Guided tours let you sit back and enjoy yourself while someone else does the driving and an expert guides you around the top sights
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 vacation package or travel à la carte under your own steam and ambition.
The escorted tour
Some people love escorted tours. They free you from figuring out complicated train schedules 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.
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 the "Links" section 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 London 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 Madame Tussaud's or joining the entire group to cram into one touristy pub, and instead spend the day hiking in Hampstead Heath, shopping on Oxford Street, finding your own pub, or whatever catches your fancy. You can spend the whole day inside the British Museum instead of being hustled through in two hours.
Of course, when things go wrong, you're the one that has to fix them. 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, 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 wine 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, in the Links section below are some of the tour companies that run the best-regarded escorted tours in Britain:
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.
If you do choose an escorted tour, think strongly about purchasing travel insurance, especially if the tour operator asks to you pay up front.
Important: Do not buy travel 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. Also, one of the things travel insurance protects you against is the bankrucptcy of the company providing the travel (and if they're bankrupt, they can't very well pay your insurance claim).