Often when travelling it seems like an easy option to book a tour or a trip through your hotel or agency. We have found that sometimes this can be great but more often than not we have saved significant time, money and had a far more enjoyable experience by booking things ourselves.
Common Sense Tours
So, you’ve reached your destination and want to go and see the big hitting attraction. You really have a couple of options, shop around with a few local agents to see who offers the best price for a tour. There are usually two types:
Large tour groups:
Usually the cheapest option. These tours will pick you up from your hotel at some unearthly hour spending a few further hours picking up 50 or so other people and then eventually will hit the road and head for the sight. When you arrive there you will be herded with the scrum for a limited amount of time, and then herded back to the bus as they then have to drop all 52 people back at assorted hotels before the sun goes down.
Private tour groups:
Often considerably more expensive than the above. Again you will be collected from your hotel early in a mini bus or private car and either make a few pick ups or head straight to your destination. You will then spend a little longer than the aforementioned tour at the attraction but inevitably you will have to head back fairly quickly as your driver, guide and any other passengers will have to be delivered to their lodgings by an allotted time.
We didn’t want to be picked up at 6am to be herded around all day, sitting on a cramped bus for hours waiting for the driver to find each hotel. We had come away to experience the local atmosphere and see the local sights for as long as we wanted, this wasn’t a box ticking exercise.
If we could get public transport to and from our destination easily then we would. Where we couldn’t get there using public transport we began to inquire about hiring a car or motorbike locally. This was cheaper than the private tour and in some cases only marginally more expensive than the cattle tour. If you can buddy up with some other travelers and split the cost of a hire car then you are on to a winner.
Some of the places we visited like Peninsular Valdes, the high altitude geothermal fields in Chile or the Perto Moreno Glacier warranted whole days not just the couple of hours a tour company would have offered. Even leaving at a reasonable hour, because we weren’t stopping to pick up the crowds, we were often the first people at our destinations and could stay ahead of the tour buses. The other great benefit of hiring your own transport is the flexibility it offers. As we had no fixed route we could go and explore places away from the crowds, going into quieter local places. We could stop as many times as we liked and take photographs, we weren’t herded into the allotted place to have lunch in the roadside service station.
In Chile we stopped on the way back from a trip in the desert to just lay down and star gaze for an hour or so. We certainly couldn’t have done this on a tour bus.
Obviously, if you aren’t confident driving or riding a bike abroad don’t risk it, stick with a tour.
Where you can’t go with a car
Sometimes it’s just not possible to hire a car to get to certain places. Crossing the Southern Altiplano for example isn’t possible in a car, you need a 4×4 and a good driver who knows the terrain and more importantly, the way!
When it came to these sorts of trips we did rely on tour operators but did our research first. We didn’t go for the cheapest but researched companies who promoted safe equipment, good quality food and lodgings and fair treatment of staff and locals. Don’t expect brand new Range Rovers, a 20 year old Land Cruiser with 300,000km on the clock is still considered new in Bolivia.
We took the same approach when taking boats to visit Milford Sound or Ha Long Bay, looking for a company with a strong emphasis on safety, fair treatment of staff and locals and decent food.
Using companies who are more responsible often comes with a higher price tag. We didn’t travel in abject luxury, just mid range. We saw overnight tours of Ha Long Bay being advertised for around $25 in Hanoi. Other boats in the bay clearly fitted this price tag, they looked poorly maintained and tatty.
There was a catastrophe in the bay a few years ago and a group of tourists lost their lives. Don’t risk it, book with someone responsible, saving a few dollars here and there really isn’t worth it.
Common sense tour prices
When booking a tour, going to an agency will often result in a higher price.
If you can get hold of the operator directly then do so. Use the same strategy as when booking a hotel. If you are in a low or shoulder season then your position is even stronger.