On your own, it’s a candy-by-the-pound situation. You’ll choose the crazy Iranian who wears a speedo while he does yoga on the beach, the American dental hygienist who plunges heedlessly into Bangkok’s red-shirt protests, the Spanish guy who’s a born storyteller. They’re there because laughter brought you together, not a booking engine.
On a group tour, the itinerary’s almost sacrosanct. Deviating from it will not be an option. Activities, modes of transportation, hotels — everything’s going to be pre-arranged and mandatory. Not in the mood for that spice tour in Zanzibar? Stay in the bus then, but can we take a group photo first? On your own, you’ll be able to abandon the itinerary just as quickly as it took to crumple up the economy-class napkin you wrote it on. Don’t want to leave your cozy hammock on the Mekong, even though everyone else is heading out? Drench yourself in bug spray and stay put. The rest of the world isn’t going anywhere.
On a pre-packaged tour, the group dictates your dining choices. Mary Anne is on a gluten-free diet, Alicia will only eat things that have been charred into oblivion, and Mike is constantly reminding everyone he’s a “meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.” You’ll want to go to that ramshackle hut with a line of locals out the door, cinder-block seats, and banana-leaf plates, but instead you’ll be led to a restaurant / gift shop with an English menu and wilted salads because there the proprietors pay your guides a commission. The culture you’ll taste will be pre-packaged for mass consumption.
Immersed in a 20-person group, the locals you’ll encounter will see you as part of some noisy, cash-hemorrhaging organism. They’ll launch into the same tired pitches that have made hundreds before you peel a few precious bills off your wad of greenbacks. Outside of the group, they’ll invite you into their homes and introduce you to their grandmothers. They’ll call their cousins to come over and have mama explain how to brew the perfect chai. You’ll learn that tourists and travelers aren’t always treated the same, and you’ll be better for it as a result.
Once you’ve been swindled by a Cambodian loan shark selling tickets for a ‘VIP sleeper bus’ (read: Vietnam War-era exploding death trap), you’ll realize you should have paid better attention to that niggling uneasiness in the pit of your stomach. The more you travel independently, the more attuned you become to your gut instincts. You’ll discover the twisted metal of a head-on collision just beyond where you decided to turn around the night before, and you’ll realize your inner voice is a hell of a lot more savvy than you ever gave it credit for.
Sandy and George thought they were booking a photo safari. They bought a $3,000 camera just for this trip, so they’re going to point that telephoto lens at everything and everyone. They’ll be photographing aging Peugeots sputtering down the road like they’re two-headed zebras. And the shot of a giraffe silhouetted against a flaming African sunset next to the acacia tree is kind of mandatory. It was in the brochure, wasn’t it? But when you get to Holland in late May to find out the tulips aren’t blooming anymore, and your vision of frolicking in a sea of petals is going to go unrealized, well, tough. You’ll curse your own lack of planning instead of taking it out on the hapless guide who’s only putting up with your sorry ass to save for college.
Whether you’re on a weekend trip or wandering about the globe, companions will be out there when you want them. Set out to explore one of Taipei’s or Hong Kong’s markets alone so you’re free to dawdle over those gloriously hideous rhinestone earrings and the purple peacock penis sheath you’re sure will make a hilarious gift one day. But, when you fancy some company, ask the expats on the metro where they’d recommend for a nightcap. You might have a rosemary martini hangover when you wake up, but the city will seem a lot less lonely in the morning.