What’s the Difference Between Guided, Self-Guided, and Independent Travel?
Planning your travels, but unsure which route to take? We'll break down what these 3 types of travel mean to help you find out if a guided or self-guided travel package is right for you, or if independent travel is more your speed.
As a self-proclaimed independent adventure traveler with more than a decade of travel experience -- from first stepping outside the country at 18 to backpacking through Southeast Asia to traveling around while working in Africa -- I’ve done all kinds of trips: solo, with friends, on tours, with guides, and self-guided.
Although I usually just throw a couple weeks’ worth of clothes into a backpack and buy a one-way ticket, there are certain types of trips that make more sense to do with a guide. We'll cover those types of travel experiences in this article, as well as ones that make more sense to do on your own.
If you’re thinking about a big trip overseas and not sure about whether or not to do it as part of a group, on your own, or something in between, here’s the rundown on what the difference between guided, self-guided, and independent travel is and when to choose each type.
What is a "guided tour?"
Guided packaged tours are all generally all-inclusive group travel experiences led by a guide and follow a specific itinerary. These types of tours are popular worldwide, and there are a wide variety of guided tours that cater to every age and budget.
While many guided tours are geared at older travelers, there are also programs designed for young folks and students. For example, student travel tours can bring a group of students to exciting destinations like Japan or Italy, allowing students to learn the language together, take immersive classes, and safely explore with a group of professional tour guides.
Guided group tours are convenient, include expert guides that provide interesting background information on every place you visit, and are generally an easy stress-free option. People who choose group tours enjoy the company of other travelers, as well as the local expertise of the guides.
Pros of a guided tour
- It's great for first-time travelers or if you're visiting somewhere for the first time: Having a guide is ideal for locations where you don’t speak the local language and especially for places well off the beaten path that may be difficult to access as an independent traveler, like Argentina or Zambia.
- You'll gain a deeper intellectual or historical understanding of a destination: Thanks to your highly-trained guide, you'll learn of plenty of interesting facts and tidbits about the place you're visiting.
- They're convenient: Coordinating all the logistics of your own trip, from transportation to event tickets to knowing where to eat, can be a hassle, especially if you’re not used to it. If you’re short on time, you may be able to fit more into your itinerary when it’s pre-arranged and handled by travel professionals.
- You may be getting a deal this way: Because the tour provider has negotiated a group rate for everything, you’re also (usually) getting access to better hotels and other activities than you would get for the same price as an individual.
Cons of a guided tour
- You'll have less freedom to change the plans: Consider yourself a go-with-the-flow traveler? This may not be for you. Good operators, however, are conscious of this and seek to balance group time with free time, snapshot moments, and organic experiences.
It's important to consider the cost, if the itinerary matches your travel goals, and the type of traveler you are when determining if a guided group tour is right for you. You'll be with the same group of people the entire trip, so if you're looking for something with more freedom and flexibility, we recommend taking an alternate route!
What is a "self-guided tour?"
A self-guided tour is one where the traveler has a route, information, and some amenities arranged by a company, but is responsible from getting between point A and B each day on their own. Self-guided tours do not include the support of a group or a hired guide, although sometimes self-guided tour operators organize accommodation, luggage transfers from starting point to final destination, or even basic maps and pointers for navigating the destination on one’s own.
Self-guided tours are best explained with examples.
A popular example of a self-guided tour is the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal, done by thousands of travelers every year, most of whom are not professional trekkers. It’s a set trail through the Nepalese Himalayas, and all travelers seeking to do it must first apply for a permit. After that, each trekker receives official information about the trail, and recommendations on where to start and stop, where to sleep each night, where to acclimatize, etc. It’s hard to mess up -- there are even sherpas and guides along the way if a self-guided trekker changes his or her mind.
Another example is the difference between doing a one-day, self-drive safari in Kruger National Park and doing a guided, multi-day safari in Tanzania’s more remote Serengeti. Driving oneself along an explicit trail through a self-contained national park is different than signing up to be led across a vast plain of Africa according to a specific itinerary, which are both different from deciding to go bushwhacking by oneself through the grasslands of Kenya (uh, not advisable).
Pros of self-guided tours
- The pace is up to you: You'll be given an itinerary and an idea of where to go, but compared to a guided tour, you'll have more flexibility about how much time you spend in each destination.
- You can travel with your friends, or make new friends along the way: The beauty of self-guided tours are that you can travel with whoever you want. You can travel with your friends, family, or even make friends with other travelers taking the same route as you. You don't have to travel alone if you find it daunting, but you also won't have to feel confined to a group of strangers in a travel group.
- The tour operator does the research for you. Similar to the guided tours, your itinerary will be pre-curated for you, with all the must-see spots. It’s also going to be much more affordable than hiring a guide who, in these cases, will do nothing more than follow the signs you could have very well followed yourself.
- It's safer than independent travel, especially if you're visiting somewhere new to you: You wouldn’t want to just take a backpack and blaze your own trail through the Himalayas unless you were a very, very seasoned hiker. Most people aren’t, so opting for a self-guided tour experience is a safe way to have an adventure while not getting lost, stranded, or isolated.
Cons of self-guided tours
- You'll need to be more proactive: Although everything is pre-booked and your itinerary is filled out for you, you'll still need to get yourself to and from museums to your hotel and make sure you're on time for excursions.
Overall, a self-guided tour is a good choice when there’s a popular established way of traveling through a specific region, like the Camino de Santiago in Spain. If you can follow a clear trail and there are other people doing the same thing, self-guiding is perfectly reasonable.
What is independent travel?
We all know the "independent traveler:" they're young, free, and wild -- traveling the world with nothing more than a backpack and the currency from their last destination.
Actually, independent travel takes many forms beyond the traditional "backpacker" image we all have in mind. Here at Go Overseas, we use the term independent travel to mean any travel you plan and do which doesn't involve another company organizing, planning, or guiding you once you arrive in the destination. If you plan a trip to Eastern Europe on your own and arrange all the train tickets, hotels, and flights yourself -- that's independent travel. If you book a ticket to New Zealand, rent a car, and explore the North and South Islands on your own -- that's independent travel too. You're doing it all yourself, no guides or outside companies involved.
If you're knowledgeable about the destination you want to visit (even if you've never traveled there), you may well be able to plan and execute the whole trip yourself.
Pros of independent travel
- It can be cheaper: You can choose budget-friendly hostels and opt to splurge on expensive restaurants. Or, you can skip tourist hot spots and go for more off-the-beaten-path experiences. Ultimately, you can set your budget limits and stick to it.
- Pace is completely up to you: Independent travel allows for a pace of travel that matches your travel preferences.
- Lots of space for flexibility and change of plans: If you want flexibility to change your itinerary each day or have a lot of time in which to travel (weeks or months), independent travel may be the way to go.
Cons of independent travel
- It's not as safe as guided or self guided tours: If something goes wrong or you get sick while traveling, you won't have the safety net of support, compared to traveling with a guided group.
- It can get lonely: Independent travel doesn't give you as much room to make friends. While it's not entirely impossible, you're less likely to find people doing the same exact travel as you are. Still, you could definitely form friendships in all the places you visit, if you're open to making conversations at hostels or local restaurants!
- You have to be completely self-reliant As the sole travel planner, you're responsible for booking flights, reserving museum tickets, researching which route to take, etc. There isn't anyone to hold your hand -- which can be either a good or bad thing, depending on the type of traveler you are!
Choosing independent travel requires you to have the most active role in the planning and experience of your trip. If you want to design every aspect of your trip to as rigid or flexible standards as you desire, independent travel is a good choice.
Which type of travel is right for you?
All in all, the type of trip you choose completely depends on your personality, budget, appetite for risk and adventure, and experience dealing with the travel grind. If you prefer to retain complete control of your trip, independent travel might be your style. If you want to visit a destination with a little help but still call most of the shots -- try a self-guided tour. If you decide that having a guide will make your experience better through convenience or helping you really immerse yourself in the culture, book a guided tour and travel with a new group of friends! In the end, the choice is entirely yours.
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