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Who wins? Group tour vs independent travel review

One way to discover the value of something is to experience the lack of it. On my recent Back-Roads Enchanting Southern Italy tour, I experienced value. On my post-tour independent travels, lack. It was the travel equivalent of an extreme makeover show. Only in reverse, where the wow factor happened first, then ripped away, leaving me glum and dowdy.  

One way to discover the value of something is to experience the lack of it. On my recent Back-Roads Enchanting Southern Italy tour, I experienced value. On my post-tour independent travels, lack. It was the travel equivalent of an extreme makeover show. Only in reverse, where the wow factor happened first, then ripped away, leaving me glum and dowdy.  

I’m being dramatic, of course, I was never glum and nowhere in Italy is dowdy.

As a first-timer to Italy, I jumped at the chance to join Back-Roads on their 8-day Enchanting Southern Italy tour, adding a second week post-tour for solo travel to Venice and the Dolomites.  

Little did I know I’d be so spoilt by organised touring that independent travel would lose its sheen. I assumed I’d be backpacking forever, including reaching my lofty goal of being 99 on the Inca Trail! 

Over my 20-year travel industry career, I’ve written brochures, websites, guides, itineraries, and blogs. I spent four years living nomadically. I’ve proven I can book a trip by myself.  

What I hadn’t factored in, though, was life. And age. And how much faster every year seems to hurtle by. My Italian travels inadvertently became a contest between Back-Roads’ small group tour versus independent travel. 

So, who came out on top?  

Round 1: tour planning 

Cetara, Amalfi Coast
On Back-Roads Enchanting Southern Italy tour, every day is filled with surprises, like Cetara. ©Zoe Macfarlane

It turns out a thoughtfully curated tour managed by experts is a masterpiece. Forget Rembrandt and Bach; it’s Back-Roads. To confidently know your itinerary goes beyond the iconic landmarks is something to treasure.  

When someone else does the planning, you don’t even need to know the details of your itinerary before reaching your destination. The significant time I spent researching Venice (so much choice) and the Dolomites (so little information) prevented me from devouring the Back-Roads itinerary like normal.  

Every day, therefore, felt like opening a Christmas advent calendar (a fancy one); it was an unexpected perk of group travel. If you’re short on time, the only complicated part of tour planning is choosing which one to go on. 

Round one to Back-Roads. 

Round 2: on the ground 

Amalfi Town
The guide’s behind-the-scenes planning means guests have zero cares in the world! ©Zoe Macfarlane

The tour that appears to be going off without a hitch? It takes effort and skill to have you think that. Our guide, Nicho, was like a duck. Calm on the surface, swimming like crazy out of sight as he booked tickets, managed schedule changes, and confirmed local guides.  

As I navigated a small-town bus to Cortina d’Ampezzo, I never needed Nicho more. As gorgeous as this northern region of the Italian Alps is, travelling independently here is Dolomites are confusing. 

An ill-matching bus timetable, signs (and locals) saying the bus station was closed (not for our bus), no cell service, and only a month of Duolingo Italian in my brain resulted in a breakneck run to catch the bus. And I’m no runner. As I took my seat, I wasn’t sure if the steam rising from me was from sweat or stress. 

This would never have happened on Nicho’s watch. Never! 

Round two to Back-Roads. 

Round 3: accommodation 

Independent travel to Cortina d'Ampezzo
Epic bedroom view from Hotel Serena Cortina in the Dolomites. ©Zoe Macfarlane

There’s so much to consider with independent travel. Where to stay, what locations, car vs bus, finding authentic reviews, and making your AUD go further. It made my head explode. Plus, I was booking last minute, affecting availability and prices. 

I probably spent as much time researching a stay with my mum in Venice as the 48 hours we spent there. And even more time figuring out the Dolomites. 

And the problems along the way? Mine alone to deal with. I couldn’t WhatsApp Nicho that the cleaners were hours late to our Venice Airbnb. And had I been smart enough to get one of my industry friends to book my trip, I could have had help with the missing bed that meant sharing a bed with my snoring mother. 

Points for my Cortina d’Ampezzo accommodation, though. The dope mountain view from my single rooms (I love that Italy has them) was a total win. The time and effort researching, not so much.  

And with Back-Roads? Carefully selected accommodation (check it out) that offers insights into a more local way of life is priceless.  

Back-Roads win again! 

Round 4: independence 

Independent travel to the Dolomites
It took a lot of research to find places like Lago Pianoze in the Dolomites. ©Zoe Macfarlane

While I had fun in Venice and fell in love with the Dolomites, it came at a cost. Was it the only way to enjoy my independence in Italy? Well, no, it turns out.  

One of the brilliant aspects of touring the Back-Roads way is the time allocated on every itinerary for your own explorations. With free time and no early starts (unless you want one), independence is not traded for being on a small group tour. 

Free time means spontaneity is possible. Like my snap decision to kayak the Isle of Capri’s bright blue grottoes. Nicho became like my Italian Siri, helping make this last-minute decision a reality.  

It seems you can have your sfogliatella and eat it with Back-Roads.  

A point to both in this round. 

Round 5: trust 

Paestum, Italy
Margy Twigden (second from left) wandering Paestum’s quaint streets with friends. ©Donna Baldwin

Independent travel and trust had an unconscious uncoupling years ago. And it’s getting worse with AI. Soon, travellers will only be left with reputable tour businesses and travel agents (and Karryon) as their trusted advisors. 

Back-Roads back themselves, using their high Feefo score to gain trust. Add rave reviews from Australian and New Zealand travel agents (whose clients make up most of Back-Roads’ passengers), and it’s clear why they have so many repeat clientele.  

Margy Twigden, a TravelManagers agent from Glendowie, Auckland, was on my Enchanting Southern Italy tour. She wasn’t on a famil; she’d chosen two back-to-back tours as an international get-together with her friends. 

Margy explained why she rates Back-Roads so highly, “When you travel independently, you’re responsible for every detail of the planning. I find no joy in navigating stations, transport, timetables, finding good restaurants, and then eating alone. It’s all hard work, especially when you don’t speak the language. And my solo clients rave about how welcoming and inclusive Back-Roads guests are.” 

Despite hours of research, the intel gathered on the Dolomites rarely matched reality. Distances and information were stretched, timetables wrong, and local intel short. There was little to trust. 

It’s a no-brainer who’s winning this one.  

The tally: Back-Roads 5; independent trips 1 

Back-Roads offers hassle-free travel, saving time, energy, and mental power vs independent travel. ©Zoe Macfarlane

Full marks to Back-Roads who know their hotels, tour companies, guides, and drivers are going to deliver. Every. Single. Time. It turns out being taken care of means your whole trip is enjoyable, from booking to that farewell meal.  

Can I please have Back-Roads organise all my travel from now on?