Southeast Asia forum

Tours or go it alone?

  • LaraP

    Joined Travelfish
    17th August, 2009
    Posts: 20

    Hey,

    I'm planning a 12 week trip around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I'm 23, female and will most probably be travelling alone.

    My dilemma at the moment is whether to use tours such as those offered by STA travel, Gecko, etc. or whether to bite the bullet and go it alone (and at the same time save a lot of money and gain a lot of freedom).

    I've been on tours before with family and the main advantages I can see is the security and lack of hassle. I think the fact that I'm travelling on my own daunts me a bit and makes me sway towards just taking the easy option and booking tours for each country.

    Having said that deep down the whole point of this trip is to have a completely different travel experience from the more regimental tour style. As much as tours cut out an awful lot of hassle, they can also (for me at least) take a bit of the soul out of travelling and I don't really want to waste this experience by just being herded about from place to place without properly getting a feel for the different places. Not only that but the tours are quite expensive and I fear I would end up compromising the opportunity to see more places and spend more time over there.

    So my questions are:

    1) If there is anyone out there who has used tours such as those organised by STA travel, etc. then it'd be great to hear your feedback on them and whether you'd agree with my opinion on them.

    2) If I were to go it alone then how easy is it once you're out there to get about and see the sights?

    3) I definitely want to do some trekking - would I be better off booking with a UK agency before going or waiting until I'm out there?

    The general impression I get from similar posts to this is that I'm bound to meet people along the way and hopefully, for parts of the journey at least, not end up a lonely traveller but then again maybe going on a tour is a good way of meeting other people...

    As you can see I'm confused so any thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks,

    Lara

    #1 Posted: 17/8/2009 - 05:27

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  • somtam2000

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    Hi Lara,

    We've just run two features on this very topic -- may be useful for background reading:

    10 reasons to travel independently
    10 reasons to do an adventure tour

    For your second question I'd say it is pretty easy to get out there and go it all solo -- unless you're talking about some very exotic/remote "sight" -- but for the vast majority of stuff, solo is fine.

    Wait till you are out here to book any trekking -- the prices will generally be lower and you'll have more options to choose from.

    Hope that helps

    #2 Posted: 17/8/2009 - 07:34

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    I prefer to lone wolf it - but I am a man and quite capable of handling myself. That said, I have never felt in the least threatened or unsafe out here.

    #3 Posted: 17/8/2009 - 12:24

  • wanderingcat

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    have other girl friends who say they wouldn't dare travel alone, they're afraid of 'blanking out', feeling totally lost upon arrival, etc. but some have built up confidence over time - they start off by going on package tours, but opting to stay on for a couple of days after the tour ends. this way their initial period in the country is like a 'guided intro', & the last couple of days are for them to explore on their own now that they no longer feel as if they've just landed on a new planet. & the last few days usually turn out a lot more fun cos they've already gained a much better idea of what in that country they'd love to see/eat/buy more of...& then they realise that they've been 'converted' to independent travel :)

    perhaps you could include this approach in your plans if you're still planning on organised tours?

    #4 Posted: 17/8/2009 - 14:12

  • SBE

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    It's quite natural to feel a little anxious before travelling somewhere new all on your own but loads of women your age (or younger) travel to these countries on their own every year. You won't be the only one! As you say, the advantage of travelling independently is the fact that you can wander off from a pre-ordained circuit if you feel like it and you do get more opportunity to interact with the locals and get a real feel for a place than you would in a group of other people on an organized tour. How often do you interact with tour groups in the UK?

    1. Can't help, never done it!

    2. Very. You can see the sites on your own or you can get a tour locally from a travel agent. There are travel agents offering tours and day trips everywhere and I suspect they are a lot cheaper than ones pre-booked from the UK. It might be worth paying the extra to go on a few tours because that's a good way of meeting other people and striking up new friendships ...let's meet up for a beer later kind of thing. Visiting places on your own using public transport is generally a lot cheaper though. You could always start with a few organized daytrips and then try doing some stuff on your own (or with your new friends)later on.

    3. Ditto Somtam.

    #5 Posted: 17/8/2009 - 14:49

  • seagypsy

    Joined Travelfish
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    Probably the hardest part of solo travel for some is that of loneliness, not meeting fellow travelers to share your experiences, meals, etc. But if you presevere, you learn to deal with it and it makes you stronger and more independent. Also pushes you to interact more with locals which may open up whole new perspectives.

    I think traveling Vietnam is the easiest country in SEA to meet others since it's such a linear route and most are traveling either up or down. Next is Laos. Hardest is Burma since there are far less tourists.

    #6 Posted: 18/8/2009 - 00:45

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    "Probably the hardest part of solo travel for some is that of loneliness, not meeting fellow travelers to share your experiences, meals, etc. But if you presevere, you learn to deal with it and it makes you stronger and more independent. Also pushes you to interact more with locals which may open up whole new perspectives."

    My solution to this is bring a couple of books to read. I read when eating, get a massage every day, and go out to clubs and meet local people at night (which is very easy to do). I'm not interested at all in meeting tourists or talking with any other anglo people. Maybe that's just me.

    #7 Posted: 18/8/2009 - 02:15

  • exacto

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    it seems that with those wonderful 12 weeks to spend, you could definitely start out with a tour, and then just as wandering cat suggests, follow it up with independent travel. a mix seems like a good idea. i suspect 12 weeks of organized tours would be too much.

    from what i've seen it is pretty easy for single women to meet other travellers in southeast asia.

    also, when i travel by myself, in addition to taking along good books to read as MADMAC suggests, i also write lots of postcards. meal time, in-between ordering food and when it arrives is when i write them. i use the postcards as a means of sharing the experiences and observations of the journey with others. its a great way to send better-than-average postcards too. regards.

    #8 Posted: 18/8/2009 - 05:30

  • BruceMoon

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    Lara

    I can't answer whether you should/not choose tour travel. At the end of the day, it's really about you and your own self confidence. If you believe you can do it alone, then you will certainly be following zillions of other self confident women who have been charting their own course while touring SE Asia.

    Aside from the obvious questions, I've spoken to many sole female travellers and they all say that there is a 'sisterhood' of sorts in the region. That is, once one sole female traveller meets an/other, meets an/other, etc., they all look out for each other (obviously to varying degrees).

    Personally, if you have confidence in yourself to travel alone, I wouldn't pre-book: for 2 reasons.

    1/.

    The costs of pre-booked tours (from outside SE Asia) is often way way more expensive than booked from within SE Asia. So, if you can choose to arrive into SE Asia before committing, then you can book tours from within (and there are often a wider range available than those by the major web-based operators).

    An aside to this is that each place/city/region you get to offers 1 or 2 or 3 day tours of the local area. So, for example, if/when you get to Chiang Mai, the tourist agencies there offer heaps of tours for ppl already in Chiang Mai. And, if you choose this approach (ie choosing when in the city), you WILL meet a host of 'sisters'.

    2/.

    Most pre-booked tours (that I've looked at from here on Travelfish) go through the landscape at an amazing speed. They are really transporting you from city to city and throwing in some distractions along the way. As I write here its not the places on a map that provide enjoyment, but what the places/areas at that location have to offer.

    This sort of answers your #1.

    Your #2, once you get experienced, not hard at all. It's really about learning the transport options to/from, researching what's there, speaking to other travellers about how they did it, etc. This is a learned attribute.

    The other alternative 9as noted above) it to travel on organised one day-er tours.

    Both have benefits (and disbenefits).

    Your #3. I suggest strongly not to pre-book trekking: you'll pay dearly, and may commit yourself to an option you may regret. Every country in SE Asia sees trekking as a money spinner. Some trek options are good, others not. Simply, learn from what other's say when you travel.

    As an aside, assuming you are into solid trekking (not a communal walk), try looking at the options in nthn Laos here or here and for an overview check this option .

    - - -

    So, Lara, in the end, if you choose to go alone, you'll be joining a long list of other independent females. If you prefer to retain your options till later, you can choose a host of tour options when in-country. But, if the whole 'adventure' thing scares you, there ARE reputable companies: but be careful of tours that are essentially a race against the clock.

    Cheers

    #9 Posted: 18/8/2009 - 06:33

  • SBE

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    Other things you could do include choosing GHs that have a communal area and/or a large table for meals rather than lots of individual ones. You'll find it's practically impossible not to interact with other people in places like that!

    On planes, buses and trains you'll be sitting next to someone. Usually you can tell when they'd rather not talk (eg they've got their nose stuck in a book the whole time) ;-) but if they aren't giving "do not disturb" signals, it's very easy to start chatting and maybe share the taxi into town or something ... which will of course also save you both money!

    Stuff like that...it's really not very difficult and lots of other people your age are travelling solo and on their first trip abroad too...most of them don't want to be all one their own all the time either!

    If you go on a pre-booked tour you could be stuck with people you don't particularly like the whole trip. On the other hand, if you're travelling independently you can easily split if you want to. eg if some creep is desperate to get to know you better and you've seen enough of him to know you'd rather not, then you can always pretend you're off to Outer Mongolia at the crack of dawn next day to meet your boyfriend there or something. ;-)

    A propos, don't be TOO open with personal details about yourself straight away ... a perfect stranger doesn't need to know your home address and home phone number etc. There are a few oddballs in SE Asia and everyone is so laid back and friendly that your guard tends to be set at a much lower level than it would be back home....you could end up with some unwelcome "leech" you can't get rid of. Maybe set up an email account that isn't your principal one and use that to give to casual encounters till you know them a bit better. Sim cards for mobile phones are cheap in Asia and can be changed if really necessary. You're young, female and it's your first trip abroad on your own ... no harm in taking a few basic precautions like that, you can always fill in any missing details later on!

    #10 Posted: 19/8/2009 - 06:11

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  • seagypsy

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    "Usually you can tell when they'd rather not talk (eg they've got their nose stuck in a book the whole time) ;-) but if they aren't giving "do not disturb" signals, it's very easy to start chatting and maybe share the taxi into town or something ... which will of course also save you both money!

    Stuff like that...it's really not very difficult and lots of other people your age are travelling solo and on their first trip abroad too...most of them don't want to be all one their own all the time either!"


    SBE,

    Your comments recalls to mind a group of us travelers along with locals were taking a jumbo songthaew from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. There was a young solo woman traveler who looked somewhat miserable perhaps because we farangs were Americans (I'd just met them on the songthaew) and this was the period in the lead up to the Iraq War in mid-Feb. I asked her her name and she said Saida, which I guessed is a Middle Eastern name. She said, yes, that she was Palestinian and that she lived in Amsterdam. Anyways, we were trying to be friendly but she seemed to want to be left alone. She joined us for the boat-trip up to Moung Ngoi and ended up spending the whole week with us in Moung Ngoi and then back to Prabang for 3 more days.
    Nothing like meeting strangers face to face to break down barriers.

    #11 Posted: 19/8/2009 - 14:21

  • LaraP

    Joined Travelfish
    17th August, 2009
    Posts: 20

    Hello again,

    Thank you so so much for all the excellent advice - it really is much appreciated! I've decided to not pre-book any tours and go it alone mainly for the same reasons that I wrote in my first post but also because with the knowledge that others have managed it I can't see why I can't with a bit of common sense!

    The suggestions to perhaps ease myself into the trip with a tour is a good idea and one I may well take up but I would wait until I am over there as I get the impression that there are lots of travel agencies/tour operators to choose from and all much cheaper than booking through UK agencies.

    So now I am geared up for solo travel I now face the next question, what precautions and measures do you have to take in order to keep your possessions safe?

    Unlike someone travelling in a group I won't have that person I can trust leaving my stuff with say I wanted to go for a swim, have a shower, even just to pop to the loo! I might be incredibly naive when I ask this but do GHs have a locker/safe system to leave your stuff in when out and about or is the general consensus that you take everything with you all the time?

    If there's no locker/safe system in the GH then I guess you have to take your essentials (money/documents belt) with you when showering, etc and just trust that your other possessions will be safe from wandering hands in the dorm...However if I decide to go kayaking for instance then I'm a bit at a loss as to where you safely put your possessions - especially your money and documents - so that they don't get wet.

    Any advice and basic common sense tips with regard to keeping your possessions safe would be great.

    On a completely unrelated note - I really like the idea of having a book with me to read when on my own at meals (though I am hoping to find those GHs you speak of with the large tables and communal areas) but unless I bring something like War and Peace it is unlikely to last me 12 weeks. This may be a silly question but in the main touristy places would I be able to find books in English or is it just a case of hoping you come across someone who has finished their own book and lets you have it?

    Sorry for the length of this post and the lack of coherence but as you can see I'm still bursting with questions :-)

    Thanks again for all the advice so far - it's been really helpful!

    Lara

    #12 Posted: 19/8/2009 - 17:34

  • seagypsy

    Joined Travelfish
    5th February, 2009
    Posts: 136

    The easy answer regarding books is that you'll discover used bookstores or stalls (for ex. many in the Khao San Road area of Bangkok) but quite a number of guesthouses offer book-exchanges, sometimes one-for-one or at a small cost.

    The harder Q. is about handling valuables since there's no easy one-size fits all answer.
    I prefer to use a money belt where my cash, and most ATM or credit cards are kept and stays with me at all times except when going to the beach. It's a good idea also to hide one CC not on your person should you get mugged so that you'll have access to funds in an emergency. Likewise with having a few traveler's checks which can come in very handy.
    If you're staying at above budget places, then many will have a front counter/desk where they'll have a safe place to deposit your money and other valuables. But even then, you've got to judge the reliability of the proprietor. For example if you observe that they'll take someone else's valuables but don't secure it right away (ie. put it into a safe or locked compartment), then it's a good sign that they're not taking the responsibility as much as they ought to.
    I also like the places that provide an envelope or package where they'll tape over the opening, have you sign over the tape such that it's readily apparent if the seal has been broken.
    When leaving a room, any item that may entice theft is best locked in your backpack or suitcase.
    Don't bring valuable jewelry unless you're prepared to lose them.
    Get a dry bag (easily available in KSR) for cameras and electronics if you're going snorkeling/diving, etc.
    Read up on security and safety issues in guidebooks and other internet travel sites such as this and on other forums that have more exhaustive threads on security issues.

    #13 Posted: 19/8/2009 - 23:20

  • BruceMoon

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    Lara

    Not in order...

    English books. Yes, the larger cities tend to have bookshops/exchanges. Also many GH have a few, usually on a deposit one/take one basis. And, you'll come across other travellers who will swap with you.

    Security of gear. As seagypsy indicates, bringing the family heirlooms isn't the way to go. I really suggest you think hard about what you bring with you. First, as you have to lug it, the more you have the more tiresome travel can become. Second, the more you bring, the more you have to 'protect' it, so anything that is expensive or has meaning can create hassles. There are discussions here on Travelfish about electronics eg. camera, laptop, etc. ( here and here and here ).

    As indicated, I travel light (look here esp. #4) so the type of security others need isn't such an issue for me (go read this ).

    I suppose the essential element for me is that other than passport, credit cards and camera, I don't take anything that I can't replace along the way if stolen. As noted in the 'store money' link immediately above, its helpful to keep credit cards & big $$ hidden (as much as possible).

    As SBE indicates, attitudes are so relaxed in SE Asia that it's easy to be fooled about how safe things/people are. But, a fool and her money are soon parted. So, my advice is simplify what you take, reduce, reduce, reduce, and limit taking things that others may want of you. That way, you have less to steal, and less to get worried about to protect.

    Cheers

    #14 Posted: 20/8/2009 - 08:46

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