Despite my aversion to regimented socialising, I can appreciate the allure of a bus tour – whether you're just out of college dipping your toes into an OE or an empty nester without the foggiest idea how to tackle Europe, for many they just work. So, although last week I rallied readers to embrace Europe's efficient transport networks and modern technology by going it alone, I accept that for some, a jam-packed itinerary and an air-conditioned eight-wheeler are crucial to any continental sojourn.
Tauranga-based Rob Thompson recently wrote me explaining a common conundrum with package tours – the sheer range of choice. Rob and his wife are after a three week trip to France, Germany and Italy in April-May next year. They have seen the glossy pitches from big brands like Trafalgar and Cosmos, but wanted to compare these to some smaller rivals. The larger travel firms excel at the range of options and services available – Cosmos' Best of Europe 2018 option looks to cover all Rob's bases in 18 days, but I would also suggest looking into options from HelloWorld's Insight Vacations' Romantic European tour, or Flight Centre's Splendours of Italy and Southern France package through the Peregrine operator. Independent agents worth contacting are Maher Tours and Playaway Tours.
From the selections above, there are some notable extra stop-offs, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. My octogenarian grandma recently toured Spain and Portugal on a two week coach tour through HelloWorld and, although she had for years dreamed of seeing the Alhambra in Granada, it was the under-the-radar inclusions of Cordoba and Covadonga that really wowed her. So don't shy away from options just because you're not aware of every stopping point.
House of Travel's marketing director Ken Freer summed up the enduring appeal of coach travel (despite my gripes with them) as "really being simply the means to get from one great experience to another".
"They [large tour operators] also have a lot of buying power, so it tends to be a cheaper and more efficient way of travelling. You need to choose the right brand to get the right holiday and value that works best for you – consider what star rating you would like and whether you want to see numerous places or immerse yourself in one region," he suggests.
It's true that bus tours will likely lead to fewer arguments and time spent lost. Even better are the skip-the-line inclusions at attractions or an exclusive experiences such as a private dinner in the Vatican Museums. So if you really want to cram a lot into two weeks it can make sense. However, looking at some of the itineraries sometimes you're spending as little as half a day in major destinations that warrant at least a couple of days. Flight Centre's Sean Berenson suggested for those who want to linger, choosing a small group journeys which tend to go beyond the typical tourist attractions and provide opportunities for travellers to interact with the local people is a better way to go.
With an industry saturated in options it pays to take the time to shop around. Rob is right to look into avoiding cookie-cutter itineraries, but even big brands can offer surprisingly intrepid itineraries or give you more flexibility and free time such as Trafalgar's Costsaver option.. But when assessing options you won't always be comparing apples with apples (as rival companies seek ways to differentiate). Be sure to ask what is included in quoted itineraries: Flights? All meals, or just breakfast? All activities or just a walking tour? Are transfers taken care of? Will you have a couple of free days to go your own way or recover? The answers can be the difference between a great tour and a busload of complaints.
- Generally, the smaller the tour group or the higher the accommodation star rating, the higher the price. So to save money, opt for three star lodgings – you won't spend much time there.
- Destinations like Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Greece and Croatia are perfect for shoulder season tours (April, May, September, October)
- Tour packages may not include flights, which again will be cheaper outside of high season.
- Avoid flying out of the UK if you can to save on rather hefty air passenger duties and taxes.
- Pack eye masks, ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to catch up on sleep when aboard the bus – or just to block out the annoying tour members.
- Opt for a fully accredited tour operator and insist on a point of contact when you arrive.
Have you ever taken a bus tour through Europe?
Written by Josh Martin. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.