Commercial Tour Groups vs. DIY Itineraries, Which One’s For You?

When I was in my early 20s, I used to be a freelance tour leader for a travel agency, linking up tour groups with local tour guides. During the peak travel  season, I would be busy planning my annual leave, wishing upon the stars to head off somewhere new on the next assigned trip.  

During that  time, I was mostly handling tour groups around Southeast Asia. I was numb and sick of the industry after the second year as a freelancer.  I felt weak and tired travelling back and forth to the same place, talking about the same things and eating at the same restaurant again and again! I craved something new, something exciting, something more fulfilling than what I was doing!

One fine day, as I was having my usual follow up call with the travel manager, the idea of quitting popped into my mind. I realised that travelling was more than just about getting from one place to another, it was more about experiences, enjoying moments on the road and the freedom to travel according to one’s own personal preference. 

When it comes to travel styles and preferences , there is no right or wrong choice. You can choose to join a commercial tour group or DIY your own trip. Regardless of how you go about it, you’re likely to still be able to enjoy a nice holiday if it suits your style.

In my opinion, I think it generally depends on what you’re after. If you are travelling in a large group, it will definitely be easier to move around with a travel agency. It is the hassle-free way to have dedicated personnel settling all the travel nitty-gritties. What’s more, having  a tour leader specially assigned to your group helps keep everything in order. This is perfect if you have no interest in planning itineraries, and just want an all-inclusive vacation where you can relax and unwind.

On the other hand, planning your own DIY itinerary has its own charms and perks too. As an ex-tour leader, I already know how most of these commercial tour groups operate and how their  itineraries are structured. Drawing inspiration from that, I started creating itineraries in my own style, giving myself the chance to explore the world differently! 

Personally, I enjoy designing my own itineraries and customizing my own tours. I think each destination should be inspiring and unique and, at the same time, be able to offer immersive experiences and unforgettable memories. The fun actually begins from the moment you start planning your itinerary! The excitement begins to build up as you look up probably destinations and begin imagining the joy of visiting those places.

Thematic planning is my way of building a trip, focusing on establishing  true connections to the local culture, events and ceremonies. 

I was once on a short weekend trip to Betong, Thailand (about a 4-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur) with a group of friends during the Songkran Festival, a.k.a the “water festival”. It’s actually one of the most significant celebrations in Thailand and it is celebrated each year in the middle of April.

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At that time, it was my first time being in Betong during the water festival. Unlike any other regular trip to Thailand, I just couldn’t wait any longer for this trip! Indeed, the excitement started building up during the planning stage. I was between deciding whether to buy a new bikini for the party and looking up the best spots for water fights!

After so many days of endless planning and changes to our itinerary, the day had finally arrived. I still remember it well: it was a sunny day when we arrived in Betong. Even at first glance, we were amazed that such a huge crowd had come to this quaint little town for the festival! People were excitedly splashing water at each other and some were even firing big water guns at the passing crowd. Almost immediately, my friends and I were soaking wet, running wildly in the dense crowd. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable trip indeed! 

Perhaps you have already decided on your next destination and are wondering what to do, where to go etc. Well, why not start  planning your next trip the thematic way and experience some truly memorable moments during your trip? 

Here’s how! 

1. Select Your Theme 

The good thing about thematic travel is you can even make return trips to the same destination feel like a whole new experience. For example, perhaps you’ve already visited Bangkok before and you’re heading back to this amazing city for a second time. By selecting a different theme to adhere to in your itinerary, you can focus on different activities. 

For example, you can go on a shopping trip, a theme park excursion, a romantic getaway for couples or even a volunteerism trip. If you’re basing your itinerary on the cultural heritage of Bangkok, you can choose to include a cruise tour along the iconic Chao Phraya River, admiring temples built along the river and marvel at the Grand Palace. 

In addition, there are many stunning temples along the river bank, you can freely hop-off the cruise and visit them. Wat Prakaew, Wat Arun and Wat Pho are the most popular ones in Bangkok. Likewise, experiencing the local floating market is a must when planning your heritage tour. You could also turn back time and explore Damnoen Saduak, one of the earliest floating markets in the region!

2. Search Through The Local Festival Guide

For extra value, try to plan your trips to coincide with local festivals. That way you can participate and get closer to the local culture. For example, if you are travelling to Japan, you might wanna know that  every shrine celebrates its own seasonal or historical event, with some celebrations even persisting for days. Seasonally, you can also try to catch the cherry blossom festivals or engage in koyo, which is the act of admiring autumn leaves during Fall. 

Elsewhere, you’ll also find plenty of different festivals and celebrations all year round. Some may be calm and meditative, while others  are vibrant and rowdy. Pick the best local festival that matches your travelling schedule to get into some charming local culture .

3. Check Out The Local Events Calendar

Cultural festivals are one thing, but music concerts and live shows are even more exciting! Musical events in Hong Kong are pretty common and are always an entertaining way to spend time.

I had been to Hong Kong numerous times in the past and had no plan to visit this place anymore. However,  one day, I came to find out that Cantoipop King, Jacky Cheung, would be holding a classic tour in Hong Kong. The concert tickets were selling out fast as soon as they were launched! 

Luckily, I was able to lock down 2 concert tickets after hours of trying hard to access the booking site. Then, I hopped on a plane with my partner and headed off to Hong Kong once again. But this time, it was a whole new kind of excitement, an exclusive tour, and I loved it!

See? Matching your travel date with any of the live music concerts in Hong Kong (or any other events anywhere else in the world) will definitely add a whole other dimension to your travel plans!

For double the excitement, you can also check out local events, art exhibitions and parties on local community pages too. I, for one, think it’s exciting to hit up Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s party central, for a Halloween costume party, don’t you think? 

4. Look Out For Programs Designed For Travellers Or Expatriates 

There are plenty of things one can gain from exploring different places even more so when you participate in local programmes for travellers or expats. It might even prove to be a life-changing experience! 

Bali is a good choice for many people, as there is so much to see and experience on this magnificent island. Apart from the magnificent views, you can also enrol in a 3-day meditation program in the terraced paddy fields to find your zen. You may even consider taking  a Bali martial art class in the mud! If this sounds interesting to you, then you should remember this tip and try to add some of these activities to your next itinerary! 

Excitingly, there are many more interesting elements I can think of to spice up your trips but I’ll save that for another time.  What are you waiting for? Start planning your trip the thematic way now. Explore the world differently and make your travels last a lifetime! 

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