solo travel or with a group? the pros and cons

Solo travel doesn’t appeal – what about a tour?

Firstly I must declare my prejudice – I am a lone traveller. That is my preference, born out of nature and experience.

My group travel is limited: an overland truck tour on the southern African continent with strangers; plane and bus travel with a group of Kiwis attending an international convention then adding a three-week tour in the USA, and recently, a few days with a group of Californians in New Zealand to do some hiking.  So this column is based on some brief concentrated group travel and observations. Totally biased you could say.

What are the advantages of group travel? As with my African experience, I saw a lot more in a short time than I could have possibly done on my own. Someone else had done the research, created the itinerary, smoothed the way and that gave me an overview of what I would like to do on my return to Africa.

When I’ve discussed this topic with travellers many say it feels safer, is cheaper as they didn’t have to pay a single supplement – the bane of the lone traveller- it’s cheaper also in the bulk buying rates of transport or accommodation and of course, the good company of like-minded people when the trip has a purpose.

Conversely it is not always plain sailing. A snorer like me may be assigned as your room-mate. The Sierra clubbers were great, prompt – no waiting for stragglers as I had to with the group of kiwis – always the same one or two no matter what the threats.

However for me, a low-planning-wanderer, the African trip was hard because in a tour there is no freedom for changing the itinerary. I found places I wanted to explore and couldn’t, and even worse, I felt separated from the very people I wanted to meet.

Although we shopped in markets for supplies we did it in groups of 2 or 3 which made it difficult for us to interact with the locals in any real way.  It seems all tours mostly socialise together, and even when on the bus, truck, or train, seem more interested in talking to each other for long periods rather than take in the views. This mixing together, as on the tours I took, meant I was less aware of local customs, beliefs, or language than when alone.

As you can see, the pros and cons of group travel is really subjective and I’m making sweeping generalisations. I suggest you discuss this with friends who have toured.

However the final difference can look like this:

The tour leader tells you. ‘Tomorrow morning breakfast will be here in the hotel dinning room at 7 30am. We leave for the border at 8 15 so make sure your bags are outside your room ready for collection before you come down for breakfast.’

When alone it is more like this. Wake up at 5 am to the rustling plastic bags of an early riser in the dormitory you are sharing with others. Go wandering the streets at 6 am for breakfast, eat it in the company of tuk-tuk drivers and wonder why every one has both a cup of coffee and tea in front of them. You hire one of the drivers to pick you up at 8am to take you to the border only half an hour away. He takes you but you find you haven’t got a vital piece of paper the last official told you were no longer needed. You struggle with a combination of English and the local language, watch the bus drive through with the minimum of fuss and some two hours later, passport stamped you finally arrive in a new country.

While the tour is exploring the local temples and has a free afternoon to buy souvenirs the bus can carry, it is now time for you to find somewhere to sleep. Lonely Planet’s recommendation is full, has closed or changed its’ name and the next one seems miles away.

Your choice is simple, tour or budget solo,  as I have heard “you pays your money and takes your chances!”

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