I'm going to make a generalization here and say that our DIY-travel generation, with countless apps and reviews at our fingertips, is largely anti-tour. We like to think we can travel better and cheaper by calling the shots ourselves. And you know what? We often do.
I always saw tours as a sort of travel cop-out: tourism's version of a bland, prepackaged meal. Then on one trip, a couple friends and I decided to travel to India. We're all seasoned international travelers but the more we read and researched the more overwhelmed we felt. What do you mean hotels had all sorts of different room categories? How would we know if we were getting ripped off? On top of recognizing there would be some big cultural chasms, we also wanted to pack a lot in a relatively short amount of time. Finally, we booked a tour.
I felt defensive explaining our choice to everyone, which is really silly in retrospect, because here I am writing this post. We chose to go on a tour with a local operator and they took care of sorting out all the matters that we were concerned would distract us from actually seeing and experiencing Incredible India, like getting from one city to another.
Just as there's a multitude of tools to plan and plot out trips these days, tours too have diversified from the one-size-fits-all affairs that typically conjure images of XL buses with visored tourists being herded on and off. I have the option of connecting directly with guides right in the destination where I'm going on Viator and GetYourGuide and can even work in interests like biking or cooking with a click. This is in defense of doing a nuts-to-soup tour.
You see, do and learn it all.
Rest assured every highlight and "must" will be hit. You're not just going to see it and skim the little placard aside it, either, but you'll get all the history that comes along with it. In India, we had a different guide at each stop and every single one had a Master's degree in history or a similar subject. Our inner nerds delighted at all that knowledge to soak up, even if I never really got the Mughal dynasty figured out.
Forget about logistics.
Unlike the U.S., most of the world does not run 24/7. (Ah, work-life balance.) In fact, I've learned the hard way that there are entire days, like Mondays for restaurants, Sundays for stores and a random weekday for museums that marquee attractions or businesses shut down. Sometimes they stop accepting people way before their listed closing time, too. These are things that research as I might, I still sometimes overlook.
Istanbul, in particular, has a pretty bad case of closing some of its main attractions on alternating days. For instance, the Hagia Sophia and the Archaeological Museum close on Monday while the Topkapi Palace closes on Tuesday. You might be playing musical attractions whether you like it or not. With tours, someone else knows all that and is managing schedules accordingly.
Though transit around a country is sometimes easy peasy like in Japan with its bullet trains, in other places it can be much more convoluted, especially if you don't know the language. In India, booking a tour that would reliably transport us where we wanted to go was a huge plus.
Your guides know what's up.
When the strap of the only purse I had with me snapped in Jaipur, our guide took a quick 10-minute detour to the best street cobbler in town. He sewed it up quickly and we were back on our way. I also should mention that he taught us how to cross the street, which is no trivial matter when trucks, mopeds, buses and livestock are barreling ahead.
Another guide was sure to only give us the OK on food and restaurants he knew our weak foreigner stomachs and immune systems would be able to handle. Guides are boss like that. This is the kind of stuff they do and they (should) do it well.
You can get special treatment.
In some cases, there are only certain activities you can do with a special tour or group. Entering the inner circle of Stonehenge is a privileged activity that often has to be booked well in advance and arranged. Not everyone gets to go inside while the sun rises or sets — it’s reserved for the select few.
With a tour, you're granted insider access to the tourism industry. Drivers, guides and the organizing company all have lots of connections and when you're with them, you're distinguished from the international masses cueing at the entrance. For example, even though we arrived a bit late—our fault, not our guide's or driver's—for the elephant ride up to Amber Fort, I knew our guide was going to make sure we got our pachyderm time.
There's the hotel hookup.
In Jaipur, the hotel the tour had us staying in was the converted home of a raj, or king. I never would have guessed the cost of our tour would cover such digs, so we reveled in how regal it all was even more.
Tour operators also understandably get discounts at hotels. What I didn't realize, however, is they're usually steep discounts—as in my case— that might put the place out of your original price range. While the accomodation might skew toward Hiltons and that ilk and maybe even perhaps lack some local flavor, at least you know they'll be nice and comfortable.
My parents, as independent travelers as they come, have turned to tours as empty nesters. When I talked to them after their tour last year to Israel and Jordan I thought, this must be what I sounded like when I came back from summer camp as a kid. All these fun things! All these new friends!
If you pick a cool tour, you should hope it's a self-selecting crowd of cool people. Maybe that's the case, maybe it's not, but half of the intrigue of traveling is meeting people.
You always have a photographer.
I always do a lot of scoping to see who not only looks approachable but also like they won't pocket my camera. Second on the list of considerations is if they look like they will be able to take a decent photo—just getting us and some of the attraction in the frame is good enough—before sauntering up with a sugary, "Hi, um, would you mind...?"
Even if it's not stipulated in the package, a tour comes with a photographer built right in, whether it's the guide or your fellow tour compatriots. That's also one less thing to worry about. I guess we do live in a day and age where luxury tour packages comes with social media assistants, after all. While that's extreme, I'm pretty sure we're all looking for a shot of us in front of the Louvre or wherever it is.
I'm at least looking for photographic proof I made it.