In 2018, I planned an independent trip to Thailand with two friends for the first time. It was my second backpacking trip and we chose to plan the whole things ourselves and travel fairly spontaneously.
After now working in the travel industry for the last two years I have had many clients debating the pros and cons between solo or group travel and I thought it could be great to compile my experiences of both and share my thoughts.
Although we loved travelling spontaneously and stumbling upon little gems ourselves, there are many things that we didn't get to experience due to travelling independently. I hope this read gives a little more insight to the reality of each option. If you would like to read more on our trip in detail you can find this here!
I decided to go to Thailand with my friends for a two-week trip coupled with Vietnam. Although we did seek the help of a travel agent to help us plan a portion of our trip in Vietnam, we explored the rest of the time solo, much of the time booking last minute accommodation and experiences. I wanted to do it this way as I was keen to try travelling independently and was convinced it would be cheaper than with a tour.
We started off our trip in Bangkok and took a local train down to Hua Hin and then a bus to the coast. From here we jumped on a ferry to Koh Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and finally, Koh Samui.
In Bangkok we stayed at a hostel I had pre-booked online and it turned out to be in a good location, despite me not knowing a whole lot about the geography of Bangkok! We stayed in the backpack area near to Khoa San Road and were in good company for street markets and nightlife. We walked or took tuk tuks to get around and mainly didn't struggle too much to see the main sights of the city. We never ventured into the CBD of Bangkok though and missed out on a sky bar opportunity here. Maybe with prior knowledge we could have found a way to get over to this part of the city!
From Bangkok, the train to Hua Hin was easy to book and find. We chose to ride 2nd class and it was very hot. We had a fan in the cabin and the windows open, but I remember the train stood still for quite some time in one station and with no breeze, the heat was pretty unbearable. At Hua Hin we walked to our next hostel as the town was small. The hostel was very local, but we found it comfortable, although odd as we didn't really meet anyone else here. We went to Hua Hin to go to an Elephant Sanctuary which we thoroughly enjoyed and booked beforehand after lots of research.
We next took an air-conditioned bus to the coast to hop on a ferry to the islands. Although originally, we planned to stay the night at the harbour, we decided last minute to just jump on the ferry as we still had lots of time in the day and would prefer more time on the island. We met some more travellers on the ferry who were also looking for accommodation for that night on Koh Tao and all bundled together into the back of a truck to begin our mission. After lots of walking and asking many hostels, we found a hotel which had room for us all and got our own private triple room. This hotel was a great starting point although the room did not have air con making for a warm night! The next day we transferred to the hostel we had booked beforehand which was overall more comfortable.
From here, our plan worked well! The ferries between the islands are easy to book and get on and we took these to Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui. In Koh Pha Ngan we went to experience the Full Moon Party and should have booked accommodation far in advance. As we did not, we ended up staying on the north end of the island, around a 20-minute drive to the party. We didn't mind though and although our little area call Haad Salad didn't have a lot to do, we loved our bungalow by the sea and our oasis from the craziness of Haad Rin. We found a taxi company that would take us to the Full Moon Party and back for £20 or so and they were diligently waiting for us at 5 am to drive us back.
In Koh Samui we treated ourselves to a hotel and were a short walk away from the main town and the beach. We got around this island with taxis and with the help of our hosts who drove us to the market for dinner.
It was easy to travel around and experience Thailand, but we did not take full advantage of local guides to learn more. I wish I had explored more of Bangkok and hidden gems and that maybe some of accommodation had been better researched. Although I did love the spontaneity of travelling solo, it can be stressful at times and take away from the ultimate experience of being in a different country.
Below are some of my top sites that I use when travelling solo:
Group Travel is a great way to explore a destination, especially if you are travelling solo or a little nervous. Even as an experienced traveller I also enjoy the ease of travelling with a tour and find that I get a lot more local experiences thrown in.
We originally chose not to do a tour for two main reasons. I thought it would be more expensive than solo travel and I didn't want to drink excessively. My assumption of group tours was that we would be placed with a large group of 18-21yr olds and would be encouraged to drink too much and not experience the real vibe of the country.
Having now travelled with tours and sent many travellers on the road with them I do think I misunderstood the use of a tour and its benefits. Although party tours are popular and are great for the young traveller who wants to socialise, there are also many tours which appeal to those who seek more adventure and local interaction.
A tour can be expensive if you wish to have the best of the best. On the outside, a Contiki tour, for example, that allows its travellers to stay in boutique hotels and unique locations is often at a higher price tag. They also use more exclusive transport and the level of comfort is much higher than a solo traveller could likely experience. If you are happy to stay in hostels and ride the public transfer, abet with a local guide to help navigate these, then the price of a tour can be very low and cost effective.
I think one big advantage of a tour is that the hard work is done for you. Rather than fretting if you are staying in the right part of town or if your hostel will be comfortable, you can be confident that the accommodation handpicked by your tour op is going to be well located. I have personally stayed in some amazing locations such as a private beach in Halong Bay, Vietnam, a lodge in the mountains in Australia and a local casa in central Trinidad in Cuba due to a tour. It is unlikely I could have found these gems alone and, in all cases, they were very memorable experiences.
The local guide is also a great plus as they can help you understand and connect with the place you are visiting. In Vietnam we did several day trips which were made more memorable from our tour guide explaining the meanings of what we were seeing and translating any information. They also know the best places to eat and drink and can often get you good deals on activities too. In Cuba, our tour guide stayed with us the whole trip and answered every question we had. She took us to Salsa nights in the town and hidden restaurants owned by small families. When traveling we spoke to those who has travelled via tour for parts of Thailand and were jealous of some of the amazing side street eateries that had been able to find because of a tour guide.
Finally, the prospect of new friends is a great draw for solo travellers. When I visited Thailand, I had the luck of going with two friends, but for other parts of my travels I have gone solo. It is always a relief knowing that I don't have to worry if I'll have someone to eat with the next day as I know I'll be with a group and often you will meet a variety of interesting and eccentric people from all over the world.
The choice between solo or group travel can be a big decision and I would recommend trying out both to see which one you like more.
In Thailand, a good way to explore is to travel with a Group Tour first. This way you can meet some friends and take in some of the more untravelled parts in the safety of the group. After the tour ends, give yourself a few days or a week by yourself to travel to another destination to feel the difference. By this time, you would have grown accustomed to the culture of Thailand and know some basic words. Transport will be easier to navigate, and you may even know some people who can accompany you on your trip too!
Below I have linked a few tour groups which I think do Thailand well and their main selling points for different types of travellers: