My very first big trip abroad as an “adult” was my senior Spring Break to Italy; a dozen or so classmates, my AP English teacher, the vice principal and a handful of our moms took us on a 10-day highlights tour of the country. We didn’t have to think about a thing: When they told us to meet somewhere, we did; when we had nothing on the agenda, we set out on our own to explore
the bars our surrounds. It was a great introduction to not just group travel, but travel abroad in general.
Then, I decided to go back overseas—this time, all by my lonesome—at the impressionable age of 20, to backpack around Western Europe before my semester in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. I remember that first night in an attic hostel room in London, bawling my eyes out. I’d never felt so alone, suddenly didn’t understand why I wanted to go at this solo, why I didn’t just book a group tour like I’d come to find so many of my peers did as a way to explore unfamiliar territory.
For the next six weeks, I flitted from city to city, tagging along with groups of travelers I’d meet on buses, in hostels, many of them doing the group travel thing on tours with Contiki and other big travel brands. I envied them. I learned that while solo travel is indeed character-building, the extrovert in me simply needed companions.
And yet, I’ve always been fiercely independent (just ask my mom). Doing things my own way on my own terms has always been my jam.
While I don’t regret that character-building semester abroad, subsequent travels in groups and tours have been every bit as rewarding and I often think the ease of hopping on a plane that globalization has granted us—and perhaps reading so many blogs written by people who have eschewed a cubicle life for one of permanent travel—have instilled this societal pressure for travelers to be brave, be bold, to go outside their comfort zone, to travel alone. Your travels aren’t as meaningful unless there are challenges to overcome and they’re riddled with the stress and turmoil that often accompanies solo travel, right? WRONG. So, so wrong.
Let’s address a few barriers between group travel and solo trips:
Tours are more expensive. That might seem like the case because you’re paying for everything in one lump sum, but in my experience of planning group travel for others, a la carte items add up to a lot more than the cost of a tour. Transparency is a good thing, and don’t you want to know what your overall trip budget is going to be before heading abroad with blinders on and being surprised at how much your day-to-day costs amount to?
But tour companies aren’t my travel style. Well, this sparkling salmon herself was guilty of thinking this very thing until I worked my first Semester at Sea voyage five years ago and took only group trips with various tour companies for four months straight. Sometimes figuring out all the logistics in foreign lands can be downright daunting; in fact, I’m already stressing over planning my family’s vacation to Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria and Czech Republic this summer and trying to make inter-continental flights, bus trips and train routes all line up seamlessly. Having someone else do the legwork for a change was magical, and though I was responsible for 20 or so college kids with Semester at Sea, for the most part I was just like them: I’d show up when the tour guide told us to and follow his lead. Every tour built in plenty of free time so SVV and I could go off on our own photo tours of the cities.
But I have limited vacation days. All the more reason to maximize the time that you do have. Too many Americans bank all their vacation time, roll it over year after year, and still never use the majority of days for myriad reasons: I feel guilty, I can’t take the time off work, things will build up while I’m away, my boss will hate me. You’ve earned that vacation time, now take it. Say it with me, guys: In 2016, I will use my vacation time. And if the taxing part of planning a trip is what’s holding you back, then you are the perfect candidate for a tour.
Fine. But I still need “me” time. Great! I need me time, too. Your fellow tour mate needs me time. Your guide definitely needs his me time. Plenty of tours combine the structure of a fun itinerary with the flexibility of giving travelers free time to explore in each location. Just because the details are all already worked out for you doesn’t mean you’ll be like little lost sheep, following your shepherd from one UNESCO World Heritage site to the next.
Have you ever gone on a group trip? If so, what did you love about it? If not, what’s been holding you back?