Portland Walking Tours

Guided vs. Self-guided Tours: Pros and Cons

November 10th, 2010

What’s the best way to explore a new destination? Some like to rely on the expertise of local tour guides, who offer tours with standard routes and spiels to groups all willing to explore the sights at a pre-arranged time. Others like to strike out on their own, investigating options through careful research and making their own schedule.

There are pros and cons of each method. Let’s explore them.

1) Timing

Time of day can be important. Guided tours start at specific times and locations, and lateness can cause you to miss important parts of the tour – if not all of it. If your idea of vacation involves destroying alarm clocks and refusing to keep a schedule, then the self-guided tour may be the better option for you.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind scheduling a few things in – or even need it, to make sure you don’t spend the entire vacation reading trashy novels by the pool – the guided tour may be your better option.

Keep in mind that guided tours start at their specific times and locations for a reason – usually because it’s the best time of day to see the chosen sights.

2) Duration

Guided tours are usually of a fairly fixed length. This is because tour companies have discovered the typical tourist’s capacity for the given attractions and have designed their tours accordingly. They also are cognizant of considerations such as rest room stops, meals, and breaks. As a result, most guided tours strike a fairly good balance between maximizing your exposure to interesting attractions and keeping you comfortable.

DIY tours have the advantage of allowing you to spend as much time as you want at any given attraction – and overall – and choosing less time at attractions that are, well, less attractive to you. The down side is that it’s easy to get carried away with an unexpectedly interesting attraction and blowing the time budget intended for something else you wanted to see. I once spent nearly an entire day touring the Musee d’Orsay in Paris – leaving me only 45 minutes for the Louvre. Talk about regrets.

3) The company you keep

Guided tours involve groups, and most of the time, you can’t pick your tour mates. This can be good or bad. We all know the bad side:  some fool who ruins the experience for everyone by constantly interrupting the guide, lagging behind, complaining, crying (usually, but not always, an issue reserved for small children), or otherwise disrupting the tour.

On the positive side, sometimes you can meet the nicest and most interesting people on a tour. In New Zealand I took a city tour of Auckland and ended up bungy jumping off a bridge with my new best friend from Israel. For the next three weeks I encountered several members of my group in other cities, creating a sense of instant community and greatly enhancing my experience.

4)  Variety

The variety factor, too, can work both ways, depending on how you operate. Guided tours balance the trade-off of variety vs. intensity of experiences, tending to provide a “taste” of each attraction but not dwelling at any one place. DIY tours require you to do the research to determine which attractions you want to visit and guess at how much time each site deserves. Tour guides have a bit of an advantage over the rookie visitor in this respect, since they’ve been to each site several times before with many other guests and tend to get a pretty good idea of the optimum time spent, but again, that varies with personal taste.

5)  Cost

You’d think that guided tours cost more than do-it-yourselfers, but that’s not always the case. True, you have to pay the tour company (and in the US, at least, tipping the tour guide is common courtesy), which is an expense you don’t have on the DIY. But the guided tour often can get you into attractions at heavily discounted group rates. Also, a good, experienced guide will choose the highlights, making sure you get the most for your money at a given attraction. The savvy traveler can obtain good advice from experienced guides on what attractions are not worth the investment. All told, the money invested in a guided tour can more than pay itself back in terms of both time and money.

6) “Unique” vs. “Packaged”

“But I just hate those ‘packaged’ tours!” Yeah, I hear you. The feeling that the tour guide just doesn’t care if you enjoy yourself or not… his droning voice or cornball humor… being stuck in an uncomfortable bus seat for four hours next to someone who doesn’t believe in regular hygiene… I’ve been on those tours, too, and I wouldn’t wish some of them on my worst enemy.

The more reputable tour companies work hard to make sure you never have to live through such experiences by engaging in extensive guide training, quality-checking their guides and tours, and asking for honest feedback from guests after tours. At Portland Walking Tours, for example, tour guides have to demonstrate their command of a tour’s subject matter both orally and in writing before they can begin touring. Then they are observed and assisted by senior tour guides several times before they can go solo. Further observations by “stealth” guides supplement customer feedback to make sure our guides continue to provide quality, enjoyable experiences for every guest.

But which companies provide such experiences? How will you know? This is where you need to apply those same research skills you use to find cool places to visit (like Portland and its many attractions) and compare tour companies. Look at review sites like Trip Advisor, City Search, and Yelp. Ask travel bureaus like Travel Portland who they’d recommend.

7) Overall quality of your experience

Conclusion:  For many, the optimal solution may be to get the best of both worlds.  Use guided tours to learn what the local experts know, then use your own resources (guidebooks, Internet searches, etc.) to get to features that the guides don’t reach or don’t explore in as much depth as you’d like.