Visiting South East Asia: Is Independent or Organised Group Travel Better?

Of my three most recent trips to Asia, two have been with a tour group and one was completely independent. Both had their pros and cons; it can be difficult to decide which is best for you. That’s where I’m hoping I can come in, by sharing what I found to be the positives and negatives of each method of travel.

Cost

Usually, travelling with a tour company will be quite a lot more expensive than going it alone, particularly if you’re solo and have to pay a supplement for having your own room. Independent travel means you can shop around for the best deals on transport and accommodation, and you’re not paying for the privilege of having everything booked for you. Using a tour company is much like using a travel agent and at the end of the day, they are going to charge extra for organising and coordinating your trip.

If you’re opting for a tour company, the cost will depend on the type of travel you choose. Many companies offer shoe string type tours, as well as classic or even luxury options. I’ve travelled on both a budget and on a classic tour. To be quite honest, I was blown away by the level of service and accommodation on my shoestring tour in Thailand with Tru Travels, booked through Encounters Travel. For the price, it was pretty amazing! The classic tour I took with G Adventures definitely didn’t offer as good value for money but it was still amazing for the price!

Obviously the cost, quality and value for money will completely depend on the tour itself and I’d advise you to seek out reviews before booking anything.

If you choose to travel independently, you can get some amazing deals by doing your research and looking around. This method of travel is pretty much guaranteed to be the cheaper option of the two.

Winner: Independent travel

Safety

Although most of SE Asia is pretty safe, you will probably need to be a little more cautious than you would be travelling around Europe, particularly as the countries are so different form home. This is even more true if you’re a solo traveller.

As long as you take all the necessary precautions and use your common sense, it’s likely that you’ll be safe when travelling independently. Just make sure you check your government’s travel advice website; although some countries as a whole are safe, there may be regions you need to avoid.

Travelling as part of a organised group, you’re going to be safer; safety in numbers and all that. Plus, your guide will know the route you’re visiting and potential dangers you could encounter along the way.

Winner: group tour

dscn8768Ready for a Jungle Party in Koh Phangan

Ease/ Convenience

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll organise every detail of a trip to Asia down to a tee before you go. I’m a massive worrier, and so having everything booked before departure helps to alleviate some of the worry I can feel, particularly on a trip where I’m backpacking round to different places. Obviously not everything always runs smoothly, but if you can be organised, it’s likely that your trip will be pretty straightforward and easy.

When it comes to convenience though, travelling independently can take a lot of time to plan, be that before you leave or during your trip. A huge plus to booking a group tour is the convenience, everything is booked and sorted for you. Essentially, for most of the trip, you’ll be directed here and there, as well as ferried around on pre-arranged transport. Perfect if you want to take the hassle out of travelling.

Winner: group tour

IMG_0463Sailing around Halong Bay, Vietnam

Accommodation

The accommodation I stayed in during my group tours was a real mix, some great, some ok and some not-so-good. But that can also be the case when you book independently. The only difference is that independent travel gives you the flexibility to book the places that you want, rather than what is allocated for you. I must admit that I love searching for accommodation, reading reviews and booking cool places to stay. So for me, accommodation is usually better when you go it alone.

Winner: independent travel

SLWhispering Palms Hotel, Bentota, Sri Lanka

Solo travel

I’ve travelled solo both independently and in a group. I enjoyed both but I must say that I felt safer and much more relaxed when on my group tour around Vietnam. It also meant that I had some good company in the evenings, something that I crave when travelling completely solo. During the day time, I love being on my own and doing exactly as I please but I sometimes struggle in the evenings when non-solo travellers are heading out to eat and drink with their pals!

Winner: group tour 

Getting around

Countries in Asia can often be quite challenging to travel around, especially compared to their European counterparts. Particularly if you want to save some money by travelling over ground, it can be really difficult to know the best methods and companies to travel with. On a group tour, everything is organised for you and often you don’t even need to take much public transport, as private transport such as minibuses are provided!

Winner: group travel

img_1192-1Cyclo ride in Ho Chi Minh City

Food

You can definitely find some amazing hidden gems food-wise if you do your research and ask around when travelling independently. But when you’re on a group tour, your guide (or Chief Experience Officer at G Adventures) will know some great local restaurants; places that you would never discover on your own. Often, the guide will order a number of dishes to be shared, meaning that you can try way more different foods than you would if you were alone.

Plus, you’re not required to join the group for food if don’t want to, leaving you plenty of opportunity to try out places on your own list should you want to!

Winner: group tour

thumbnail_img_7104Delicious beef Pho at a local HCMC restaurant

Flexibility

With a set itinerary that is usually pretty rigid, there can be a serious lack of flexibility when travelling with an organised group. Although you’ll have some free time, there will be a timetable that the guide sticks to and obviously you could never decide to stay in a particular town or city for longer if you’re with a tour. Travelling independently, you can change plans as you go along and providing you haven’t booked without cancellation options, you’ll have maximum flexibility.

Winner: independent travel

Pace of travel

Often, a group tour involves a packed itinerary so that you can tick off as many of a country’s attractions as possible. This can impact on your experience; often you will feel rushed and don’t get enough time in one place. One example for me is when I had to leave Hoi An, Vietnam on my group tour: I could have easily stayed for another three or four days. It felt like there was a lot to see and do but this was crammed in to a short space of time. If you like slower travel and getting lost in a new place like me, you might find that the pace of a group tour is a little faster than you’d like.

Winner: independent travel

IMG_0340Taking a leisurely walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Down-time

Along the same lines of my previous point, a packed itinerary can mean that you get next to no time to relax. I’m one to pack lots in when visiting a new country, but I do also need some time to relax. It is a holiday after all!

Sure, you often get free time when on a tour but I’ve found that I often want to take part in the optional activity or go along with what the group is doing. The FOMO is real. It definitely means that you can make the most of a place but it can be very tiring. Independent travel means that you can not only set your pace, you can actually book in time to relax.

Winner: independent travel

Heading off the beaten track

Nowadays, a lot of travellers seek to see places off the well-beaten track and this is possible in most Asian countries. A group tour is unlikely to venture off the usual path and will usually include the most popular places to see. Travelling independently, you’re free to choose where you go and how far off the tourist trail you venture.

Winner: independent travel

The local economy and responsible travel

I like to think that most travellers will be glad to be boosting the local economies when travelling in Asia. Most people on the continent have a lot less than you and tourism is really helping to drive growth in to developing countries. So even by just visiting, you’re already doing your bit but there are ways you can impact the lives of locals even more. Things such as using local guides when visiting attractions, staying at smaller, independent hotels and eating at local restaurants.

Companies such as G Adventures make sure that they use local guides and collect tips for those people too. Sometimes, when you’re travelling solo, you may not be able to find those local guides and will book through a large company that isn’t necessarily having the best impact on people’s lives.

One personal example of this is on the Vietnam tour I took in 2016, as part of the itinerary, we visited Streets International in Hoi An, a not-for-profit that helps get young people off the streets in SE Asia, out of poverty and in to employment within the hospitality sector. As well at attending a noodle-making class, myself and some of my group also chose to dine at the Streets restaurant one evening. I doubt that I would have come across Streets had I not been on my tour. It felt good to know we were helping to improve the life of local teenagers, even just in a small way.

In terms of responsible travel, it’s not always straightforward to know how to do so in the best way. Travelling with a company like G Adventures, responsible travel will be at the heart of the trip and you can rest assured that your impact on a country will be positive.

Winner: group travel

IMG_0732Exploring Hoi An at night

You may think that my overall verdict is somewhat of a cop-out but as you can see, there are plenty of pros and cons to each option. In general, I’d advise that if you’re travelling solo and budget isn’t too important, that you join a group tour for at least some of your trip. Similarly, if you’re travelling with somebody else but it’s your first time visiting Asia, you might want to look at an organised tour. As mentioned, I’ve travelled with both Tru Travels and G Adventures, both of which I’d recommend!

If you’re an experienced traveller visiting with somebody else, I’d recommend travelling independently for maximum flexibility and to get more for your money!

Wherever you’re going next, and whatever method you choose, happy travelling!

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