If you’re planning your next big vacation, one key decision would be: whether to plan your own itinerary or choose a package offered by a tour operator. Many travellers, especially millennials, prefer to plan on their own. Sushant Satish, 27, a Delhi-based marketing professional, who designed his own itinerary for the trip he and his partner Manasa Priya Vasudevan, 27, took to Istanbul, Capadocia and Greece, said it didn’t just turn out to be considerably cheaper but also gave them the flexibility to move around as they liked. “Working in a service-based industry myself, I don’t see a clear value-add in what tour agencies have to offer," he said.

Still, a lot of people, especially first-time travellers to an international destination, prefer to go with tour operators for convenience as it helps them offload the paperwork and research to the operator. Here are the pros and cons of planning your trip on your own or taking the help of a tour operator. For all you know, striking a balance between the two may work for you.

The cost factor

Travel is an expensive affair, so looking at cost is important.

Nandita Ghoshal takes operators’ help to make the bookings and do the paperwork, but plans the details herself.
Nandita Ghoshal takes operators’ help to make the bookings and do the paperwork, but plans the details herself.

Since tour operators provide a service, they charge a fee which gets added to the cost of the package. However, according to Karan Anand, head, relationships, Cox & Kings, this is counterbalanced by the discounts they can get you. “A tour operator is in the business of ensuring that everyone has a good holiday. The tour operator has preferred rates with hotels, attractions and other service providers such as ground transportation. Due to their sheer volume of business to a particular destination, they enjoy preferential rates with hotels and attractions. These are then passed on to the customer. This may not be available online," he said.

Booking for larger groups also brings down the overall cost, said Rajeev Kale, president and country head, Holiday, MICE, Visa, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd, a travel services company.

However, Satish disagrees. When he planned his itinerary, he realized that operators were charging close to 1.2 lakh for a 10-day trip to just one of the destinations on his itinerary. He was able to cover three places within a similar budget. “People need to understand that travel agencies and tour operators have major overheads to cover and work with their own partners in terms of accommodation and local travel. This cost is passed on to the customer, which reflects in the tour packages," said Satish.

Another factor is that choosing an operator limits your options. “A tour operator may have discounts with specific hotels and not the entire inventory at the destination. While booking online, chances are that you would see the offers that are not available with a tour operator," said Anand.

Keeping it flexible

Satish likes his freedom when he travels. “You have complete control over how you want your trip to go, what you want to see, how long you want to stay, and how much you want to spend."

Like Satish, many Indian travellers like to plan their own trips. “Building your own travel itinerary is always advisable. While it does require more effort and research, taking a do-it-yourself approach can save you a substantial amount of money. If you are planning a trip by yourself, for example, you can book your tickets months in advance. This can be crucial, especially in case of flight reservations as ticket prices continue to increase by the day," said Aurvind Lama, co-founder and chief executive officer, Travelyaari, an online bus ticketing platform.

With the emergence of a multitude of travel portals, booking your tickets and accommodation has become a breeze. While you still need to do your research and planning, it isn’t necessary to enlist the help of a tour operator for the process of booking and paying, as it once was.

“Tour operators don’t offer any flexibility. Your trip is planned for you, right down to the last detail, including flight timings. But this works for people who have certain constraints, like wanting to travel in a larger group for the sake of safety. Usually such tours cater to the dietary requirement of travellers, like providing vegetarian or Indian food. I refer to people who opt for tour packages as check-list tourists, who want to tick off as many things as they can within the time that they have," said Balu Ramachandran, vice-president, air and distribution, Cleartrip.com, a travel portal.

Choosing convenience

Aside from safety concerns and sticking to dietary preferences, some opt for curated tours because they are not keen to take on the many responsibilities and substantial amount of paperwork that comes with planning a trip from scratch. “Packaged tours are seeing growing preference from families, ad-hoc groups, women travellers and senior citizens, as they prefer planned and hassle-free itineraries," said Kale.

Going with an operator also works well for those who are not willing to or capable of doing extensive research about their destination and filling out all their paperwork on their own. This is especially true for those who are going to a foreign destination for the first time. “Booking through a tour operator is definitely a more convenient way of arranging a vacation or tour as they have long-standing relationships with partners, which assures the best location and cost. The same saves the consumer the effort and time of contacting and arranging each service individually," said Anand.

“Tour operators have years of experience and the expertise with destinations. Planning travel becomes a seamless activity with an expert who is there to guide you at every step from applying for a Visa to keeping you safe during your trip," said Daniel D’Souza, president and country head, leisure, SOTC Travel, a travel services company.

Middle ground

Nandita Ghoshal, a 35-year-old PR professional based in Delhi, has found a happy middle between planning her own trip and choosing a package. The solo traveller decided to enlist the help of tour operators to do part of the planning and paperwork for her trip to Europe, but planned the minutiae herself. “I didn’t want to follow the timetable of a tour operator. I’m not a traditional tourist and I’m not too interested in spending a lot of time at museums and tourist attractions, I would rather relax and explore the city," she said.

On why she sought help from a travel agent, she said, “I read and watched content by travel bloggers and did extensive research for my trip to Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels, but since it was my first trip to Europe, I wasn’t totally confident about making all the bookings myself. So I sought the help of a travel agent to book my internal connections on Eurorail." Ghoshal also downloaded the CouchSurfing app, which helped her connect with locals, especially Indians who have settled in the cities she is travelling to, and get an insider’s perspective on where to go and what to try out.

Doing your own research can have various benefits. “When you research on your own, there might be destinations, events or shows you may not have known existed. However, a good tour expert is well aware and can suggest offbeat activities and places to explore," said D’Souza.

When it comes to travel, what works for one might spell disaster for another. Weigh your options, budget and preferences before deciding whether you want to take the plunge and plan your own itinerary or choose a package offered by a tour operator, since both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

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