Booking your ticket to the far-off destination you’ve been dreaming of is a thrilling experience in itself. The exhilaration of knowing you are about to have the adventure of a lifetime is enough to keep you riding high for weeks or even months.
But if you're not a planner by nature, spending hours figuring out the logistics of your trip can be a serious buzzkill.
Thankfully, travel companies are making it easier than ever for travelers to head out on breathtaking excursions without planning a single thing. If you’re up to trying something new but don’t have time to figure out all the details, then perhaps it’s best to leave it up to the professionals.
On a recent journey to South America, I tagged along with Mountain Lodges of Peru, a travel company offering a unique take on guided tours. (It’s no wonder this company was named one of the best tour operators in Travel + Leisure’s 2017 World's Best Awards.)
From transportation, to food, to lodging, right down to the pack mules for the Inca Trail, every single moment of this trip was meticulously planned for our group. All we had to do was take in everything Peru had to offer, worry-free.
If you’re hesitant to book a guided trip, ask yourself these five crucial questions to set your mind at ease before putting your travels in someone else’s hands.
How large is your group?
If I learned one thing about guided tours on my trip through Peru, it was that they are the ultimate way to see a new destination as a solo traveler.
Upon landing in Cusco at 6 a.m. following a nine-hour overnight flight from Los Angeles, a member of the Mountain Lodges of Peru team was there to greet me, help with my bags, and get me to my hotel so I could get back to bed before our big adventure began. As a woman traveling alone to a country I had never visited, it was quite reassuring to know I wasn’t simply riding along in the dark with total strangers.
How comfortable are you traveling to a new and unfamiliar place?
If you’re traveling to a destination where you’ve been once or twice, then perhaps you won’t feel the need for a guide, instead opting to re-visit all your favorite haunts. But, if you’re going somewhere new and you don’t know the language or the location well — or are simply looking for a new take on a classic — then a group guided tour may be the ideal answer.
Having a guide to share the ins and outs of Peruvian travel culture proved crucial more than once on my trip. For example, in Peru it’s customary to tip a few sol to people you take pictures of, especially those dressed in traditional clothing at its many cultural sites. This was something our guides informed us of in the beginning of our trip, along with the custom of tipping to use the public toilets in many of the villages and towns we passed through. And perhaps best of all, our guides also carried plenty of extra supplies with them along the routes, just in case.
How deep do you want to dive into a new culture?
Beyond feeling like I was truly immersing myself in the Peruvian culture thanks to my intrepid guides who explained every sight and sound’s importance to the country in detail, I also learned a great deal by listening in on what other travelers on my trip were asking.
Moreover, during our journey, our guides took us to places other tourists don't venture to, like the town of Choquecancha, where we met with master weavers to learn about their trade and have a peaceful lunch with them in their own shop. While I had my own questions for these women, it was an added bonus to join conversations they were having with my fellow tour group participants.
There, I was able to learn things I didn’t even realize I had questions about, like how the women dye their threads in such remote locations (they boil local vegetation and dip the alpaca wool in and out throughout the day), and just what their different hat styles really mean (it’s an indicator of their marital status. If only it were that easy in the United States).
Thanks to my tour group's unique partnerships within the communities they pass through, we were given unfettered access to the people and places that make Peru so unique. And that’s an experience I would have a hard time finding on my own.
Is your location particularly difficult to travel around in?
In Peru, the roads are thin and winding, the mountains are endlessly high, and some areas are so steep and so narrow to climb that had my guide not been there to show me the way, I may have turned back more than once. But having the backing of someone who has been there once or twice (or a thousand times) gave me the complete sense of calm I needed to let go of all travel fears and anxiety.
And sure, not every destination is as treacherous sounding as climbing a 13,000-foot elevation, but you know what, navigating the streets of Rome, Tokyo, or Rio can be just as confusing. A guided tour offers you the chance to not worry about which route is best, as someone else has already determined that for you.
Do you find value in sharing experiences or would you rather have time to self-reflect?
Going to Peru I knew I’d see a lot, learn a lot, and have plenty of time to soak up the culture, but one thing I didn’t anticipate was how easily I’d make a host of new friends and how crucial they’d become to my journey.
Each night, our tour group would gather over a meal to discuss the plans for the next day and also share with one another what we had learned along the way. It was in these shared moments that I felt even more connected to my trip and was able to see the same experience through other perspectives.
But the guided tour also offered me the opportunity to break away from the group whenever I chose to do so to take a quiet moment to myself. Be that over morning tea (or coca leaves in Peru), an evening stroll, stepping away in Machu Picchu to soak it all in, or simply choosing to not take part in a guided activity, those little moments were just as essential to the enjoyment of my travels as the guided days.
And, on this particular trip, I was able to choose which adventure I wanted to go on each day: a guided hike or a guided cultural exchange, which meant I could still personalize my travels.
In the end it’s important to remember it’s your money, your time, and your own personal journey, so do what’s right for you to ensure it’s the fulfilling experience you were hoping for.
Once you choose a destination, do a bit of searching to see if there’s a guided tour that fits your goals (like eating your way through Italy or biking through Napa Valley), your budget, and your time.
If you decide a guided tour is the right fit for you, check out our 2017 list of best tour providers here.