You can travel independently but still make good use of a tour operator. For instance, many tour operators will put together a pre-organized itinerary for you; just follow their thorough instructions and maps rather than a guide, and not have to worry about where you'll sleep at night or where you'll be each day. Tour operators can also put together self-guided vacation packages and holiday packages for you. All you need to do is ask, tell them where you want to go and how you like to travel, and they'll do the rest.
Independent travel comes with plenty of upsides and downsides, and it's worth factoring both in when making your decision to travel independently.
Freedom - One of the main reasons people choose to travel independently is to have the freedom to put together their perfect travel plan. Independent travel puts you firmly in the drivers seat. When you wake up each morning, you get to decide where to go and what to do that day (though be warned, it also means you're in charge of making it happen).
Tour companies that help you plan a custom or self guided travel itinerary take into account your interests and especially your travel pace. If you don't quite know what you're looking for, they can craft a very flexible itinerary allowing you to make up your mind once on the ground. This combination of independence with a bit of guidance from travel experts is the perfect combination for travelers looking to get their feet wet in traveling independently, but don't want to go in cold.
If this is more along the lines of what you're looking for, a Custom Tour could be for you.
Price - Traveling independently generally works out cheaper than traveling as part of a tour. You don't have to factor in the cost of a guide, or tour company fees. However, be aware that certain things may actually work out more expensive, for example, in places where you need to rent a car and driver, it makes financial sense to join up with a group to split the costs.
Many Independent travel planners function just like a tour company, and will plan meals and accomodations as well. The only difference being you don't travel as part of a group or with a guide. Their itineraries are generally tailored to one person, a couple, or families, but often hit similar routes or attractions that a group tour might. With the additional flexibiltiy to cater more closely to you as an individual and allow time to veer away from the planned activities.
On the flip side, some provide the bare bones of an itinerary. This is great for those seeking adventure and spontinaity. Because you won't be part of a group, keep an emergency stash handy, as there may be times when you can't find accommodation or transport within your budget.
If you're trying to keep costs down when traveling, check out our tips for budget travel.
Adventure - Setting off with nothing but a map and a backpack to travel independently can be one of life's most adventurous experiences. Even struggling to figure out a new country can feel like a victory when you finally succeed in making your way from one place to another. While independent travel does create some obstacles, try to see these obstacles as a fun challenge, and remember to look on the positive side.
Immersion - When traveling independently, you'll become immersed in the community you visit. Without a guide to rely on all the time, you'll likely have to learn some of the local language to get by in day to day interactions. Also, when trying to find your way around, you'll likely be relying on help from strangers, which can lead to all kinds of wonderful encounters.
Planning - Some people love planning, but, for those who don't, organizing a trip can be a nightmare. Even if you're planning to just hop on a plane and see where the wind takes you, there are still flights to book, travel insurance to sort out, and accommodation to arrange (for the first few nights, at least).
It's also a good idea to read up about your destination in advance, particularly when it comes to places to visit, sights to see, and things to do. If this doesn't sound like your thing, have a look at a guided tour to see if that's a better option for your trip. Alternatively there are several tour companies that can help you craft an indepentent itinerary.
Logistics - When traveling independently, the planning doesn't stop once you've arrived at your destination. Throughout your trip, you must deal with the logistics of finding your way around, sorting out necessities, and bargaining or hunting for the best price. And all while possibly dealing with a language barrier and an infrastructure far different from what you're used to. To some, dealing with logistics is all part of the adventure, but for others, it's a hassle that takes away from their experience of travel (and wastes a lot of their valuable holiday time).
Loneliness - If you're traveling solo, then joining a tour can be a great way to meet other people. If you decide to travel independently, your trip can be a great experience in many ways, but it can also be lonely. To meet other travelers when on an independent trip, try finding hostels with a lively sociable bar, meeting other travelers through travel forums, or going on a few short group trips. To meet locals, try taking part in fun lessons, or arranging some home stays.
Safety - Even if you prefer traveling independently, it can sometimes be unfeasible or even impossible to do so in certain places. Research your destination to find out whether traveling independently is possible and practical. Here's a list of some places where having a tour guide is essential.