The Joy of Self-Guided Tours
By Chris Chesak
Photos courtesy of Pure Adventures
We were having a brilliant time in Panama! (Except for the insufferable, egotistical family from the east coast that looked down their noses at everything we did, were constantly negative, and culturally insensitive to every interaction with the local people.) We were having a brilliant time in Madagascar too! (Except for the insufferable woman who was consistently late, incredibly negative, and generally a downer at every turn.) And Namibia was great too! (Except for the pompous, arrogant Germanic woman that seemed to think the trip, and pretty much the world, revolved around her wants and needs.)
How do you get away from the crap-shoot that is group travel, where you roll the dice that whoever may have also registered for your trip can either be fabulous or fatal to your total enjoyment of the experience?
One option is self-guided tours, where an experienced tour operator works with local guides to develop an incredible itinerary, books all the hotels and side excursions for you, and provides all the support you need, from transfers and luggage delivery to providing a cell phone to call a local expert if you have questions or need help. With self-guided tours, you can go on your own, with a partner or friend, or a gaggle of friends or family – and do it all at your pace, in your style, and without having to put up with the machinations of an arrogant Germanic woman or insufferable east coast family.
Loren Siekman, the founder of Pure Adventures, says, “There’s a misperception that all self-guided trips are lower-end, bare-bones, or generally untrustworthy. That’s just not true. Like all tours, you have to do your research and find the right tour operator for you.”
Loren’s company has been offering self-guided trips for 25 years. They focus on providing higher-end accommodations and experiences, while still keeping things flexible and malleable to the client’s needs. They first started with European cycling tours but now also offer hiking and multi-sport trips in Asia, South America, and North America. He points to several advantages of self-guided trips:
- Lower cost – since you don’t need to have an actual guide tagging along with you day in and day out, the operator can provide the trip to you at a lower rate than fully-guided trips
- Depart any time – You aren’t locked into set departure dates, as you are with group tours, and you can choose any date that you like to start your adventure (including off-peak days)
- No cancellations due to lack of bookings – With no minimum number of participants to reach on a trip, there’s no reason for a tour company to cancel your trip just because they didn’t get enough other people to register (Indeed Siekman notes that his company often bails out folks whose trip was canceled by another operator due to not meeting trip minimums for departure)
Self-guided tours emphasize freedom; the freedom to choose your own specific travel dates, departures and even “days off” as well as the flexibility of pace, duration, start times and dates and special requests. Support is provided by booking only accommodations, excursions, and meals with trusted, vetted partners and by providing a multilingual local tourism expert to provide a first-day orientation, local cell phone for questions, and support in case of emergencies.
Sylvie Casper is a fan of self-guided. The Centreville, Virginia-based cyclist has taken four self-guided trips, to three nations, with two different companies. “I just love the flexibility. You can go off-trail and take a deviation whenever you like. We’ll often look for an out-of-the-way pub or restaurant to go to, or pack a lunch to stop whenever we want, where ever we want, to have a lovely picnic lunch.”
Casper also adds that the flexibility of self-guided allows her to stop and take as many photographs as she wants – or stop for a bathroom break without having to check in with several others in a group tour.
And self-guided just might become the next hot trend in travel as companies that offer these tours continue to see significant growth.
“Our total number of departures has grown on average 22% every year, for the past five years,” says Brooke Johnson, Operations and Sales Guru at Tracks & Trails, who provides self-guided RV tours. “Our clients have often said that they enjoy the flexibility that comes with self-guided travel. It’s really the best of both worlds, providing guidance and a framework, but allowing for spontaneity too. And guides and participants can make or break a trip, for better or worse. It’s sort of a gamble. Self-guided trips take that risk away while keeping the coordination and organization that families and individuals want.”
So, if you’re looking for a little more control over your own itinerary, as well as the freedom to travel your way, taking the plunge into self-guided might be right for you.
“Chez” Chesak is a travel writer, tourism consultant and 15-year veteran of the travel industry. He focuses on adventure travel and family travel. He’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to some 35 countries but has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife and two daughters.