Middle Earth by Jackie Vick on In The Know TravelerThe New Zealand trip was a gift to my husband — a tour of everything Lord of the Rings. I had visions of a furry-footed Star Trek convention. I expected at least to enjoy the scenery.

On the plane ride over, two women told us they would be traveling the North and South Islands on their own, and that got me thinking. Was it cheaper to travel with an organized group, or could we have saved money making our own private tour? And if it cost more for the tour, was it worth it?

Once I compared the average price of hotels, meals, and connecting flights, we paid approximately $1,500 USD more for the tour. What exactly did we get for our money?

The average tourist would not have received an invitation to the weaving demonstration, the calligraphy demonstration, the film studio tour, or the private sheep farm. These were all tie-ins with the LOTR movies, yet each stop stood on its own as a fascinating source of information. (You don’t have to like Elves to enjoy weaving.)

Every hotel we stayed in was clean and convenient; many were luxurious. Without having ever traveled to New Zealand, would we have found such lodgings on our own? One night, we stayed at the MacKenzie Country Inn in Twizel. “Twizel” inexpertly interpreted means, “The middle of nowhere.” The sky was a blanket of stars, and the silence was the most peaceful I’ve experienced since camping in Canada. Seen on a map, I would have dismissed it as inconvenient.

The Middle of Nowhere by Jackie Vick on In The Know TravelerI excluded the tour guide and driver from my price comparison, but their expertise was invaluable. Although it looked easy to wind around the New Zealand countryside, we avoided the triple-threat: map reading, conversions (How many kilometers are there in a mile?), and driving on the “wrong” side of the road. After the bus driver told us of how he helped to pull a Japanese tourist from the side of a mountain after the beautiful scenery distracted the independent driver, motoring on our own lost some of its appeal.

The guide and driver eliminated the stress of scheduling, and their insider knowledge saved us from wasting time. On our own, would we have found the authentic Mitai Maori Village? These native New Zealanders put on a delightful show and shared an authentically prepared meal. Instead, we might have opted for one of the touristy Maori shows put on at various hotels. Would we ever have found the Flying Fox? This adventure spot, located on the edge of a canyon, provides the opportunity to fling headfirst down a ravine supported by a souped-up clothesline. My husband still proudly wears his souvenir t-shirt that declares he is a danger stud.

The downside for someone not bonkers about the tour subject matter is that the rest of the tour members are there to pay homage to something they hold dear. We paused at each familiar location for reenactments of movie scenes. When we stayed at the Powderhorn Chateau in Ohakune where the movie cast lodged during filming, I had to step aside while other tour members ogled my room and fantasized about Orlando Bloom. Still, these groupies were enthusiastic and friendly, and their joy was contagious.

Another downside of a tour is the pace–run, run, run. Our stops were scheduled and limited, so I sometimes felt rushed.

We decided that we would visit New Zealand again sans the tour, but for our first trip in an unfamiliar country, the benefits of an experienced guide and driver made the trip one we will savor.

MacKenzie Country Inn

Mitai Maori Village

Written and photography by Jackie Vick

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