Organised tours of Europe and my concession that sometimes, some are OK

I have never been a tour kind of girl. In fact, I searched the whole archive of Not A Ballerina to find any mention of the (very few) short tours I’ve taken and the only one I found was an overnight tour to Mt Fuji when I was living in Osaka. (Ominously, that didn’t go too well – I walked down the wrong side of the mountain, didn’t meet the tour bus in time and missed the onsen visit.)

However. (Yes, there is always a “but”!) Quite often, readers ask me what my thoughts are about taking organised tours. Usually, these are readers who haven’t travelled much, if at all, generally haven’t been to a non-English-speaking country, and may not have someone to go travelling with.

So basically they feel that their options are to travel solo and independently, travel on an organised tour, or stay home. The solo travel version is scary at first, I totally get that. I don’t think I would have moved to Japan on my own. It wasn’t until I’d travelled for a few years (with a boyfriend or friends) that I reached the stage where I’d feel happy to travel basically anywhere on my own.

Organised tours of Europe

Staying home is totally not cool and that leaves travelling on some kind of organised tour. I think I’m right in saying that a lot of the time, it’s organised tours of Europe that the readers who ask me about this usually have in mind – certainly here in Australia, seeing Europe is a bit of a rite of passage in your late teens or twenties, plus Europe seems a relatively safe way to discover a foreign place when you’re just starting out.

The horror of a ten-countries-in-two-weeks trip

What I’m trying to say is there is definitely a time and a place for joining organised tours. Your first trip might be one of them. But what I think there is no time and no place for is those crazy whirlwind tours where you see each country for a couple of days and you’re lucky if you stay in a city more than one night. I’ve (obviously) never been on one, and I feel like I partly shouldn’t judge, but the other day another blogger commented on my blog, I went to check out what he wrote about, and found myself reading a very detailed account of life on one of these tours.

There’s nothing wrong with his blog post but for me, there is a lot wrong with those tours. His description makes it sound like most of the time is spent on the bus, and then most evenings are spent out drinking, and I really wonder: wouldn’t it be better just to stay home? I honestly can’t think of anything more frustrating than being shown all the famous sights but nothing else – I can’t imagine at that breakneck speed that you would really get a feel for each country at all. (One ad I saw for a similar tour even made a big point of mentioning how many countries you would visit – except that in the next line, when listing them, poor Belgium got only an “in transit” mention – you were just going to drive through it on the way to the Netherlands! Does that really count as visiting a country?!)

And yes, maybe I’m not 21 any more and I sound grumpy and cranky about this but I promise you, even when I was 21 I was not prepared to spend thousands of dollars just to get zoomed around to take pictures in front of all the monuments and nothing else.

Choosing a decent organised tour

In the past I have taken very short tours on the odd occasion. The overnight trip to Mount Fuji was one (because it was the cheapest way to get there, mainly!) and I’ve done day trips to places like the DMZ in Korea, or … hmm I actually struggle to think of any others! But there are times when even a longer tour will work out well and I appreciate that for new travellers who are a bit concerned about travelling independently, then starting out with an organised tour of Europe is a great way to get a taste for it and certainly way better than staying home.

The advice I normally give readers who ask about this is:

  • Choose a tour with the smallest number of participants you can afford.
  • Make sure the tour stays a reasonable length of time in each destination and gives you some free time to see the things you really want to see.
  • Find a tour that sees some of the big cities but also stops in some lesser known places.
  • Don’t try and see the whole of Europe at once! Pick a region you’re interested in and start with that. I know there is this philosophy of “see it all” and then choose the parts you want to go back to, but honestly, I think that’s a waste of time. It’s easy enough these days to read and learn about places before you go and not that hard to narrow down your current interest to just a handful of countries.

What have your tour experiences been?

Did you take organised tours when you were starting out travelling? Have you taken one recently, or are considering it? I’m keen to hear what everyone else has to say about organised tours because as you can see, I’m no expert at all!!

 

This post has been brought to you by Albatross Tours, who take Australians and New Zealanders to Europe. They follow pretty much all of my tips, which makes me like them! – their tours take in small regions at a time and they stay much longer in each destination than most organised tours. All the thoughts above, as always, are completely my own.

 

Comments

  1. I’ve done lots of organised tours in my time, from backpacking around Australia to the more luxurious end of the market. In many ways the backpacking tours were best because we visited so many places off the beaten track that most tourists would never have the opportunity to visit. The best “package” we ever did was on honeymoon in South Africa. The maximum group size was 4 and often it was just us and our driver. This made for great flexibility and it was literally tailor made to what we wanted. We did see a lot in the 5 days we were away, we hardly noticed all the car time. That being said, I don’t think I’d want to do a large coach tour around cities, because they’re often best explored on foot so you can get into all the nooks and crannies!

    • Sounds like you have made some good choices with your organised tours Sammie! Especially maximum group size of 4, perfect – it’s more like just having a local show you around than being “on a tour”, by the sounds of it! And yes – totally agree that cities are best seen on foot not from a coach. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. I have never been on organized tours, they just don’t really appeal to me; but I can understand that if one doesn’t want to do week of research and all, it’s a good option.

    I cringe whenever I hear about those “10 countries in 2 weeks” cruises – to me that is the fast-food equivalent of travel. Why not invest your time and money into seeing one or two wonderful places and really, really see them? Explore the back streets, pop into random shops, eat at a restaurant because it sounds good and it happens to be right where you are walking when you get hungry… there is so much you miss when you go for the obvious. And while I am not a stranger to quick visits — because I will never miss the chance to check out a place even if I only have a half day or a few hours — I don’t like the idea of anyone approaching travel that way on purpose, without taking the time to be truly enchanted by the magic that is the architecture, the art and the atmosphere in some cities and spots. It’s like a crime against the artist, that you cannot stop and admire his handiwork as you should, and give proper credit.

    yes, I feel strongly about this – sorry about the rant 🙂

    • Haha, love the rant Elisa, and we basically agree completely. I love your description of those fast tours as “the fast food equivalent of travel”. How can anyone see a whole continent in a couple of weeks? Definitely better just to pick a couple of areas and explore them in more depth and definitely a lot more interesting stories will come out of that.

  3. I agree with you about this. I have not done tours since I traveled with my UNC Alumni Association in 1998. That tour stayed in one little town and then you would take day trips around it. That was nice…but then you missed out on local dining scene…this was more banquet at hotel…so I would change that.

    I have not done tours, but then I went on that Press tour and it included some tours in the city…and I realized I have missed that a little…on my travels. So I like half day city or walking tours.

    But I agree about tackling segments of areas.

    Leigh

    • Oh I agree Leigh – sometimes half day and walking tours can be great – can give you an overview of a new city, or a walking tour with a great guide can be like making a local friend.

  4. The planner in me loves planning things for us to do.. now with kids organized tours are completely out of the question. All that said, i have started hunting down the Sandman(sp?) tours everywhere we go. They’re walking tours and free.. led by locals we get to see small parts of the city and also get referrals for hidden food/drink joints with a dusting of history.
    I’m with you…organized tours take away the intimidation of planning, it’s not for me but the smaller ones when done well can be economical and educational.

    • I love the planning process too Yashy – but I certainly get that if you haven’t travelled much or simply don’t like researching then having someone else do it for you is a good option.
      And I must look up these Sandman tours, sound very interesting!

  5. I went travelling to Europe on my own at 19 and couldn’t think of anything more horrible than a big, for-young-people, organised tour so I didn’t do any. It was hard work on my own but I did it. I did book a tour in Greece where it was too difficult to get to all the very cool places I wanted to go on my own (this was 1995 when the internet was not in any way useful!) but this was an old-person’s tour and I had to pay the for the four star version because I was the only one who wanted the three star (and then, of course, the single supplement). I had a ball and totally ignored everyone on the tour with me.
    I always travelled on my own after that.
    Then, ten years later when I wanted to go to Egypt I really couldn’t do that on my own so I took a pretty cool tour that was in equal parts fantastic and annoying. But I wouldn’t have missed the experience of Egypt (and I was right to think it would have been very difficult on my own) so I’m happy I did that. I went to many other places in Europe on that trip on my own.
    Lately, however, I’m kinda over the planning – not the planning and research beforehand but the effort required to organise getting from one place to the next while on the road. Especially because I’ve now started travelling with my partner or family members and they all think it is so great that I can just organise everything and lead them along! Yeah, not so great for me!! Now, a tour is more of a holiday for me because I can relax and enjoy the experience and not worry about the next bus, train, plane, hotel, taxi, place to eat, toilet, weather, etc! – not the hard travelling I’ve done in the past – and that suits me just fine. Maybe I’m just after holidays more than travelling these days??

    • Ah now that’s a very interesting perspective Jen! I still love the research and planning but I can see that doing it for everybody else is not always great. Hmm wonder if I’m just around the corner from becoming a tour convert?!

  6. Back in 2005 we did a Europe tour in two weeks with Cosmos and it was great . Perhaps we were lucky with our group. In Rome we did the colosseum. the roman forum and the Vatican museums in reasonable detail so the next time I was in Rome I did not have to these things. Admittedly If you did all the extra tours you would be totally exhausted ,you did need time to just do a wander or sit by the pool. But if time is limited you see where you would like to go to again and other places that you would totally not bother about.And for older people they serve a purpose.

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