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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Wong

I went on a package tour to Japan as a millennial traveller. Did I survive?

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

Whenever the word group tour comes to mind, one pictures older travelers, packed itineraries, overpriced packages and bad food.

I too, had that impression as I embarked on my group tour with SA Tours to Japan in July this year. As of August 2022, a group tour is still the only way to see a country.

So what was my experience like? I break down common (mis)perceptions of group tours and what embarking on one was like in reality.

Perception 1: Tours are more expensive than going on your own.

Reality: Not necessarily. They can be really value-for-money when you consider that all planning and coordination is done for you, from hotels to food, transport and attraction tickets.

While my tour to Hokkaido was more pricey at $5000, others who booked earlier managed to get their tours for $3,600 (inclusive of airfare) for a double room.

Ryokan-style hotel room

Another Ryokan-style room

The accommodation was fantastic as well. While they were all 3-star hotels, they were clean and a few of them were Ryokan-style with great onsen facilities.

Onsen facilities in a hotel

A buffet meal at one of our hotels

Many of our meals were buffet food as well and included a wide range of Japanese and Western food, which would be more costly if paying for on your own.

Before departure, my travel agent also clued me on the entire pre-departure process for Japan, filled in my immigration documents on my behalf, and choose the best aisle seats on the plane for me. So you are also paying for value-added service.

SA Tours’ service was great in general too. I texted enquires at 10pm and got a quick response. They were also extremely responsive whenever I had pre-trip queries via text.

Perception 2: Tours are for stuffy old people

Reality: Whilst group tours with travel agencies are generally targeted at an older age group, not everyone is old, and I thankfully didn't encounter any stuffy people.

My tour group at Hakodate

In fact, my group tour to Japan had a number of other solo female travellers in their 30s and 40s. There were also a number of daughters in their 20s travelling with their dads.

The older people on our tour were pretty energetic as well, following us out at night after dinner.

It’s no secret that tours attract an older age group, with numerous tours being conducted only in mandarin, including mine. However, if you understand basic mandarin, it’s still possible for young people to have a good time on tour, and a great option if you’re travelling with older parents.

My group at a chocolate theme park

Thankfully, I didn’t encounter any difficult or unfriendly people on tour as well. Everyone was punctual in coming back to the bus or meeting in the morning to leave the hotel.

Perception 3: Tours are restrictive

Reality: Being someone who loves free-and-easy travel and planning my own itinerary, this perception was one of the main reasons I was hesitant to take a tour.

While you do have to follow your guide around and can’t choose which attractions or restaurants to visit, there is freedom within the set itinerary.

Exploring a pachinko parlour in Sapporo

Roaming around the streets of Asahikawa

You do get time to roam around each attraction freely, as well as free-and-easy time at shopping stops. At night, we were also allowed to wander the streets on our own.

The city of Otaru

At cities like Otaru, we also had a few hours to stroll about and visit shops and museums on our own.

Enjoying ramen at Ichiran restaurant

The tour agency was also flexible in terms of our food selection. Our group was a little tired (and extremely full) from eating buffet meals everyday, so our guide and the tour agency allowed us to switch to eating ramen at the famous Ichiran restaurant.

Do note that such changes are at the discretion of your tour agency though.

Perception 4: Tours are jam packed and tiring

Reality: This is true to a certain extent. Tours do attempt to maximise time, so most mornings you’ll have a wake-up call at 6:30am, breakfast at 7:30 am and leave the hotel by 8:30am. You’ll also be visiting an average of 3 attractions a day.

While this does sound tiring, you get chauffeured everywhere, rather than having to schedule your vacation to catch trains and buses. You’ll also be spending quite a bit of time in the bus travelling from one destination to the next, so you can take the time to have a nap or relax.

We were also back to the hotel by 8, so we had at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Of course, if you decide to go out in the evening till late, you’ll be exhausted by day 2 or 3.

Perception 5: The food on tour is bad

Reality: When I did Europe group tours with my mum more than a decade ago, I didn’t find any of the food memorable. However, we had some amazing food on our Japan tour! I’m guessing the quality of the food is dependent on the country you visit.

On Japan tours, tour agencies will try to let you try as much local food as possible. We had several buffets serving free-flow Japanese cuisine such as sushi and sashimi.

A breakfast buffet on our first day

A Japanese BBQ with Hokkaido crab

We were also served two Japanese BBQs with meats like beef, chicken, pork and lamb in different cuts. The BBQ buffet on our second last day also had free-flow Hokkaido crab, as well as other types of seafood like scallops.

A traditional Japanese dinner

Ichiran Ramen

Other Japanese specialities we had including a hot-pot style meal, as well as ramen at the famed Ichiran Ramen.

So there you have it- my debunking of all the myths regarding group tours. Of course, how well your tour goes is also dependent on luck. I was lucky to have a great group and a fantastic guide.

Our guide in Japan

Even though I don’t speak Mandarin and couldn’t understand half of what my guide said, she really went above and beyond in her service.

She spoke passionately about Japan and was really knowledgeable in answering all our questions. When we came to attractions, she would recommend the best spots and angles to take photographs, and cheerfully helped us snap photos.. She would also go the extra mile after her work day, answering any texts when we had issues or questions regarding our accommodation.

In the evenings, she would show us around the towns or cities, before letting us walk around on our own. She even became our cook as well, helping us barbeque our food and declaw our crabs. Our amazing trip was largely because of her care and capabilities.

So would I go on a guided tour again?

Whilst I’m still more inclined to independent travel and planning my own itinerary, I would definitely consider another guided tour again, especially to places where transport is difficult and it’s harder to plan how to travel around.

My experience with SA Tours was a blast, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use their services again.

For those of you who have gone on a guided tours, what was your experience like? Do share in the comments below!

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