I believe passionately in independent travel: making your own way, booking your own transport and generally doing whatever you feel like doing while on your trip. I’ve been doing this non-stop for over three years now as a writer and photographer and I can’t imagine traveling any other way. It’s easier to do than many think and –in my experience– the rewards far outweigh the hassles.
Seeing Versus Experiencing
This is the question to ask yourself — do you want to just want to see a place or do you want to experience it? if you just want to see it, a tour can be a great option (and in fairness, a 2-3 hour introductory tour of a city can be a very helpful way to get oriented and pick out spots that you’d like to visit the next day).
Following a guide with a pink umbrella held high in the air and shouting that this building here over is 400 years old isn’t really “getting to know the place”
And many local people you meet in this situation are going to see one thing: your wallet. They know the routine better than you do: you’re here for 30-40 minutes of sight-seeing, a bland buffet lunch and then you’re back on the bus. No one is going to bother with introducing you to the their child so he or she can practice their English or share a cup of tea with you. There’s no time.
If you won’t pay double the going rate, that nice couple behind you will. Or someone on the 2pm bus will — again, the vendors know the game inside and out.
Leaving the Conveyor Belts at the Airport
Oh, how I love those powered walkways. They let me zip through an airport like a superhero, but you know what? They pick me up and drop me off at the exact same place as everyone else. And that’s a great thing when I’m trying to catch my flight, but it’s not so fun once you reach your destination.
Of course you want to see the Mona Lisa or the view from the Eiffel Tower — you’d be crazy not to. But I bet the best memory of your trip will be of that tiny out-of-the-way cafe you and your partner stumbled upon or any of a hundred other magical moments that wouldn’t have happened with a large entourage.
Also, if you decided you like a spot, you can stay longer. Flexibility is key.
You’re Not Necessarily Saving Money
“Look, honey, we can visit 5 cities for this great price! And everything is included!” And when tour operators say everything, they mean everything. To make the tour seem like a better value they often add extra stops, many of which you may or may not really care about. Several will be to markets or other shopping opportunities where the bus driver or the company gets a kick back from every dollar you spend.
He’s stopping there because he or the boss has worked out a deal and it’s one of the few places that can handle so many people at once. You’ll find better food across the street at a stall for a fraction of the price.
Local eateries depend on repeat business. The big tourist place doesn’t — they know they’ll never see you again so there’s no incentive to provide tasty, cheap or clean food. Don’t speak the language and don’t know what to order? Point at something that looks tasty and give it a try.
I once took a half-day tour in Laos because I wanted to see a little-known historical site called The Plain of Jars. It really couldn’t be done solo so I signed onto a half-day tour that included a visit to 3 of the 13 known sites and a “bonus tour” of Whiskey Village, a town that is “famous” for brewing rice whiskey. Hey, maybe this tour idea isn’t so bad after all.
We all crowded into this tiny tin-roofed shed and the guide showed us plastic garbage cans full of fermenting rice. The old guy pulled out a very-recycled liter water bottle that was half-full and poured us each a big shot of rice whiskey.
The woman next to me balked at hers so I took care of it as well as mine (I am a Southern gentleman, after all). The tour guide looked at us all, nodded and herded us back to the bus. So much for Whiskey Village.
Independent Travel is Easier Than Ever Before
With so much relevant, timely information available online and with wifi being so prevalent through much of the world, finding and securing accommodation is easier than ever. Websites such as Tripadvisor.com and Airbnb.com allow you to preview photos of the hotel/rooms and get feedback from people who have stayed there.
Some of these ‘reviews’ are less-than-true so certainly keep that in mind and check multiple sources. Also consider that the tour company is going to tell you what a great place you’ll be staying at as well.
There are other great resources to ask fellow travelers for tips and up-to-date information: Bootsnall.com has an active and knowledgable forum. Travelfish.com is a fantastic source of information about Asia.
Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum an be incredibly useful (but search previous posts before asking a questions — they can be a cranky bunch). That said, one helpful member pointed me to a $7-per-night room in Antigua, Guatemala where the average going rate was $20 minimum.
It’s Only Scary the First Time
Take a photo of the town map from your guidebook and set it to “do not delete” on your camera or download one to your smartphone (this is your emergency backup). Then throw the guidebook under your bed, grab a business card from the hotel counter, walk out the door and pick a direction at random. Get lost. Get thoroughly lost. Meet people who don’t normally see tourists in their neighborhood.
If you’re a single male, there’s a decent chance someone’s mother may try to marry you to their daughter. There’s an even better chance that you’ll soon have a train of kids following you and giggling. And always ask before taking photos of someone.
When you’ve tired yourself out, wave down a taxi, pedi-cab, tuk-tuk or other form of local transportation, show them the business card and ride back to the hotel for a nap and a nice dinner at that place you spotted on the corner.