwise.

  • Great post, debating the same point in my head right now as I am about to take a tour of beautiful mangroves this weekend. I am all for the tour while my companion says otherwise. Lets see who wins and how it turns out then. :)

  • You nailed it. I agree with your assessment 100 percent; it just depends on the tour really and if you feel comfortable moving around a location on your own. Very interesting and educational post!!

  • I always tended to go the solo route but have become much more open-minded, particularly as these days some tours can be extremely interesting, given the local expertise. As others mentioned sometimes organized tours are the only way to go. Meeting others is also a VERY important aspect.

  • When I work with my clients, I often arrange trips that offer both the option of organized tours and excursions as part of an overall, individual travel experience. I hardly ever book organized bus or land tours for my clients unless they are seeking a novelty experience – such as something offered by G Tours. This combination gives the traveler a feeling of being in control and able to see and do whatever they like when they want to do it, with the ability to take part in an organized tour to really get into the depth of a particular subject, sight, or event. Great post!

  • Hola Raphael!
    I tend to steer as far away from group tours as possible… still, you do have some great points in the pro section. Specifically, point number 4 as there are places where it is the only choice. There are some tour guides I’ve picked up through the years that have been incredibly informative and helpful, but I’ve also had much more on the other side… The type that don’t realize that we can research things on our own, and thus come up with all sorts of interesting yet not-even-remotely-true type of facts…
    Really what it comes down to for me is the motivation of the guide. Is he/she doing it for the money, or because it’s a major passion?

    • Exactly, Jonny, I believe that there’s a big difference between the guy who is leading a tour to pay the bills and the guy who has been doing it for many years because he feels passionate about said place! Very good point!

  • You touch on just the right balance in this post. I travel to NYC quite often and I feel so bad for the folks on the organized tours. Not because they won’t see some amazing sights (hey, a first timer in NYC SHOULD see The Empire state, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square etc. They WILL learn and see a lot!) but because I wonder how many will get the chance to come back and experience the joy of just walking around NYC…finding their own vision of the city. That vision is always shifting.

    I’ve been to NYC probably close to 20 times and each time is it’s own new experience. Will these tourists get to spend a moonlit Monday summer evening watching love-struck couples tango under a tent on the pier? Will they know to, YES!!!, wait that extra 20 minutes and grab an oyster po’ boy at Chelsea Market (with Old Bay fries) rather than the lobster that everyone gets? Will they walk right by Columbus Park in Chinatown, a senior citizen’s HOT SPOT, where the dolled-up elderly practice Tai-Chi, gamble over tile games in groups numbering in the 20’s, curse one another out (and YOU, if you’re staring), sing operatic karaoke, play instruments and gossip about one another under a rainbow of colored umbrellas while birds chirp, merrily, from cages scattered throughout the park? Probably, not. This saddens me.

    Yes, organized tours serve a purpose and I agree with all of your pros on taking one. I just wish that those tourists will get to come back and experience each destination again for themselves. I don’t think you really get to know a place until you wear out your sneakers. Very thought provoking piece, Raphael. I very much enjoyed it :)

    • I have never been to New York so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong but…is it really true that most of the tours of NYC itself are 80% about which film was shot there/which celebrity lives there/and so on? I have seen it so many times in movies/tv series that I cannot help but think that there’s a degree of true to it! :o

      • Not in my experience. I think that is more of a Hollywood cliche, maybe?

        The wonderful thing about NYC is that tours can be on double-decker buses, water taxis, ferries, walking, etc. I, personally, love the night time ferry tours up the Hudson and the double-decker bus is fun at night through Times Square and over the Brooklyn Bridge. The lights are beautiful. Also, the water taxis stop in 3 or 4 locations throughout the city so you can buy one pass and get on and off in different areas of the city. Great things to do as first timers or when bringing a friend who’s never been. The bus is expensive, though. The ferry has alcohol for sale AND is more reasonable. ;P I pretty much just ride the subways unless I have a first-timer along.

  • I agree with a lot of your points about tours. We don’t go on them often, but we don’t mind going on an organised tour every now and then. One of the things that I like about it is the social aspects. It’s only the two of us travelling most of the time, so sometimes it’s nice to be in a group where we can chat with others and make new friends.

  • Great post. I completely agree. I usually am not one for tours, but I do enjoy them when I have to. I am more of a do-it-yourself travel type since I am not one for museums. I only really care about the history if I am intrigued by it or love the country. I am not against tours, but I am a cheap traveler, so I like to see as much as possible of what I want to see.

    • I love all sorts of museums and yet, I’ve never taken a tour inside them because most of them have signs in English. However, I totally understand people who take the (often free) tours inside foreign museums since (at least here in Mexico) some of them contain the explanation only in the local language. I also love audio-guides, except the ones that are automatically activated (such as the one of Beijing’s Forbidden City) since they are really annoying.

  • I agree with everything you wrote, organized tours aren’t that bad, to avoid disappointment you just have to be aware of all the cons. I used to avoid organized tours but lately I went for some and they were really good! Saved me a lot of time, showed a different perspective of the place (the one I’d never get if travelling on my own) and I definitely was able to see places I wouldn’t have got to on my own.

    • Thanks for sharing, I absolutely agree about their many advantages, specially cost-wise in places where tourism infrastructure is not as developed so using public transportation is out of the question!

  • Once in my live I have been on organized tour. And I love it…. having said that it was a very unusual organized trip…. only 7 people, 2 months in Asia and the guide who was like a local so it was amazIng, but it was back in 2008 and from then on I have never did anything like that, simply I like a challenge of solo travel!

    • Was it Contiki tours? I heard they aim to a young crowd so they are a very amazing experience, I wish there was something similar here in Mexico but hey, maybe I can be the first one to implement them! :D

  • It’s such a mixed bag. I did an organized group tour in Costa Rica and it’s safe to say that I would definitely have not been able to figure out how to do all the amazing things we did in 10 days on my own. But there were things I wanted to do that we didn’t do, or places I’d liked to have stayed at longer. In an ideal world, it would be nice to do an organized tour followed by time on your own once you get a sense of the place. The first time I went to Morocco it was through a tour company with my family. It was just us but it was nice to have someone book all our tours and some of our meals, accommodations, transportation, etc. I was fortunate enough to go back a second time on my own and delve deeper into the things that had interested me the first time around.

  • Organized tours usually make me cringe, but I agree, sometimes they are worth it. I just hate that I can’t do my own thing when on organized tours and that I have to wait for slow people in my group or have to eat lunch with a bunch of people I don’t like. However, when you want to travel somewhere more remote then group tours are definitely handy.

    • I agree, lunch time is very bad since it can easily take up to 90 minutes that could be better spend exploring new places, what I do like is when the tour leaves us a few hours in a place and tells us that we can eat lunch at any of the restaurants in the area if we like. I usually pack my own picnic haha.

  • Organized tours are not usually for me, but I agree, sometimes they are worth it. I have been on quite a few that were amazing and some that were horrible, so you just never know.

  • Great post, and totally agree. We generally avoid organised tours with a barge pole, even if it means missing a bit of local knowledge about the attraction. But on a few occasions we’ve relented and after researching the provider and making sure the group was small, we’ve actually enjoyed each tour we’ve done. I think there’s a balance there somewhere, just gotta make sure you get it right.

  • I don’t like traveling in packs for many of the same reasons you list here, but, whenever I am in a new place, I try to find a local historic society or another preservation-minded organization and take a guided tour with them. These are usually a labor of love — led by volunteers (who may be anything in their “real lives” — a retired judge just walked me around the New Orleans’ French Quarter with Friends of Cabildo and, apart from a wonderful tour, provided some excellent recommendations on food and music). I like knowing that my money actually supports the sites and that the stories are well-researched and not hyped up.

    • Volunteers are the best! I took a walking tour at Valparaiso, Chile led by an art student so it sure added a lot of value to the place. Besides, most walking tours are based on tips only so you pay what you get.

  • Completely agree especially with Con#2. For me, and Im guessing most of us, an organised tour represents a relinquishing of independence and let’s face it, long term travel is about as independent as you can get.

  • Being seasoned travellers, I think we are often guilty of assuming we know best and avoid tours like the plague and whilst this is often the right thing to do we recently had an experience that highlighted that it is not always the case. When visiting Berlin, I stumbled across a company offering free tours, yes I know I automatically thought that there must be a catch, but that itself intrigued me so off we went in search of the free tour. What an experience – an afternoon exploring the sights of historic Mitte, learning things that would never appear in any tourist guide or any internet site and mixing with other like minded people. We actually enjoyed it so much we booked a second tour with them for later during our stay. It just goes to prove you can never judge a book by its cover and sometimes a tour is the right way to go! Would we always book a tour – definitely not – but sometimes its nice to do something different! :)

  • Great balances article, for me an organised tour is a last resort when I see a busload of tourists following a flag/umbrella wielding guide I actually feel sorry for them, especially when you can see one poor person wants to stay longer somewhere. I do however like to hop on hop off buses and walking tours so in reality I suppose I do tours in some ways :-P

  • I can hear people sigh- even through a computer screen- when I say that I regularly travel with Busabout. I’ve done 5 tours with them now and can honestly say I’ve never had a bad experience. My big trip through July was with Busabout all except for 3 days. Pro’s ready made friends, a guide who spends hours of his day telling us about the Iron Curtain, General Tito, quizzing us on Arnold Schwarznegger, never feeling unsafe in a location (important to all female solo traveller’s) because someone’s got your back, always having someone to eat dinner with, being shown bits & pieces that you wouldn’t necessarily find on your own (like that last bit of the iron curtain hidden conspicuously in a child’s playground on the outskirts of Bratislava).
    Have I travelled solo? Yeah, through Spain, weekends in a ton of European cities. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, I loved it & continue to do it- my next trip to Iceland is totally solo. But next summer I’m totally hitting Busabout up for some more awesome festivals & to get me around the Balkans :) because I know they can do it, and do it really bloody well.

  • My husband and I are in the process of putting the finishing touches on our family vacation. It’s good to know that when it comes to taking a tour bus that there are actual benefits for doing it. I like how you pointed out that it would be cool to get the point of view from the locals on everything.

Comments are closed.