Should I travel to India on an organized tour? Or should I travel India independently or solo? We’ve experienced India both ways – the first couple trips on our own and our most recent trip on a small group tour. Recent conversations with our audience, especially solo female travelers, told us a look at the benefits and downsides of small group travel and tours in India was in order.
India is one of our favorite countries. At turns it is complicated yet simple, beautiful and tragic. It overwhelms the senses and is chock full of history, culture and humanity. This is one of the reasons why Dan chose it as his first trip abroad outside North America. It's why we’ve visited four times and why we have plans to return. However, the same features can make India a challenging and overwhelming independent travel destination.
During our most recent visit to India, we traveled to northern India on a tour book-ended by two train trips. Considering our previous travels there – independent, to offbeat locations, plenty of train journeys – a reader asked why we chose a tour and didn't organize train tickets and all else ourselves.
A good question.
In truth, we didn’t need to take a tour in India. However, when we had the opportunity to choose a G Adventures trip (sponsored) as part of our Wanderers partnership we chose this Northern India by Rail tour. Why?
We wanted to experience traveling on a small group tour in India and compare it to our independent travels there. What would we like, what we wouldn’t like, and what we would recommend to others.
Here’s what we found. To us, the pros and cons of traveling in India with a small group tour.
Pros: The benefits of taking a tour in India
India can feel overwhelming and challenging navigate no matter what, but especially if it’s your first visit to the country, and even more so if you are new to international travel. In these circumstances, an organized tour handles the general structure and logistics of the trip and supplies a tour leader to give continual local context and help make sense of the often disorienting commotion so can focus yourself on a deeper understanding and appreciation of the place you’re visiting.
An organized tour in India isn’t only for newbie travelers. For example, my aunt who went to school in India and lived there for many years mentioned taking a similar tour as ours so as to enjoy a “hassle-free trip.”
This got us to thinking. What are some of the other benefits of an organized tour in India?
- Expertise of local tour leaders and guides: When I travel, I’m the — sometimes annoying — one asking the guide endless questions. It’s my job, but I’m also just curious. Access to local expert guides enhances my learning and understanding of a place, of its history and culture. The best local guides also provide their own personal stories which provide color and texture to a travel experience. The most curious traveler wants to know: What is life really like here? My return often features reflection upon anecdotes and personal stories conveyed by tour leaders and guides. These stories add shape to my travel memories. (Note: If you’re new to organized tours, or you already take them and want to make the most of them, read our article on how to make the most of an organized tour.
- Hassle-free logistics and organization: On average people visit a minimum of four websites – and spend endless hours researching — before booking a trip and its various components. Furthermore, making travel arrangements in country can absorb precious hours as you visit multiple offices — especially in India. When your logistics (train tickets, accommodation) are organized by someone else, it frees you to focus on the experience.
- Do more with limited time: Travel only by public transport and you’ll experience lag time between buses, trains and other transfers. With a private bus or transfer waiting for you, you can see more in a limited amount of time. This mode of travel also features the built-in opportunity to experience smaller destinations along the way.
- Itineraries: We enjoy the sort of itinerary where marquee sites form the anchors of an itinerary, while community-based experiences and interactions are skillfully interspersed, again to provide context, depth and texture to an experience or destination. Some of our G Adventures itineraries have featured access to activities and destinations in select local communities, something that would have been difficult and time-consuming for us to have sourced and arranged ourselves.
- Free time and optional activities: Even though we enjoy traveling with a group, we also like to explore on our own and have free time in our schedule. For example, in Dharamshala while the majority of our group visited a Tibetan Institute, we opted to day-hike Triund Hill. Take advantage of flexibility when it presents itself.
- Cost: Traveling in a small group tour typically costs less per person than an equivalent private tour as costs are distributed across the group.
- Medical support: Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue during our tour of northern India. But it’s a wildcard to note. We’ve witnessed passengers falling sick, and we’ve taken note of their comfort in having a trusted, local guide on the visit to the pharmacy or doctor for language interpretation, support and guidance. This is particularly important to note for destinations one might consider gastro-intestinally challenging.
Benefits of an India tour for young female travelers
Traveling in India can be a challenge for young women, especially those who stand out with light hair and fair skin. Although encounters with men are not on the whole physically dangerous, the intensity of attention afforded to young women in India can be unpleasant or even feel invasive. To prepare, here are some travel safety tips for women traveling in India.
Traveling in a group tour helps offers a bit of a shield from some of that attention. It offers the guide and other passengers an opportunity to step in during uncomfortable situations. Having a local tour leader and guide also provides an additional level of protection.
For example, we traveled with four young blonde women on our northern India itinerary. Their appearance literally stopped traffic. Cars pulled over, disgorging local passengers eager to take selfies with them. In circumstances where crowds of people gathered around them, the intensity bumped up a notch. If each woman had been traveling independently — without the buffer of our group and the watchful eye of our local tour leader — the feeling could become more overwhelming, turning to something frightening or even violating.
One woman in our group, Ellie, summed it up well: “It [the attention] is definitely something that young women especially need to take into consideration before visiting [India] for the first time. It can be quite a shock if you're not prepared!”
We've traveled enough in India and spoken to countless young solo female travelers about their experiences in the country. On this account, our case is not overstated. Here's
Benefits for solo travelers
Regardless of whether you are male or female, traveling solo to India for the first time can feel daunting and disorienting. There are also endless stories of scams to which travelers have fallen prey in India. Having a local guide to ask about things and the support of a group of fellow passengers can help mitigate some of those risks and smooth the travel experience.
For example, one of the people in our group had always traveled with his wife. She didn't have any interest in traveling to India, but he really did. However, he didn’t want to do it entirely on his own. Our tour offered him the itinerary he wanted (he was a train buff), the structure and support of the tour to handle logistics and itinerary, and a group of fellow travelers to hang out with if he wanted to.
Upshot of the story: he — and we — all really had a great time, not only with the experience, but spending time with one another. After this trip, he’s begun to consider taking small group tours to other destinations, especially to those places that don’t interest his wife or include activities she wouldn't enjoy.
Cons: The down side of taking a tour in India
An organized tour may not be the best option for every traveler, or for every situation. Here are some of the potential downsides of taking a group trip in India:
- Too fast paced: A fixed itinerary can feel as though you’re moving quickly with early mornings and long days packed with lots to see and do. This is true anywhere, but especially in India where sensory overload combined with limited rest can take its toll.
- Not as much time to explore independently: We find that some experiences, particularly interactions with locals, happen more naturally when we’re on our own, rather than in a group. For example, chatting with market vendors, being invited for tea, random conversations with people on the street, or just getting lost and discovering something unexpected. Solo or independent travelers can appear more approachable to locals than a large group might.
- Cost: Organized tours can be more expensive than choosing to arrange everything yourself, taking public transport everywhere and traveling without a guide. Those are also the same reasons that many prefer to pay a little extra for a tour.
- Less street food exploration: Although all the meals on our tour were optional, we opted often to join the group as they were a fun group of people and we enjoyed their company. Because of this, we found that we ate street food or cafeteria food less often than we might have if we were traveling independently. For good reason and hygiene concerns, our tour guide tended to be more conservative with restaurant choices. The upside was that everyone in our group usually ordered different dishes and was open to sharing so we could sample different flavors and curries. And, no one in our group got sick during the trip.
- Not getting along with other people in group: There’s always a risk that you’ll have “that traveler” in your group and he or she won't click with others. Fortunately, in the 14 G Adventures trips we've taken, we’ve encountered this only once – a traveler whose emotional problems were made worse by alcohol abuse. We steered clear and it was fine. Usually, the tour leader will address these issues early on so it doesn’t impact other passengers and the rest of the trip.
What to look for in an India tour
Sometimes when I mention taking a group tour I get a confused look: “You guys don’t look like tour people.”
We understand. We began as independent travelers. But our work, as well as our partnership with G Adventures, has exposed us to group travel, which we’ve enjoyed for the experiences we've had and the people we've met along the way. For us, this has also built a bit of travel empathy, whereby we appreciate an array of travel styles, preferences and personalities beyond our own.
I should also note that there's a stereotype of organized tours, based on a very particular type of organized tour: dozens of passengers, all the same age and nationality, traveling in an oversized bus, following a guide waving a flag or umbrella, looking disconnected as they’re shepherded from A to B, squeezing in as many tourist sites as possible into one day, punctuated by all-inclusive forgettable meals and unpunctuated by free moments to explore on one’s own.
We acknowledge this style may be preferable for some people. We wouldn’t recommend it though. And this style is vastly different from the one that we have written about above and elsewhere as we've reflected on our own personal experience.
Point is: regarding organized tours, there are many options these days. Know what they are and choose wisely to align with your preferences.
Here’s what we recommend for an organized tour of India:
We offer some general recommendations as you consider your own trip to India, especially one based in part or whole on a tour:
- Small group: For us, the ideal group size is 16 persons or less.
- Varied Itineraries: Keep a look out for routes and itineraries that not only include the usual suspects (major sites and destinations), but also smaller and lesser-known destinations not offered by all tour operators. The lesser-known destinations provide texture and often feature the stories you’ll remember most.
- Inclusion of a community project or social enterprise experience: these community visits often provide travelers with a deeper, more connected experience, while the money from the tour benefits a local organization or community. If you’re going on a G Adventures tour, search for tours that integrate a Planeterra Foundation project experience in the itinerary (hint: it's one of the filters now on their search page).
- Some free time: Make sure your itinerary offers some free time so you can explore on your own, engage in an optional activity with the group or just unwind and rest. No matter where and how you travel, it's unlikely that you'll want to be on the go all the time.
- Combination of train and private transport: If you’re traveling in India, choose itineraries which include some train travel. For us, it’s the most rewarding way to travel India.
- Non-inclusive meals: One of the highlights of traveling in India is the food. We suggest choosing a tour where meals and dishes are your choice, not pre-determined, all-inclusive or buffet oriented.
- Local tour leaders and guides: It may seem obvious that you ought to seek tours featuring guides from the country in which you're traveling. Yet, we've found that's not always the case.
Recommended Small Group Tours in India
Northern India by Rail
This is the northern India tour that we did and that is highlighted above. A full and fulfilling week exploring the lesser-visited areas in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, including Amritsar, Dharamshala/McLeod Ganj, and Shimla.
Northeast India & Darjeeling by Rail
A two-week journey beginning in Kolkata (our favorite Indian big city) going by train and van into Sikkim and Darjeeling. This tour also stops by the fascinating holy city of Varanasi en route to its end point in Delhi.
Kolkata to Kochi by Rail
The ultimate train journey through India, from Kolkata in the northeast to Kochi in the south. We did a similar journey years ago, but the opposite direction, and loved it. If you have a month to spend in India and love rail travel, consider this tour.
As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.