Packaged Group Tours vs Independent Group Trips

In the blue corner, we have the group tour bus: a diesel-powered road-train full of drunken sex-charged youths, all wanting to say they’ve ‘done’ Europe. And in the red corner, we have the independent traveler: a weathered, leathery, stolid character, who’s at least 10 times more snobby than all of the ‘snobs’ he left behind.
Both exist, but both are extremes. The average traveler just wants to get out into this scrappy world to understand what the heck all the fuss is about. They want an authentic experience, but they also want to meet other travelers with the same passion for discovery. They’re ‘centrists’ if you will.
But should centrists join packaged group tours vs independent group trips? Risk joining the egregious party bus or go at it alone and risk becoming vinegary old schoolmasters?

What is a Packaged Group Tour?

We’re not talking about those coach tours with 30+ participants that fly through towns and stop only for photos of churches and American fast food outlets. We’re talking about grass-roots tours, typically with 5 to 15 people, designed with sustainability in mind, and structured to take you far from the comforts of home. Tours from adventure companies like Intrepid, G Adventures, Geckos, World Expeditions, Abercrombie and Kent, etc.

What is an Independent Group Trip?

We’re not suggesting you become Alexander Supertramp and self-realize yourself to starvation. We’re talking about trips with other people, planned by groups themselves, and adjusted along the way as the group sees fit. One of these independent trips may even include a guided tour or two, but mostly, the group does the planning.

Under the Microscope

The following table compares packaged group tours and independent adventure trips across five areas: cost, preparation, safety, authenticity, and friendships.

Metric Packaged Group Independent Group
Cost Intuitively, adventure tours should cost more because you’re contributing to the profit of a middleman. But in reality, these companies leverage their buying power to reduce local costs.

Additionally, in many developing countries, a local guide will secure much cheaper prices than you can as a foreigner. With that said, be wary of ‘local payments’ and other extras.

When you plan your own trip, you only pay for what you want. You’re not paying for entry into a museum that doesn’t interest you or for food you don’t plan to eat.

However, you tend to lose out on group discounts and savings available to those with local knowledge.

The most grass-roots tours tend to cost less than your best efforts, but most other tours will cost more.

Preparation Tour companies take care of all local planning. The only things left are visas, flights, vaccinations, and gear.

With a packaged tour, you could conceivably enter a country without even knowing what currency they use. As sterile as this sounds, it’s a godsend in some bureaucratic countries.

Planning a trip yourself can be very rewarding. It teaches you about the country before you even arrive and it prepares you to deal with issues once there.

But many independent trips never even depart because the planning gets too overwhelming. In some countries, it just makes sense to leverage the local knowledge of a guide.

Safety Packaged tours benefit from the safety of larger groups and guides with local knowledge.

That means you’re much less likely to stroll into dangerous areas, offend the local people, or get up to mischief with local bureaucrats. Most people would agree that packaged tours are generally the safer alternative.

Some of the independent trips on Globetrooper have 20+ people, which is more than the average grass-roots adventure tour. But that isn’t the norm.

Generally, the lack of local knowledge and smaller group sizes make independent trips less safe. There are exceptions, but they’re rare.

Authenticity Packaged tours tend to follow fixed itineraries, which means they’re traveling along relatively well-trodden paths.

However, local guides can leverage their knowledge to help you interact with the local culture. We’ve been invited into the homes of local people in remote areas due to the local connections of our guide.

Independent trips have the potential to be much more authentic, since you can go anywhere you choose and interact with the locals by yourself, without the safety net of a seasoned guide.

However, safety concerns and shyness can actually keep people from delving deep into local cultures. The opportunity is certainly there, but in confronting places it takes daring people to really get an authentic experience.

Friendships Our experience is that packaged tours (of the grass-roots variety) are more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’. That means it’s more likely that you’ll get along with your fellow travelers than not.

We’ve kept in touch with many fellow travelers from packaged tours and have had a ball along the way. But when you’re with other people (especially local guides), locals are less likely to approach.

If you travel with a group of existing friends, it’s quite difficult to make new friends. People are less likely to approach, and you’ll be less likely to approach others too, even other travelers.

But if you travel with strangers, your chances are much higher. Of course, you risk being stuck with crazy people, but that’s the risk you have to take to meet new people. The best chance to meet locals is on your own.

Conclusion

It all depends on where you’re going and what your objectives are. If you’re going to a developing country with a vastly different culture to your own, then joining a packaged group can be more rewarding. However, if you have lots of time and you’re looking for a challenge, going it alone can feel like a real adventure.

Personally, if I could build a good-sized group (say 6+ strangers), I’d prefer to travel to most places in an independent group. However, it’s not easy to orchestrate a trip like that, so in most developing countries, I’d at least join one packaged tour even if I planned to stay by myself much longer.