...and on your left, Big Ben!
Guided tours and escorted tours
I hesitate even to talk about fully escorted tours because I believe they detract from the travel experience, insulate you from the culture and people, provide only a superficial view from the deepest rut of the beaten path, and feed you the lowest common denominator vacation.
However, I also realize they help some people feel far more comfortable with the idea of visiting a foreign country, especially for the first time. So, in the spirit of to each his own, here's what you need to know to pick the best bus tour out there.
Should I Travel Alone or Join a Tour?
Do you like to let your bus driver worry about traffic while you sit in comfort and listen to a tour guide explain everything you see? Or do you prefer to rent a car and follow your nose, even if you don't catch all the highlights? Do you like to have lots of events planned for each day, or would you rather improvise as you go along?
Or do you like it somewhere in between, with some of the travel details planned for you so you can devote your energies to planning your daily sightseeing? The answers to these questions will determine whether you should choose a guided tour or a package tour or travel à la carte under your own steam and ambition.
Even if you're on a fully escorted tour with a live guide, invest in a good guidebook. It will give you more background on and insight into your sightseeing beyond the pat infonuggets dispensed by the tour guide. Plus, it will serve as a trusted companion for the time you spend away from the group and will help you discover off-the-beaten-path sights, go shopping, or pick a restaurant.
The Escorted Tour (Or, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium")
Some people love escorted tours. They free you from figuring out complicated train schedules in a foreign language or spending lots of time behind the wheel; they take care of all the details of booking hotels, (often) choosing restaurants, and deciding where to go and how long to stay, and they walk you through—or bus you past—every attraction with an accompanying monologue on its history and importance.
You know your costs up front, and there aren't many surprises. Escorted tours take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle.
Other people need more freedom and spontaneity; they can't stand escorted tours. They prefer to discover a destination by themselves, and don't mind getting caught in a thunderstorm without an umbrella or finding that a recommended restaurant in the guidebook is no longer in business. For them, that's just the adventure of travel.
Escorted tours tend to ride comfortably and unimaginatively in the deepest ruts of the beaten path, eschewing anything novel and treating the bulk of Europe like so many living postcards to be ogled from the tinted windows of an air-conditioned bus. Big bus tours tend to write off even the most interesting sights if a big parking lot is not nearby.
If you do choose an escorted tour, think strongly about purchasing travel insurance, especially if the tour operator asks to you pay up front. But don't buy insurance from the tour operator! If the operator doesn't fulfill its obligation to provide you with the vacation you've paid for, there's no reason to think it will honor the insurance either. Get travel insurance through an independent agency. Reputable third party insurers such as Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com) are surveyed by the comparison site InsureMyTrip.com (www.insuremytrip.com).
Some Questions to Ask if You Want an Escorted Tour
Before you sign up for an escorted tour, you need to ask some questions.
- What is the cancellation policy? Do you have to put a deposit down? Can the company cancel the trip if they don't get enough people? How late can you cancel if you are unable to go? When do you pay? Do you get a refund if you cancel? How about if they cancel?
- How jam-packed is the schedule? Do they try to fit 25 hours' worth of activities into one day, or is there ample time for relaxing by the pool or shopping? If you don't enjoy getting up at 7am every day and not returning to your hotel until 6 or 7pm at night, certain whirlwind escorted tours may not be for you.
- How big is the group? The smaller the group, the more flexible the schedule, and the less time you'll spend waiting for people to get on and off the bus. Also, the larger the group, the more some quaint little village will treat you like an invading barbarian horde to be fended off by throwing large amounts of overpriced souvenirs in your general direction. Tour operators may be evasive about group size until they know how many people have signed on, but they should be able to give you a rough estimate. Some tours have a minimum group size and may cancel the tour if they come up short.
- What is included in the tour? Don't assume anything. You may have to pay to get yourself to and from the airport. A box lunch may be included in an excursion, but drinks might cost extra. Beer might be included but not wine. How much choice do you have? Can you opt out of certain activities, or are you committed for a full day? Are all your meals planned in advance? Can you choose your entree at dinner, or does everybody get the same chicken cutlet?
- How much is "optional?" Many tours look cheap but are larded with the phrases "optional excursion" and "optional tour." That's brochure-speak for "you have to pay more if you want to do this."
The case for being your own guide
I'll get around to listing tour operators in a moment, I promise, but first let me make a plea for traveling solo instead. The bulk of this site is designed to help you get a handle on going it alone and loving it. There are literally hundreds of pages here filled with all the hints, tips, and tools you'll need to plan your own European odyssey and explain how to cope with any difficulties (think of them as adventure) you'll encounter along the way.
Travelers who take their entire trip into their own hands have to spend more time planning and troubleshooting, but they almost invariably have the most fun. They see exactly what they want to see, choose hotels and restaurants that fit their own tastes and budget, dally when they feel like it, or speed up the itinerary if necessary. Best of all, they get an entirely unique experience and take on Europe.
You could be encased in a climate-controlled bus, trundling from city to city in the company of 50 other Americans and learning more than you ever wanted to know about the hometown of the person sitting next to you. Or you could be learning about Paris in a second-class train couchette as you share your picnic lunch with a motley group of local young soldiers, middle-aged nuns, and ancient farmers.
On your own, you have the freedom to say to blazes with the Medici Chapels or that flamenco show, and instead spend the day hiking in the countryside, shopping in boutiques, or whatever catches your fancy. You can spend the whole day inside the Louvre instead of being hustled through in two hours.
Of course, when things go wrong, you're the one that has to fix them, and often you must do so in a foreign language. But treat every dilemma as an adventure, and memories about any crisis can prove to be the highlight of your trip—a humorous tale with which to regale your jealous friends back home.
Traveling on your own forces you to get in touch with the countries you're visiting and learn more about the locals and their culture. You go from being part of a tour bus crowd to being a single guy or gal, a little lost and in need of help. Smile wide, say "thank you" a lot in the local tongue, and rely on the kindness of strangers.
It's the lone explorer and her family who are more likely to be invited into the cellar to sample a cup of the family's Chianti straight from the barrel or be let into the museum for a quick look around, even though it closes in half an hour.
OK, Lecture over. If you'd still feel more comfortable in the the hands of an experienced guide, here are some of the tour companies that run the best-regarded escorted tours in Europe.
Great escorted tour companies
Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) - The only major tour outfit I know of that makes a concerted effort to travel like real independent travelers—small groups (max of 12 people), staying in mom-and-pop accommodations and getting around by public transport (trains, local buses, bikes, feet) rather than a big tour bus. Aimed at a slightly more adventurous, slightly younger crowd than Rick Steves (below), and even closer to true, independent travel.
G Adventures (www.gadventures.com) - Similar to Intrepid, but based in Canada. G Adventures offers a variety of adventure trips, including many hiking, trekking, and multi-sport active vacations.
Friendly Planet Travel (www.friendlyplanet.com) - Popular low-cost tour company. Focuses not on offering 1,001 tours, but rather on a smaller roster of carefully crafted, best-of-the-best tours with a limited number of departures. Strong in exotic locales (Asia, Africa, South America, etc.), as well as Europe, and now also cruising.
Gate1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com) - One of the consistently cheapest tour providers around. They cover the entire world and offer a range of travel "products" from about a dozen escorted tours of Italy to several air-hotel packages. Also, they're based in Fort Washington, PA, a few miles from where I live (that's just a coincidence, but I think it's cool).
Djoser (www.djoserusa.com) - Perhaps since they're Dutch (and Europeans get longer vacations), Djoser offers longer trips and looser schedules, admirably not trying to pack too much into too short a time. You get to pick your group style: travel with other North Americans or with an international group (some conducted in English, others in Dutch and English).
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) - PBS superstar Rick Steves runs a highly successful tour company that really tries to highlight all the best of the independent travel style espoused in his books and TV show in a group format. I've bumped into several of his tour groups in Europe over the years, and the participants always gush about what a great time they're having. He also keeps his groups smaller than most (24 to 28 travelers versus the 40 to 60 many big companies cram onto the bus), and the smaller the group, the more authentic the experiences each member is going to have (to say nothing of more room on the bus).
Other good tour companies
SmarTours (www.smartours.net) - Solid tour company in the Firiendly Planet mold, with a smaller roster of carefully crafted tours at decent prices. Offerings in Asia (China, India, Nepal, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar/Burma), Latin America (Educador, Peru, Guatemala, Patagonia), Africa (South Africa, Kenya), Austrlain & New Zealand, Western Europe (Italy, Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Baltics), Israel.
Goway (www.goway.com) - Offers independent vacations and tours to pretty much the whole world (long specialists in Australia, Asia, and the South Pacific, they later added Africa and, as of 2010, Latin America).
Solar Tours (www.solartours.com) - Covers Latin America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean with both packages and escorted tours. Excellent selection of combo packages (combining multiple countries in one package, including transfers between cities).
Contiki (www.contiki.com) - Premier tour company for younger travelers (ages 18–35), with fun bus tours all over the world—Asia, Europe, the USA, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Grand Circle (www.gct.com) - Top tour company for the senior set, aimed squarely at the over-50 market (though skewing older than that—and no, I'm not implying that over 50s are seniors; I'm just trying to provide a sense of the typical tour participants). Usually the full soup-to-nuts tours, including nearly nearly all meals, sightseeing, etc., and paced reasonably—you see a lot, but not a a whirlwind clip. Prices are guaranteed (no surprise fuel surcharges or anything). Usually a handful (3–4) Italy tours, plus another handful of cruises that include Italy.
General Tours (www.generaltours.com) - Just what they sound like; general escorted tours (limited to a maximum of 16 people each) to just about everywhere.
Globus/Cosmos (www.globusandcosmos.com) - The kings of the escorted bus tour (generally, Cosmos is the cheaper option, Globus aims for "first-class" travel).
Liberty Travel (ww2.libertytravel.com) - One of the biggest old school travel agencies, with offices across the country. The kind of place where you still call up and arrange everything in person. May not be the cheapest, but impeccable quality and pretty much guaranteed to run smoothly.
- Sceptre Tours (www.sceptretours.com)- Ireland, Scotland, Italy.
- C.I.E. Tours (www.cietours.com) - Ireland.
- Brain Moore International Tours (www.bmit.com) - Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales.
- Celtic Tours (www.celtictours.com) - Ireland, Italy, Scotland, England, Wales, Europe.
- Brenden Vacations (www.brendanvacations.com) - Ireland, Scotland.
- Donna Franca Tours (www.donnafranca.com) - Italy.
- Tourcrafters (www.tourcrafters.com) - Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, other Mediterranean Europe.
- Petrabax (www.petrabax.com) - Spain and Portugal.
- Pacha Tours (www.pachatours.com) - Turkey (also Greece, Israel, Uzbekistan).
- Travel Time (www.traveltimeny.com) - Croatia.
- Homeric Tours (www.homerictours.com) - Greece (also Italy, Cyprus, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia)
- Iceland Air (www.icelandair.com) - Iceland.
- Sunny Land Tours (www.sunnylandtours.com) - Croatia, Cyprus, Russia, Turkey.
- Funjet Vacations/TNT Vacations (www.funjet.com) - Mainland USA, Hawaii, ski packages, Mexico.
- Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com) - Mainland USA, Hawaii, Mexico, Caribbean.
- GoGo Worldwide Vacations (www.gogoworldwidevacations.com) - Mainland USA, Hawaii, Mexico.
- Blue Sky Tours (www.blueskytours.com) - Hawaii.
- Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.com) - Mexico.
- Apple Vacations (www.applevacations.com) - Mexico, Hawaii, ski packages.
- Vacation Express (www.vacationexpress.com) - Mexico.
- Mexico Travel Net (www.mexicotravelnet.com) - Mexico.
- South American Fiesta (www.southamericanfiesta.com) - Mexico.
- Solar Tours (www.solartours.com) - Mexico, Hawaii.
- Maxxim Vacations (www.maxximvacations.com) - Eastern Canada
- Ski.com (www.ski.com) - Ski packages.
- Caradonna Dive Adventues (www.caradonna.com) - Scuba specialists in Mexico, Belize.
Latin America (South America & Central America)
- Tico Travel (www.ticotravel.com) - Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, South America, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Columbia.
- Marnella Tours (www.marnellatours.com) - Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela.
- Escapes Unlimited (www.escapesltd.com) - Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Panama.
- Capricorn Leisure Corp. (www.capricorn.net) - Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Hondoura, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Venezuela.
- Tara Tours (www.taratours.com) - Belize, Costa, Rica, El, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.
- Sunny Land Tours (www.sunnylandtours.com) - Argentina Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Russia, Suriname.
- Solar Tours (www.solartours.com) - Costa Rica, Belize, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico.
- South American Fiesta (www.southamericanfiesta.com) - Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Antarctica.
- Funjet Vacations/TNT Vacations (www.funjet.com) -Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize.
- Vacation Express (www.vacationexpress.com) - Costa Rica.
- Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com) - Mexico.
- Apple Vacations (www.applevacations.com) - Mexico, Costa Rica.
- Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.co/) - Mexico, Hawaii, Belize, Costa Rica.
- Travelspan (www.travelspan.com) - Guyana.
- Caradonna Dive Adventues (www.caradonna.com) - Scuba specialists in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras.
- CheapCaribbean.com (www.cheapcaribbean.com) - All over the Caribbean.
- Funjet Vacations/TNT Vacations (www.funjet.com) - All over the Carribean.
- Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com) - All over the Caribbean.
- Apple Vacations (www.applevacations.com) - All over the Caribbean, Bahamas.
- Southwest Vacations (www.southwestvacations.com) - Aruba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Bahamas.
- Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.co/) - All over the Caribbean, Bahamas.
- Vacation Express (www.vacationexpress.com) - All over the Caribbean, Bahamas.
- GoGo Worldwide Vacations (www.gogoworldwidevacations.com) - All over the Caribbean.
- Travelspan (www.travelspan.com) - Trindiad & Tobago, the Domincan Republic, Granada.
- Solar Tours (www.solartours.com) - All over the Caribbean.
- Caribbean Airlaines/Air Jamaica (www.caribbean-airlines.com) - All over the Caibbean
- Caradonna Dive Adventues (www.caradonna.com) - Scuba specialists; all over the Caribbean.
- Capricorn Leisure Corp. (www.capricorn.net) - Dominican Republic.
- Escapes Unlimited (www.escapesltd.com) - Bali, Bhutan, Borneo, Burma, Cambodia, China, Hong, Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet, Vietnam.
- Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com) - China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, Indonesia, India, Nepal
- Asialuxe Holidays (www.asialuxeholidays.com) - Bali, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Phillipines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.
- Wendy Wu Tours (www.wendywutours.com) - China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan.
- Ritz Tours (www.ritztours.com) - China, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Vietnam, India.
- Affordable Asia (www.affordableasia.com) - China, Thailand
- China Focus Travel (www.chinafocustravel.com) - China.
- China Silk Tours (www.chinasilktours.com) - China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand.
- Fiji Travel (www.fijitravel.com) - Cambodia, Indonesia/Bali, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, Vietnam.
- Travel2 (travel2-us.com/) - Bali, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam.
- Sunny Land Tours (www.sunnylandtours.com) - Israel, Jordan, UAE.
- Caradonna Dive Adventues (www.caradonna.com) - Scuba specialists in Phillipines.
- Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com) - Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands.
- Travel2 (travel2-us.com/) - Polynesia (Tahiti), Cook Islands, Fiji.
- Tahiti Legends (www.tahitilegends.com) - Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Maldives, UAE.
- Fiji Travel (www.fijitravel.com) - Fiji, Cook Islands, Australia, New Zealand.
- Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com) - French Polynesia (Tahiti).
- Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.com) - Hawaii.
- Blue Sky Tours (www.blueskytours.com) - Hawaii.
- Apple Vacations (www.applevacations.com) - Hawaii.
- Caradonna Dive Adventues (www.caradonna.com) - Scuba specialists in Fiji, Galapagos, Hawaii, Micronesia, Tahiti, Solomons, Tonga, Vanauatu.
Australia & New Zealand
- Travel2 (travel2-us.com) - Australia, New Zealand.
- Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com) - Australia, New Zealand.
- Tahiti Legends (www.tahitilegends.com) - Australia, New Zealand.
- Fiji Travel (www.fijitravel.com) - Australia, New Zealand.
Africa & safaris
- Lion World Tours (www.lionworldtravel.com) - All over Africa.
- 2Afrika (www.2afrika.com) - All over Africa.
- Goway (www.goway.com) - All over Africa.
- Sunny Land Tours (www.sunnylandtours.com) - Egypt, Morocco.
- Ritz Tours (www.ritztours.com) - South Africa, Kenya, Egypt.