Freedom to Choose (Because I Can)

How much freedom to choose or independence do you need when you travel? Freedom to choose where to go and when to go? And independence to not follow a trip leader or do what “everyone else does”.

For people traveling with an organized tour, freedom to choose is generally diminished since the trip leader will make and carry out most decisions.  You can just imagine the leader’s typical morning update: “Our plans for today include breakfast at our hotel, a guided walk around the historic district, buffet lunch in a local restaurant…” Having decisions made by someone else can be comforting and allow a traveler to sit back and relax. Or, a trip participant might feel like a puppet because he is basically controlled by the leader and must simply follow the leader by just going along for the ride.

Friends or family traveling together (but not with an official tour group) could also have diminished freedom because expectations and peer pressure to stay together for the day’s activities may dictate that everyone follow along with a group decision.

I once stayed and visited with friends in South Africa; we shared all our time until I was left on my own for a few days. I had an epiphany as I quickly realized that every decision I would make would have zero impact on anyone other than myself. I would not need to help co-ordinate meals or activities, I would not have to stick to a schedule. I could come and go as I pleased and if I changed my mind about my plans, it would not matter. It was not a case of “too much togetherness”, and it was not the first time I’d traveled alone in a foreign country, but I felt the excitement of freedom of choice.

On my first day alone I caught up on reading, wrote stories, and sorted through thousands of digital photographs. Uninterrupted and focused, I accomplished much. But time passed and I needed to explore. Thankfully I had my own Chevy Spark rental car ( and I had driven around town enough to be comfortable with a safe route. Yes, I was nervous for safety and security reasons (, but nonetheless, I wanted to explore. I was free to make my own decisions and had the opportunity, ability and courage to do so. So when a friend called to check-in and make sure my solo days were treating me well, he asked what my plans were for the day. “I’m going in to town,” I happily replied, “because I can.”

Another time I was traveling on a group tour in Tibet. (At that time, China required group travel in Tibet and would not issue individual tourist visas.) While our adventures and group leaders were wonderful, I really wanted time alone to explore. Group constraints limited me to half a day, so I raced out of the hotel after breakfast and walked into town, into Lhasa. I wandered for hours and had time to see and appreciate typical daily life scenes that I could have easily overlooked if I had relied on someone else to lead me.

Taking advantage of my freedom, I befriended a woman sewing colorful prayer flags in her corrugated metal work room.  I peered down an alley and snapped a photo of a woman spinning her prayer wheels as she entered her smoke-filled courtyard; I spied armed Chinese military guards pacing up on rooftops. I had grabbed what freedom I could and loved every minute of it, even when I lost my way. (Trying to decipher Chinese and Tibetan maps, even transcribed into English, is another story.)

Does it matter if we have the opportunity, ability and courage to chart our own course when we travel? It matters if we prefer to have freedom to choose and independence when we travel. Technically, someone on an organized group tour could say he has freedom to choose because he chooses to follow along and have decisions made for him. For some, that would be enough. For others, it would not. Traveling decisions are neither right nor wrong, they are just different. As an experienced traveler, I generally relish my freedom and independence. Personally, I appreciate the freedom to choose, because I can.

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