I have been an independent traveler for 12 years now. My first self-planned travel endeavor was a three-day trip to Ravenna, Rimini and San Marino in Italy, where I went with my family: I remember thinking what a big achievement it was to individually contact a hotel, successfully arrange and complete the trip – it was the time when, at least in my part of the world, we still used road maps, didn’t have smartphones and were afraid of telephoning abroad because of extravagant roaming costs. Ever since those simpler (and in a way, nicer) days, I have been independently organizing trips I take on my own, with my family and friends and have been strongly advocating this type of travel to anyone who wants to listen.
Of course, there are different types of people, destinations and contexts within which traveling takes place. There are instances in which there is nothing better or smarter than to join an organized tour, a method of traveling that in itself brings much pleasure and many advantages. But since independent traveling brought me so much excitement, learning and rewarding experiences throughout the years, I wanted to share some reasons why I think everyone should try and plan their own independent trip, at least once in their life.
You can tailor your trip to your wishes and interests
I am an art historian so some of my main interests in traveling are museums, architecture and public art. I also really love nature so visiting parks, natural parks and natural particularities is something I always add to my travel itineraries. My parents love markets and flea markets so when we travel together, we always visit such places. My boyfriend is a vinyl collector, so wherever we go together, record stores are our unavoidable points of interest. It is very liberating and rewarding to have the chance to completely tailor your trip according to interests that matter to you most, even when they are less than usual, and when you know that you haven’t “wasted” time on things that you don’t really care that much about.
You are responsible for your own time management
Somewhat related to the previous point, one of the things I like the least about organized tours is the constant time constrictions. When I am on holiday, I would rather not check my watch all the time to see how much more time I have to spend on a particular location. If I want to spend an entire day feeding squirrels in a park in London or sunbathing on a beach in Barcelona, I’ll do it, much rather than thinking about when the group will gather and be off to another site and whether I’ll make it to the meeting point in time or be late and face the wrath of my fellow travelers.
You can always make adjustments
When you travel independently, even if you carefully plan the entire trip (and I am a supporter of such attitude towards traveling), if you change your mind, see something that interests you more or discover something “better”, you can just change – adjust – your plans. What is more, there are always situations in any trip when something unexpected happens, and the ability to change or adjust plans allows you to follow the new and unexpected and maybe stumble upon a truly authentic and fantastic experience.
MY STORY: As my boyfriend and I took the shuttle bus from the airport to the city center after arriving to Barcelona last year, together with my carefully planned daily itineraries of things to see and visit, we saw a commercial for an exhibition organized by London’s V&A Museum, “David Bowie is” which was in Barcelona as a part of its world-wide tour. As massive fans of the great Bowie, we instantly decided that we can’t leave the city without visiting the exhibition and adjusted our itinerary accordingly. We ended up dedicating almost an entire day to the exhibition in Museu del Disseny (not a part of our original plan), enjoying a once in a lifetime exhibition and also getting to know the area of the city where the museum was located, experiencing something unexpected and creating wonderful memories.
You are forced to get outside your comfort zone
When travelling as a part of an organized group, you are usually secure in a group of people who speak your language and share your customs, and are led by knowledgeable, experienced guides who allow you as much contact with the place you are visiting as they feel appropriate and safe. Being an independent traveler means you have to get out there, ask questions, interact with the locals, find your way with foreign language and customs, thus getting a better understanding of the place or a culture and definitely having authentic experiences.
MY STORY: My family and I traveled around Normandy by car several years ago and, among many towns and villages of the area, we also visited Rouen. As we entered the city, we were very low on gasoline but weren’t worried because, in a town like that, we were bound to stumble upon a gas station sooner rather than later. However, as we were getting lost in the city streets, with less and less gasoline in our tank and no gas station in sight, we got more and more nervous. We suddenly noticed a police officer by the road and felt immediate relief expecting that our problem would now be fixed and that he would guide us to the nearest gas station. However, that’s when our problems really started, as we realized that the officer doesn’t speak English nor understands Italian, and we couldn’t, for the life of us, think of the appropriate French word for gasoline that he would recognize and react to – simple gas, gasoline or gasolio didn’t do it, nor did dozens of different iterations of the term; he didn’t even react to us getting out of the car and pointing to the part of the car where gasoline should go. It was quite entertaining, I’m sure, seeing four Croats waving their arms and legs and yelling out different words and associations to the concentrated officer, who really wanted to help, trying to guess what we want. After maybe 10 minutes of unsuccessful attempts of communication, the police officer suddenly yelled l’essence! And our Babel problem was solved, as we all realized that we finally managed to communicate what we wanted. He pointed us in the direction of the gas station and we said goodbye to him like we were old friends, with smiles and waves and all. I don’t think I will ever forget this situation or the French word for gasoline, for that matter 🙂
You have to learn about the place you are visiting
Some people say that you don’t find out as much about your destination when you are alone as you do when you have a tour guide who introduces you to the places you visit. That may and may not be true – sure, guides are well-prepared and have extensive experience in visiting a particular destination, but with so many resources today that allow you to learn about destinations even from your own home, there is no excuse for you to be unprepared for the place you are visiting. Read books, browse the web, connect with people on forums, buy guidebooks – and learn about the place yourself. Also, don’t forget that there are many free (and paid) guided tours in most destinations in the world, so travelling as a part of an organized group is not the only way to find out many great information about your destination.
MY STORY: Since so much information can be a bit overwhelming, have you ever tried writing your own guidebooks? My parents don’t speak English that well, so before every trip we take together, I write a guidebook for them in Croatian (and by write, I mean, gather information from a gazillion of sources and write down for them the most important things about locations, history, sights, food and culture of our destination). Not only do they get the chance to prepare for the trip as well, but these “guidebooks” remain as nice mementos of our travels together even after we return home.
You have to plan ahead to avoid disappointment
Independent traveling requires more preparation than just packing your suitcase. Of course you can take a trip without having any set plans of points of interest, but for the majority of people, travel is still a luxury and they want to use up those few weeks they have available for a trip as best as they can – so they usually plan. Planning, in my experience, is an important element of a great trip and if you don’t think in advance and prepare well enough, you might miss out on visiting some important and interesting places or monuments – especially today when there are some locations you have to book your visit for well in advance, such as the Alhambra in Granada or the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta.
MY STORY: I don’t even like to remember the instance when I didn’t buy tickets for the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum in time. I was checking their availability some three months before our trip to Malta and, as there were still many empty slots at that time, I thought I would do it some other time. Naturally, when I finally decided to buy the tickets, they were all sold out. I’m not sure my boyfriend forgave me for that mistake yet, as it was the thing he was looking most forward to seeing in Malta! I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I won’t make such a mistake ever again.
You invest more of yourself in planning your own trip
Of course that going to your local tourist agency and just paying for a trip that was already planned out in minute detail is much easier and faster than researching your desired destination for days, even months, but if you just try it once, chances are you will see how rewarding it is to take matters into your own hands and how well spent all the energy you invested into planning your independent trip was.
I really must emphasize that I don’t wish to impose my opinions on anyone. I know that there are as many types of travelling as there are travelers and that some may have a completely different opinion to mine. I just wanted to share my experiences and tell anyone who is interested or is thinking about embarking on their first self-planned trip that independent traveling works, it is amazing and rewarding and enriching in more ways you can imagine. I would also love to know what you think about this topic so feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section!