When I started this blog, one of the goals was to improve my writing. Two methods to improve writing are to have someone providing editorial comments and to re-write over and over. I finally got someone to edit my blog (see here) so I am re-writing the post, Commercial Tour vs. Self-Guided Tour, here.

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We take almost all of our vacations as independent tours as opposed to commercial tours. I know friends who swear by commercial tours because they don’t have to do much planning but we like to travel on our own because we enjoy the freedom of going to places whenever we want, the flexibility of changing our schedule and the adventure of the unknown. There are advantages and disadvantages of either tours and let’s look at them.

We took a commercial tour to China a few years ago. Some people take commercial tours because they don’t feel comfortable going to places where they don’t speak the language. Therefore, it was ironic that we took a tour in China because we do speak Chinese. It may seem to be scary to go to places where they speak a foreign language. But most people are friendly and are willing to help if we respect of them and their cultures. We have been to many places such as Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Indonesia where people didn’t speak any English (or Chinese) and we were able to get by on our own. Once we were in Spain where we were lost and had to ask for directions. I managed to ask the question,”Donde está la estación de tren?” by consulting my phrase book but we couldn’t understand the answer. The lady was friendly and drew on the dirt where we were and where we needed to go to get to the train station. As we followed her direction and got back on the main road, a bus drove by and the driver honked at us. He pointed the direction of the train station as he probably had guessed that we were lost and were trying to find the train station. It was a memorable story.

So why did we take a tour? It was safety. We were told that it was not convenient and safe to travel in China on your own, especially for us who liked to travel to countryside although big cities were okay. It was and still is not easy to obtain information from China. Therefore we decided to err on the safe side. However, although it provides some sense of safety, it is a faulty one. A commercial tour does not always guarantee safety, notably the Thousand Islands Lake massacre in China in 1989 and cruise ships being robbed by pirates. With that noted, we may still take a commercial tour such as on African Safari and in Nepal trekking where safety is a concern.

Some also believe that a commercial tour is a cheap way of traveling. It may be true in some cases, especially for a solo traveler, but the cheapest way is always on one’s own. There are many ways to save money: camping, make your own lunch/dinner and hiking instead of going to amusement parks, for example. We spent an average of $104 per day, which included every expense: gas, lodging, food, entertainment, car maintenance, gifts, ferry tickets, supplies, souvenirs, etc. That was not bad for 4 persons and we ate well and very little fast food, less than once a week. I doubt one can find a commercial tour charging $26 per person per day for a cross-country tour.

A commercial tour has its advantages, the biggest one being everything is already planned: lodging, transportation, points of interest, and even food sometimes. Some people also enjoy meeting fellow tourists. The only thing to decide is which tour company to go with and the rest is to sit back and enjoy. And, typically, it can be educational as tour guides often provide interesting tidbits on places and people. Although one can probably obtain some similar information from tour books and internet, it requires some efforts to research and read. Vacations should be relaxing, not stressing out from planning. No wonder commercial tours are big business. For our tour in China, we stayed in a 5-star hotel and had a 10-course meal every night. Everything was well-orchestrated and we got to see many things and learn many stories from the tour guides. However, I felt that it was a trip I watched on TV; it wasn’t personal and I didn’t feel connected to it. It just wasn’t for us.

We don’t like to plan either. An independent tour does not always mean a lot of planning. We like to think a trip is an adventure. Detailed planning will often turn out to be disappointing as things usually do not go according to plans. And most people who do detailed planning do not like surprises. We like surprises. I had many memorable adventures and some of them were unplanned. Of course, there probably wasn’t any tour that we can join to visit the country for 4 months. We didn’t plan too much for this trip: no reservations and no fixed schedules. We skimmed over some information initially, no more than one would read to decide which commercial tour to choose. We had a rough itinerary so we could monitor our time and get back home in 4 months. Picture Rocks National Lakeshore We typically waited until we were physically in a place before we read more about it. There was always time for that. The one disadvantage without planning ahead is some places may require a reservation months in advance but one can always improvise.

Although we missed staying in Arches National Park because we didn’t make a reservation and most likely missed out on some information that a tour guide might provide, our method of leaving open-ended itinerary had its advantages. We had many adventures in places we never heard of or unaware of also with things we never didn’t know: fossil hunting, synchronous fireflies, the Green Gable in Prince Edward Island, Apostles National Lakeshore, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore (see right), Effigy Mounts National Monument, Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Jewel Caves in South Dakota, COSI Columbus, Seneca Rocks and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, and many others. I find that when we visited a place, read about it on our own, saw it on a map and navigated to it, we remember it better. We feel connected to it and it becomes real to us, unlikely a reality show.

So what is for you? Do it yourself or have it on a plate delivered to you?

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