Bus Tour Self-Defense in Europe
All-Inclusive Tours Can Be Great Bargains
Tour companies pack eight and 40 passengers in a bus, shuttling them between sights from dawn til dusk. Its no wonder theyve earned the name pajama tours (if youre on the bus all day, why get dressed?). The large, impersonal hotels where you stay are often located on the periphery of the citys center (beware if the tour brochure says youll be sleeping in the Florence area you may be stuck between nowhere and Bologna). Most meals are included with tours, but they are usually unmemorable buffets that scarcely resemble local cuisine.
A grim picture? It doesnt have to be. By understanding the tour business, you can take advantage of a big bus tour without it taking advantage of you. Ill always be a staunch believer in independent travel, but I know that for many people with limited time and money, tours can be an efficient way to see Europe.
Without a tour, three restaurant meals a day and a big, modern hotel are very expensive. Large tour companies book thousands of rooms and meals year round and can, with their tremendous economic clout, get prices that no individual tourist can match. For instance, on a typical tour with one of Europes large, cheap tour companies, youll get fine rooms (with private baths), three hot meals a day, bus transportation, and the services of a European guide all for $100 a day. Considering that many of the hotel rooms alone cost $100, that all-inclusive tour price is great.
Many savvy travelers take escorted coach tours each year only for the hotels, meals, and transportation provided. Every day they do their own sightseeing, simply applying the skills of independent travel to the efficient, economical, trip-shell an organized coach tour provides. You can take a tour, and by arming yourself with a good guidebook and some common sense, you can, to a limited degree, still go on your own.
Keep your guide happy. Independent-type tourists tend to threaten guides. Its important to be independent without alienating them. Dont insist on individual attention when the guide is hounded by 47 others. Wait for the quiet moment to ask for advice. Your objective, which requires some artistry, is to keep the guide on your side without letting him or her keep you from setting out on your own.
Discriminate among options. While some sightseeing is included, each day one or two special excursions or evening activities, called options, are offered for an additional $30 to $100 apiece. Since budget tours are so competitive, the profit margin on their base price is very thin. The tour company assesses the work of a guide not by how much fun the trip was, but by how many options were sold. Guides sell these options aggressively, discouraging people from going off on their own and even withholding information.
Some options are great; others are not worth the time or money. In general, the half-day city sightseeing tours are a good value, and illuminated night tours of Rome and Paris can be marvelous. Id skip most other illuminated tours and nights on the town.
Maintain your independence. You are capable of doing plenty on your own. Bring resources from home. Tour guides hate guidebooks, but a guidebook is your key to travel freedom.
On the tour, get maps and tourist information from your (or another) hotel desk or a tourist information office. Tour hotels are often located outside the city, where they cost the tour company less and where they figure you are more likely to book the options just to get into town. Some tours promise to take you downtown if the hotel is outside the city limits. Ask the person behind the desk how to get downtown using public transportation.Taxis are always a possibility; with three or four people sharing, theyre affordable.
Do your own research. Know what you want to see. If you want to skip the diamond polishing place in Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum instead, your guide may warn you that youll get lost and the bus wont wait. Keep your travel spirit off its leash and the hotel address in your money belt.
If you shop, shop around. Many people make their European holiday one long shopping spree. This suits your guide and the local tourist industry just fine. Any tour guide in Europe knows that if shes got Americans on board, shes carting around a busload of stark-raving shoppers who will help line her pockets.
A guides base salary is normally low (about $70 a day), but an experienced guide makes $300 to $400 a day when the wage is supplemented by a percentage of the optional excursions, kickbacks from merchants the group patronizes, and the trip-end tips from the busload. So he, like every tour guide in Europe, knows where to park the bus in Luzern for Swiss clocks. The guide receives $40 and a bottle of champagne as soon as the bus parks, and 45 minutes later steps into the back room and gets 15 percent of whatever went into the till. Thats good business.
Despite this arrangement, dont automatically reject your guides shopping tips; just keep in mind that the prices you see often include a 15 percent kickback. Never swallow the line, This is a special price available only to your tour, but you must buy now. The sellers who prey on tour buses are smooth. They zero in on the gullible group member who falls for a good buy instead of saying goodbye.
Seek out locals who never deal with tourists. Most tour groups see only a thin sample of people, not real locals but hardened business people who know how to make money off tour groups. If you go through Italy in a flock of 48 Americans following your tour guides umbrella, these are the only Italians youll meet. Break away. One summer night in Regensburg, I skipped out. While my tour was still piling off the bus, I enjoyed a beer, overlooking the Danube and under shooting stars, with the great-great-great-grandson of the astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Shopping for Tours
When calling tour companies, here are questions to ask:
Nail down the price.
- What does the price actually include? (How many nights and days? How many meals? Admission to sights? All transportation, including air, and ferries or trains?)
- If the tour does not fill up, will the price increase? Are prices lower for off-season tours?
- Do singles pay a supplement? Do singles share rooms?
- Are optional excursions offered? Daily? Average cost?
- Is trip interruption/cancellation insurance included?
- Will the guide and driver expect to be tipped? How much?
- Are there any other hidden costs?
- Do customers receive any freebies for signing up?
- Is the guide also the driver?
- Does the guide give talks on the cities, history, and art? What are the guides qualifications (education, experience, fluency in languages)?
Run a reality check on your dream trip.
- How many tour members will be on the tour?
- What is the average age and singles-to-couples ratio?
- Are children allowed? What is the minimum age?
- How many seats on the bus? Is there a bathroom on the bus?
- Is smoking allowed?
- Is shopping a focus of the tour? Does the guide get kickbacks from merchants?
- Roughly how much free time is allotted at each sight (museum, city)?
- Are all the hotels located downtown or are they on the outskirts?
- Whats the average length of stay at hotels? One night? Two?
- Does each room have a private bathroom and air conditioning?
- What percentage of meals are eaten at the hotel?
Lets get personal.
- How many years have you been in business?
- Roughly how many tours do you run a year?
- What is your policy if you have to cancel a tour?
- What are your refund policies before and during the tour?
- The detailed itinerary.
- The names and numbers of satisfied customers.
- Ask if the tour company has tour evaluations available for the public to see.
RICK STEVES is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of over 50 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door.