To tour group,
or not to tour group
This web site mainly
provides information for independent travelers, but the section below
may be helpful if
you are still trying to decide whether to travel to Costa Rica on your
own or with a group. If you know you want to take a tour, you might be
interested in our recommendations for tour companies.
of group tours
- Organization and
efficiency: If you decide to travel with a tour group you will almost
certainly find that you pack a lot into your days. If you want to see
and do the most possible things in the least possible time, then an
organized tour may be your best bet. Just remember when you are scanning
that impressive list of activities on the tour brochure that you will
be locked into a pretty tight schedule.
- Knowledgeable guides:
Assuming that you make the effort (and shell out the cash) to choose
a high quality tour, you will have round the clock access to someone
who knows a great deal about the local environment, customs and infrastructure.
Guides and tours will almost never take you anywhere that people don't
routinely go on their own, however a guide will spot wildlife and describe
ecological phenomenon that most novices would simply pass by.
- The SEP principle:
The Somebody Else's Problem principle is a great
one to have working for you when you are traveling. If for example,
the hotel you are supposed to stay in on Friday, washes into the ocean
on Thursday, if you are on a tour, it's somebody else's problem. A high
quality tour operator will pay big bucks for someone to get to the location
ahead of your group, stay up all night making last minute reservations
at an even nicer hotel, rearranging transportation and meals and making
sure that the travelers never even know there was a glitch.
- Cost: The cost
of an organized tour can be either an advantage or disadvantage. Rental
cars are very expensive in Costa Rica (4WD is recommended by almost
everyone and costs upwards of US$100 a day), guides are not cheap (US$30
-130 a day), and you might have to rent a boat or charter a plane to
get some places on your own (US$60 - US$500 depending on the destination).
So, if you are traveling alone or as a couple, it might end up being
cheaper to join a group and spread the cost. However, if you are willing
to ride local buses, fly on scheduled domestic flights, walk, ride a
horse, ride a bike, or if you are traveling with four or more people,
then a tour will almost certainly be much more expensive. My wife and
I spent US$4,500, including airfare, for the two of us to travel three
months in Costa Rica. Most eight to ten day tours cost that
much if not more for two people.
of group tours
- Organization and
efficiency: Calling organization and efficiency a disadvantage may sound
like a mistake until you consider the limitations listed below that
these features place on travel
- You better make
darn sure your plane arrives on time, because most tour operators in
Costa Rica are ground only. If the tour leaves without you, most operators
will try to get you caught up with the group as soon as possible, but
none of them will give you any refunds for missed activities. We met
a very nice couple who paid for a very expensive scuba diving trip that
they couldn't take because they were bumped from an overbooked flight.
You could also end up paying for activities that you miss due to illness.
If you decide to take a tour it is a good idea to consider travel insurance.
- Changing plans
is not an option: You find out that there is an arriba (thousands
of turtles gathering at sea to come ashore at the next full moon and
lay their eggs) massing near Nosara beach, and they will be nesting
on Monday... sorry the tour is white water rafting on Monday and not
headed to the beach until Wednesday.
- Efficiency can
seem hectic: It is likely that you will see and do more on a tour than
by traveling independently, but it is also likely that you will wish
you could just sit on the beach instead of getting back in that damn
bus to go see the orchid garden at some point. It might be possible
to opt out of some days of a tour, but it might not. Often tours go
all day and you end up in a different location each night. You might
get to sit on the bus if you want to...
- Cost: The cost
of a tour in Costa Rica can be either an advantage or disadvantage.
If you are willing to ride local buses, fly on scheduled domestic flights,
walk, ride a horse, ride a bike, or if you are traveling with four or
more people, then a tour will almost certainly be much more expensive.
My wife and I spent US$4,600, including airfare, for the two of us to
travel three months in Costa Rica. Most eight to ten day
tours cost that much if not more for two people. However, if you are
traveling alone or as a couple you should realize there are some expenses
that could be reduced by joining a tour. Rental cars are very expensive
in Costa Rica (4WD is recommended by almost everyone and costs upwards
of US$100 a day), guides are not cheap (US$30 -130 a day), and you might
have to rent a boat or charter a plane to get some places on your own
(US$60 - US$500 depending on the destination).
of independent travel
- Cost: Although
it may not be the most important advantage of independent travel I have
listed it first because it is a big reason that many people decide against
a tour group. In general independent travel in Costa Rica is much cheaper
than traveling with a tour group. There are exceptions however (see
advantages of tour groups)
- Flexibility: This
may be the most important advantage of traveling in Costa Rica on your
own. Although it is advisable to have an outline of your travels before
you leave home, it is also advisable to be willing to change those plans
once you reach Costa Rica. Some of your most memorable experiences are
likely to come from spontaneous changes of plans. Flexibility also means
that if you miss out on part of your trip due to unavoidable delays
or illness, at least you don't have to pay for the privilege.
I have included adventure as an advantage, although some people might
disagree (if you disagree, perhaps you should consider a tour to Costa
Rica. One of the main jobs of tour companies is to smooth everything
over and eliminate the possibility of unexpected adventures). I reserve
the term adventure to refer to travel experiences forced by circumstances.
This is not the same as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting or any of
the other "adventure tourism" standard fare. If the tour operator
can get liability insurance, then the term adventure is being applied
pretty loosely. Independent travelers experience adventures that you'll
never find at Disneyland. Adventure here might be getting talked into
helping round up cattle, falling short of your destination while hiking
and spending the night in the jungle or ending up in a hotel so roach
infested that you wish you were in the forest, spending a day on a local
fishing boat instead of a charter or missing a turn and ending up on
a beach that is truly deserted. Adventures aren't always pleasant, but
they are inevitable and usually exciting and worthwhile parts of traveling
on your own in Costa Rica.
- The people: Many
organized tours have stops at indigenous people's villages but that
is sort of like trying to experience the culture of the United States
by visiting the football hall of fame in Canton, Ohio. If you want to
meet people you have to eliminate the insulation provided by a tour
company and risk adventure on your own in Costa Rica (see above).
of independent travel
- If you have traveled
independently, you know the negatives and know that they are trivial
compared to the rewards. If you have never traveled outside an organized
tour, or never traveled at all then I can't give you any excuse not
to head out on your own. It is something that everyone should try at