What’s the best way to travel?
We talk to people who stress that they always travel independently and it’s the superior way to travel. And then we speak to others who have no interest in independent travel. They think it sounds like a hassle, could be dangerous, and they want to leave all of the planning to others.
So who’s right? As is so often the case in life it’s “neither one” or “it depends”. (How unsatisfying.)
Pros of independent travel
We believed for many years that the independent route was clearly the best. We enjoyed putting together our itineraries, Brunette researched everything thoroughly and we had a strong sense of adventure (at least at the beginning of the trips..). Luckily we never had anything of consequence go wrong and we had lots of fun.
Here are our pros of independent travel:
- Control over our itinerary. No need to go to that fish farm if we’d rather troll for impractical white linen blouses we won’t end up wearing very often. (It’s not as if we would have started a fish farm either.) If we want a quick side trip to another country we can take it – even if it does turn out to be a dumb idea. We can even be so bold as to have days with no plans!
- Control over our airfare and the route we take – We care a whole lot about price but if it’s only going to save us $200 and take 7 hours more, we keep on looking for options. We aren’t restricted to any particular airlines or airports and there can be great freedom in that.
- More opportunities for spontaneous adventures – when it’s just the two of us we get into more unanticipated (and often inadvisable) situations than if we’re part of a group. We’ve done plenty of dumb things but we’ve also made some great memories and laughed ourselves into comas.
- Building new neural pathways – Whenever we have to figure out something difficult and actually do it we tell ourselves that the value was that we built new neural pathways. Rumor has it that’s important as people age (not that we know anything about that).
- No risk of travel companions who annoy us. – We’re immune to each other.
- Get up when we damned well please. – Unless Brunette goes all bossypants or Blonde finds out about an early morning sale on something she wants.
- Less likely to come home sick. – This is not the same as unlikely.
Cons of independent travel:
- Can waste a lot of time – Recently, while looking over notes from a trip we took to Spain for 6 weeks, we realized both how much fun we had – who doesn’t love a ride with a flatulent turtle?- but also how much time we wasted. How about the day our pre-purchased train passes for the Spanish railway Renfe caused us to spend 7.5 hours in the Barcelona train station for a trip of less than an hour? Or the home we stayed in that had unknowable appliances, uncertain electric and none of the promised wifi?
- No one to come to the rescue – We made two trips to Fiji in two years and two times we ended up without a hotel room booked for the last night. It would have been nice to have a travel agent or company protect us from our stupidity about the International Date Line.
- Costs tend to end up higher than expected – With the group trips and cruises we’ve gone on we know the prices of the trips, extra excursions and estimated tips before we leave home. When we wing it we tend to come home somewhat dismayed by the unseemly happiness of our credit card companies.
- Don’t learn as much about the history and culture – Unless we hire our own guides we basically learn what might be in a guide book or on a museum wall. We form our impressions of a country largely by observation and experiences. In group travel (with a good company) we learn from local guides who are skilled at telling us about a destination in an interesting way. We also get to ask them lots of nosy questions about the culture, economy, education system and their personal lives (OK, mostly Blonde does that but Brunette tends to feed her the questions).
- Risky reliance on the kindness of strangers – It’s quite likely this applies more to us than to other independent travelers. We have gotten into the cars of strange men (and we don’t mean Brunette’s husband) who don’t share a language with us and who we hope will drive us to where we think we’re bring taken. We have ridden with such men in Turkey, South Africa, Abu Dhabi and Mexico – places where unaccompanied American women are encouraged to throw caution to the wind. And then there was the time we couldn’t find our parked car (at midnight) in a hard core Mafia town in Sicily and a man we didn’t know drove us to it as Brunette planned how she could strangle him with her scarf if he tried to attack Blonde…(she couldn’t have – end of story.)
Truthfully, if our blog hadn’t somehow managed to get enough of an audience for us to get offered free group travel we would probably still be traveling independently (if ineptly). But it did and we are very happy about that! We have been fortunate enough to travel with top tier companies such as Viking Cruises (both ocean and river) and Go Ahead Tours. In doing so we found new pros and cons.
Pros of group travel
- Experts plan the itinerary – We don’t plan to see a museum on a Monday when it will be closed. We know we can get from Point A to Point B without having to cobble together the “how” by asking questions on travel forums and spending time staring at maps (for those of you under 50 you can ignore that last comment). Everything we choose to do will happen and if for some reason it can’t, that is someone else’s problem to solve. There can be great peace of mind in knowing that.
- Costs are known upfront – Admittedly our cost is “free” which is one we highly recommend. But we know what to budget for tips and how many meals we will be eating on our own. It isn’t the free-range spending of independent travel.
- Can efficiently check reviews before booking – We (“We” is Brunette) check on hotels, restaurants and even day trips when we travel independently. For group trips we just look at the reviews relevant to that company and itinerary and save ourselves/her many hours of time on the internet. (We use the saved time on other internet activities such as online shopping for new wardrobes for the trip.)
- Someone has our back – If the company has booked our flights and a problem arises they deal with it and just give us the solution. If we get sick they find us a doctor who speaks English. We always have lots of questions about where we’re going and what we’re seeing and they provide top-notch local guides.
- People responsible for us have been vetted much better than we ever do for ourselves. – We doubt that the travel companies we’ve used have just asked strangers in cafes at midnight to please take us somewhere. (At least we hope that hasn’t happened.) Of course this is only a “pro” if you use a reputable company you’ve done your research on – they are definitely not all equal.
Cons of group travel
- Everything happens on their schedule – All of a sudden we have to get up way earlier in the morning than we would on our own. If we want another evening in a destination and that isn’t part of the itinerary it won’t happen. And if we get somewhere we don’t like we still have to stay there until the scheduled departure. (To be fair this last one really hasn’t happened with Viking or Go Ahead.)
- Airfare choices can be limited and lousy – That whole “airfare included” thing is very attractive. At least until you find out that they only have agreements with a couple airlines that may be wildly inconvenient for you in terms of airports and total travel times. Personally we suggest finding out what they offer and then comparing it to what you can get on our own before taking it.
- Other people – We meet a lot more nice people than annoying ones on our group trips. Even so there’s always going to be the couple who never shows up on time, the person with the juicy cold and poor hygiene habits and the nonstop bus-talker. Thankfully we are never the annoying people.
- Come home sick – See “other people” above.
With neither independent or group travel being the one clear winner it’s best to weigh the pros and cons and see how much different things matter to you. If you see more “pros” in one, even if it’s the one you have doubts about, at least try it on a limited basis to see what you think. (This means an 8 day river cruise, not an around the world ocean cruise for your first try with a company.)
Sometimes one is better than the other. Maybe you work full time and don’t have the extra time and energy to do your own planning. You should consider a group tour.
Or maybe you want to go on a trip to find your roots (Blonde goes to CVS when she finds her roots) and you need to develop a customized itinerary.
One “pro” of either option is that at least you’re traveling and that’s the most important thing of all!