5 Reasons to Take an Organized Tour

by Gray Cargill on March 16, 2010

View from El Yunque

View from El Yunque

Independent travelers often avoid organized group tours in favor of sightseeing on their own.  Sometimes this is because they dislike the idea of being herded around on someone else’s schedule, sometimes it’s to save money, and I’m sure there are a myriad of other reasons.  I am all for saving money when I can, and whenever I can guide myself, I do.  For instance, I didn’t need a tour guide to show me around Old San Juan or Forts El Morro or San Cristobal during my recent trip to Puerto Rico to get a sense of the history of those places.  But sometimes, a group tour is the way to go, especially when you’re traveling solo.  To demonstrate why, I’ll use an example from my recent trip to Puerto Rico.

El Yunque rainforest is the only rainforest in the U.S.  So naturally, when I traveled to San Juan in January, El Yunque was high on my priority list. But I had a choice to make: Should I book an organized tour, which would cost upward of $50, and be stuck with their schedule, or rent a car for far less and go by myself? I’ll admit, I was tempted to rent the car and go it alone, as I was looking for ways to save money and wasn’t sure how much of my day I wanted to spend on the rainforest. But ultimately, I chose to go on an organized tour, and I’m so glad I did. Here’s why.

Tiny lizard

One of the women on the tour grabbed this little guy off a tree and let him crawl up and down her arm before putting him back.

1. Socializing. Solo travel can sometimes be an isolating experience. I welcome opportunities to interact with others when they arise. Had I rented a car and driven myself, I would have just extended my period of isolation, which might have impacted my enjoyment of El Yunque. Instead, I got to interact with a tour guide and other individuals on the tour with me, including a woman traveling alone whose brother, I learned, lives in Stowe, Vermont (about half an hour from where I live). We hit it off and had some good conversation on the drive down and back.

View from El Yunque

View from El Yunque

2. Motivation. On the morning of my El Yunque day, it was pouring in San Juan. I know myself well enough to know that, faced with the prospect of  driving 45 minutes to El Yunque, then hiking in the rain by myself, I might not have done it. And I didn’t really have a backup plan for that day. Knowing I had already booked and paid for the tour was all the motivation I needed to get up and go. If I had allowed myself to miss out on an experience like El Yunque, I’d still be kicking myself.

El Portal

El Portal

3. Let someone else do the driving and navigating. Traffic in Puerto Rico is, shall we say, a tad aggressive compared to Vermont. It didn’t take me very long once I was there to realize that, even with GPS to find my way there, I’d have been very nervous driving myself to El Yunque. By taking a tour, I got to sit back and enjoy the landscape roll by while letting someone else deal with the traffic.   Being somewhat directionally-challenged, I’m also a little skeptical that I would have been successful at hiking through the rainforest without getting hopelessly lost. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about that.

Coca Falls

Me at Coca Falls

4. Someone to take your picture. The age-old dilemma for solo travelers is wanting photos of yourself in the place you’re visiting, but not having anyone to take them (unless you’re willing to approach total strangers). I didn’t even have to ask. My tour guide volunteered to take my picture in front of Coca Falls and took photos of each of us wearing a goofy hat he made out of a humongous leaf.

Jaime

Jaime the tour guide

5. Seeing versus learning. Yes, I could have gone to El Yunque alone and seen Coca Falls, stopped by the Visitor Center for the 15 minute film about the rainforest, and gone for a hike in the woods, just like I did with my tour group. But what I would have missed out on was the learning component–and interaction with a local. Jaime, who was my tour guide, lives near El Yunque. He had a great sense of humor and was a wealth of knowledge.

He plucked a plant out of the ground and told us the locals can pick this in their yards and cook with it. He showed us how to crush it between our fingers; it smelled like cilantro.  He also showed us an orange flower and told a funny story about how the boys in his school used to squirt the pods onto girls because it smelled like pee.  (Proving that boys will be boys, no matter where you go.)   He pointed out a tree with large leaves, white on one side and green on the other. They use it like the Weather Channel, Jaime said: If the white side is showing, it’s going to storm. (We do this in Vermont, too.)

Jaime also told us he was a former newspaperman and regaled us with the tale of how some farm animals turned up dead, minus the blood, one day and the paper published a story of how the Chupacabra was on the loose.  They sold a lot of papers with that headline.   I could have listened to his stories all day. I wouldn’t have gotten any of that had I gone to El Yunque on my own.

Yokahu Tower

Yokahu Lookout Tower

For me, the extra $25-40 it cost to take the tour (plus a tip for Jaime) was well worth it.  It was one of the best things I did in San Juan.  If you should find yourself in search of a good tour to El Yunque during your trip to San Juan, the tour desk at the Caribe Hilton has a great reputation and a wide variety of tours.

Ryan March 25, 2011 at 12:35 am

I recently spent the fall traveling through Central America involving plenty of tours and couldn’t agree more. Not only was it interesting meeting new people from all over but having guides who knew what they were doing was incredibly beneficial. But the most underrated benefit from going on a tours was animal spotting. Guides are so in tune with knowing where and what to look for that if I had been on the tour by myself I would have seen nothing but an empty forest or river.

Gray March 25, 2011 at 12:55 am

That’s a good point, Ryan! These guys know the land like the back of their hands–including where to spot wildlife.

SoloFriendly November 23, 2010 at 8:40 am

Fantastic! I wish I had known about that delivery service while I was there. Agreed–sandals are no good on the cobblestones in Old San Juan. I’m so glad you had a great trip! And as to your comment above about tour guides, yes, I think a good guide is one that makes the trip interesting from the minute he picks you up. Jaime has the perfect personality for this. I’m so glad it worked out that you got him as your guide too!

Angelhoutx November 22, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Oh and by the way Jaime was our tour guy he was leaving the next day to Las Vegas, so we were lucky to have him on board. He was funny and a great guy tour guy. What a difference between him and the other adventure we took the following day. As I stated we went to Island Icacos and the driver didn’t speak to anyone during the 1 hr drive and ppl were wondering why and it would have been nice if the company would include that during the drive because you do go through areas you might want to know about. Thank God we went a day before to El Yunque because we pretty much took the same route and Jaime talked all the way.

Angelhoutx October 26, 2010 at 9:36 pm

would you recommend the company you used for your tour? If so, can you give me the name so when we arrive we can look into it? I would really appreciate it. Thanks =)

Anonymous October 26, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Yes, I would recommend them. The name of the company was Travel Services Inc. and I booked them via the tour desk at the Caribe Hilton.

Angelhoutx October 28, 2010 at 2:38 pm

GREAT!! thank you so much. We are staying at the Caribe Hilton too. I hope the Hotel is as beautiful as the pictures on their website.

Anonymous October 28, 2010 at 3:27 pm

It’s definitely as beautiful as it appears on the site. Have you read this post yet? http://solofriendly.com/puerto-rico-culture-vs-the-beach/ It includes my reflections on my stay at the Caribe Hilton.

Angelhoutx October 26, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Thanks a lot for the comment, I was just thinking to myself maybe my husband and I can go to PR with out getting a tour guy. But you are totally right I just purchased my first DSLR camera and I want to explore a lot of the island and take some amazing pictures. thanks again once we arrive we will ask the front desk for the tour groups.

Becs October 18, 2010 at 2:38 am

Great tips that were totally relevent to me in Australia too. No way could I have gotten the up close attention regarding all the plants and bugs driving around myself. But price and direction (one-ways were great for getting to every place with no back tracking) where a total sell as it was totally cheaper then doing it alone.

Anonymous October 18, 2010 at 11:08 am

That’s another point some people don’t consider. Obviously, you have to crunch the numbers, but sometimes, doing that tour can be cheaper than paying for all the components involved in doing it yourself. Thanks for the comment, Becs!

SoloFriendly June 16, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Thanks for weighing in, Erin! For sure I would take an organized tour in India, because I think otherwise it would be exhausting dealing with touts. But even in cities where I know I can get around just fine by myself, even a half-day city tour to get acquainted with the area can be a good thing.

Erin June 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Great post! I travel a ton and usually find a solo travel + organized tour combination the best. (I did this in Egypt, East Africa, the Trans-Siberian.) I agree with all the reasons you listed for the benefits of group travel, but would also add the sheer exhaustion of traveling alone overseas as one of the factors in my decision (especially as a solo woman travel, there can sometimes be an underlying stress to the trip). My next trip is to India and will taking a tour so I can do some volunteer work too. Check it out: http://bit.ly/civdFs — if you mention GoErinGo, you'll get 25% off your booking!

SoloFriendly April 6, 2010 at 1:27 am

True, Daniel, sometimes it's cheaper and usually a lot less hassle.

twortw April 5, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I discovered the benefits of travelling on an organized tour in mainland China. It was often the case there that travelling this way worked out to be much cheaper than if I were to have done it solo. I think a great case can be made either way!

SoloFriendly March 18, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Glad to hear it, Levinson. Thanks for taking the time to post.

SoloFriendly March 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Great advice, Melanie–thank you!

SoloFriendly March 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Thanks, Inka, I really enjoyed your piece about the Pinta.

SoloFriendly March 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Good point about safety, Liz.

SoloFriendly March 18, 2010 at 11:15 pm

I totally agree, Keith. They're a good way to get the “lay of the land” when you first arrive.

MelanieHaiken March 18, 2010 at 7:19 pm

After years of pooh-poohing organized tours as being for wimps, I’ve recently started taking them because I’ve discovered you learn so much more about a place so fast, and that leaves more time to explore on your own! Also I tend to meet great people on tours, who give me lots of tips that I then use to get further “off the beaten path.” So here’s my tour tip: Ask everyone in the van, on the bus, or whereever you are to share their favorite places to eat, stay, see, hike and explore. You’ll find out about little-known restaurants, galleries, viewing spots, and may even get invited to share a meal or a stay.

inka March 18, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Hi, glad to meet you. Thanks very much for your comment on my 'Pinta' piece on europe a la carte. Love this blog too.

Levinson Axelrod March 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Sounds like a great idea. Enjoyed your article.

Keith March 18, 2010 at 4:33 am

I actually really love doing a tour to get acquainted with a place. Walking tours of London were great for this!

Liz March 18, 2010 at 1:01 am

Not having to worry about logistics, the chance to meet like-minded people and having someone to take photos of me are all good reasons for taking a guided tour. Safety is also an added bonus. Nice post.

SoloFriendly March 17, 2010 at 11:02 am

Thank you Gabriele, and thank you for taking the time to say so.

SoloFriendly March 17, 2010 at 11:02 am

That's the beauty of a day tour rather than a trip-long tour. You're not forced to be around other people all the time, just for a little while. I figure even if the other people on the tour aren't normally people I'd hang out with, I can handle it for a short period of time. But then I find people to be quite nice, so it's a pleasure.

SoloFriendly March 17, 2010 at 10:57 am

I would love to try an Xshot, but right now, I mostly use my DSLR for pictures. I'm not sure how well I could balance that on the end of Xshot. I need to get a new point and shoot as a backup. Maybe then. Or try one of the dual view cameras.

Dono March 17, 2010 at 5:11 am

Glad you put socialising as the number one reason. I've met some great people when forced into their company through not being able to find an alternative way to take a trip. And, if that sounds like faint praise, one of my best memories is a tour through the Salar de Uyuni a few years back.

Hedy March 17, 2010 at 1:57 am

Interesting. I HATE tours, but you make a good point. Have you ever tried an Xshot for pictures of yourself?

Gabriele March 17, 2010 at 1:52 am

Good points well done story.

SoloFriendly March 17, 2010 at 12:48 am

Thank you, Matt. Yes, I agree. I think balance is important, though. Everyone should try doing some things on their own, and then do a tour or two per trip. Everything in moderation.

SoloFriendly March 17, 2010 at 12:46 am

Thanks, Sheila. I know, I always hear horror stories online about tours, but every one I've taken has been worth it.

Nomadic Matt March 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Good tips! Tours can be a good option for a lot of travelers, especially those uncomfortable with going on their own

Sheila March 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm

These are great points, Gray. Like you, I tend to resist the organized tour, but when I do take them, I'm always pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

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