Solo Travel vs. Group Travel: How To Decide What’s Right For You

As someone who has been backpacking for five years, I’ve experienced the pros and pains of both solo travel and group travel. Personally, I enjoy traveling on my own, although I have had successful trips with others. If you’re trying to decide whether to go solo or recruit others, use these tips to help you decide.

The Benefits Of Solo Travel

Many of my friends often ask me, “Aren’t you scared of traveling to Country X all by yourself?” This question always amazes me, as it really is very easy to meet other travelers on the road. Of course, if you’re extremely shy and have anxiety going up to strangers, you may have more trouble; however, staying in hostels, booking day tours, taking public transportation, using money exchanges and participating in Couchsurfing message boards and meetups allows for easy socializing. What’s great about solo travel is you can choose when you want to be alone, and when you want to hangout with other people. It’s like being on a silent retreat and being able to really enjoy your own company and not feel pressure to always be having discussions. Moreover, there is nobody else to dictate your itinerary. For example, I once backpacked Europe with a girl who was extremely cheap, and wouldn’t splurge on any day trips or go to any bars or clubs. While walking around the free parks and doing the complimentary walking tours was nice, there was a lot more I wanted to do. I couldn’t, however, because she wanted us to do all our activities together. Thankfully we ended up parting ways, and it was at this time that I began to really experience Europe the way I wanted to.The Cons Of Solo Travel

Of course, traveling solo also means heightened uncertainty. While getting lost in a big city or getting on the wrong train can seem like an adventure when with friends, it can be nerve-wracking when you’re alone. It’s also nice to have someone to share the burden of making important decisions with you. If you make the wrong one, it’s less scary when you’re with someone else. Likewise, the road can get lonely at times. Even if you’re constantly meeting new people at your hostels and on tours, it can be nice to have a real travel partner to share the experience. And of course, there’s always safety in numbers. It’s good to have someone who can watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom, and look out for your safety in general.

The Pros Of Group Travel

Along with the above-mentioned safety in numbers and relief of stresses, the best part of group travel is it can be a lot of fun. Sharing all these unique, day-to-day experiences can help you become close with your travel companion(s), and can lead to a lot of great memories together. It also relieves the lonliness many solo backpackers feel on the road. Even when meeting other people along the way, there are often many goodbyes and loose connections. Traveling with someone else can help you feel like you have a real friend and ally with you. Furthermore, you never have to worry about going to the bar alone and feeling awkward or having nobody to talk to during an activity.

The Cons Of Group Travel

The main reason I dislike group travel is I don’t like other people dictating my itinerary. When traveling, there are certain experiences I want to have, and having other people there can cause you to have to give up things you want to do. Moreover, it can be frustrating at times needing to wait around for other people to get ready, get money, unlock their bank card, pick up their laundry or do any other of the little everyday hassles travelers face. Additionally, dealing with different budgets can be difficult, as you never want to be forced to spend more than you can afford, or miss out on things because of a cheap travel partner.

Choosing A Travel Partner

While I love solo travel, I have to admit group travel can be a lot of fun. With group travel, it’s important to find someone who is compatible as a travel partner. When envisioning your trip, is there a mix of alone time and group time, or do you always want to be with your companion(s)? Do you enjoy adventure activities, seeing tourist sites or simply relaxing? What’s your budget? Do you like staying in hostels or hotels? These are some of the questions you should ask before committing to traveling with someone. As mentioned previously, I traveled Europe with a girl who wanted to do everything together. For me, it was completely stifling. However, when backpacking Argentina, I traveled with a girl who was even more independent than I am. This allowed us to both enjoy the activities we liked doing without having to worry about hurting the others’ feelings. It was also comforting to know if I wanted to do something with a partner or go for a beer, I had someone there.

Technologies That Help You Find Travel Companions

Whether you decide to travel solo or with a partner, there are many technologies that make travel more social. For example, for solo travelers, sites like Couchsurfing, Tripping and TripTrotting connect travelers with locals. This allows you to hangout with someone for sightseeing, and also to get a local point of view on your trips. For travelers who would like a travel partner but don’t have any friends who can commit, sites like Globetrooper and FindMeetGo allow you to post trips and connect with potential travel partners.

Should You Sign Up For A Group Tour?

If you don’t want to travel alone, and you’re the type of person who likes plans to be guaranteed to run smoothly, you may think about booking a group tour. Although I enjoy solo travel, I’ve done tours with Intrepid Travel and GAdventures before, and have had great experiences. Their styles cater to my travel philosophy of trying to go local and get closer to a culture. Before booking a group tour with a company, make sure to look into the style of the organization and the trip itself. If you’re a luxury traveler, check to see what kinds of accommodations you’ll be staying in and restaurants you’ll be eating at. For those looking for adventure, check the itinerary to ensure you’ll get to do the types of activities you enjoy. If you like learning about culture, what ways does the tour ensure this will happen? As long as you do some research, and you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind having each day planned out, than a group tour can be a very enjoyable experience.

Friendly Planet Travel begins offering authorized travel to Cuba

After several years, Americans are now able to travel to Cuba again under a new program from the U.S. Treasury Department. The aim of the program is to help Americans interact with locals of Cuba through educational exchanges focused on art, culture, music, and more.

As one of a handful of travel operators who have been granted a people-to-people license, Friendly Planet Travel will be operating two educational trips to Cuba that will allow people to immerse themselves in Cuban culture as well as learn about the country’s past, present, and future. The first trip is a 5-day “Discover Havana” trip ($1,899) that allows Americans to interact with locals and learn about Havana’s rich culture and history. The second trip, an 8-day “Colors of Cuba” trip ($2,899) is more in-depth and visits many culturally significant sites, such as Old Havana, Cienfuegos, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad.

Both of the trips include round trip airfare from Miami, a letter of authorization, entrance visa into Cuba, all land transportation, superior hotel accommodations, all meals, comprehensive educational programs, translator, and Friendly Planet guide. Trips will begin departing in March, 2012. For more information to see exact dates, click here.

Intrepid Travel: Not your average tour operator

Tours have a PR problem when it comes to wooing people who define themselves as “travelers.” Tours are crowded. Tours are contrived. Tours are for…well…tourists. But are all tours created equally? I’ve written before about deciding if a tour is right for you, but it had been a while since I actually took one. Since I last wrote about the topic, I had been curious if I could be satisfied on a tour. If it could cater to my needs for interaction with locals, meals consisting of regional cuisines and limited exposure to excruciatingly annoying crowds. That’s why I decided to experience a tour for myself. I recently returned from a trip to Turkey with Intrepid Travel and realized that you can’t make sweeping generalizations about tour operators.

In my previous post on tours, I referenced a conversation that I’d had with Janelle Nanos, Special Projects Editor at National Geographic Traveler and Intelligent Travel. She was fond of Intrepid Travel after her experience in Morocco because they kept their groups small. That was one of the top criteria on my list, as well, and seems to be par for the course in Intrepid’s business plan.

I wasn’t quite used to just showing up at the airport having done no preparation at all for a trip. I hadn’t had to reserve any hotel rooms. For all our planned moving around, I hadn’t looked at a single train schedule or booked any bus tickets. It felt odd at first, but it was also incredibly liberating. All I had to be concerned about was how much döner kebab I could eat in ten days. Perhaps if I was more OCD I would have been troubled by not playing a major role in the planning of the trip. Instead, I rather enjoyed darting away for a while and not having to think too much about it in advance of my departure.

My biggest fear about taking a tour was that the itinerary would be rigid and uncompromising. That I would be forced to go to a bazaar in which I had no interest or dragged somewhere no matter how exhausted I might be. But Intrepid’s guides were accommodating. Tired? Stay at the hotel and catch up on sleep. Not fit enough for the mountain bike ride through Cappidocia’s fairy chimneys? Go to the Open Air Museum and visit the cave churches instead. This flexibility made it feel less like a tour and more like a holiday with my friends in which we often go our separate ways only to meet again for dinner. Perhaps best of all, free time was ample. Rather than having our days planned from sunrise to midnight, we had more than enough time to explore the markets, wander around the towns or simply catch up on emails to friends back home.

In many ways, our methods of transport resembled how I would have gotten around had I planned the trip myself. We traveled from Istanbul to Bursa to Selçuk to Cappidocia and back to Istanbul. We rode on the same buses as Turks (both local public buses and long-distance motor coaches operated by private companies). We took the metro in Istanbul and an overnight sleeper train from from Ankara back to Istanbul. When we did require private transport, a coach bus was never necessary. Minivans sufficed, which kept us from being a spectacle when we arrived at our destinations.

We dined in the homes of three separate families while we were in Turkey. I’m sure many of you hardcore “travelers” are now shaking your heads and reciting the numerous times someone invited you over for supper while you backpacked overseas. But for your average vacationer, such an experience is rare and difficult to come by. Intrepid believes strongly that dialogue with locals helps people connect with their destination. Those three meals were quite possibly the best I had there. Not only because of the human interaction but because home-cooked Turkish food is downright delicious.

The accommodations were far from luxury but by no means hostels, either. Guests shared rooms at middle-of-the-road hotels. Often the group took up most of a hotel’s rooms not because there were so many people but because it was a small, locally-owned accommodation.

You may still think that tours are for tourists or that no tour could satisfy you, but if I learned anything during my time in Turkey with Intrepid Travel it’s that tours can be a good thing. They can make the weeks and months leading up to a trip devoid of the stress that comes with planning all the moving parts of a vacation. They can handle all of the logistics while still allowing you to customize your trip once you are on the ground. And they can immerse you in culture rather than cocooning you in coach buses and chain hotels.

I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with Intrepid Travel. Apparently not all tours are created equally. And that’s a good thing.

Mike Barish’s trip to Turkey was sponsored by Intrepid Travel. While everyone should agree that döner kebabs are amazing, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are strictly his own.

Economic consequences: travel with your family

I guess there are some families that genuinely enjoy traveling together. Dozens of people buy out plenty of space in a motel – or line up a few cottages – and arrive in force for some good ol’ fashioned family bonding time. I wouldn’t do it (coordinating travel inside the immediate family is hard enough), but there’s an element that will.

Take out the element that looks forward to a large family trip every year, and you’ll find a few more families at campsites, motels and vacation rentals … though not entirely by choice. Difficult economic conditions are driving some to pool their resources, sacrificing a measure of enjoyment to make their travel dollars as productive as possible. From Hawaii to Maine, prospective travelers are looking for deals for large groups.
TripAdvisor puts the number of families with children vacationing with another family at a third, up substantially from 2008.

Of course, some are trying to put a positive twist on the trend, claiming that the point of these trips isn’t to save money but to spend time together as a family. And, a handful of them mean it. For the rest, let’s see what happens when the economy recovers.

The first big trip

I was 21, fresh out of a destructive relationship and going to school full-time when fate stepped in. I was one of those people who told everyone that I loved travel, but until that point, I’d only really gone away with my parents and of those trips had only left North America once. It wasn’t my fault — all my friends were either not into travel or too into their boyfriends to make it priority. And I didn’t want to go alone.

I don’t know what made me stop to read the generic poster on the wall that snowy day when I was embedded in studying procrastination, but I did. Good Times! Student Tour Around the Greek Islands, or something to that effect, it read. The info session was set to start in 20 minutes. I grabbed my books and headed in there. Within a week, I signed up an paid for a 4-week trip with a bunch of strangers.

What followed was a month of wicked fun that was mostly memorable, except when too many shots of ouzo blurred the lines of recognition. Our group was made up of 26 twenty-somethings and two surfer-dude guides who were rarely guiding except when it came time to catch the ferry. We had a wicked time together — full of drinking and dancing and endless side-splitting laughter — and though I keep in touch with few of my travel mates, our time together won’t soon be forgotten.

My point is this: For me, this trip was the perfect foray into the world of solo travelling. I gained confidence, and I gained a love of travelling, all without having to worry about eating alone or being chained to people’s expectations of me at home. You see, travelling with a group of strangers is ideal — you’re independent, but still not entirely on your own. I learned a lot about travelling in those four weeks, and I learned a lot about myself. I learned that when necessary, I can navigate the curvy streets of a foreign land and make the bus on time. I learned that I can get along with anyone. I learned that I can budget. I learned to break out of my comfort zone, and I learned how rewarding that can be. In short? I realized that I am a traveller, not just one of those people who claims to be one.

Thanks, Greece.