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I know not everyone is a fan of guided tours.

In fact, among the travel community, many people look down upon those who would choose a guided tour over going it alone, arguing that dependence on a tour guide makes the experience in a place less “authentic.”

Well, I’m not sure I agree.

Eternity Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

Just like with all inclusive vacations and cruises, I think guided tours have their place in travel. Admittedly, they aren’t for everybody, and a good guided tour depends a lot on the people running it, as well as the people partaking in it. Get stuck in an annoying group of insensitive or ignorant tourists (or guides), and nobody is likely to enjoy the tour.

But if you luck out and choose the *right* tour, there’s no reason why even the most independent traveler can’t enjoy a guided tour.

The Markings of a Good Guided Tour

So what makes a tour the *right* one? Well, what’s right for one person may be wrong for another. It’s all about personal preferences, after all. But there are a few points that I think apply to all types of travelers:

A passionate guide

Waikiki Sunset, Oahu, HawaiiI was reminded how fun guided tours can be in Hawaii, when a friend and I took a day-long mini-bus tour around the island of Oahu, care of Polynesian Adventure Tours.

The tour itself took us to many of the usual touristy places on Oahu — the Diamond Head lookout, Hanauma Bay, Halona blowhole, the Byodo-in Temple, Pali Lookout, Kualoa Ranch, Sunset Beach, the Dole Plantation, and more — but it wasn’t really the sites themselves that made the tour worthwhile. It was our guide.

Ernie has been working as a tour guide in Hawaii for many years — and it shows. Not only did he know how to entertain a mini-bus full of tourists, but he also had an immense knowledge of the islands (as well as the whole of the South Pacific), which he proved to us by sporadically quizzing my friend about the region once he found out she was working on her Master’s in South Pacific Studies.

Having a knowledgeable guide can make even the most common guided tours more enjoyable, simply because you leave the tour feeling like you actually learned something. If your guide is local (as Ernie was), even better. Locals are more likely to really know things about the places you’re visiting (as opposed to just memorizing a script), and also are more likely to take pride in them.

Having a guide who is passionate about a place or a subject will translate into YOU feeling passionate about the place, too. Plus, having a local, enthusiastic guide can lead to you receiving some insider information on things to do and see that are perhaps not on the usual tourist trail.

Good reviews from past tour-goers

Before I book any sort of tour, I like to hear what others are saying about it. The reviews don’t all have to be glowing (because, let’s face it, not every tour can be amazing or go off perfectly), but I do like to at least get an idea of what to expect before handing over any money.

When reading reviews, I focus on ones that mention the tour guides, whether it felt organized or not, the style of the tour, and whether people felt that they got their money’s worth out of the experience. I also pay attention to the types of people leaving the reviews, as that’s usually a window into the type of audience the specific tour caters to. If I’m looking for a tour that’s going to attract other young travelers, I’m probably going to stay away from any that have tons of reviews from older couples or parents with young kids.

I tend to ignore any reviews that are of the destination itself, though. I wouldn’t be considering a tour in a place if I wasn’t interested in it already, and the place isn’t really what makes or breaks a tour — the people are.

Laie Point, Oahu, Hawaii

One that has a pace that will match your own

Everyone travels at a different pace. Some people like to travel slow to soak up a culture, while others prefer to zip through and see as much as possible. Neither style is wrong — but certain tours could be wrong for your particular type of style.

If you’re a slow-travel lover, you probably want to avoid any multi-day tours that will land you in a different city every night, or any tours that involve you being in-transit for many hours each day.

Conversely, if you like to travel fast, you may want to search for tours with many stops, and settle on one that will get you to the most places you’d like to see in your allotted amount of time.

When seeking out day tours around Oahu, I knew I wanted a fast-paced tour that would get us to as many sites as possible. Since we went on the tour towards the beginning of my visit, I planned to use it as a jumping-off point for the rest of my time on Oahu. I wanted to use the tour to get glimpses of as much of the island as I could, so that I could later decide which spots would be worth revisiting on my own time.

The Circle Island tour I ended up choosing was perfect for this.

Small groups

Again, this comes down to personal preference, but, in general, I think smaller groups are almost always better when it comes to guided tours. You don’t want to feel like you have to elbow your way through a crowd to take a photo, and you also don’t want to have to worry about too many clashing personalities in a group, especially if you’re going to be stuck with them for any extended period of time.

While you often don’t have much of a choice when it comes to the size of your tour group, pay attention when you’re booking to the maximum number of passengers allowed on each tour.

My friend and I lucked out on our Oahu tour. Polynesian Adventure Tours often uses charter buses to transport its customers around the island. But we lucked out and got booked on a mini-bus for the day, which meant our group was much smaller and our tour more intimate.

Byodo-in Temple, Oahu, Hawaii

Since we were a smaller group, we never felt rushed at any of our stops, and I never felt as though I was part of an obnoxious horde at any of the sites we visited. Even at the Byodo-in Temple, our group was small enough that I didn’t feel as though we were intruding on the religious site just for the sake of pretty photos.

Plus, being in a smaller group means you can often get to certain places larger groups can’t. For example, our Oahu mini-bus was able to drive out to beautiful Laie Point, which the larger charter buses are unable to do.

Is a Guided Tour Right for You?

Still not convinced that a guided tour is for you? Well here are some characteristics that would suggest you and a guided tour would get along:

Laniakea Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

  • You’re lazy. Don’t feel like planning the logistics of your travel, or messing around with all those reservations and confirmation numbers? Then a tour would be perfect for you. Once you book the tour, the other details are usually taken care of by somebody else. All you have to do it show up, and enjoy.
  • You’re not comfortable navigating/driving on your own. Especially if you’re going to be in a foreign country, you may not feel like tackling unfamiliar road maps or city layouts. Or maybe you just don’t feel like putting up with the hassle of driving while you’re away on vacation. In this case, a guided tour would be ideal for you, since someone else would be doing the driving. You’d just have to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
  • You want to get a general overview of an area. If you’re just arriving in a new place and you have no idea where to start, consider a half-day or daylong city tour to help you get your bearings. You’ll emerge with a greater grasp of where things are located, and perhaps you’ll even learn a thing or two. Knowing the background of a destination can often help you connect with it better.
  • You want to learn about the places to go and places to skip. A short guided tour of a new place will not only offer you a nice introduction to both the popular sights and the culture, but it can also help you decide which places you’d like to revisit and devote more time to, and which you’d be fine never seeing again. In this case, a tour can help you avoid wasting your time later on.
  • You want to meet some other travelers. Especially if you’re traveling solo, guided tours can often be a great way to meet other travelers — some of whom may be on tours for the exact same reasons you are. Sure, you can meet other backpackers in hostels or at bars, but meeting someone on a guided tour can often mean you share a common interest that goes beyond travel in general.

I’ve been on my fair share of guided tours throughout my travels — from an amazing 12-day tour through Middle-Earth in New Zealand, to a semi-educational tour through China, to my daylong adventure in Hawaii. And, while I would never exclusively travel on tours, I understand that they do have their place in the world of travel.

Guided tours are NOT the devil — as long as you know how to appreciate them.

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So what’s your take? Are you pro-guided tours, or against them? Why?

 

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Disclaimer: The Oahu Circle Island tour mentioned in this post was a complimentary tour from Polynesian Adventure Tours. But, as always, all opinions are my own.

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33 Responses to Why Guided Tours are Not the Devil

  1. Katherina says:

    I think guided tours are convenient in some cases. When you have little time to visit a place (that is, for example, a weekend)… a guided tour will at least give you an overview on what’s there to be seen. On the other hand, I wouldn’t choose if I had enough time to read about the destination, make my own thoughts and explore it on my own.
    After all, not everything that tours point to is worth a visit… sometimes you’ll discover much more by going into the other direction.
    Katherina recently posted..A Cuban Fruit Feast

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Tours certainly can be convenient if you’re pressed for time. But you’re right that not every stop on a tour is worth it 100 percent of the time. But, in my experience, most tours I’ve been on have included more sites that I thought were worth it than ones I thought were useless.

      But, in the end, it all comes down to personal preference!

  2. Toni says:

    I did a guided tour around Tokyo to get my bearings and it was brilliant! It was nice to actually travel above ground and get a sense of the immensity of the city etc. I think tours are a great way of getting to know your surroundings or to get a whistle stop view of the place you’re in if you don’t have the time to dedicate to it. Besides, without the the other tour the day after I’m not sure I would have been able to see Mount Fuji in all its glory =)
    Toni recently posted..Drum roll please…

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Having grown up in small-town Ohio, huge cities overwhelm me. Booking some sort of tour to introduce me to a new city is always great, because it usually helps dissipate a lot of that overwhelming feeling.

      It sounds like your Tokyo tour was worth it!

  3. Alouise says:

    Great post, and I definitely agree not all guided tours are bad. It really depends on the group you’re with, the guide you have, and whether the tour is right for you. I can say in Chichen Itza I was glad to be on a tour. I didn’t have time beforehand to research anything about the site. So if I’d gone on my own I would have just been staring at stones, and wouldn’t have really understood what they were about. With a tour I got a little bit a background information which made the trip more interesting for me.
    Alouise recently posted..List #13 – 3 Places To Indulge Your Sweet Tooth on Granville Island

    • DangerousBiz says:

      And that’s a great example of exactly what I’m talking about in this post, Alouise!

      I’ve been on a fair amount of guided tours, and I’ve always been able to walk away with something positive from each one. Maybe that’s just me being an optimist, but I really do think tours can be a great option in certain situations!

  4. I tend to steer away from them now because I’m doing long-term travel on a budget. But if I don’t have much time, I will sometimes opt for a tour to make sure I get to see and do what I want. I had some really amazing day tours in Costa Rica few years ago. We got lucky and had the same incredibly knowledgeable guide for both days. So much fun!
    The Travel Chica recently posted..Saying Goodbye

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Guided tours aren’t always budget-friendly, that’s true. So I can understand avoiding them for that reason. Plus, if you’re traveling long-term, you’re probably spending enough time in places to get to know them on your own time.

      But it’s good to know you’ve had some memorable tours in the past!

  5. Dean says:

    I’m definitely one of those people who prefer to go it alone and avoid the tours. I like the adventure and challenges it can bring, and also I just like to do my own thing. But I do think tours have their place and I have taken a few in the past where it is beneficial to me to join one, for example taking a tour in the Vatican City meant that I could learn so much more about the place and the art, and also allowed me to skip the massive line to get in :)
    Dean recently posted..Photo: Leaning Bell Tower in Venice

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I realize that tours aren’t for everyone. And certainly not all tours are for everyone! Plenty of people are like you and prefer to do their own thing; make their own discoveries and mistakes. I’m like that too, sometimes. For example, I skipped the guided tour at Pearl Harbor and opted to just explore it on my own. It was definitely the better choice.

      But, like you said, sometimes there are tours that ARE the right fit. (And I totally agree about the Vatican! Taking a tour there is the way to go.)

  6. Hi Amanda,
    Thanks for the interesting points you made in your post. Although I love the idea of going out on my own and exploring the world, in reality I’m too much of a fraidy cat and not entirely comfortable thinking I’ll be relying on my own wits and worrying about becoming lost so a guided tour would be ideal for me. Then, once I get the feel of the new place and have at least a general idea of its layout and a sense of direction, I may feel courageous enough to go solo.
    But you’re right, it’s all about personal preferences and what works for you. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips!
    Theresa Torres recently posted..Summer Road Trip – 4 Credit Card Tips to Help You Save

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for reading, Theresa! It sounds like a guided tour of some sort could be the perfect fit for you, at least at first!

  7. Natalie says:

    Hi Amanda. When ever I go to a destination, I always like to do both. The guided tours and a bit of independent sight seeing. I am always the first to be picking up brochures from the shops. Both guided tours and independent sight seeing have their ups and downs so I think I am getting the best of both worlds that way.
    Natalie recently posted..The Quirky Vibes Of The Kaptan Han Hotel

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I use your approach, too, Natalie. A little from Column A, and little from Column B. And I, too, love picking up brochures wherever I go, even if I never end up doing the tours. I like to know my options!

  8. Sarah says:

    Guided tours are definitely not the devil!

    I think on top of the laziness factors, or being uncomfortable in a certain region/city/ place, tours can sometimes be you’re only real option!

    If you want to have access to a certain restricted area (I’m thinking along the lines of the DMZ) or a place where there is next to no information on how to get to there UNLESS you take a tour guide, then guided tours are definitely the way to go.

    Even if authenticity is sometimes compromised on a guided tour, in the end, I don’t think it really matters. You went there. And that’s what’s important right?
    Sarah recently posted..Toothbrush Highlight

    • DangerousBiz says:

      You have a great attitude toward guided tours, Sarah! I love it.

      And you’re right about tours sometimes being the only option. For example, when I travel across the U.S. this summer, my sister and I want to visit Antelope Canyon in Arizona. But it sits on Navajo land, and so we can’t visit it without hiring a Navajo guide. I know it will be worth it, though, so I have no qualms about it!

  9. Vi says:

    Usually I travel by myself, but time to time I take guided tours because sometimes it is cheaper or it is dangerous to go alone to some places (like some mountains).
    Vi recently posted..What is size of your bag

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Good point on the danger aspect, Vi. Kind of like what someone else said about some places requiring a guide for you to visit. I guess sometimes you don’t have a choice!

  10. Brett says:

    In most cases, I prefer to go it alone, but I’ve defnitely done my fair share of guided tours. Some cities are so huge or have sights a bit far flung (ie. Beijing) that a guided tour that will take you to some of the more out of the way sights on a single itinerary, including transportation, and a chance to meet other travellers may be the perfect way to go. Bejing as the example, with only two days available, the tour that took me to the Ming Tombs and Great Wall provided the perfect opportunity to see two sights a ways out of the city that I would have had more difficulty getting to solo, and also helped me connect with some others on that day trip that I then spent the next day with for the forbidden city, temple of heaven, summer palace, and a few dinners and other sights.
    Brett recently posted..The Beers of TBEX: Locally Brewed British Columbia Beers

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Beijing (or other similar huge cities) is a great example, Brett! I visited Beijing and Shanghai a few years ago with my college marching band. We were always in a group with a guide (with the exception of a few afternoons), and I was actually pretty thankful for it. We only had 3 days in each city, and I knew China would have been sooo overwhelming without some guidance.

  11. I do not remember taking a guided tour in Europe, not even once. But in Mexico during 3 months I took so many of them and loved meeting new people and getting the right information from the tourist guides, including some local jokes. It always depends on the place and people!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      It’s ALL about the people! That’s my opinion, at least. If you can snag a great guide and a fun group of fellow tourists, guided tours can be SO much fun. And you can learn a lot, too, without having to spend ages reading a guidebook.

  12. Personally, I love using guided tours as a way to get a great introduction to the city or area I’m visiting. You really do get a lot of information that you might not otherwise get. You’re right though, a good guide makes the tour. I think a guided tour of the D-Day beaches in Normandy would be very worthwhile because there is so much history and information that we don’t know. A knowledgeable guide knows these things and can share.

    Not sure I would be a fan of taking a bus tour for a week or more but then there is a market for those too.
    Debbie Beardsley recently posted..Cesky Krumlov – I Want to Go There!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’m mostly a fan of half-day or 1-day tours. Because then, in case you’ve picked a bad one, you’re not stuck on it for days or weeks.

      But, that being said, one of the most amazing tours I’ve ever been on was a 12-day guided tour around New Zealand. Again, though, it all came down to the people involved — the people make the tours for me!

  13. I think that your first point was right on: finding the right guide. I guess it’s a little bit like school: any subject can be interesting and fun as long as the teacher makes it so.

    And I also think that half-day and one-day tours are the best. It gives you enough information to appreciate the place a little deeper AND enough time to explore it on your own. Great post! :)
    Eurotrip Tips recently posted..Finding Banksy’s Art in London

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Marie! Good analogy with the teacher/guide comment – you’re exactly right! A good guide can make any destination fun and fascinating.

  14. Neil says:

    Great post! Must admit i quite like tours, mainly for the information i recieve.

    Inter-railing around europe i found the tour company – Sandemans New Europe tours. They take you on tours for nothing, free, £0. All you do is tip them based on how highly you rated their tour. This isnt a sales pitch, i just thought it was an excellent concept, a good money saver for those travelling on a budget but still wanting to see all the major sights. Personally i used them for tours of Berlin and Prague.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I quite like tours, too, every once in a while.

      And thanks for sharing Sandemans New Europe tours. Sounds like a great company! I’m going to have to check them out.

  15. Nice article. I see many negging on the tours and recently I’ve only experienced good tours. Most of them have been budget. They’re a great way for learning more about the culture and I love that I see more than I would if I were on my own.
    Grrrl Traveler | Christine recently posted..Long-term solo travel and three mistakes I wish I avoided

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Christine! A lot of people do seem to look down on tours. But I’ve taken some really great ones, and am certainly not opposed to them. You just have to pick and choose your tours wisely so that they are the right fit for you. I agree that tours are a great way to get introduced to a new place or culture!

  16. [...] you know me at all, you’ll know that not only do I affirm that guided tours are not the devil, but I also love ones that don’t take themselves too seriously. And that’s definitely [...]

  17. [...] photos with sheep in New Zealand, watched a sunset at the Grand Canyon, and have been on plenty of guided tours all over the world. I see nothing wrong with having these experiences. In fact, some of them have [...]

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