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Guided Tour vs Independent Travel & How we do it?

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There are many ways to explore a new city. And depending on the destination, personal taste, funds, and travel time on hand – travelers explore the world a little differently. But everything comes down to 2 things essentially – guided tour vs independent travel.

Many seasoned travelers dislike packaged tours – freedom of time and travel is what they like. And then there are many, who even after years of travel and globetrotting experience – prefer the experts to take them around.

In this post, we will share how we travel and this is how we exactly travel with a busy work/life schedule. Plus we will also share our views on guided tours vs independent travel – a debate that never ends!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Guided Tour vs Independent Travel

Guided tour vs independent travel
Guided tour vs independent travel

We have done it all from pre-packaged vacation tours, short 3 hours to full-day 10 – 12 hours guided tours to independent travel. And through years of experience, we can honestly say we enjoyed all of it and depending on the ‘stage’ of traveling we are in, vacation time and the location – sometimes tours are better than independent travel.

Guided Tour: Multi-day, small group, packaged guided tour

When we ventured on our first trip to Europe we embarked on a packaged tour of 14 days, and we added another 5 days of travel without a tour.

We did this because

  • we had never been to Europe before, so it made sense to travel with a trusted guide/tour agency, 
  • we required visas, and with a tour itinerary (all paid for in advance) made traveling and securing a visa easy, 

In that year, we only took one Euro trip, and we chose the package, got our 3 weeks approved from work, prior to applying for a visa and traveling. So, if this sounds like you, a small group packaged travel is a good option.

Small-Group Packaged Tours: Lots of legroom, sit back, relax, enjoy the drive! Share carbon footprint with like-minded travelers!

Small group Packaged tours are great for

  • first-timers,
  • solo travelers,
  • those looking to get their feet wet into traveling but don’t want to do all research and individual bookings,
  • those needing visa approvals,
  • if you wish to socialize and travel – make new friends,
  • keeps budget under control as you will be paying for everything at one go including meals (especially breakfast and some dinner meals),
  • very few surprises – tour directors are professionals they know the route, history, obstacles, etc.

The only downside to this is pre-packaged tours depart on certain dates, so if you are working professionals like us you have to get time approved ahead of time. We didn’t find packaged tours to be ‘too’ restricted –  you will get free time and you are free to eat where you like or include a few additional spots for sightseeing, but for the most part, you cannot entirely change the itinerary, you have to be mindful of time, of others.

We are a pretty chilled, easy-going couple – so we didn’t have issues getting along with people!

Multi-day Guided Tour Operators
We recommend TourRadar for selecting and booking packaged tours. They have a great selection for both Europe and North American destinations – and always have travel deals on their site. TourRadar focuses on sustainable and ethical travel. You will find something on their website that will interest you and fit your budget, and from a wide selection of tour operators. Check out their current deals here

One of our favorite small group tour operators is G Adventures. They are Ontario Canada based tour provider. They have great European and South American destinations tours for selection. Check them out here

Guided Tour: Short walking tours, day tours, sightseeing cruises, history, and food tours

At present, we travel to Europe often, and we only have limited days off – sometimes we also travel for a long weekend (plus a personal day here and there) to do one country exploration, and we find pre-packaged tours limiting, especially because we can’t choose our dates.

So what we do is we make travel plans, based on our time off from work, we utilize short tours – 3-hour walking tours, food tours, and full-day tours, which are our absolute favorite. We never rent a car in Europe, we use public transportation and guided walking tours, hop on and hop off sightseeing tours for the base city and take day tours (with includes sightseeing and return transportation) to nearby cities and countries.

  • When we traveled to Paris, we booked a day tour to Versailles. Expect a long queue at the Palace of Versailles, regardless of when you visit, with a guide in tow we could learn about its history and get into the landmark complex, without waiting for hours. Our time overseas is precious!
  • Another time, we explored the Neuschwanstein Castle in a small group tour, where our guide took us to a cheese farm, and many UNESCO heritage sites along the way, whilst sharing stories from Bavaria.     
  • In order to explore Bruges, we took regional trains and then embarked on a walking and canal cruise tour. We also took a brewery tour, which was so much fun!
GetYourGuide
We use GetYourGuide for selecting and booking our European itinerary. They are based in Berlin Germany and they offer tons of European tours. We personally use them and recommend them. I have the GetYourGuide app on my phone and it saves all the vouchers in it (without having to print them. Some agencies do require a hard copy to be printed, so check the requirements. But it can be all done via the app). Check them out here – GetYourGuide 

This is probably the best way to explore a new city, and it is working for us. And we believe if you are a busy traveler this will work for you too.

This works because

  • you choose your dates of travel and duration in each city,
  • you can choose what tours interests you – not everybody has to do the same landmarks if history is your thing, choose a heritage tour; if food is your calling – do a food tour, if you like cruises opt for 2- 3 hours sightseeing boat cruises – take your pick.
  • or include all of it, as we do for the love of variety,
  • or if you like to drool outside the window – which I do (and I don’t like driving, why focus on the road when you can soak in those views! )
  • see more in less time with day tours – They are perfect as we get to explore sister towns or farms to make the most of our trip. Salil usually gets his nap, and I am soaking in all the views or writing a postcard or a love letter to the city!  

The only downside to this is that you will still have to do your research and track all the bookings. I love to do travel research and plan an itinerary, but that’s just me.

If you find planning or researching to be boring, then a pre-packaged tour is your remedy.

Our research involves hotel selection, local transportation options, which guided tours are worth it (and how many can we fit?), and which ones to take?

Keeping track of bookings is a MAJOR struggle for many. Because we book our tours through GetYourGuide, the app stores all the vouchers. I also keep the notification settings, on my iPhone. If a hard copy is required to redeem the tour, which is mostly the case with hop on and hop off sightseeing tours, I print them and arrange by date (first to last) and exchange them for actual vouchers with the bus driver.   

Independent travel: A reality?

Independent travel is everyone’s dream. And independent travel means different to different people.

For us, independent travel means freedom

  • no time limit,
  • go wherever
  • do it all by yourself,
  • not being dependent on anyone.

But I think independent travel is a utopian concept – from renting a car to sitting on an aircraft, to booking a hotel or Airbnb – we are dependent on “someone” – to deliver that service. And not to forget with a full-time job and a busy schedule, we can’t just take off; our lives are not independent of our families or from the work we do.

Somehow our work, personal lives – do influence and sometimes dictate how long can we travel for (is it one week or one year)?

Of course, it is nice to be able to pick a destination, choose how much we can explore in the ‘travel time’ approved for us, re-arrange itinerary and choose a hotel/Airbnb – and all of this is possible because we rely on “someone” for that service.

And day to day sightseeing is no different, we are dependent on that tour guide, that app, those Google maps, that bus operator who dropped us at the right stop and so on and forth. We like this co-dependent travel – we book flights and hotels and appreciate local tours and guides and their expertise.

How we travel?

At the moment, we are doing a mix of incodependent travel with handpicked short (hourly) guided tours.

We choose our travel dates and cluster cities and towns together and create our own itineraries. Day tours and short guided tours fill in the gaps and make travel easier (without renting a vehicle or doing additional planning for landmarks or sister cities).

We use our limited vacation days, weekends, civil holidays, day in lieu/overtime hours, personal time to extend the number of travel days. To learn how to craft an annual travel plan with a busy schedule – grab our annual planner!

We are very active travelers. Now by active we don’t do hiking, trekking and being outdoors and camping in the wild. We hike in the urban jungle, walking for miles in cobblestoned lanes, pretty neighborhoods, capturing photos, eating and grabbing delicious lattes, climbing 201 steps to see the sunset from a church tower – yea, that’s what we do.

When it comes to Europe travels, we fly from Canada and usually land by noon or 2:00 pm local time, and we drop off our bags at the hotel (always book them at a central location), freshen up and we are ready to explore.

We really don’t know what jetlag is – we have gone back to work, the very next day after arriving from an international trip. (And we can sleep like a baby on an aircraft!).

We combine walking and bus tours, use Google maps to plan our itinerary and discover spots, not on the listed tour route, we eat local as much as possible – and we are very low maintenance when it comes to food – no dietary restrictions and relish whatever is served with love! You will never see us fuss over food really or anything travel-related! 

After an active sightseeing day, we go to bed happy as ever– we explored a tiny piece of this wonderful world, and many more to go tomorrow.  

So yea the entire day, we are exploring or trying out new cuisines or cultural activity – we don’t waste our time – by not exploring – and that’s how we make the most of our visits!

We genuinely love traveling. We take in delayed flights with a smile, as an excuse to hang out at the airport, and plan our next trip!

A quick guide to the Elk Island National Park - home to the American bisons, located just an hour away from Edmonton, the capital city of the Canadian province of Alberta. Get lost in the wilderness, camp out, bird watch, star gaze and so much more including a sunset tour #canada #travelalberta #exploreedmonton
Elk Island National Park – Sunset Tour in our own city

Our Travel Resources

Here are some of the travel resources we use in planning and booking our trips, 

Flights

Although there are many ways to check flight availability and make a trip estimate, we highly recommend booking flights (and hotels) from one source. It helps in tracking flight itineraries, getting multi-product discounts or to collect points. We LOVE using Expedia for that!

We book our flights online using Expedia.com. We have credit cards that allow us to stack points and redeem them for free travel and hotels. Even without a credit card, you can sign up for their rewards points. We check Google Flights, Skyscanner to track flight prices, but booking is always done via Expedia (and we are Canada based. Expedia has offers for the United States and globally as well).

Expedia has a large selection of flights, hotels, tours, and cruises to choose from. One of the things I like about them is that we can get multi-product discounts. So when we booked our 2 weeks to Europe to explore France, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, we flew to Paris first. So we booked a return flight to Paris and a portion of stay in Paris, to get deeper discounts.

As mentioned, Expedia allows you to collect points, if you use one of their partnered credit cards – like Expedia RewardsCard, a Citi Expedia credit card or Expedia for TD by TD Credit Cards. With the points collected, we scored almost 50% off vacation packages and flight tickets.

If you already have credit products and do not wish to open another one, no worries you can collect rewards as a frequent traveler and redeem for travel rewards. Because the flight fare is one of the big-ticket items, and as Expedia offers “BestPrice Guarantee” we book through them.

Hotels

We use HotelsCombined to compare prices across different hotels’ networks. Hotels Combined is a tool to compare various hotel websites, but for booking, you need to use a hotel’s website. Our bookings are done on Expedia or Booking.com. 

Tours

For short guided tours, we LOVE GetYourGuide – no trip is complete without them! Their Europe selection is quite wider than any other tour providers out there. Their cultural and history tours for many iconic European cities are just fabulous.

For multi-day tours, we choose TourRadar or G Adventures. I am currently looking into a Christmas special 10-day tour in Europe in 2020!

Check out tour providers

We hope you enjoyed reading this post, and are excited to book your next trip! 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Guided tour vs Independent travel guide
Guided tour vs Independent travel guide

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