Guided self-drive tours: what are they and who are they best suited for?

What is a guided self-drive tour?

A guided self-drive tour is similar to a self-guided tour, except you cover a larger area and there is usually a lot of driving between locations.

Unlike a guided tour and an escorted tour, on a guided self-drive tour, there is no guide in the traditional sense of the word.

Instead, tour experts, familiar with the destination, plan your route, arrange your accommodation and create an itinerary for you, which they provide you along with maps, guidebook or handbook, and, in some cases, other navigational tools before you leave home or on arrival at your first destination.

On a self-drive tour, in addition to planning your route, arranging accommodation and creating your itinerary, a tour expert also arranges your vehicle rental and can arrange entrance tickets to parks, monuments and other sites, as well as activities and other excursions along the route.

What are some differences between self-guided tours, escorted tours and guided self-drive tours?

Self-guided tours usually involve a lot of hiking between locations, whereas on guided self-drive tours, there’s a lot of driving in between stops and less hiking.

Unlike an escorted tour that has a tour host, one or more local guides and tends to have a fixed itinerary and schedule, a guided self-drive tour itinerary is a guide only and can include a variety of optional activities and experiences between accommodations. These can be guided or non-guided depending on the location, the site’s regulations, type of activity and your preferences, and you can often stay for as long or as short as you like.

Since self-guided tours often involve a lot of hiking in remote areas, there are usually few accommodation options. They tend to be less glamorous and less comfortable than on a self-drive tour, and may include camping in tents, staying in cabins or sometimes communal dorms or hostels.

As with escorted tours, accommodations on a guided self-drive tour tend to be at larger centres along the route, such as cities, towns, small communities and even farm-steads. There are usually more accommodation options available than with self-guided tours. Accommodations can range quite considerably in comfort level, amenities and price, depending on the country, the region and your budget.

On a single tour, you could stay in several accommodation types: a luxury brand hotel, a small boutique hotel or inn, a rented cottage, villa or apartment, in a private home or bed and breakfast on a farm or a hostel. You may even go camping or glamping, if you’re driving in a more remote area during your tour.

Since self-guided tours tend to be on hiking trails, they are often seasonal, generally the dryer seasons, and may be weather permitting. With the exception of guided glacial tours, most guided-tours tend to be in warmer months.

In many countries, you can go on a guided self-drive tour any time of the year, no matter what the weather, except in regions where there is a lot of snow and ice during the winter, unless it is specifically a winter-related tour and the vehicle is appropriate for the driving conditions. However, if you want to spend some time outside, you would want to choose the dryer and/or warmer months, but might want to avoid summer when there will be more tourists visiting the same sites as you.

Guided self-drive tour road stop
Paved roads in Iceland with lots of curves

How long are guided self-drive tours?

Self-drive tours can range from a couple of days to several weeks. The length of your tour is entirely up to you, and will depend on your budget, available time, the geographical size of the destination, how far you want to travel each day and how much you want to see, do and experience while there.

For instance, if you’re taking a short city break an hour’s flight away, you’re on a stop-over in Iceland on your way to Europe, or you’re book-ending a cruise or beach vacation in Hawaii, the Azores or the Mediterranean, your itinerary may only be a few days.

Conversely, if you’re travelling half-way round the globe to Australia or New Zealand, you may wish to take advantage of the long flight, and tour several regions for an extended duration of 3-4 weeks, or even a couple of months to tour the entire country.

It’s really up to you and, of course it will depend on the time of year you travel, the availability of the accommodations at your destination and our  chosen route.

Driving in Paris, France
Driving in Paris, France

Why would you want to go on a guided self-drive tour?

As mentioned above, a guided self-drive tour is similar to a self-guided tour, in that there is not a guide with you on your tour, but travel experts plan and organize the route, accommodations and vehicle beforehand and provide you with a suggested itinerary, guides, maps and other items to guide you on your tour.

These experts are familiar with and very knowledgeable about the destination. You may have some knowledge of the area and may be quite familiar with some of the most popular sites and locations to visit. However, a tour expert will know all the best places to visit, including sites, activities and must-sees that you are less familiar with, as well as hidden gems, secluded beaches, new heritage sites and parks that have recently opened to the public, and other off-the-beaten track locations.

A tour expert will also have access to accommodations you may not be able to find online let alone book yourself. They may also be able to provide better rates to accommodations and get you VIP tickets or passes into popular tourist areas and sites that enable you to skip the line-up and, in some case, provide you with your own private tour guide.

These tour experts often have pre-designed itineraries for travellers who are not familiar with the destination they wish to travel to but want a taste of different areas in the region or to experience the most popular hot-spots. These tours can be booked as-is or with optional add-ons.

However, if you have some specific must-sees and experiences that are not included on any of the pre-designed tours for your destination, or if you’d like to book-end a tour with other travel options, your travel advisor can work with the tour expert to have your tour customized to your specific requirements and arrange other aspects for you.

Road Trip
Motorhome Driving in the mountains

Who are guided self-drive tours best suited for?

There are many reasons why someone might to choose to go on a guided self-drive tour on their vacation. Self-drive tours are best suited for people who:

  • would like to see and experience a wide geographical area of a country or region instead of staying at a beach resort,
  • are visiting a country or region where they can indulge in specific or various interests at several locations and sites,
  • want to immerse themselves in the country or region’s culture, heritage or nature and landscapes and have a more authentic experience at their destination,
  • want the knowledge and security of knowing they have accommodation pre-arranged for them along their travel route each night, but
  • do not have time or enough knowledge of the destination to plan their own travel arrangements, route and itinerary, and
  • do not want to be on an escorted group tour (for whatever reason).

Guided self-drive tours are also best suited for people who want a guided tour of a country or region, but prefer to have the flexibility to:

  • stay at a site longer without worrying about missing their tour bus or annoying other travellers who have to wait for them,
  • take a slight detour or deviate from the route to visit another site they heard about from a friend, family member or online,
  • stop to take photos of a beautiful view, stop for a picnic or visit a café or shop they see along the route, and
  • be able to stop along the route whenever they feel like it or choose not to stop at a specific site along the route for whatever reason.
Dirt road driving
4wd vehicle for driving on rough roads

What are the best countries/regions to go on guided self-drive tours?

Many countries and regions are great for guided self-drive tours, with good road networks and driving conditions, including North America, much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. But for safety reasons, there are several regions of the world and specific countries that it would be best to avoid (e.g. political unrest, high crime rates against tourists), particularly if you are female, travelling alone or even as a very small group.

Generally, reputable North American tour operators do not provide itineraries in countries or regions where it is, for the most part, not safe to drive as a North American traveller—whether alone or in a small group. This is one of the benefits of relying on a tour expert to create your itinerary—they are knowledgeable about the destination and guide you on the best and safest travel routes.

However, there may be sections along a chosen route that are hazardous at certain times of year or where road conditions require a 4WD. For instance, the interior highlands of Iceland are not paved and some coastal roads on the east of the island may flood during/after storms. These situations are no different to certain areas and regions of North America, and often only require common sense, driver caution and an appropriate vehicle.

If a tour expert knows you will be travelling on routes with these types of situations, they will arrange for you to have an appropriate vehicle, and provide travel safety guidelines, emergency numbers and other equipment. (Note: It is not a good idea to ignore the advice of your tour expert, travel safety guidelines or road signs indicating dangerous driving conditions, and you may invalidate your car rental insurance if you do so.)

If you are unsure whether a country is safe to drive in, your best bet is to check Canada’s travel advisories website for any known safety and security issues before making any plans. This goes for any type of travel in those countries, not just guided self-drive tours. The website provides current advisories for every country as well as specific regions and cities to avoid in those countries if necessary.

Safety aside, language barriers alone may be a deterrent for you not wanting to go on a guided self-drive tour of a particular country for fear of not recognizing road signs and signals or getting lost and not being able to ask for directions.

However in this case, it really depends on your comfort level, driving ability and whether you are willing to learn the driving rules and regulations of the country you are travelling to as well as a smattering of the language before you travel to help you get by.

If language is a deterrent, then the best countries for you to go on a guided self-drive tour would be English speaking countries and regions, such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, mainland US and Hawaii. If language is not a barrier, most of Europe, including Iceland, is a great region to go on a guided self-drive tour.

Nevertheless, many countries drive on the left side of the road including Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. In which case, driving on the opposite side of the road to what you’re used to may also be a deterrent. In this case, rather than avoid those countries all together, your best option would be to choose driving routes where there is less traffic especially at the beginning of your journey.

Often, the airport is located outside the city limits where it is less busy, so choose a route that takes you away from the city rather than into it. If, however, the airport is located in a big city (like London Heathrow) where the traffic is busy almost all day long, you could always have your travel advisor to arrange for a transfer (bus or rail) to a smaller community where you can pick-up your rental car and start your journey from there instead.

Come back next week, when we will see if a guided self-drive tour is right for you.

Semi Trailer in Australia
Stopping along the route in Australia

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