After three interesting weeks of visiting Japan, I honestly wish we had taken a tour.
Travelling with my family, we enjoyed every place we visited, but factoring in the language barrier and transportation and costs, we felt quite isolated and alarmingly inefficient.
I have been a tour guide/tour manager on and off for over 20 years. To that end, I only lead tours to places I know well. If I do not know a place well enough I do my research. Travelling independently in Asia, I could not even read the language.
Travel days were fun, but it was difficult to pack in much more than simply getting from A to B. The journey is absolutely a huge part of the voyage, but in expensive destinations wandering aimlessly can be financially taxing – and feel like a waste of time.
Academically I struggled more. Even though some signs are bilingual and service is outstanding, there were so many questions I could not find answers for.
There really is merit to having a guide and an itinerary.
We did not treat our Japan adventure like a budget, backpacking trip. Rather we wanted to learn about Japan, enjoy the food and explore. In calculating all the ‘a-la-carte’ costs, a tour package could well have been more affordable and certainly much more efficient.
It is a tour company’s best interest to highlight the must-see elements of any destination. As the consumer, one should do their homework. Some people prefer a loaded itinerary with every minute managed, whereas others choose tours that include highlights, but also offer free time to explore – with guidance and organisation.
A frequent complaint about tours is having to wait for fellow travellers and sticking to a strict timeframe. Both comments are legitimate, yet travelling independently really does involve far more waiting. Waiting for trains, waiting to enter sites, waiting for checking in … and of course arriving early everywhere for fear of getting lost.
When travelling independently I like to hire local guides (as I can be for hire), but the advantage of a tour is having the overall story planned out in advance.
On each of my 20+ tours a year, I try to build a continuous story for our clients. The itinerary should be logical – and therefore keeping with a particular theme; a region, a country, or a goal (wildlife, architecture or history).
Personally, I will always continue to pursue my own adventures. In places where I claim a certain expertise a tour is less appealing (unless I am the guide), but globally the advantages of a planned itinerary are indisputable.
As for being in a group; that is a highlight! Like-minded travellers tend to click and the lunchtime and evening conversations are delightful. My engaged and extroverted son likes nothing more than making new friends and discussing what he has seen.