I recall from my many years of backpacking, specifically to beach areas, that there were a lot of "deals" on various tours to the nearby islands. This was particularly true in areas such as Lanta, the beaches of Krabi, and also nearby Koh Jum and even the lessor traveled areas around Trang. The same, to a lessor degree was found in Samui, as well as Phagn-ngan.
These tours are kinda to be missed for a lot of reasons, the main one being that the companies make more money the more people that they can pile onto a trip. I don't think there is anyone feels that putting as many people into a small craft is a good idea unless they are in the military and currently invading somewhere. Therefore, while i DO think that a lot of these tours are a good value, you could be having a much better experience if you just spent a little bit more money.
One of the places that sticks out in my mind the most is Krabi, because it is the most accessible and is usually far less crowded than nearby Phuket. The islands off the coast are the main attraction, such as the lovely Poda Island that is featured above. That looks pretty nice doesn't it? Well the problem if you go with an organized tour is that all the tour groups normally end up at the location at the same time so you are far more likely to encounter something that looks like this.
Or if you are really unlucky or there in the high season, you could end up with a wonderful view like this!
I sat down with a guesthouse owner that I bought the ticket from for this tour and asked him why there are so many people there and he was very candid with me. He said that all the tour companies have more or less the same time-table and therefore they are always going to turn up at the various islands at around the same time. Plus since the boatmen in question are only loosely affiliated with the various companies that they are working for, they don't actually normally care very much if the customers are satisfied, and will therefore just park wherever is most convenient rather than where would be nicest.
I recall that the ticket price for a full-day trip was around $20 and including pick-up and drop-off as well as lunch and snacks throughout the day. But then he told me a bit of advice that I will never forget and will always use any time I am traveling in Thailand or really anywhere else in the world:
This seems a bit crazy because one would assume that booking your own boat would be considerably more expensive than an organized tour. As it turns out, whenever we are talking about low technology craft such as the famous longtail boats of South East Asia, it actually isn't.
If you can manage to scare up 3 or 4 friends you can probably get the boat for a half or full day for around the same price that the people on the tours were paying, sometimes, even less. When I booked my own boat the last time i was there for myself and 4 friends, we ended up paying around $90 for a full day, which if you do the math that I had provided before we were actually spending LESS.
We also had total freedom and we had a guide that is extremely aware of when all the crowds are at certain places and knows how to avoid that. Also, he probably knows special places that the tour groups don't go and therefore you have the opportunity to have the whole place to yourself.
Of course this sort of excursion is not going to include pick-up and drop-off so you will have to make your own way to a meeting point. But let me tell you about the free pick-up and drop-off that organized tours provide: They take ages because the tour company is picking up dozens if not scores of other people in the same trip. There is a very good chance you are going to be sitting on that bus for a lot longer than you want to.
Organized tours are convenient, that is for sure. But in the various times that I have done both I have always had a much better time when I went private, and in certain countries this option is not necessarily more expensive. You'll probably have to do a bit of the ol' research yourself to make this happen but it will be very rewarding in the end whereas the internet is filled with people complaining about organized tours all over the world for exactly the reasons I stated above.
Private doesn't always mean expensive and that is something that I think a lot of us in the west have been trained to assume.