Travel tips

Independent Travel: What, Why, How

Lang Co beach on the Hai Van Pass routeLang Co beach on the Hai Van Pass route

If you have never organized an independent journey before, it may sound like a daunting task. A foreign place, a language you don’t speak, an overwhelming amount of options and risks of being scammed. Scary as it may sound, there are a lot of benefits of independent travel. Follow this guide to learn how to travel the world differently.

Guided Tour vs Independent Travel

Independent travel is travel you organize by yourself - your flights, accommodation, transfers and most importantly - your travel itinerary. A guided tour or an organized tour, in contrast, is a travel package you can buy from a travel agent or a tour operator without having to worry about the logistics of your experience. Naturally, the organized tour provider charges a fee for their travel organization services.

Independent travel can refer to organizing your entire journey independently or only parts of it, for example, for a day trip. Although the same principles apply, for the sake of this article and the ease of comparison, we’re only going to focus on the latter.

The Benefits of Independent Travel

Online tools and resources such as booking.com, Googe Maps, numerous travel blogs, and online communities provide a rich travel information database making independent travel easier even for those who don’t travel much. As more people learn how to travel independently, the more others follow.

Our parents have travelled a lot. However, every big trip they went to, they had a travel agency organize everything for them. This year they joined us for a part of our career break trip backpacking Southeast Asia. They were surprised how different the experience was.

This is why.

The benefits of independent travel include:

  • a more personalized experience,
  • more independence,
  • more flexibility,
  • a slower travel experience,
  • connecting with the locals,
  • lower costs (in most cases).

A More Personalized Experience

As you’re your own Travel Agent, your travel itinerary is your own creation and can, therefore, be tailored to your specific needs and interests. Don’t feel like seeing all places of interests in a particular destination? Skip the ones which don’t spark any joy 😉 Go for lunch to places you found on TripAdvisor rather than those catering to tourist masses. You are absolutely free to mold your own unique travel experiences.

Pro tip: read example travel itineraries online just to make sure yours doesn’t become a Frankenstein’s monster.

Exploring Angkor temples in the rain
Exploring the Angkor temples in the rain

More Independence

Traveling in a bigger group, which is typical to organized tours, means that you often need to wait for someone or adjust to the schedule of the group. Some travelers have less regard for the time of others, often unapologetically coming late and delaying the trip. This can be very frustrating and taint your overall travel experience.

Of course, even if you travel the world independently you’re not in a vacuum and have to rely on those around you. However, because you have no group to follow, you have more power to withdraw from certain situations.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that as you have more independence to organize your travel, you also have more responsibility to get up and actually do something.

Independent travel - Uluwatu, Bali
Sunset at Uluwatu, Bali

More Flexibility

Know the old Yiddish saying, “Man plans, God laughs”? Plans always go wrong. The weather changes, you’re not feeling well or simply found something else you’d rather do. When you travel independently, you have the luxury of being as spontaneous as you want to be and adjust your travel itinerary as you go.

Pro tip: Don’t get hooked up on your plans, try to keep your mind open to changes.

Independent travel - motorbike trip to Dalat, Vietnam
Motorbike trip to Dalat, Vietnam

A Slow Travel Experience

Being on an organized tour can sometimes feel like speed-dating. Look here, snap a picture there, board the bus, disembark and repeat. Tour operators try to pack so many things in one tour, you virtually don’t have any time to take in, let alone digest, what you’re seeing. On the contrary, independent travel permits you spend as much time in one place as you need. Maybe this one place is the only thing you will visit today, but the experience will be much more profound when you slow travel.

Pro tip: Less is more.

Khlong Sok village in Khao Sok National park

Connecting with Locals

Meeting locals while traveling, connecting with them and building meaningful shared experiences has been the highlight of our months-long backpacking Southeast Asia trip. We have learned so much about different cultures and how close we all are, no matter where on the planet do we live. This is why we travel - to connect, share experiences and expand our world view.

It is much easier to meet the locals when you travel independently as you naturally seek more advice and hence contact. On the road we have met phenomenal people we will never forget. All it took was inviting someone for a coffee or sharing a fruit 🙂

Pro tip: Don’t be shy and don’t shy away when the locals invite to join them in whatever (legal) activity.  

meeting locals while travelling - Can Tho
meeting locals while travelling in Can Tho, Vietnam

Lower Costs

In the battle of guided tour vs independent travel in terms of travel cost the latter often wins by avoiding the “tourist surcharge”. This typically is the case for organized tours with rich itineraries. The number of points of interest on the itinerary makes the total price sound reasonable. If you were, however, to calculate the price of each activity individually, you would often come to a much lower sum. Of course, travel companies need to earn money as well, but the surcharge is often unjustifiable.

There’s a thin line between getting scammed and getting a terrible deal.

Pro tip: do your research, collect travel information, compare and contrast before making a decision.

When to Opt for an Organized Tour

Of course, the more unique independent travel experience comes at a price. Those who want to travel the world and do so independently, need to spend a considerable amount of time doing their research, finding and comparing alternatives while keeping all that travel information organized in a usable manner.

Although you may, like us, generally prefer to travel independently, there are a couple of situations where getting a guided tour is not only a better but simply the only option to explore a particular place.

1. When There's No Other Option

This happens when local tourist authorities don’t allow any other means of visiting. Officially this is enforced to either better protect the environment and/or to provide tourists with more security. Backpacking Southeast Asia we felt that in some places these restrictions are in place with a less altruistic purpose of collecting more tourist dollars. As long as they’re used for a good cause, fine.

When we went for an overnight jungle trek in Taman Negara in Malaysia, we felt very grateful for having an experienced guide lead the way. There was absolutely no way we could have done the trip by ourselves (alive). However, the sentiment was different when we weren’t allowed to walk by ourselves on the well-maintained road in the Khao Sok National Park. Momentarily frustrated, we opted for skipping the organized tour and only exploring the park within the permitted 3 km radius from the entrance. It was lovely!

Taman Negara overnight trekking
Taman Negara overnight trekking

2. When You Want to Learn More

If you have already made it to a place of interest you’ve been dying to see, you might want to get a guided tour to deepen your knowledge about the place. Other travel information sources such as guide books are fine, but they are yet to replace the more emotional and thorough storytelling from professional guides. One of the most impressive guided tours we’ve ever taken was at the Javanese Borobudur temple. We were so taken by the stories about Buddhist philosophy, it inspired us to buy and read a couple of books on the topic in the months to come.

3. When You’re Lazy or Don’t Have Time

Sometimes it’s nice to just show up and have somebody else do the rest. If you can’t be bothered to organize everything by yourself, an organized tour comes in handy. Before you blindly agree to an organized tour, make sure you fully understand what you sign up. From our experience, every time we took an organized tour without doing the proper research beforehand, we ended up being very disappointed and even got scammed once.

How to Travel Independently

Kuang Xi waterfalls in Laos
Kuang Xi waterfalls in Laos

1. Do Your Research

If you have decided to organize your own trip instead of going with one of the organized tour options, your first step is to do some research. Answer the following questions:

  • What is there to see/do in the destination?
  • Which of those things do you want to experience?
  • How much time do you need there?
  • How can you get there?
  • What are the costs associated with it?

Start with a simple Google and YouTube search and go into more details as you start exploring your options. Looking at available travel packages may be a good inspiration for creating your own. You can find those in tourist offices, on the streets or on TripAdvisor.

2. Read Travel Experience Stories

Many travel agencies tend to oversell a destination, Instagram pictures edited to remove a hundred tourists on the same beach. Luckily there are so many review portals (such as TripAdvisor or Google Maps) and travel blogs to read first-hand experiences of fellow travelers. Simply type “visit X independently” and see what comes up.

This will help you adjust your expectations, decide whether you still want to visit the place and learn what to avoid.

Travel the world as a digital nomad couple
Travel the world as a digital nomad couple

3. Ask the Community

When in doubt, ask. Reach out to travel bloggers, destination communities on Facebook, write on Lonely Planet forums or connect with a local through Couchsurfing. In this uber-connected world, it is easy to get answers from real people with first-hand knowledge. Don’t be shy.

Typical questions could be:

  • What is the best way to visit X?
  • Is it worth visiting X?
  • What is your favorite place in X / your favorite thing about X?
  • Is it safe to visit X by myself?
  • What is a reasonable price to pay a taxi driver to take me to X?
  • Etc.

As we were backpacking Indonesia, we met a lot of amazing people who helped us discover the country in a very different way. For example, in Gili we met Dayat who invited us to come to his wedding and visit his family in his village in Lombok. Although we missed the big event (still very upset about that), the one day we spent with Dayat and his wife-to-be was unforgettable.  We saw a real Lombok village, enjoyed a homemade lunch and joined Dayat in his favorite swimming spot in the eco-village. A very unique travel experience. And it all started with a simple chat and asking for some recommendations.

Meet the locals: our friend in Lombok showed us his village and his favorite swimming place
Our friend Dayat in Lombok

4. Make a Plan but Don’t Overplan it

If you’re organizing multiple trips in parallel it can get messy. Make sure to keep your travel notes sorted. Although there are numerous published lists with the best travel apps, we have still to find the one app which would aggregate all the travel information we collect. Our favorite approach thus far has been creating lists and maps on Google Maps. Simple and effective.

Instead of pre-planning your entire journey, focus on key milestones and attractions you want to visit. Organize your remaining days as you go. You will undoubtedly get more tips from fellow travelers as you start your journey, you want to make sure you can make adjustments to your plans.

Proper travel budget planning is another important step in the process. A simple spreadsheet is absolutely sufficient to plan and track your expenses. If you want to travel the world on a budget, you have to learn to control your expenses.

5. Enjoy

Be proud of yourself by putting your first independent travel together! Remember to stay flexible and spontaneous during your trip. There’s no point in sticking to the plan just for the sake of the plan.

Vang Vieng Limestone cliffs

6. Share

Don’t forget to share your travel experience stories with other travelers! We were very happy when our Hai Van Pass motorbike trip got picked up by the company renting us the bikes and shared it with their customers. Happy we could help 🙂

Hai Van Pass motorbike trip dream team
Hai Van Pass crossing on a motorbike

Start Your First Independent Travel

The best way to learn is to try doing something by yourself. If doing a fully independent trip is too much for you right now, start with smaller daily excursions or hire a private guide to take you on the itinerary you have prepared. The latter may be more expensive, but you will enjoy the other benefits of independent travel.

Need help organizing your first independent travel? Reach out to us! We’re happy to give you guidance in the process.

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guide to Independent travel: benefits, tip on when to go with an organized tour and steps to preparing your first independent travel

guide to Independent travel: benefits, tip on when to go with an organized tour and steps to preparing your first independent travel
guide to Independent travel: benefits, tip on when to go with an organized tour and steps to preparing your first independent travel

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