To tour or not to tour: the art of being a tourist

Tour guide in Japan, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Tour guide we saw at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

As readers here know, Mr Gums and I have just returned from a week in Hong Kong. I did say that my Macau post would be the post to represent that trip – after all, this is primarily a book blog – but have decided that one more won’t push the friendship too much. My subject? The taking of tours.

Now, Mr Gums and I do not take a lot of tours. We generally like to do things on our own, at our own pace, but for some inexplicable-to-me-now reason, we decided to do it differently for our trip to Hong Kong. And so we booked ourselves into 3 tours during our 7 days: Day tour to Lantau Island, half day tour to the New Territories, and a long day tour to Macau.

These tours were all run by the same company, but we had different tour guides for each, different being the operative word:

  • Tour guide 1, Kim, was an extrovert. She was vivacious but rather loud with a somewhat raspy penetrating voice, and I think most of our “co-tourers” found her a bit exhausting.
  • Tour guide 2, Shirley, was quieter and more serious, but had a funny little speech mannerism involving her saying something like “shm” at the end of most sentences or long phrases. An artefact of speaking in a second language, perhaps? Or, maybe a Chinese version of “um” or “er”?
  • Tour guide 3, Cisco (though Patrice was his real name according to his name badge), was the salesman type, style-wise and in actuality, as he had a range of, there’s no other word for it, rather tacky souvenirs to sell. He tended to talk about himself in the third person, as in “Now, Cisco is not one of those guides who …”.

None of this is meant to be particularly critical. They were all very good at their jobs: they knew their stuff, imparted it well, were personable and made sure we saw all we needed to in the time frame given. But this last bit is part of the problem: the time-frame given. We felt rushed through pretty well every sight we saw. Even where we were given time to wander at will, it was such a short time that our very wandering was rushing. So, we have developed some pros and cons about going on tours, and I thought I’d share them with you.

The pros:

  • It’s convenient: You don’t have to worry about transport, tickets, lining up etc. You just follow like sheep and all will be revealed in due course.
  • It’s sociable: You get to meet other “tourers”, who will always include congenial spirits that you can enjoy passing the time with.
  • It’s informative: You learn a lot that you would probably have to work a lot harder to discover on your own, from, say, the average annual wage in Hong Kong to an insider’s understanding of Chinese Buddhism.

The cons:

  • It’s inflexible: The pace is not your own. You cannot linger at the sight that particularly interests you, and hurry through or omit altogether the ones that don’t.
  • It’s bland: You tend to eat at more generic places, of food modified to suit a general tourist palate. Boring…
  • It’s generic: You are given the info that the guide thinks is of interest, in the style (humorous, serious, too long, too brief, and so on) of the particular tour guide … of course, this doesn’t apply so much to special interest tours, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
  • It’s disorienting: Unless you bring your own map with you, you tend to have no idea where you are in relation to where you’ve been and where you are going. You just herd on and off buses (or whatever) and/or  trot behind the guide watching to not lose him/her, rather than taking stock of what’s around you and how you got there.

And so for us, next time, we’ll only do a tour if it’s for something we absolutely would not be able to do otherwise, because, for us, the issue is not fitting in as many sights as possible in the time available, and it’s not eating only to refuel. It’s learning what a place is about. We want to eat what the locals eat, use the transport the locals use, and see what we want to see at the pace we want to see it. We’re with Donald Horne: we want to sight-experience, not simply sight-see.


  • The above does not apply to personal guides, such as friends, friends of friends, and relatives, who provide that personal insight that is so invaluable.
  • Not all tourists want to tour the way we do. Our cons are of course other people’s pros, and vice versa. Vive la différence!
  • There are tours, and there are tours. You have to pick the “type” that suits your needs and purpose.)

60 thoughts on “To tour or not to tour: the art of being a tourist

  1. Loved the post!
    I travel sporadically and have to agree that tours are not usually my thing as I don’t like being scheduled while on vacation. Having said that, this summer I found myself at a winery in the Okanogan taking a tour from the same guide I’d had on 2 previous visits over the last decade.
    (The jokes didn’t get better with age.)
    My tour of the Palace in Porto Portugal went much better – perhaps being the only people on the English tour helped.

    I also agree – food for fuel only applies at home and with respect to workouts 😉

  2. I’ll add that sometimes it’s good to take one tour for “orientation” purposes, and spend the next days off on your own to wander, revisit, and eat where you like. This is especially true in countries where there is not only a different language, but a different alphabet!

    I moonlight (during summer months) doing local step-on tours for visiting cruise ships & always keep in mind those exact “con” points you brought up. A tour guide can make a visiting experience wonderful, or the unfortunate opposite. This blog entry should be sent to every travel agency and tour company around the globe!

  3. I couldn’t agree more. A few years ago I decided it would be far better to travel independently and discover things the “hard way”, even if I didn’t speak the local language. Traveling is more meaningful when you have the freedom to make those spontaneous decisions.

    It’s also fascinating to read about someone’s experiences in your hometown – I was raised in Hong Kong and my family still live there, but I am now carving out a niche of sorts in Western Europe. I can practically imagine those 3 tour guides speaking in my head, they’re near-perfect representations of stock Hong Kong characters (funny name included).

    Thanks for sharing this post and congratulations for getting onto the front page!

  4. As a solo traveler, I have enjoyed the benefits of organized tours (not the least of which is the safety in numbers), however I definitely agree with your points. Also, the tours I’ve been on seem to cater to shoppers rather than sightseers, even though I traveled with different companies each time.
    I didn’t mind wandering around town while others shopped, but I sometimes found myself dropped off in towns where shopping was the only available activity and I had an hour or two to fill. I need to get better at approaching strangers for conversation, I suppose.
    As of now, tour groups are still the best choice for me, in large part because of the huge savings and convenience they offer. But I’m looking forward to the day when my sister can rejoin me in treks through Europe where we are free to create and change our itinerary on a whim.
    Thank you for a good read. 🙂

  5. I love your term “sight experience” vs. “sight-see”. Never heard it put that way before, but when my beloved and I travel, that’s exactly what we do. We did take tours in China, simply because the language barrier was so profound it made transport and reading difficult. However, if there is a way around taking a tour, we will usually find it. Walking around cities, parks, etc is usually the best way to experience it and the people.

    Great post. And congrats on being pressed!

  6. When I travel I try and do a mix of the two, use a tour guide and also wander out on my own. I have tried to put myself in the sneakers of a tourist who would come to America and visists New York City (where I live) and there is no way they could really American experience of America if they just went on a double decker bus tour with a guide name Pete stopping at the typical NYC tourist spots i; Statue of Liberty, Time Square (I loathe that place), Wall Street, Tavern On The Green and Central Park, Empire State Building, etc. — so it would be cool if they had the opportunity to wander around and live, eat and shop like a native New Yorker.

    I loved reading about your experiences!!



  7. For us, it’s partly a matter of language and partly transport. We tour independently in Europe because we have a smattering of French, Italian and Spanish and there is the excellent Eurail network and good bus services everywhere. The only time we took a tour was when we went to wine districts in Bordeaux, and that’s because in France, you can’t just roll up to a vineyard like you can here in Australia. Tim liked these, I found them most unsatisfactory for much the same reasons as you did. I couldn’t bear one of those one-city-per-day tours that some of my friends go on; it would break my heart not to be whisked through the Louvre or the Prado or St Paul’s Cathedral.
    But when we went to Vietnam and Cambodia, it seemed too hard (learning a tonal language – yikes!) and we took a 16 day IndoChina ‘cultural’ tour that allowed at least one day free in every city and most nights free to eat where we pleased. By and large we weren’t rushed, and (with the exception of a sweet factory – a cottage industry – on the Mekong) we weren’t dragged off to those ‘factories’ to see some manufacturing process that ends up in the shop where you are expected to buy. Of course if you get a poor guide, or irritating companions (and we certainly had one), 16 days is a long time. Overall, though, this was an excellent holiday. (I blogged it all, at Travels with T&L) if you are interested).
    In Europe, we did think wistfully about tours when we were lugging the suitcases though!

    • Thanks Lisa for sharing … language certainly plays a big role in decisionmaking re tours I agree. And the convenience – re luggage etc – will, I see, become a bigger decisionmaking factor as we get older eh?

      As you know I’ve read a bit of your travel blog but probably not that trip so will go back and check it out.

  8. yougetwellsoon: Thanks for commenting. Welcome. I laughed about the jokes on your wine tour not getting better with age – fortunately some of the wine does eh? (Otherwise you probably wouldn’t go back!). I agree re not wanting to be too scheduled.

    Jo: Thanks too for coming by, and commenting. That’s an excellent point re orientation. We would definitely have done the 1/2 day HK intro tour, if we hadn’t had one of those personal guides, the husband of a good friend, to that for us on our first weekend. I’m glad you as a part-time tourguide read my blog in the spirit intended, and didn’t take offence.

    SASFictionGirl: And thanks to you too for coming by and commenting. Our daughter ended up on one of those shopping tours. It was out of LA to the Grand Canyon and yes, there was half an hour looking at the Canyon, and a few hours at the shopping outlets on the way home. Was she cranky. Our Macao tour had a Casino section at the end OR outlet shopping BUT we went to the coffee shop instead as they only had half an hour for these alternatives anyhow.

  9. Calogeromira: Yes. Lovely place isn’t it?

    Teri: Thanks for coming by and commenting. Wish sight-experience was my term, but I’m very glad to introduce it to people and have them like it. Language is a big part of “to tour to not to tour” decisionmaking, I agree. And thanks for the “pressed” congrats. I didn’t realise I had been until you told me!

    Ava: Oh, NYC. Great place. A mix is a good idea. The challenge is getting the right mix isn’t it? I guess the new internet travel sites with tourist reviews is a great way to start on getting that info isn’t it? See what others say about certain tours. I think I’ll do that more in the future – I did a little in HK but not enough I think. Thanks for commenting.

    Edebock: Thanks for commenting. As I said to Teri. I wish it were my term!

  10. I think that tours do play a role in the travel experience, but it very much depends on the tour guide you get, which can make or break a tour. I went on a tour through Europe when I was younger and travelling alone, for a number of reasons, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were cities I would have loved to have spent longer, but then there were also places that I would never have gone to but did because they were on the itinerary and absolutely loved those places.

    I don’t know that I would necessarily go on another tour now, but I do know which places that I would love to go back to travelling independently.

    • And, of course Marg, you often don’t know until you are on the tour whether it is going to be good, unless you’ve seen reviews on the tour and the guide. They can be good I agree – and we have done some great ones, for example, led by indigenous people in Kakadu.

  11. I absolutely love traveling, though I’ve been a bit limited in how many trips I’ve gotten to take so far. My favorite place thus far has been Ireland. I went there with a group from my college, and so it was basically one big tour, the entire ten days. Other than that, I think I’ve done at least one tour on every trip I’ve been on, and I always find myself wishing that I had just explored for myself, rather than letting someone else show me around. I don’t really feel like I can get a feel for a place until I get my hands in the dirt, so to speak.

    • Thanks for sharing Amanda. Ireland was one of my early overseas trips, and we loved it. To tour or not to tour is quite a fraught issue isn’t it? Sometimes it’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t really. One per holiday seems an ok way to go.

    • Thanks Leanne … it’s hard to feel like a local when you are a westerner in China but I know what you mean. I’ll check out your blog … it sounds intrigguin … when I return from my current travels.

  12. Tours are so hit and miss! As you know, I tend not to do tours that often when travelling, but when I have I’ve sometimes found them great and sometimes not. It does have a lot to do with the tour guide, too! As for the food… I remember Isobel and I (on our Grand Canyon tour) made it a point of pride to never go to the restaurant that the guide handed out special discounts for and dropped us off at, because we knew it was just bland tourist food he was getting a commission for. I don’t know whether us going to Subway instead really proved out point, though… 😛

    And hey, you live and learn, right? You also had a “personal” tour guide who was pretty amazing, after all!

    • For us, too, Adam … some of our best memories are the things we have stumbled upon and the connections we’ve made – particularly eating places. Being able to live in a place for while is the ultimate, I agree.

  13. Joining a tour is good for getting to places that are out of reach of local transport or if the language barrier is to bad gesturing means nothing to the opposite person. I tend to shy away from tours on my vacations too. I usually wonder if that makes me less of a tourist.

    • Thanks Fukutoshin. I agree that accessibility and language are two good reasons for doing tours. But, I don’t think not doing tours makes you less of a tourist. I think we can define tourism very broadly – and certainly more broadly than one who TAKES tours. Rather it is one who tours!

  14. Thank you for your post. It was awesome in how you were able to so succinctly sum up the pros and cons of being on a tour. I’ve been trying to find stuff about the advantages of having a tour in Asian countries and the unique characteristics with the popular tours. If you did want to be flexible and take your time, but did not know the language well enough to communicate effectively, would you suggest a tour or are there alternatives?

    • Why thanks Quotid. I’m glad you liked my summary. I did it because I wanted to get my own thoughts of our experience straight in my head and I find writing it down is the best way to do that.

      As some have said, an orientation tour might be good. And then perhaps ONLY do a tour for things you can’t do otherwise. If you can use public transport or walk yourself then that would be my preference BUT I do have partner to travel with. It might also depend on whether you are on your own or travelling with someone.

  15. Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed!

    I really appreciate your comments. I have travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and, where possible, try to avoid anything that resembles a tour. The plastic nature of them seem to interfere with me relaxing and absorbing what I want to experience in a place. I think the “hop on/hop off” tourist buses give you more flexibility. The “follow the red line” trails that wind through the historical parts of cities like Boston also provide a leisurely “go at your own pace” form of discovery.

    If I only have a few days in a city, I will hire a driver and English speaking guide. I have found this to be less expensive than tours when two or more people share the car especially in places like Thailand, Malaysia, and China. A few years ago, I took my daughter to Beijing. For $200 US we had a driver and guide from 8:30 in the morning until midnight and they would take us anywhere we wanted to go, (including stopping at an outlet store so my daughter could buy a warmer jacket.) They bargained for us in the Pearl Market and we walked away with gorgeous pearl necklaces at less than half what other tourists were paying. Needless to say, we were exhausted by 8 pm but enjoyed them so much that we hired their services again the next day. They took us out into the countryside and to a non-touristy farm style restaurant where we caught our own fish for lunch. It was a truly wonderful and unique experience to sit around a big table sharing a meal of fresh fish and assorted authentic Chinese dishes with them. It is unlikely we would have ever had such a unique and memorable experience with a tour group.

    • Good advice everythingneat – both re those hop-on hop-off buses and the idea of hiring a driver. You can often only do that in countries where labour costs aren’t too high can’t you. My daughter and I hired a taxi for half an hour in Mauritius to see what we wanted to see and that was good.

  16. Great post!
    You have to experience a guided tour once, indeed just to know how that kind of travel feels. We tend to avoid guides. I know it sounds silly, because they know so much about the history and culture of a place. But it is just too much information! We tend to pre-read all about the places we visit and after arrival sight-experience rather than only sight-see (so true!).

    • Thanks Emiel … I agree that it sounds silly but tours CAN get in the way of really knowing a place. Too much information and not enough actual “experience” can get in the way of understanding can’t it?

  17. Dear Sue, travel posts will never push the friendship – at least not ours. I love your writing voice but you already know that – so we went to Hong Kong for a week during Thanksgiving week of 2007. It was FAR! It took forever to get there from east coast of US but we finally did…..I always forget how far Asia is until I get on a plane! And we did go to Macau also. I don’t know why but aside from Victoria’s Peak, which I am sure you did, I did not fall in love with Hong Kong as I thought I might – we didn’t do any tours (maybe that’s our problem) but we had researched plenty in advance….we did do one (regrettable) tour in Argentina with a guide whose sense of humor bothered me greatly among other things…and yet other (fantastic and private) tours in New Zealand and Bali where we were privy to some of the most amazing local stuff we would have never seen otherwise….>Great story here! Welcome back by the way!

    • Thanks Farnoosh … and I agree, sometimes a guide’s sense of humour can be really grating. I just try to grin and bear it. Humour is such an individual thing and I know they are trying. My heart goes out to them sometimes as they are trying to hard but often just don’t get it.(Oh, and I nearly packed a carry on bag but didn’t. I know I could have, but I just wanted my extra bag for papers, kindle, camera etc AND my handbag! You were in my mind though as I packed.)

  18. I don’t think I have ever been on a tour, the group aspect of it and the feeling that I might miss the things I really want to see make me hesitant to.

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  20. Hola whisperinggums!!!
    me encantó el post… y estoy totalmente de acuerdo con tu visión:
    mejor ir a tu ritmo y disfrutar de lo que te puede ofrecer el país, sin ir empaquetado.

    • Gracias On Travelling … glad you agree regarding doing it yourself. It’s so much more fun, though as many of us have said here there are times when tours do work. It’s just a matter of choosing the right tour for the right purpose, isn’t it?

  21. the best imo is to have a local show you around…but that is not so easy to realise ofcourse. it kinda deepnds on the country too. i’ve done tours, single traveling and guided by locals, and locals is the best for sure.

    the quality of tours is very variating too…

  22. I totally agree with you, even if recently I made only tours, since I preferred to avoid to plan routes, looking for parking and so on. I have to say as well, that sometimes in certain places you must take a tour, due to particular social and political conditions of the area.
    But as told, I agree with you that at the end a tour is a touristic package, made for tourist, which means that at the end they will show you the stereotype of the place, you created already in your head.

  23. I too much prefer travelling with a friend or partner and wandering at our own pace than going on a tour, though occasionally when travelling alone a tour can be a great place to make friends.
    However there is also which although was designed for people to go stay on each others couches while travelling, you are also welcome to send a message to the forum of the place you are visiting and ask for someone to show you around for the day. That way you get a fellow traveller that has lived in that area for a while willing to show you some local secrets and someone to talk as well. Also if you are staying longer you might find that the group has activities happening or meet ups.

    • Thanks Kellie for commenting. It’s been great having various perspectives contributed on this issue. As a extrovert, I can certainly relate to the value of tours for making friends or, at least, nice travelling companions.

  24. Some of my best memories in Florence involved me wandering aimlessly about the streets with nothing to guide me but instinct and my trusty Fodor’s guide. You have no choice but to go beyond yourself and let curiosity be your guide!

  25. Well, this is all very timely. I don’t normally do tours either. But for upcoming China trip I’m booked on a 23-day tour, albeit in a very small group — there’s 5 of us — because I couldn’t face the whole language barrier on my own. Much of the tour is of the do-your-own-thing variety in terms of meals and free days, so I’m hoping it’s a good balance that allows me to do a lot of solo stuff as well as some organised stuff. I’ll keep you posted.

    Out of interest, have you ever read John Lancaster’s Fragrant Harbour, a novel set in Hong Kong? I’m reading it right now… it’s a relatively easy and entertaining read.

    • Do keep me posted. Is that an Intrepid Tour? I’ve generally heard good things of them.

      No, but I have got that book on on my HK list. I plan to read some of those books. I only book one novel in HK, Lee’s The piano teacher, that I want to get onto soon.

      Anyhow, travel well and stay in touch, kimbofo.

  26. I have done the 2 week tour once- and that was in Egypt, I have to say, I found it invaluable- i got so much more out of the tour with a guide who was just an absolute fountain of knowledge…

  27. Whenever I travel to a country the first time, I usually join a tour at least a half day tour to get the general orientation and some ‘must-see’ sights. It’ll be so time-consuming trying to find your way, the proper mode of transport, the transfer, and all that jazz… guess I’ve past the age for adventurous exploration. And for HK, I think you’ve made a right choice in joining a tour. It’ll be so hard to go to all those islands and the NT on your own and to find out all about their history, and pertinent info. Just wondering, did you have a chance to go to Hong Kong side and go up the Peak via the tram, and see the whole Victoria Harbour? It’s one of the ‘must-see’ views of HK, especially at night. You’re fortunate to live so close to the Pacific Rim countries, you can always go for a revisit or to explore new worlds… Japan next maybe?

    • Thanks Arti … I think the half-day orientation tour is a pretty good approach. Yes we did do the Peak on our own – but day time – and it was a bit smoggy/hazy so we could see the harbour but it wasn’t as clear as we would have liked. One of our favourite experiences was taking ourselves by ferry to the island of Cheung Chau, and then wandering to the sights ourselves and choosing a restuarant and what we wanted to eat, while watching the fishing boats come in. We won’t forget that quickly, Arti. Do you plan to go back some time?

  28. As a tourist, you can…

    i) Blame it on your lack of local knowledge should you happen to make a faux pas which has the locals tutting and clearly marks you out as a ‘foreigner’…perhaps something like forgetting to use the little plastic gloves to handle vegetables in a supermarket or whispering “stop please” on a local bus when all the locals bellow it out in a megaphone-like fashion.

    ii) Be as curious as you like to find out more about your location without feeling too nosy or intrusive, because after all, that’s what you’re there for.

    iii) Revel in the fact that for once, you might look like a tourist because you don’t know how something works, you don’t know what to do and you might actually have to ask someone, engage with a local and perhaps even end up making a new friend in the process.

  29. But how appealing to have no organisation to do, no worries about sorting out problems, a room and a meal waiting for you at the end of the day.

    The “sociability” can be a double-edged sword of course – but on the whole probably works out OK.

    And what a fantastic holiday you had.

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