While travelling solo offers plenty of flexibility and options to explore various areas of the country, travelling with a family or a larger group can become a logistical nightmare. If you have not done your research well and organized your travel plans in advance then cancellation and changes to plans can have additional overheads and can ruin your travel experience.
Travelling with your family or friends allows you to relax and spend some quality time with your loved ones. While being great for recreation, it also lets you explore and learn about new places and cultures. Thus travelling is also an exciting form of education in itself.
On the other hand, if you are adventurous and a thrill-seeker, travelling alone to unknown destinations is a great way to explore yourself and your inner abilities. Quality time spent with yourself is both enlightening and soothing. Many people like to travel on their own to push their limits and have a thrilling experience.
SHOULD I BOOK THROUGH A TRAVEL OPERATOR?
On the road, in northern Pakistan, you are up against a number of elements including road conditions, weather, isolation of location and lack of suitable accommodation due to public holidays or warm weather. Taking all these factors into account, a travel operator can take all the hassle of bookings of your shoulders and organize quality accommodation and transport at relatively cheap rates. Peak tourist season between May and September brings over 10000 travellers from across the world. With better road conditions and security conditions, a large number of foreigners are arriving to visit the beautiful locations in the country.
Travel operators have networked with local operators, guides, drivers and hotels. Therefore, as a part of the tour package travellers gets very competitive rates. Walk-in rates are usually 20-30% higher and jeep hires or trekking helpers can add to your travel cost. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt in years of travelling in northern Pakistan.
SAFETY ISSUES ON THE ROAD WHEN TRAVELLING IN PAKISTAN
Travelling alone to a place for the first time is quite risky. Finding the right routes can be confusing for someone who has never been on a particular road before. You can even get lost easily on the way to your destination and spoil your entire experience before it even begins. Moreover, your car can also break down in the middle of nowhere thus leaving you and your family completely helpless. The list goes on as there are several road issues that you may have to encounter. This is why solo travellers are always advised to use road maps and GPS navigation to make sure they reach their destination safely and timely.
There are no on-road breakdown services available in the evenings or after hours. Therefore, if your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere you can possibly be stranded till help can be organized the subsequent day. With temperatures dropping to below zero at night times, this can cause a lot of inconveniences.
On the other hand, a tour company takes up the responsibility of taking you to your desired destination safely and soundly. Travelling with a tour company means that you don’t have to worry about any of the road issues and simply hand your worries over to your hired tour agency. These companies take the shortest and safest routes while also having strategies to tackle any unfortunate circumstances. However, if you do plan on travelling alone then you must carry a first aid kit and other essentials with you for emergencies.
OVER-PAYING FOR ACCOMMODATION AND SIMILAR SERVICES
Tour operators companies get corporate rates from most hotels and resorts and as a part of a travel package, the rates you pay per room or per person will be a lot lesser than the rate you book online or rates available for walk-in guests. Based on your budget and preference various 3 to 5-star accommodations can be packaged as a part of the deal. Therefore, the most challenging aspect of finding suitable accommodation is taking it off your shoulders. Overbooking is quite common with plenty of walk-in guests you can possibly come across scenarios where rooms are not available on arrival. While 4 and 5 stars hotels ensure that booking is held until a certain time, smaller hotels can cancel the bookings with little warning.
With all these factors in mind, you should prefer to book through agents to ensure maximum fun and entertainment out of your visit to the remote areas. Hotels work hand in hand with a number of local tour operators and jeep hire companies. Once you arrive on-premises based on your plans you can book these services at very nominal rates.
Furthermore, they would also get you the best deals for food, water, car bookings etc. However, you are more likely to overpay for such deals and overspend on accommodation too if you travel solo. Merchants at tourist attractions tend to trap inexperienced travellers into paying more for their services. Thus as a lone traveller, make sure you explore all available options and make comparisons before buying a service or product.
BENEFITS OF TRAVELLING WITH TRAVEL OPERATORS IN NORTHERN PAKISTAN
While bigger cities in Pakistan are quite modern and international tourists can travel on their own. Northern Pakistan can be a bit of a challenge as there is a vast cultural difference across the country and a number of different languages are spoken in the country. Therefore, a little familiarity with cultural nuances and experience with local traditions can land you in unwanted situations. Here are a number of benefits to take into account while organizing your trip through a tour operator in Northern Pakistan.
EDUCATED GUIDES WITH MULTI-LINGUAL SKILLS
Tour companies make sure that you’re accompanied by a skilled guide who knows about all the worthwhile experiences to be had at a certain place. These include fun activities, historic sites, exotic foods and any particular experience that the site is famous for. Travel guides are usually natives of your tour destination who are well-educated about the local culture and of their homeland in general. They also share fun facts with you along the way to add excitement to your tour. With a number of trekkers, hikers and explorers coming from across the world, local guides can speak Japanese, Chinese and a number of European languages.
TRAVEL DOCUMENTS, VISAS AND PERMITS
Foreigners are required to register with local police and obtain NOC documents for travelling in remote areas. Local tour operators can expedite the process and save you from undue hassle in acquiring these documents. There are restrictions on climbing mountains above a certain altitude and visiting national parks. Local travel companies can make sure your documents are in place when travelling overseas. These procedures can sometimes take a few days and can add to your cost as well as affect your tour plans.
VISIT REMOTE AND RESTRICTED LOCATIONS
An educated native tour guide knows your travel destination in the back of his hand. Most tour operators also know about lesser-known remote places that need to be visited for a fulfilling experience to your destination. Visiting such remote places is an especially exciting experience as they provide a unique experience and first-hand experience with the isolated culture of remote tribes and villages.
Some of the areas are deemed sensitive for security reasons and have an army presence. Special permits are required to visit these locations. Because of their isolation and lack of accessibility, these areas offer amazing views and travel experiences. Travel agents can organize permits and guides for these locations. Other locations have the presence of local tribes with different religious beliefs and lifestyles. Local guides can educate you on these cultural sensitivities and help you interact with local people and understand their lifestyles and culture.
HASSLE-FREE AND SAFE TRAVEL IN PAKISTAN
Local area knowledge is essential to getting the most out of your trip to northern areas. Most travellers tend to stick to the main road and well-known destinations that get crowded during peak season. To travel off-the-beaten-path you will need the help of local guides or experience travel operators. A large number of places are not advertised online and not much information is available in travel guides. The three mountain chains cover a couple of thousand square km with a number of well not peaks still unexplored by mountaineers and hikers. In such an environment, safe access to location and local knowledge of the area is essential for the safety of the group.
A tour company knows shortcuts and the locations of nearby hospitals, vehicle mechanics and lay-by areas in case of emergencies. Moreover, they warn you about unsafe or threatening routes coming in your way. A travel company thus makes sure that you have a hassle-free journey to your destination and has backup plans to tackle unfortunate situations as well. A number of travellers experience health issues because of the change of atmosphere or overexertion due to climbing etc require immediate medical assistance. Most travel operators have a plan to handle such a situation and have access to medical facilities in the region.
Safety is a big issue when travelling in remote areas. Areas away from cities have little cellular coverage and isolation can have security issues as well. Having a local guide who understands the local language and culture is a must when trekking in remote areas. There is a possibility of wildlife encounters as some areas in northern regions have a presence of wolves, bears and mountain lions.
Solo travellers, however, will come across a number of hurdles when organizing for permits etc. Travelling with larger groups will cut down the travel cost substantially as hiring a local guide or transport for one person can have additional overheads. With a limited number of youth hostels and backpacking facilities, finding like-minded travellers to pool into these travel adventures can be a challenge as well.
ALL EXPENSES PAID
General experience of travelling solo across the world, I have observed that expenses always overshoot for a number of things overlooked or not taken into account while planning for the trip. Most operators will provide costing for all major expenses on the road including transport, food, accommodation and tours. Therefore, travelling with tours helps cut down the cost substantially and saves valuable time that can be spent on travelling rather than planning.
Booking for taxis, and eating at a restaurant to organizing a local day tour can easily add up to a couple of thousand rupees. If you are travelling for the first time or travelling with family looking for suitable restaurants and tour guides can be a very time-consuming activity. Therefore, travelling with a large group or travel operators is definitely a way to save $$$.
AN OVERALL COST-EFFECTIVE AND ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE
Your one-time payment to tour companies buys you comfort, peace of mind and the promise of a very enjoyable travel experience. Tour operators take care of all your needs while you have a good, relaxing time on your tour. The fees paid to a tour company are mostly used to cover your own basic expenses.
Only a portion of it is the company’s own commission which is not actually a high price to pay for a thoroughly enjoyable, educative and guaranteed safe tour. Travel companies are best for you if you want to sit back and relax with your family, while your hired company plans your entire tour for you.
There are a number of tour operators available online offering packages tours to almost all the locations in Northern Pakistan. Some operators provide unique hunting as well as mountaineering experience for international tourists. It is advisable to do a bit of research and read reviews about the operators before paying online. Some companies have overseas offices and representatives who can provide you will complete details for organizing your tour.
It is still, however, your own choice if you want to travel with a tour company or on your own. Solo travellers like the thrill of going backpacking or hitchhiking on their own, without someone else making bookings for them beforehand. Although solo travellers have to take care of everything on their own, it is still an exciting experience for them to challenge their mental and physical abilities. Therefore, you must put into consideration all the above-mentioned factors to decide whether you want to travel alone or with a travel company.