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That’s the question. Most travel bloggers who read this article will think there is not much to discuss: we generally prefer to move around on our own.
However, we will also agree that everything has its nuances. Perhaps as many nuances as there are people on Earth, although I don’t intend to do such a rigorous study.
My experience with agencies (never agencies with a physical location) comes down to two trips. Even though I prefer to always travel on my own, I cannot say that these two experiences were negative. On the contrary, they improved my perception of organized travel.
Many people go to agencies with physical offices as a matter of course to prepare their holidays and they don’t seem to be upset. What is good for some is not always good for others. I will now explore the best and the worst of both options. And, of course, I will be happy to have your views.
Obviously, everything I will comment on below is directly related to the profile of the person(s) who wish to travel.
The trip of a 25 year old couple will not be comparable to that of a group of ten elderly people, a family with two babies, a group of singles looking for a night out or a boss with his employees on an incentive trip (utopia).
I don’t believe that there is an age for travelling on one’s own and another age for taking organised trips, but perhaps there are times in life when there are better circumstances for one or the other.
I came across a 1997 article, published in El Mundo, entitled «The Price of Traveling Freely». Its thesis is clear in the first words: «freedom is paid for». Maybe it was a different time or maybe it was a different point of view. In any case, I could not disagree more.
Precisely one of the reasons why we always travel freely is because I could not afford an agency trip. Take our trip to China in 2009, for example. We consulted several travel agencies (out of pure curiosity) and they asked us for between 2,000 and 3,000 euros per person for a 15-day trip.
And to this we always have to add many things (meals not included, optional excursions, taxes of this, taxes of that…). Well, we went by our own means and moved freely for 1 month. We spent 1,500 euros each. Half the money for twice the time. No agency could match that.
Now, this involves sacrifices and hassles that not everyone wants to take. And an agency can’t afford to «touch the nose» of its clients, so their suggestions will always be more expensive. And they don’t work for free, so you have to pay the corresponding commission. As for the sacrifices, I’ll come back to that later.
Continuing on the subject of price, am I saying that freelance travel is always cheaper? Not necessarily. In fact, if we have travelled twice on our own, it is because we could not match the price of the agencies, not by a long shot. In our case the destinations were Turkey and Tunisia (about 400 euros per person in both cases, 1 week).
This also happens with Egypt, Caribbean destinations, some islands and a few countries where flying on our own is more expensive than the whole agency package.
I guess this is because tour operators get very cheap packages with charter flights and then get their money back with high prices on optional tours (which can be more expensive than the trip).
It is convenient to compare the price of each flight and each hotel proposed by the agency to know to what extent we can save (or not) money if we buy it by ourselves. And we always have the option of choosing combined packs, managing one part with the agency and another part on our own.
Our trip to China was very cheap but certainly not very comfortable. In order to get the flight for 450 ? (round trip) we had to take 3 planes from 2 different companies and invest a lot of time in searches.
So that we could sleep every night for a few euros we had to sleep always in «youth hostels», sometimes sharing a room (no problem, but not what many will understand by «comfortable») and sometimes giving up the minimum conditions of cleanliness.
Nobody helped us to find our daily accommodation (except for the occasional help that other travellers or locals might offer) and nobody booked internal flights for us or told us how complicated it was to get a train ticket.
However, nobody forced us to get up at six in the morning to get into a coach with 50 people to visit the Wall, nobody forced us to eat in a certain restaurant or to follow a little flag of Spain.
We slept and ate where we wanted, we made the schedules that we wanted and we did not lose the time where we did not want to lose it.
So, what’s your idea of comfort, and how much do you want to pay for it? As I said, it depends on the profile of the travelers. I wouldn’t recommend that trip to China to my aunts.
Most of the dangers we can find abroad can be found in our own country as well. I know many travelers who have kicked the wide world and the number of calamities they tell each other about is so small that it is not worth mentioning.
If anything, some non-violent theft in some misdirection or small scams for tourists that are the order of the day in any big city. I don’t think that travelling on your own or by agency makes much difference in terms of danger.
In fact, an organized group stands out more and can be more easily taken as a «target» (of theft or other mischief) than a traveler who knows how to go unnoticed. There is another type of security that concerns more «peace of mind».
The assurance that everything will go well. And who can guarantee that? On our first organized trip everything went well. Better than expected. It was a pleasure to travel. On the second trip, however, there were some problems with dissatisfied customers, different rates, etc. and we even had to change guides on the way.
I bet the agency received more than one complaint. In the face of the unexpected it is not much different to travel on your own or with an agency. In fact, if you are travelling on your own, there is nothing to stop you from taking out a 7, 15, 30 day or 1 year travel insurance if you need it. If you want security in the event of cancellation, illness or whatever, you can have it.
Travelling on your own does not necessarily mean that you get to know your destination better. Many people travel on their own and pass through different towns and cities without absorbing a single bit of the essence of the place, no matter how much they boast of having «lived» it on their own, having «breathed» the atmosphere, having felt like a local, etc.
On the other hand, a person with concerns who goes in a group may have known the history of the place thanks to his or her guide and, furthermore, may not have given up walking the streets, talking to the local people, sharing experiences, etc.
Neither travelling on your own is synonymous with getting to know a place in depth, nor is travelling in an organized group synonymous with not living in a place. I think this goes with the person and even with the trip.
There are times when one returns with the feeling of not having found out anything and other times one returns believing to be part of that place that one has just known.
I could spend hours talking about the best and the worst of each option to always end up in the same deadlock: it all depends on each traveller.
My option at this point in my life, at 29, with no strings attached, with a couple who think in tune, and with four bucks in my pocket, is to travel on my own. Who knows tomorrow.
And what is your choice?