As a solo traveller, exploring countries on your own itinerary is a liberating and fulfilling experience. But sometimes you just want to travel but take the backseat on planning. Or maybe you’re not that confident at tackling the world on your own. This is where group tours tick both these boxes as they offer up the opportunity to travel without the stress of planning where to go next. As a not so confident solo traveller myself, I opted to do one of New Zealand’s group backpacker tours, the Kiwi Experience (fondly known as ‘The Big Green Party Bus’ by the locals).
In a nutshell, the Kiwi Experience is a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which, depending on what bus pass you choose, takes you round New Zealand’s North and South Island, allowing time for activities along the way. Every bus pass they offer is flexible, which means that if you like a stop or you want to explore the area a bit more thoroughly then you can tell your driver that you want to hop off and then let the office know when you want to hop back on again. The only time constriction they have is that you have to complete your tour within twelve months.
The pros of a group tour for solo travellers
Group tours are a great way for like-minded solo travellers to meet. After all, everyone on the tour shares by default the same common interest to see the country the same way you do. For this reason, group tours are a useful tool for any solo traveller who is anxious about being lonely. I can guarantee that you’re never alone. More often than not you spend about 24/7 with these people so you really have no choice but to make friends.
Anyone can do tours like the Kiwi Experience, but because of its heavily social aspect, this one in particular is more popular with younger solo travellers than any other group. The main age range is between about 18-25 so the majority of travellers are on a gap year of some sort. The Kiwi Experience lets you relax and concentrate on having fun with your new pals without having to worry about the itinerary or the transport. Your only responsibilities are ensuring that you’re up in time for the bus and writing your name on any accommodation or activity clipboards. Everything else is pretty much sorted for you which is perfect if you’re new to exploring the world on your own. If you’re looking for a slightly older group of travellers then I’ve heard that Stray does almost the same route as The Kiwi Experience and has a much wider age range.
The cons of group tours for solo travellers
A particular downside to group tours in general is that they can almost defeat the point of solo travel altogether. On the Kiwi Experience, if you become part of a big group and if you’re not careful, you can almost be in danger of compromising your plans because it may not be what everyone else wants to do. This level of dependency on what other people think can be a damaging habit to get into while travelling. I had to be quite strict with myself to make sure that I stayed true to myself and did what I wanted to do even if it meant I was the only one doing the activity in the end. After all, the whole point of a solo trip is to do things your way. Group tours have their benefits, but don’t let anyone impact what you hope to get out of your trip. The last thing you want is to leave the country filled with regret that you didn’t complete an activity on your bucket list
Another issue I found on a flexible group tour was that the Kiwi Experience buses had a tendency to become cliquey very fast. This can be intimidating, especially if you decide to hop off your bus and then hop on a new one where everyone has had the time to form friendship groups. If you aren’t the loudest person in the world it can be hard to integrate and find your social place among the groups. It’s a particularly hard dynamic to negotiate when you’re a solo traveller as you don’t have someone to join you in being outsiders on the bus.
Things to be aware of before you start your group tour
If you’ve decided to do a group tour for a particular country then the best advice I can give you is to make sure you shop around before you set your heart one. Sometimes tour companies can be misleading about the price and it’s only when you commit to them that they charge you additional sneaky fees that were buried way down on point one hundred and fifty-two in the terms and conditions. You don’t want to get trapped only to find a much better deal later on.
Be aware of additional expenses that are not included in your tour pass such as ferry crossings etc as this will help you to control your budget more easily. Usually, these additional expenses don’t cost a huge amount but they can add up if you’re not prepared for them.
It’s sometimes worth keeping an eye on tours before paying up as some companies have been known to offer discounted prices. In my experience of booking the Kiwi Experience, I was able to get a third off the price of my bus pass just by booking it a year in advance. This isn’t set in stone, however, as I’ve read advice claiming that you can get the same discounts if you leave it till last minute. I must admit I haven’t tested this theory so I couldn’t tell you if it’s worth it or not. And of course, prices can be influenced by seasons. Tours selling at off-peak and shoulder seasons tend to be cheaper and have more spaces on them than peak seasons.
Listen to your gut when booking a group tour. Sometimes group tours aren’t the best way to explore a country and if you’re gut is telling you it’s unsure then don’t be afraid to put a halt on the breaks. I had first-hand experience of this only recently when I tried to book an island hopping pass for Fiji. The travel agent was insisting that the cheapest option was to do a tour which included accommodation, food, and activities in the price. It seemed pretty good at first but when I thought about it, for a ten day trip at £940 it was just extortionate! Hardly backpacker prices at all. Convinced that there was an alternative cheaper option I bid a hasty retreat from the travel agent, telling them vaguely that I’d think about it. I’m so glad I did because it turns out there were in fact additional fees for that tour which weren’t initially specified, making the final price over £1000!
Don’t let travel agents push you into anything because once you make any payments you’re committed. If you don’t feel sure that they’re giving you all the details (like my experience booking Fiji) then don’t be afraid to get a second opinion from another travel agent altogether. When I went to a different travel agent I discovered that I could do an island hoping route which was almost the same as the tour at a much more reasonable price. Sure, activities were now at my own expense but I had more flexibility to choose what I wanted to do, what islands I wanted to visit, and when. Tours are useful ways to see the country and if money isn’t a problem then go for it. But sometimes you can travel almost exactly the same route for a lot less and it can be just as social!
Are group tours value for money?
It essentially depends on what you’re looking for in a tour. I would say that tours like the Kiwi Experience are value for money because most of your transport is taken care of and you get exclusive discounts on activities and accommodation along the way. It’s also a great way for like-minded solo travellers to meet. However, if you’re looking for flexibility in your itinerary then it may not be ideal for you. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for discounts on tours like the Kiwi Experience as they can be quite expensive at full price. Sometimes, for the amount you pay for a group tour (like Fiji’s island hopping tour) it just isn’t worth doing and you would get more for your money if you did it your own way.
Thanks for reading,