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Going Your Way

One of the biggest questions you'll need to answer for yourself before going on a trip is whether you want to take a package tour or travel independently. Of course, each option has its pros and cons.

When you take a package tour, most of the pressure is off you. Someone else plans the itinerary, someone else does the driving, and someone else is responsible for fixing any problems that might crop up during the tour. You're pretty much guaranteed to have someone to answer any questions you may have about what you're seeing and where you’re going. You have a built-in group of people to talk to and share experiences with. And since most tour prices include transportation, guides, accommodation, and at least one meal a day, it's easier to budget your money for the trip.

On the other hand, you're traveling in a group. So, you're pretty much guaranteed to have a lot of companions/competition-for-good-photo-opportunities at any site or attraction you visit. You're stuck with the same people for the duration of your tour, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how well you all get along. You don't know who will be part of your tour group until you arrive at your destination. One person's quirks can put a damper on the experience of everyone the group – whether it's someone who can't ever get to the bus on time, someone who has a habit of complaining about everything or someone who, quite frankly, just seems crazy.

On the plus side of package tours, you may be able to visit places or do activities that wouldn't be practical or even possible to schedule on your own. Even when visiting public sites, the tour companies sometimes arrange expert guides to show the group some areas of the location that the general public may not be able to access. Many tour operators offer specialist tours that focus on a particular interest – such as photography, fishing, or a historical period – allowing you to combine vacation time with a hobby.

However, while on a package tour, you have little or no say on where you go, or how long you stay there. It's frustrating to get completely wrapped up an some attraction, then to have to rush off before you feel ready. (It's even worse if you had to leave to go someplace you have no interest in whatsoever. I speak from experience on this one.) You also have no say on where you stay; if you dislike your accommodation, the tour operator will work with the provider to try and fix specific problems wit the room, but you probably won’t be sleeping in other premises except in extreme circumstances.

Some factors to consider when you're making the choice between independent travel and package tours include:

Where are you going, and for how long? There's a world of difference between going to Las Vegas for a three-day weekend and trekking through Kenya for three weeks. If you have problems in Vegas, help can be found at the hotel's concierge desk. Getting help in Kenya, on the other hand, may be more of a challenge than you're willing to tackle.

How different is the culture, and how much are you willing to embrace it? Some people would be perfectly happy going off to Asia, traveling around with the Mongols, eating sheep parts (if you're lucky) and sleeping in yurts. If you aren't in that group, then you probably want book space on a tour if you ever decide to visit the Mongolian steppes. But you might be perfectly happy to explore the Cinque Terre on your own, armed only with a good map and an Italian phrasebook.

How safe do you feel about where you're going? Like it or not, in general women have some extra worries about personal safety than men have. There are places where it just isn't wise for women to travel without male escorts. Or it isn't wise to travel with men who aren't related to you, or happen to have a different skin tone to you. Be honest and realistic about where you're going and what the cultural norms are there. Even if a place has a bit of a bad reputation, don't automatically rule it out if you really want to go there. But take sensible precautions if you do decide to go and seriously consider finding a reputable travel professional that specializes in the area to discuss your options.

How many of you are going, and how do the personalities mesh? For example, if you're taking a trip with your parents, you may want to go as part of a group just so you have other people to socialize with – and so do your folks. Or maybe you all get along fabulously almost all the time, and there isn't a problem dividing the labor (i.e. Dad's more than happy to do all the driving, Mom can pick sites to visit that will keep everyone happy, and you can take care of reservation and logistics). Or one person in your group is happy to take care of everything for the enjoyment of everyone else. But you don't want any one person feeling overly put-upon; that's a quick path to a serious downer on your vacation, and no one wants that.

[If you're planning to travel alone, there are several other factors you may want to consider. You may want to read through the tips article on Solo Travel.]

In general, I'm not a big fan of package tours; however, I have taken several, with varying levels of satisfaction. Sometimes, the ease of taking a package tour is worth the forfeit of some travel independence. When going the package route, I do try to find a local provider who tours with small groups. It's a good way to get more of the local flavor than you might get from the big, international tour companies. I also stick to shorter tours, allowing myself time to venture out on my own for at least part of my vacation time so I can be sure to visit spots that are must-see for me but may not be included in the package tour. When deciding for yourself, be brutally honest with yourself and do your homework. (And if you aren't willing to do homework in the planning stage, that may be a sign that you want to go the package tour route.)

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