First Time In Southeast Asia? Group Tour VS Solo Travel For Beginners

Unsure about what is the best way to travel for your first time in Southeast Asia? Find out the main differences between doing a group tour vs solo travel to figure out which is best for you, this ultimate guide has you covered!

Southeast Asia is a great place to explore, whether you are a beginner traveler or this is your first time, it will be a memorable experience. Though, deciding if you want to travel Southeast Asia on a group tour or solo is an important and big decision to make.

Group tours allow you to easily make friends and the majority of planning is done for you before you have even jumped onto a plane. Though, solo travel gives you a lot more freedom to do exactly what you want, when you want. Each option has its benefits as well as limitations which we will discuss so you can decide whether group tour or solo travel is best for first timers in Southeast Asia.

I am someone who has extensively traveled around Southeast Asia. My first visit was as a solo traveler in 2017 and then more recently returning to do a similar route on a group tour with Stray Asia. I have experienced both the difficult and the best parts this corner of the world has to offer.

First Time In South East Asia: Group Tour or Solo Travel?

sunsets in thailand on beaches as a solo traveler
walking through the countryside of battambang cambodia with stray asia

Planning and Organizing Your Holiday: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

No matter whether you decide to travel Southeast Asia by a group tour or solo travel you will have some amount of planning to do. There is no easy way of getting around this one and for some people (like me) planning is one of the best parts!

On A Group Tour

For those people who don’t like planning or simply just don’t have the time for it, perhaps a group tour would be the best option for you. On a group tour, your itinerary will be pre-planned so you can make sure you are checking out the best destinations a country has to offer. The only things you will need to worry about typically are return flights, visas and travel insurance.

I traveled with Stray Asia on my group tour in Southeast Asia. They offer both freestyle tours (includes transportation, guide, accommodation and activities) as well as freestyle passes (includes transportation, guide and some activities). I did the Mekong freestyle pass and barely needed to plan anything extra throughout our travels. Before beginning the tour we booked our flights to Thailand, organized travel insurance and checked the entry requirements for arriving in Thailand. Once we figured how to get from the airport to our accommodation on Khao San Road it was easy traveling with Stray by our sides.

wat phou in pakse on a group tour in southeast asia

As A Solo Traveler

I cannot even begin to tell you how much pre-planning I did for my solo Southeast Asia trip. It may have been a little over the top, but I did say I like planning. Apart from the typical flights, travel insurance and visas, there was so much more to organize! Bus tickets, best areas to stay in, how long to stay there, what to do, the list goes on. I spent months working on my itinerary, going into very precise detail. I had 6 months of my life pre-planned on a Word document.

Obviously, you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t plan as in-depth as I did. It is fairly easy to get around Southeast Asia by yourself and unlike many other parts of the world, if you make a mistake with planning it is not going to cost much to book a different option. This is perfect for those extroverted people, not afraid to go with the flow into the unknown (this obviously is not me). Nonetheless, you need to make sure you know the entry requirements into the country (do you need a visa?), a flight booked and travel insurance in case something goes wrong.

swing in koh lanta national park thailand

Transportation And Getting Around: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

Southeast Asia is large and you will, without a doubt need to take some sort of transportation to get around. Though, whether this means getting around a town, traveling between one city from another or even having to cross borders into a whole new country is dependent on the itinerary.

On A Group Tour

One major standout bonus for me with group tours is all preorganized transport. I had nothing but positive experiences with the transportation I took on the Mekong Pass with Stray Asia. The whole trip consisted of tuk-tuks, minivans, buses, trains, many boats and even a bamboo train. The drivers were always professional, following the laws and not speeding, something which is often a rarity in Southeast Asia.

We never had any problems with canceled journeys or faulty vehicles, always arriving at our destination with minimal hassles. Lastly, a major bonus is that Stray Asia provides transport right to the door of the recommended accommodation This is often right in the middle of the city, meaning after a long day of traveling, we did not have to go far to a comfortable bed.

Also with Stray Asia we had many awesome rest stops during our travel days. From temples, local wildlife, cave visits and viewpoints, we were able to experience what most would only see as a blur through their window.

traveling with stray asia on the bus in laos

As A Solo Traveler

Personally, for me, transportation is one of the worst parts of solo travel around Southeast Asia. If something is going to go wrong it likely will have to do with your transportation to another city. Nonetheless, the majority seems to work itself out after a lot of stress. Cockroach infestations, scamming taxi drivers, buses not showing up or broken air conditioning on the minivan (with no opening windows), this is just some of what I have experienced. It could be considered an initiation into the backpacker life, though it is in no way enjoyable.

One of the biggest hassles of transportation in Southeast Asia for a solo traveler is the end of your journey. Unfortunately, 90% of the time you will be dropped off at a bus station/pier/random corner 5 kilometers outside of the main city center. Though don’t worry, there will be tuk-tuk drivers waiting to charge you triple for the small drive and knowing you have no other option you will cave to their demands.

Luckily I have always made it to my final destination at the end of the day. Transportation can be booked through hostels/hotels while you are staying there, through local travel agencies or even online at 12.Go Asia.

tuktuk transport as solo travelers in laos

Knowledge And Safety: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

To stop your parents from tossing and turning during the night, it is important that you are fully prepared for the travels you have planned. Luckily, nowadays information is at the tips of our fingers with a quick Google search, just make sure you get a local SIM card to keep connected.

On A Group Tour

The major bonus for being on a group tour is that you will have a travel guide. They are able to speak the language, know how to keep you safe, will advise about scams to watch out for and are extremely knowledgeable about each destination you visit. This ultimately helps you generally have such a carefree and stress-free time as you can enjoy living in the moment.

Our guides on Stray Asia always gave us the option of buying a SIM card when we arrived in a new country which was extremely helpful. Language barriers in Southeast Asia do exist, especially if you are getting off the beaten track as we did on the Mekong Pass. Oftentimes at restaurants, none of the staff would speak English so our travel guide quickly became a waiter. They also provided knowledge that we wouldn’t have otherwise had about a country, sharing with us their personal experiences and stories.

learning about vientiane with tour guide stray asia

As A Solo Traveler

As a solo traveler on the road, you quickly learn to use common sense. Though, this may be a result of getting yourself into a bad situation. I won’t go into details, but yes I have been there and luckily was only scammed $100.00. Though it could have been a lot worse. As an introverted person, I might come off as quiet. Though since that incident I have shouted at my fair share of people trying to scam me. Something that before traveling I would have never done. Traveling solo allowed be to develop a backbone, be a confident woman and trust my instincts.

Make sure you research a destination before arriving, ask at your hostel whether it is safe at night and learn your surrounds in the daytime before venturing around during dark. The one thing I always do before I travel somewhere is Googling “scams in X” this way I know what to watch out for and how to stay safe. Picking up a few words in the local language will also help you throughout the travels and break down the common backpacker stereotypes.

looking over koh phi phi in thailand from viewpoint group tour vs solo travel

Freedom To Explore: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

Why travel to a place if you are not going to have time to explore it? There are so many incredible places in Southeast Asia you could spend a year here and still not see it all. Though, no matter how long you are traveling for, you will want to get the best out of each destination you visit.

On A Group Tour

Freedom to explore can sometimes be a bit limited when you are on a group tour in Southeast Asia. Though, this definitely depends on the tour itself. You will want to have to look at different options to see where exactly you want to go, which cities you want to visit, do you want more beaches or nature and what countries are ‘must do’. Also, some people might not be too worried about freedom and instead would prefer a fixed itinerary as they only have limited time to explore.

On my recent tour with Stray Asia, in my opinion, there was a great mixture of freedom and scheduling. Using the Mekong Pass I was able to hop on and hop off the tour at any points along the route. The pass is also valid for a year, ideal for short term and long term travelers. The accommodation was at our discretion as well, in which I would stay at a mixture of the Stray preferred accommodation and my own choices. We hopped off 5 times over the trip in destinations where we wanted to explore the surrounding area or simply wanted to relax. For me, it was an ideal mixture of doing my own thing and a fixed itinerary. There is a wide variety of Stray Asia passes so finding one which will be suitable for you has never been easier.

Surprisingly on my recent trip with Stray Asia, in Laos, we actually got completely off the beaten track which would have been difficult getting to as a solo traveler. Kong Lor Cave was one of these places and it ended up being one of the best things I have ever done.

partying for songkran in kampot cambodia with stray asia

As A Solo Traveler

As a solo traveler in Southeast Asia, you have all the freedom in the world. If you want to travel to the Thai islands you can, or head north to Chiang Mai. That decision is totally up to you. Transportation can easily be booked last minute and unless it is a public holiday there are usually plenty of accommodation options to choose from.

Honestly, the only things that limits your freedom as a solo traveler in Southeast Asia is the maximum length of stay associated with entry into particular countries. On my first trip to South East Asia, I happily spent 5 months traveling around Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

watching sunrise in bagan solo travel vs group tour in southeast asia

Border Crossings: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

Border crossings are never fun and can often be a stressful situation. Do you have the right paperwork, money for visas, passport sized photos, the list goes on! There has also not been one border I have crossed in Southeast Asia where it does not take all day to get to my final destination, some even taking multiple days such as between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang.

On A Group Tour

One of my favorite things about traveling on a group tour in Southeast Asia is the ease which comes with border crossings. Traveling between two countries is never easy, though being apart of a group tour makes everything easier. With a knowledgeable guide nearby, you will know how to correctly fill out the entry/departure cards, the process and how much exactly to pay to avoid getting scammed.

With Stray Asia, we did two individual border crossings, from Thailand to Laos and from Laos to Cambodia. Our guide Pow had crossed these borders many times and knew the correct procedures. This led to an overall simple and quick experience. He also made sure we paid the correct visa fee to the border officials. Lastly, if anyone in our group had lost their departure cards he was able to get replacements for a few dollars.

walking through small laos village in fog with stray asia

As A Solo Traveler

Border crossings as a solo traveler in Southeast Asia are never easy. Though, there are things you can do which will make the process less stressful. It is essential that you research the border in advance. Again, knowledge is power, and learning about the possible scams, the processes involved and other travelers experience will allow you to understand what to do and what to expect.

Personally, I have done 3 overland border crossings in Southeast Asia and numerous border crossings where I have arrived at the airport. The airport option is great for travelers in Southeast Asia that are not trying to stick to a budget as depending on your passport, you might be able to get a 30-day visa on arrival. The immigration process is much easier and more professional at airports compared to overland border crossings.

If you are on a budget while solo traveling Southeast Asia, then the overland border crossings might be the best option for you. My main recommendation is to book with a reputable bus company to cross the border with. A personal favorite of mine, which I have done numerous border crossings with, is a bus company called the Giant Ibis. Each bus will have a border attendant onboard which will assist with obtaining visas and answer any questions.

traffic in yangon myanmar

Making Friends: Group Tour VS Solo Travel

Having someone to share all the incredible moments with makes the experience so much better. That is why finding friends when traveling is important and it is amazing all the different types of people you can connect with while traveling. In the end, you will have friends located all around the world.

On A Group Tour

A group tour is a great way to make friends in Southeast Asia as these are people you will be hanging out with the majority of the day. Everyone is in a similar position and even though there may be a mixture of solo travelers, couples and friends, they are here to learn about a country and explore.

On my group tour with Stray Asia, I had a hop off style pass. This is ideal if you are not vibing with a particular group as you can just hop off, and then hop on the next bus which passes through. Stray honestly had such a wide variety of travelers we were always surprised with the diversity of groups. We even meet some great people and changed our plans so we didn’t end up hopping off and instead spending a little longer on the tour with them. The choice is completely up to you!

bamboo train in battambang with friends group tour vs solo travel beginner in southeast asia

As A Solo Traveler

As a solo traveler, it can be extremely easy to make friends in Southeast Asia as there will be many other people like you. It is a popular spot for many solo backpackers. Hostels are often your best bet for making friends and many these days offer private rooms as well as dorm rooms. If you are looking for a social hostel check out Hostel World reviews. They have a tab dedicated to ‘sociability’ of each accommodation and reviewer will often mention this aspect as well.

myanmar sunrise with temples first time in southeast asia

What Is The Best Decision For You?

As you can see there are a lot of different variables for you to consider when evaluating whether solo travel or a group tour is best for your first time in Southeast Asia. Though, honestly, if you are looking at something between the two options, from my personal experience, I can recommend Stray Asia’s freestyle passes.

The hop on hop off style tours allow you to be flexible, stay in your own accommodation and do your own thing, but with the content of knowing you have safe transportation and a knowledgeable guide to help get you between destinations. It had been years since I had done a group style tour. Though, after my recent experience with Stray Asia, I would certainly look into doing it again in future destinations I visit.

swing over water during storm at koh rong

Any Questions? Let me know in the comments!


Unsure about what is the best way to travel for your first time in Southeast Asia? Find out the main differences between doing a group tour vs solo travel to figure out which is best for you, this ultimate guide has you covered!

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. So, if you click on it and purchase something, I get a small percentage at no extra cost to you. As always all opinions are my own and your support is much appreciated.

Backpackers Wanderlust was a guest on the Mekong Pass with Stray Asia, however, as always, all opinions are my own.

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