Sometimes taking a Group Tour is a really good option. I chose a group tour for our first trip to Europe because we hadn’t been there before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It gave me a sense of security knowing that someone would be guiding me through my first European travel experience and taking care of all the details. I also chose a tour for our last trip because we were visiting 7 countries in 14 days (a bit ambitious) and I wanted someone to handle the logistics….and there were a lot of them.
For us, it made sense to use a tour company for those trips and they were both wonderful. We were able to see and do a lot in a relatively short time. Here is some general information that might be helpful if you take a Group Tour. Although we will be doing an independent trip to Europe this year, I wouldn’t hesitate to take another Group Tour in the future.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Tours
I love that tours make it easy to navigate through one or even several countries on a trip. All the driving, parking, tolls, border crossings, transport reservations and tickets for attractions to events are handled.
I have also been fortunate to be able to stay in some amazing hotels that I probably would not have discovered on my own. That being said there were a few bad eggs in the bunch as well. You get a mix and have no control so you just have to make the best of it.
The travel time on the bus is great for recharging a bit before the next big exploration. But there are a lot of people on the bus with all types of personalities and you will be spending a considerable amount of time together. Patience, tolerance and courtesy are key components for getting along for the duration of your trip.
I don’t always love the quality of the stops on tours. Sometimes they are too long with no planned activities and you find yourself wandering aimlessly and checking your watch often to see if it is time to meet up yet. Other times they are too short in a place that has much to offer and you can’t possibly see or do any of those things due to time constraints. For me this is Verona and Milan. I have had a stop over in Verona Italy on both of my trips. Neither time had a walking tour or any kind of itinerary but you got 2 hours off the bus to do “whatever”. It’s a nice city, but I need a better plan for utilizing those 2 hours than just being dumped off for a short time. On the other hand, we have also been to Milan twice, and there is so much to do and see, but not enough time to do any of it really. That can be a bit frustrating. Before your trip, carefully review your itinerary looking for these type of stops. If you see one, look up that area and try to find a point of interest or two to explore.
For some of the days our dinner was included and we usually got a dinner at the restaurant of the hotel we were staying at or a at a decent local alternative. The really exciting dinners, however, were those you pay for as Optional Excursions. The Optional Experiences Dinners tend to be higher end meals with some sort of included entertainment and are usually a lot of fun. For example I really enjoyed a Dinner and Concert we attended in Vienna and would probably not have done it if I had planned the trip on my own. Some of these dinners can be a bit pricey though. Of course pricing and options depend on what tour company you travel with.
Optional Experience Dinner Price Examples (Trafalgar)
Moulin Rouge Cabaret Dinner includes dinner, wine and champagne and an extensive cabaret performance for $165 pp
Swiss Folklore Evening includes dinner, 2 drinks and an interactive local folklore show for $99 pp
Sorrento Italy Farmhouse Meal includes a tour of the lemon and olive groves, a cheese making demonstration, dinner and wine plus a show for $55 pp
12 tips for Survival on a Group Tour
- Look at the tour style before choosing one. They usually have different classifications for Leisurely if you prefer to stay longer in cities, enjoy later starts and have a more relaxed pace or Explorer trips which are for those of us who want to see and do it all.
- Plan ahead by reviewing some guides on the areas and attractions you will visit so you have a little bit of background and a better understanding of what you are seeing when you are there. It’s also helpful to have a translation guide, app or to learn a few key phrases if you will visit an area that speaks another language.
- Make friends with some of the other people on your trip. It can be fun sharing dinner tables and hanging out on excursions with your new acquaintances. We have made some awesome new friends on our tours.
- You don’t HAVE to do everything the group does. Carve out some time for just yourselves. You can make different plans as long as you meet up at the proper time and location. We were growing a bit tired of the tour grind while in Paris on day 12 of 14, so we opted to say no to the big dinner and show that they were promoting and instead found our own dinner and walked along the banks of the Seine at sunset. It was a lovely and much needed break from the group. I also managed to schedule a museum tour in Florence Italy that was not on our itinerary by asking the Tour Director if she could help us get tickets and fit it into our day.
- Do budget for some of the Optional Experiences even if you think that you wont want to do them all, you might change your mind at the last minute. Be prepared for some high pressure sales and you may have limited options if you chose not to purchase them. Make sure you make a plan for the times that you will be opting out. After all, you didn’t go all that way and spend a whole lot of money to sit in your room.
- Days can be pretty hardcore so be prepared for early mornings, long days and wear comfy shoes for lots of walking! Take a snack, water and money for the restroom on your outings. I love my Travelon Crossbody Bag because I can fit everything I need into it for a day of exploring and it has a lot of great security features that help prevent theft.
- Pay attention to details like meet up times and locations as well as information nuggets provided by your Tour Director. Sometimes they give a small talk just before arriving at a destination and may have some good tips for things so see, do or eat during your free time. You might want to have a small notebook with you to jot a few things down in so you don’t forget. Be considerate and don’t be one of those people who are always late and keep the whole group waiting. Neither your fellow travelers or your Tour Director will be too happy with you, that’s for sure.
- You will be packing and unpacking at each new destination and moving your luggage about quite frequently. Make sure that your bags are in good condition and that you pack as minimally as possible. It’s best to pack a selection of items that can mix and match easily and be dressed up and down with a few accessories. I like to use packing cubes that I can put directly into the drawers from my bag and then quickly stow them back into my luggage when we depart. It keeps things more organized and it is much easier than finding something that you have loose packed into a big bag. Remember that on road trip days your luggage will not be accessible to you because it is in the storage compartment of the bus, so keep any medications or important items you might need with you. Check with your Tour Director or Bus Driver first to make sure it is ok to leave non valuable items on the bus during your day trips. We kept a small tote bag on the bus with extra snacks, supplies, reading materials, guide books and even a small card game.
- Walking tours are awesome and the Guides are super informative. Carry some small bills or coins for tipping Tour Guides. It is customary to tip a Tour Guide between 1-2 euros per person. If you aren’t in Europe convert to an equivalent amount in whatever the local currency is.
- You will also need to have cash on hand in order to use many of the restrooms in Europe. Always try to go before you leave the hotel or if you are in a public place with free restrooms. Sometimes it can be hard to find restrooms and they may not all be what you expect if you are American. They often do not have toilet seats. You may also want to have a bit of tissue in your bag….just in case there isn’t any.
- I recommend planning ahead for obtaining any foreign currency that you will want to take with you. Check exchange rates regularly until you get a feel for what to expect and then work through your bank or financial institution to order in the amount of currency you desire for your trip. Calculate your needs thoughtfully because you don’t want to have too much left over or not have enough once you get there and have to pay a higher exchange rate. It’s also a good idea to see which of your credit cards has the No Foreign Transaction Fees benefit because that is the card you will want to take with you. We like to pay most things in cash and mostly use the credit card when passing through countries that don’t use the Euro or to pay for Tour Expenses.
- Be a little spontaneous during your free time. If the gelato looks good, stop and get some. Pass a shop or a museum that looks cool, check it out. That was how we ended up visiting the Albertina museum in Vienna. If you spot something cool on your walking tour, remember how to get back to it during your free time after the tour. Personally, I always stop for a Spritz!
- My last Tour Guide called the folks that were always lagging behind with their big bags of camera gear, always with a lens in their face snapping photos “The Paparazzi”. We all want to take some great photos to remember our trip and share with our friends back home. But be in the Moment. Don’t get so carried away lining up “The Perfect Shot” of everything that you see that you don’t really take it in and enjoy it.
If you are thinking about a Group Tour, I hope the insights and tips I have provided help you be more prepared and better enjoy your trip. Much like Cruises, Group Tours aren’t for everyone, but they can be a great option especially if your travel time is limited. They are also a safe option for solo travelers and are great for older travelers or people with kids. Tours come in many different styles, price ranges and lengths so there is bound to be one that fits your needs. Give one a try!
Dream, Plan, Save, Adventure!