Day tours, convenient or a waste of cash?

To complete my trilogy on tours, I will now spend a few hundred words on the use and abuse of day tours.
I am currently in Santorini, Greece, and have recently felt acutely aware of the rip off nature of some of the tours available.

An Oia sunset tour provided by one of the spruikers in Fira; a bus to Oia, dinner in a restaurant (not included) and a bus back. For thirty-five euros. Consider this, the local bus from Fira to Oia is 2.20 each way (2.80 after midnight). You are paying thirty euros and change for the ability to eat dinner at a table full of strangers… Sure in the highest of high season when reservations are harder to get this may feel like it is worth the payment, but when I asked which restaurant the seller replied with ‘ it changes, sometimes one place sometimes another’.

Yes this may be the dodgiest of examples, and there are definitely sunset tours worth splurging on – the catamaran option seems to be the coolest, I am yet to try it – but the fact remains that you can see the sunset from anywhere in Oia, and in fact anywhere that side of the Island for buttloads less – you know, free?

On the flip side day tours can be immensely useful to travelers. If you have limited time in a place, or are completely unaware of how to access a place of interest then a day tour can be handy. Most recently a friend of mine provided an excellent example of the perfect use of day tour. Those times when you’re travelling when you are so completely worn out and tired but don’t want to miss the place you’re visiting and you just want someone to come to your hotel, show you the thing, and take you back to your hotel. She had been sick for a few days and just plain didn’t want to deal with finding the right bus[es], walking the two kilometers to and from the site, and standing in line for tickets in the middle of Turkish summer, so a day tour was booked and thoroughly enjoyed.

Or like me, in Vietnam, I found a tour provided by a company called XO Tours. This was a unique experience I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. A motorbike picks you up, and takes you to a variety of street food vendors in different parts of the city. It was incredible and I would probably do it again to be honest. This added value to my travel and therefore was more than worth the money.

So, a few hundred words later, the conclusion can be made that day tours are useful tools. However, they should be used sparingly and only when the situation calls for it (no point using a drill when a hammer will do the job just fine). Just spend five minutes making sure you’re not paying double, or triple, or more, for little or no added value.

Why organised tours are the answer! [sometimes]

Now, you may have garnered from my last ‘organised tour’ post that I am not a huge fan of organised tours – and you would be half right.

 

Half because I don’t really like being herded around, and because I think that tours in Europe are unnecessary. But what happens if you want to travel somewhere less accessible than Europe? Somewhere the tourism isn’t as developed? Or maybe, as in my case, your mother turns an odd shade of purple when you suggest visiting India as a solo female…

 

Group Tours in Challenging Countries

Are you 17-70? (or a spritely 80? Or more?)

Are you concerned about travelling in a challenging country?

Do you like the idea of night trains and tuk-tuks?

 

Pros:

  1. Local Guides = Peace of Mind. In countries where cancellations are common, transport is confusing, or English is far from widely spoken, a local guide is an incredible resource.
  2. Best of the best. Similar to “getting a lot in”, because these local guides work almost constantly, they know what attractions can be a flop. When we were in Jaipur we had a packed day, and we were all heading to the Palace of the Winds, we were told to look at the gorgeous façade and move on because the interior is just not as mind blowing. Some of the others and I took this advice, while some went to the palace interior and were somewhat disappointed. Obviously this won’t be true for everyone, but I for one was glad I took the advice and had an afternoon exploring the markets instead.
  3. Safety Net. I will admit, I was glad in India to have a group of people I could rely on to be there. When I was originally planning a solo trip to India I was sure I would be ok, but I was nervous about certain elements – the night train I needed to take, Holi, etc. having a group of people to catch the night train with, having someone to organise the Holi party, and just generally knowing that there are people close by who are basically guaranteed to want to do the same things as you – it’s a safety net, and I was glad for it.
  4. Dipping of the Toe. I took a tour in Vietnam, and I had an amazing time. Having experienced Vietnam in this way I know – categorically – that I would go back alone, and for an extended time. I can’t wait to re-visit Vietnam, it is easily one of my favourite places I’ve been.

Cons:

  1. An awful lot…again. Like tours in Europe I feel that companies try and fit too much in. Even as part of a larger tour I felt that eight days in India was far too little. I mean yes, we had a night in Delhi, but we walked around for five or six hours and went to dinner – not what I would call comprehensive.
  2. The cost. You can do it yourself in India (and most of Asia for that matter) for far less than the $90 a day I spent on my tour. I, however, worked the system and got 25% off my tour, so the money was less of an issue for me.

 

My experience:

I went on my first small group tour to Vietnam, I always say that my going to Vietnam was fate. I was talking with a friend about how much I wanted to go to Vietnam, but just didn’t have the money or time. Whaddayaknow ten minutes later I get a Scoopon travel email advertising nearly 60% off – the cost of the tour, including accommodation in really nice hotels and transport, was less than the cost I estimated for three weeks of budget accommodation. It was the quickest decision I ever made – I bought it, booked it, bought flights and insurance – eight month in advance. As I have said, I adored Vietnam and I will be visiting solo again. My India tour eventuated because as I said, my mother had a nervous breakdown when I told her I was going alone. I think this is fair, India is a more challenging destination than many. I don’t regret the tour decision, however for the Nepal portion of my trip – I would return alone in a heartbeat. I will be going to India again, and it will probably be with a tour.

 

Conclusion

I think it is pretty clear that I think pretty highly of tours in developing countries.

As you can see I find far fewer ‘cons’ with tours in developing countries than in Europe. You will notice that I don’t bring up the strict timetable as a con for tours here- that’s because in my experience with Geckos Tours, the timetable is a mixture of planned activities, optional activities, and free time. I also didn’t raise the issue of not getting out and about with the locals, with these tours in developing countries having people from a similar background to you is comforting – and you aren’t overwhelmed, ten to sixteen people in your group is very different to forty or fifty.

Obviously there will be people out there that still feel that no country is too challenging to ‘resort to a tour’ (insert snide half smile and nasal laugh here) and I say to those people in general, what I said to the individual who said that to me when I decided I was going to India on a tour. It’s not their travel, it’s your travel. You don’t necessarily have the network of travel buddies to meet up with at various points in India, you don’t necessarily have the life experience that makes you confident to wander the streets of Jaipur alone – and you’re not so pretentious to pretend that you do in order to please a virtual stranger. [boom!]

If you’re confident enough and you’re experienced enough to do it alone, and you actually want to do it alone – then go for it! Solo the fuck out of that country. But if you read this list and think that doing it with a tour sounds fun, fits your style, or soothes your mothers heart palpitations – then google it, research it, deal check it, and book it!