If you’ve spent your life savings on flights to the other side of the world, chances are you’ll want to make the most of your travelling experience. A big question on the minds of many backpackers is whether to travel independently or to join an organised tour.
Each option comes with pros and cons and, depending on the destination, can enhance or limit your experience, so here are some tips to help you plan your travels.
The Pros and Cons of Travelling in a Group and Going Solo on Your Trip
When you’re backpacking and forever on the move, constantly having to book buses, hostels and excursions can become a tiresome chore. Sometimes it’s nice to be chauffeured around and have everything organized for you, and nowadays, tours cater to all travel types, from party animals to adventure seekers to those who just want a coach, a cup of tea and some nice scenery.
Even though tours have a fixed itinerary, these can often be adapted to suit the group, and if you have a great guide, they’ll go out of their way to give you a unique and adventurous experience. On a trip across central Australia our guide took a detour to a kangaroo sanctuary so we could bottle feed the joeys, and on another trip in North America our group ended up having a spontaneous 80s party at our tour guide’s house.
Of course, there are downsides. The success of a tour can often hinge on your group and your guide, and this can affect your experience. Furthermore, sometimes there is pressure to take part in activities or eat at certain restaurants so your choices are limited. Places that don’t have an established backpacker route – i.e. off the beaten track – are often better for guided tours so as to get the most from your trip. Starting a longer trip with a tour is also a great way to ease yourself into the backpacking experience.
Going it alone
Although daunting for the uninitiated, most people find travelling solo a breeze in places where you’re bound to meet other backpackers, like South East Asia, Eastern Europe and Australia. These are popular solo backpacker destinations where travellers often follow the same route and are open to meeting new people. It may be scary at first, but travelling alone gives you complete control over your itinerary and the chance to be spontaneous.
Big cities can be slightly more difficult places in which to meet fellow backpackers, usually because people are focused on finding work and less keen to hang out with random people. If you’re starting your trip in a city, it’s worth researching hostels to find the most backpacker-friendly ones.
Hop-on hop-off buses
Combining organised group travel with the freedom to explore places alone, hop-on, hop-off buses offer an ideal solution. Popular in North America, Europe, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, they give you the option to extend your stay in a particular city or destination and then resume your travels whenever you choose. This is perfect if you want to spend extra time in certain cities, or take part in weather-dependant activities such as skydiving, glacier walks or hiking through national parks.
In peak travelling times, buses can get booked up very quickly so you have to plan your stops and pre-book the next bus to avoid being stuck in a destination for too long. If you’re on a tight schedule or travelling in a peak season – i.e. Christmas – this leaves less room for spontaneity. Tours also often have 30+ people on each bus and sometimes have to stop at expensive hostels to accommodate everyone, which may eat into your budget.
If you’re travelling in a group or happen to meet some road trip buddies, hiring a car or campervan is a fun way to get around. Having your own vehicle allows you to stop off in small towns en-route to your destination and explore places around main cities such as the Blue Mountains near Sydney or Phillip Island near Melbourne.
Although travelling in a campervan may seem like a good 2-in-1 accommodation and travel option, costs can rack up when you’re paying for expensive petrol and campground fees. It can also be time consuming to find parking or a place to stop when you just want to go and explore a town.
Go your own way
If you have never travelled for an extensive period before and you’re not sure how to do it, I would recommend trying out all of these options to get a feel for what suits you best. Remember that nothing is set in stone: for example, if you take a two week tour and don’t enjoy it, no big deal: just travel independently from there on in. And vice versa and so on. One of the best things about travel is the freedom it gives you, and this applies to types of travel as much as it does anything else.