Follow Your Guide or Follow Your Gut?
10th February 2018
Are you a compulsive travel planner? Do you polish your meticulous, well-thought itinerary six months before the trip, make & pay for all the bookings in advance, and mark out every single pebble on your route long before you set your foot on the land?
Or maybe you take it easy? I’ve seen the likes of you. You cover thousands of miles, arrive in the middle of nowhere with a humongous backpack, high hopes, and a tiny budget, asking for on-the-spot accommodation. Then you continue your journey on the spur of the moment.
Do you follow your guide or go with your gut when traveling?
There are two types of travelers (or maybe it applies to all activities, by extension?). The first type are planning sectarians. Every day scheduled from A-Z. Lonely Planet guide? Are you joking? They could write one! Top 10 attractions? Easy – they have them covered. Not a single minute in their daily trip schedule remains unattended.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those last-minute laid-backs, the spontaneous, ready-for-all voyageurs who always roam off the beaten track and never follow the itinerary. They don’t have one.
Unfortunately, I am not that type. Luckily, I am being it. Occasionally.
Plan your travel smart and embrace spontaneity later
Before I arrive in a place, I absolutely need to have everything sorted out, hotels booked, major transfers pre-arranged, background check performed. To a free-spirited roamer, I may seem to be verging on the obsessive when it comes to my trip preparations.
The truth is that I loathe the hassle of ad-hoc travel arrangements. I’d despise having to lose my time on walking around a remote village somewhere in India asking for accommodation. I’d very much prefer spending these precious hours lying on a magnificent beach, admiring museum collections, or enjoying the most delicious local food in a shabby corner bar.
Also, I’d rather not deal with the frustration of not being able to reach some fabulous place I’d read about back at home when it turns out on the spot that it’s out of bounds because I was too lazy to check the transport options and visiting times.
Traveler’s split personality: obsessive-compulsive planner vs. carefree roamer
When I’m preparing for a trip, I’m preparing for a trip. But there’s a more adventurous side to my traveler’s self, too. That of an impromptu wanderer. With this type of a split traveler’s personality, my truly preferred approach to trips is:
- Go on your own. No package holidays (although I’ve been to an organized tour 2 or 3 times; these were inexpensive small family hotels, and apart from getting a flight+accommodation package, I had nothing to do with the tour operator. In some cases, this isn’t a bad idea, and it pays off more than getting the flight + accommodation on your own).
- Thoroughly plan for the main attractions. I prepare a list of the sights that I’d like to see and check the visiting times and how-to-get. It is crucial, as quite often museums will be closed on Mondays or other days, depending on the country, churches and temples may be inaccessible during services, etc.
- Educate. I read books about the place where I’m going, check out travel blogs, learn customs and explore trivia.
- Pre-book all accommodation. This helps me save time when we reach the place/s (although very last minute deviations would happen). I almost always use Booking.com, which I quite often check against other providers such as Agoda or Trivago. Not saying any of them is better or worse, but since I’m a regular customer at Booking, I enjoy a lot of discounts, so to me, it makes more sense. Also, I’ve been satisfied with their service so far, including handling of last-minute changes on both sides, mine and the host’s.
- Check the transport options. I double-check if we have to do pre-booking for local means of transport. Sometimes this is a life-saver!
- Take care of navigation. Instal offline maps on my devices or buying one in a bookstore. Somehow, I personally still navigate better with an old-school paper version.
- (And here comes my spontaneous self.) Free roam! While I’m already on vacation, I spend about 70% of my time just… walking around freely. Of course, having my plan in mind, I know what sights I want to see. Each day I have a short list of a few major attractions that I’d like to visit. But I allocate some days to do just this – leave the hotel and just… wander around without a purpose. Head to some district and hang around, inhale the spirit of the place, sit in the local pubs and cafes, taste the food, see how people live, what time they leave for work. Just an ordinary life.
Below: Some pics I took while free roaming in Baltimore Inner Harbor
For those of you who are just starting your travels, and would like to know more about meticulous planning, here’s a great blog post on the topic.
Solo or with a guide? There are other options, too!
So, we’ve agreed that I’m a strong supporter of free roaming. Yes, I am. And I’m preparing a blog post about that, coming soon. However, there are situations when I prefer to pay and get a one-day guided tour instead of going solo. Here are some examples:
1. Security reasons
Examples: DMZ in South Korea, Palestine
There are exhilarating, historically-significant, culturally-abundant and troubled places in this world, which are still relatively safe to go, albeit not on your own. As a typical tourist, you either wouldn’t be allowed to enter, they might be too risky for you, or official permits may be required. For that reason, unless you’re extraordinarily independent and bold, it’s better to plan your trip carefully with a guide. It may also make more sense as you’ll be provided with a great deal of info.
On the downside, these tend to be places of the political divide so the guide may present you with a biased view. Bear that in mind.
2. Cultural or spiritual exploration
Examples: Jerusalem, Newgrange, the Vatican
It’s my personal preference that when I explore places of extreme cultural or religious gravity, I tend to look for a guided tour. This applies especially to monuments or sights that represent a non-European heritage, so my knowledge of the culture is more limited. A tour with a guide lets me learn more about the place than if I merely visited it on my own with a guidebook in my hand. Thanks to the guide I get a better understanding of the culture and I retain this information longer. I just find this works better in my case.
On the practical side, sights of this type are very frequently remote, vast, and dispersed. Visiting them with a guided tour is just much more efficient than trying to reach them on your own. Which brings me to the next point.
Examples: the temples of Goa, the Maldives islands, Florida swamps
Sometimes a guided tour (or a local driver who can show you around and take you to some little-known places, a popular option in the South-East Asian countries) is just so much convenient and efficient than going solo. The entire logistics of moving from one place to another, figuring out transfers, switching vehicles… When you buy a one-day tour, you can reach so many places much quicker, and you get an extra bit of information included in the price.
Travel tip: When you’re in India or Sri Lanka either ask your host about a driver – they will surely recommend you somebody, or go to the local taxi or rickshaw rank and ask for a day trip. Haggle. Tours offered from the airport are the most expensive.
Below: Photos from our day trip with a driver around Goa to see different Hindu temples
4. Free city tours
For city breaks, this is actually a fantastic idea! Why? Let’s say you’re flying to Prague for 3 or 4 days. You’d like to see the top attractions, learn something new, and explore some of the monuments in more details, but you haven’t really decided which ones yet (maybe you didn’t have the time or perhaps you’re a bit more spontaneous than me;).
You find a free city tour (free = no fee, but guides live on tips) – these usually take 2-4 hours, depending on the route and the city. You’ve walked for 3 hours, having seen all of the most prominent city’s attractions. You now know the legend of the Old Town Astronomical Clock, you’ve counted every single statue on the Charles’ Bridge, and you’ve learned where to get the best knedliki in the town. In 3 hours your guide has condensed for you as many sights and knowledge as possible, and it’s a fantastic starting point for your free roaming!
As simple as that. Free city tours are usually very well-prepared, and they really have all the must-sees covered for you. The guides will also advise you on the popular restaurants and pubs, although as far as these recommendations go, I was very content with some of them (in Jerusalem), and quite disappointed with others (in Munich).
Below: Photos from our guided free city tour in Jerusalem
Travel tip: I’m a big fan of the Sandemans company. So far, I’ve been to their tours in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem (above), Berlin, Porto, and Munich, and whenever I’m on a city break, I’m checking if they’re not around.
Ready to head off?
Now that you’re all set and you’ve fed your planning-obsessive monster, you can start pampering the free-roaming part of your Mr. Jekyll’s traveler’s mind. Check out my next post 5 Fabulous Places I Discovered Thanks to Spontaneous Trips to see 5 incredible places I came across by chance, with no itinerary.