When your boat breaks down at sunset on crocodile-infested waters in a trackless jungle, there’s ample time to ponder whether or not you’ve made the right travel choices. For instance, Rich and I felt our honeymoon definitely called for independent travel, yet when both our hungover young boatman and his ancient outboard motor conked out completely, miles from anywhere up a jungle river in Costa Rica, it crossed my mind that a bit of backup might have been useful. On another trip, it was the very fact we were with a group, overburdening our barge and driving its propeller deep into the waterweeds, that caused the breakdown in an area of Belize that was equally deserted — except, of course, for the crocodiles. My point is, both group and independent travel have their ups and downs, and there’s no perfect answer to the question of which you should choose.
My regular readers won't be surprised to learn that I lean heavily in favor of independent travel. I love the freedom to make choices about what to see and what to skip, where to eat and sleep, when to go exploring and when to settle at a sidewalk café and watch the passing parade. Relaxed, spontaneous travel enables me to feel comfortable wherever I am and helps me remember that I am not just passing through the world but living in it. “Every day is a journey,” wrote poet Matsuo Bashō. “And the journey itself is home.”
But there are times when your journey takes you places that aren’t very homey, places that are best navigated with the guidance of a competent leader, possibly armed with a machete. Yossi Ghinsberg learned this the hard way when he walked into the Bolivian Amazon with three other inexperienced, ill-equipped men in search of adventure and fortune. They were lost for weeks, running out of supplies, eating monkeys to survive. Yossi wound up separated from the others, alone in the jungle with rotting feet, a diet of snails and raw eggs, and only his hallucinations for company. Not the kind of vacation you’re looking for? Me neither.
Organized tours make sense if you’re heading somewhere that can kill you without even trying (e.g., Antarctica, the Amazon, Mars) or are notoriously tricky to navigate (Cuba, Russia). Most destinations are less fraught with difficulties and restrictions, and you might choose to visit them with a group for convenience, access to specific experiences, and the camaraderie that can, with luck, make the trip infinitely more entertaining.
You’ll probably want to consider a group tour if:
I’ve been on several tours where things did go wrong, and while most of my guides rose magnificently to the occasion, a few rapidly lost their cool and ability to function. Many years ago Rich and I signed up for a month-long tour of Asia’s spiritual traditions, staying at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, learning whirling from a dervish in Nepal, hiking the Himalayas, seeing the Dalai Lama in northern India. All totally fabulous, but the group dynamics and trip logistics went increasingly wonky, and our leaders came unglued. One grew huffy and remote, while the other (his wife) kept bursting into tears and running out of the room. I couldn't blame her, but still, not helping. When a new itinerary was proposed that involved taking a tourist motor coach into a region of India where political unrest had recently included capturing and killing tourists, Rich and I decided we’d be safer on our own. We politely explained we preferred to make other arrangements and took off.
The moral of all these stories? Use your common sense. A little research will help you decide which destinations are easier, safer, and more fun with a group and which you'll enjoy more traveling independently. If you're looking at travel companies, read comments and reviews carefully. Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Alone or in company, nobody expects to get stranded on a river with crocodiles on the shore lifting their heads, licking their chops, and gliding into the water. Luckily, both times it happened to us help did arrive. And I can tell you one thing for certain: there is no sweeter sound in the world than the buzz of an outboard motor speeding over the water at nightfall, coming to the rescue.
Do you prefer group or independent travel? Why? What travel tips can you pass on to others? Let me know below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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