Imagine riding across the Gobi on horseback with wind flowing through your hair feeling like a true nomad. Vision yourself hiking through the Atlas Mountains or floating on the Ganges watching the enchanting evening Varanasi aarti.
It sounds epic, and I could imagine you’re building up a pretty great mental picture?
Well, I can assure you when that day occurs it’s going to be a truly sensational experience. Yet, how do you go about that experience? Do you backpack that country or are you a bit nervous about travelling there and want a guided tour? Perhaps you’ve not thought about it THAT much. Maybe with these questions sitting on your mind, it’s making you hesitate about your bucket list choice.
Don’t worry, for all types of travellers; this can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve actually asked myself this question many times in advance of my trips. Upon asking myself this question, I’ve managed to find myself backpacking while travelling and also part of a guided tour. What’s better guided tours or backpacking? To be honest, I love doing both, and there are several benefits to each form of travel. Therefore if you want to see a bit more detail behind both then read on for the highlights. Or, if you’re impatient, skip to the bottom and see for yourself which one I think is better. But first, let me get on to the good and the bad of each travel option.
Well, guided tours are pretty much what it says in the name you are lead around a country with a guide. Now depending on the type of trip, it may differ. There are tours which have specific age restrictions, group sizes and format of the journey. Such formats could be:
Handheld travel– (not literally handheld) This form of travel is where you have a guide with you at all times, including meals. Meals are often pre-arranged and pick by the guide. It’s kind of an all-inclusive form of travel.
Part handheld- Another form of a tour where you have a guide and have some relaxed time in the day to explore a place. Similarly, you can eat at specific locations.
Self Guided– Finally, you can undergo tours where you have an itinerary and route provided by the tour operator. Which is suited to a form of more independent travel.
If you’re not familiar with tours you maybe, even more, overwhelmed with these options! Don’t worry, you can take your time to decide, and the beauty of these types of travel is that a lot is already pre-planned. You may be thinking, well Alex, what’s better out of these options?
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My personal experience on a Part Guided Tour
Well, I am YET to travel on a fully guided or self-guided tour. I’ve only visited in the past using part guided, i.e. part handheld tours. In the past, I’ve travelled with Intrepid Travel and their sister company back then Gecko’s Adventures (which was for 18-29-year-olds).
One trip in particular I recall was when I went around Northern India. I chose to travel in a part guided tour for 18-29-year-olds.
The reason I chose this two-week trip was that I was working and studying full time, so I didn’t have time to plan in advance or travel around. I travelled in a group of 16 through Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi and Bundi.
Apart from the few days prior and a few days after, I had an enjoyable trip consisting of days filled with attractions and new experiences. Looking back, that tour had a range of positives and negatives. Let me tell you the benefits of my experience:
- Time– I didn’t have much time to take off from work, so I got to see all the main sights and interested squeezed into a short period of 2 weeks. All the accommodation was pre-arranged for me, so I didn’t have to plan or debate for that.
- Friends-I met a great group of people and became friendly with them throughout my journey.
- Led by a local- The guide was a native to India, and he could answer many of my questions. I also gained an insight into a locals perspective and tried local food based on his recommendations. Perhaps local food and experiences I would have never have tried on my own.
- Comfort- India was renowned for a lot of crime, rape and murders. I felt at ease and safe from the knowledge of the local guide.
Given those benefits, a guided tour also has disadvantages, which are the following:
- Money- Given my experience, you may spend more money than backpacking. Guides may take you to restaurants and attractions of their choices. As they, maybe receiving a kickback, i.e. a free meal or stay. Similarly, at the end of the tour, you often have to give a guide a tip.
- Spontaneity- Most likely, you’ll have an itinerary for each day, and you’ll know what’s coming to you. Therefore you’ll have chances of things taking you less by surprise.
- Tedious- Due to the shortness of time, you may find you have less leisure days and more days crammed pack full of activities.
- Stuck with your group- If you don’t like your companions or guide, you’re stuck with them for the allotted period.
- Flexibility- Depending on the type of tour, you may not get to explore the options you want if you have to stick to a specific schedule.
Now lets progress further on to backpacking:
When people use the term ‘backpacking’ often you picture hippies wearing flowing elephant pants with large rucksacks on their backs. They like to do a form of low-cost budget travel, scraping around places surviving off their backpacks. While you do see this commonly across South East Asia, I don’t believe this description truly defines a backpacker. Backpacking can also be people who don’t have a specific plan, who yes have their belongings in a rucksack or a suitcase. However, aiming to travel over three weeks or longer on a spontaneous whim. Similarly, their budget may be different from another backpackers, and what can be deemed as affordable or budget travel may be subjective.
Having backpacked myself, I also see there are several pros and cons to doing so while travelling.
- Full flexibility– It’s up to you to choose what to do, where to eat and where to sleep. You have complete control and freedom to do what you wish when travelling. If you are wanting to stay in a destination longer or move on to another one sooner, you can do so.
- Confidence booster– You’re in a new country with new people and cultures unknown to you. Which means you have to step outside your comfort zone and socialise with new people. When returning to normality, you may have a newfound level of confidence.
- Spontaneity- This one similar to the flexibility…as you don’t have a full idea of what lies ahead of you each day. You have more scope to go off the beaten track, create more memories and unique experiences.
- Connect more with locals- You have to come to terms with locals more, negotiating and asking for directions. As opposed to relying on someone else doing it for you.
- Cheaper- You, don’t have a tour operator or a guide needing to earn an income.
Well Alex, what are the disadvantages of backpacking?
- Time-consuming– Often, you need a reasonable amount of time to travel around. Similarly, the planning and time spent making decisions on the road.
- Bad if you can’t stick to budgets- If you’re like me and allocate yourself somewhat of a daily allowance. It can be somewhat hard to stick to if you don’t have much willpower.
- The effort required- You need to put a lot of effort into travelling such as making friends, planning where to stay and eat. The effort to decide on what to do and so forth.
So, Guided Tours or Backpacking, what’s better?
Guided Tours or Backpacking are both better for me in some aspects. I’ve experienced plenty of guided tours which have been fun, and I got to see all the main tourist attractions within them. Likewise, they worked best for me when I was working and studying full time. The tours I’ve taken have only been through Intrepid Travel and not any other travel operators. So, from my stance, I can only argue that these tours have been fruitful.
Backpacking has worked out well for me at times, as I’ve done everything off my own accord. I met many locals, others of different nationalities and have had offbeat experiences too. Sometimes, I’ve had trips cut short as I’ve gone way over my budget and others I’ve had extended. I’ve also returned from journeys with more money.
Looking back at my experiences, for me, it’s subjective. As it depends on your work life, budget and your spare time. I think both are great options and just because you don’t have the resources to make your preferred choice, I suggest doing the other. Take any opportunity you can to travel and see the world.
What do you think? Guided tours or backpacking? Comment below regarding guided tours or backpacking.