Long-Term Travel: 8 Ways to Mix Independent Travel and Guided Tours

Welcome to another edition of “long-term travel how-tos”! I’m sharing wisdom gained from my 12-week trip through Asia and two previous multi-month trips.

This week we’re talking about independent travel vs. guided tours. Often these are talked about as two opposing and incompatible methods of travel. But they don’t have to be.

I’m a hosteller/backpacker from way back, and my preferred mode is still to go indie, but I always incorporate a few mini-tours along the way. Here’s why…and how.

Last time I told you to identify your travel style. But after many weeks of travel, you might want a break from planning everything yourself. Or maybe you’ll find it more relaxing to vary your style of travel as you go. That’s okay!

Here are some ways to incorporate guided tourism into your independent-traveller itinerary…

1. City Tours

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Even if you’re the most budget-minded of backpackers, taking a day tour of a city when you first get there can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a feel for a new place. Plus, it’s an efficient way to check off all the major sights so you can spend the rest of your time soaking up the ambiance and discovering lesser-known gems.

Many cities offer hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that do a circuit of the biggest tourist draws. Sure, they’re more expensive than public transit, but they’re also more direct, and there’s a guide telling you interesting tidbits as you drive. And you can still wander around the actual sights at your own pace.

How I’ve used it: hopping on and off the famous red double-decker buses of London and the tourist ferries of Bangkok; taking a longtail boat cruise in Bangkok

2. Taxi for the Day

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

If you just want transport between sights and minimal guiding, consider hiring a taxi (or tuktuk, or auto-rickshaw) for the day. It’ll save you having to haggle repeatedly over fares, it gives you more autonomy than #1, and you’ll probably still get some good info from your driver.

Like #1, it gets you point-to-point transport and you don’t have to worry about public transit (or walking, in a pedestrian-unfriendly city). You can even use it for far-flung sights that may be in the outskirts or beyond the city borders.

How I’ve used it: hiring auto-rickshaws in and around New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, all in India (stay tuned for more about my India adventures!)

3. Adventure Tourism

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

If you’re at a destination that’s known for adventure tourism, sign up for a day or half-day or even an overnight tour. They’ll transport you to the location (usually outside the city), look after you (hopefully…do your research!), and give you an experience you won’t soon forget. Then you can go back to doing your own thing the rest of the time.

How I’ve used it: ziplining in Chiang Mai, Thailand; overnight camel trip in the Thar Desert, India (with Saraha Travels)

4. Specialty Mini-Tours

Bird's nest fern in Cameron Highlands

Bird’s nest fern spotted on a botany walk in the Cameron Highlands

If you have a special interest, check your guidebook or ask your place of accommodation (or the local tourist office, if there’s a good one) if they can hook you up with a small-group or customized tour.

For example, look for an urban walking tour that matches your interests – a ghost tour, an architecture walk, and so on. Or, if you’re outside the city, maybe you can find a guide for the day who specializes in birding, botany, or the like.

How I’ve used it: guided hiking in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

5. Day Tours Outside Cities

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Depending on your destination, you may not want to risk renting a car and braving the traffic. But you do want to go places and see sights that public transportation won’t take you to easily.

If you don’t hire your own transport (see #2), consider joining a tour for the day. You’ll get a guide to interpret the sights for you, and they may even feed you lunch or show you things you can’t see without a guide. And like a city tour (#1), it can be an efficient way to see several destinations in one day.

How I’ve used it: touring Connemara, Ireland; sightseeing around the Cameron Highlands; visiting Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam outside Chiang Mai, Thailand; visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand

6. Transport Outside and Between Cities

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Maybe you don’t want a tour; you just want to get from Point A to Point B and maybe Point C after that. But again, public transport is limited or a little less comfortable than you’d like. What to do?

In some countries, when you hire a car, you’re also hiring a driver…and it’s not prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re travelling with a few others and can split the cost. Worth looking into in Asia.

You may also be able to find a tour company that sells not only full tours, but also just seats on their tour buses or vans. They’ll get you where you want to go, but you won’t have to do all the activities…or maybe you can sign up for just the ones you want.

How I’ve used it: hiring a driver to travel between cities in India when trains were booked; taking a tour van and a boat to Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia (with Han Travel)

7. Backpacker Tours

When you think of a multi-city tour, do you picture giant buses and bland hotels? Think again. Some companies cater to young backpacker types. They’ll take you from city to city in small groups, put you up for the night at hostels, and may let you tailor the itinerary or pick and choose the activities you want.

Some also offer hop-on, hop-off services — take the van to a place you want to visit, hop off, and stay there for a few days until the next van comes along. Again, this is a great way to see a big area in a short amount of time, and make some friends while you’re doing it.

How I’ve used it: Touring in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in Northern Ireland

8. Tailored Touring

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

A little anecdote is in order here. After 3 countries and 10 weeks of mostly independent travel, we were about to hit Nepal. I was burned out on travel planning and learning to navigate new countries. Plus, we wanted to go trekking, but were worried about our abilities.

So we did some research and threw ourselves on the mercy of a tour company, Friends in High Places…and they were fabulous. They arranged our whole stay in Nepal, from hotels to a Kathmandu day tour to an amazing six-day trek with guide and porter (and just the two of us!) in the Annapurna Sanctuary region. They took all the worry away. Much as I love being in control of my own travel, and flying by the seat of my pants when I can, I have to say that having those 10 days in Nepal all planned for me was a huge relief…and totally worth it!

How I’ve used it: Trekking in Nepal; self-guided walking tour in the Cotswolds, England

Your turn! What’s your travel style? Have you combined independent and guided travel?

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5 responses to “Long-Term Travel: 8 Ways to Mix Independent Travel and Guided Tours

  1. Independent travel is the best, but it is a LOT more time consuming and energy-intensive, and less efficient for people with limited annual leave. For this reason, I’ve tended to pick up guided small groups in the last decade or so. (Also because I don’t like travelling solo much.)

    I’ve done small groups in mini-buses driven by the tour leader and guided backpacking tours — which is where you’re effectively backpacking in a group, but the leader books all the transport and accommodation, organises dinners in local restaurants and provides tips on which sites to see!

  2. This was a great break-down of how one could use these kinds of tours and how you have used them. I agree with Ellen, indie travel is time and energy intensive, though I’ve done it to save money and be autonomous. I’ve also been on a number of tours and have enjoyed each of them.

  3. Oops, sorry, Ellen — I saw your comment and then spaced out on responding! I agree, limited holidays mean independent travel becomes much less feasible. Your small-group travels sound like a great way to get the logistics taken care of while keeping most of the intimacy of travelling.

    Tami, I’m glad to hear that more people have tried (and enjoyed) both sides of travel. Thanks for the compliment!

  4. I agree with you when you say “Even if you’re the most budget-minded of backpackers, taking a day tour of a city when you first get there can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a feel for a new place”. This is good advice because it gives you the opportunity to gauge when and where to travel solo. You can learn a lot about a place in the safety of numbers in just one day.

  5. Fred, good point. I did a backpacker tour of Northern Ireland, which felt pretty safe for the most part…except when we visited some disputed areas of Belfast. Yowza. I would never have gone there on my own!

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