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Tours vs solo travel (want to see as much as possible in 3-4 months)


Aug 22nd, 2017, 07:33 PM
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Tours vs solo travel (want to see as much as possible in 3-4 months)

Hi all, I'm looking for some input from those who are more well traveled that I am. I've left Australia a whole once and that was a long time ago as a teenager so I'm finding trip planning a little bit daunting.

I'm wanting to spend 3-4 months seeing as much of Europe as I'm able to. My sister will be starting a student exchange in Belfast in September 2018 so I'd like to make it to Ireland around then but otherwise I'm flexible on dates.

I'm not sure whether booking tours or solo travel is better in terms of either cost or experience. I very much don't want to do a Contiki style tour where the focus is on binge drinking and partying, but I do like that a tour allows some cost sharing and potentially would pair me with another solo traveller so that we're sharing accommodation costs without necessarily being in a hostel.

Can anyone chime in with any tours they've particularly enjoyed or tour companies that they've enjoyed traveling with? So far the three I've heard the most about from travel agents are Top deck, Intrepid and Busabout. I've got a few tours from both Top deck and intrepid I'm potentially interested in. I think I've ruled out Busabout's hop on hop off bus as an option after comparing the travel times and cost with getting a train instead. I would qualify for a youth priced Eurail pass. Would I be able to travel most places by rail? I'd potentially consider hiring a car in the UK, but I wouldn't want to do that elsewhere because driving on the wrong side of the road sounds way too stressful!

Are there any places I'd definitely want to be in a group? Language barriers and safety are my main concern here as I'd be a single female travelling on my own.

I am an introvert and can find being in a large group overwhelming if I don't get some alone time, so at the moment I'm thinking that tours for part of the trip and solo travel for the rest might be the way to go. It's mostly just narrowing down what would be best done as group travel and what would be best done solo.

I'd also love any recommendations for sights I absolutely need to see or any events that would be going on. I don't have any set schedule so I can potentially plan around any events. I'd love to check out the Bayreuth opera festival if I can manage to get tickets but I think that's unlikely!
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 08:34 PM
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I haven't found tours to be very cost effective to be honest. Don't dismiss hostels out of hand- some could potentially give you more privacy than sharing a hotel room with a stranger. I love hostels and I stayed at some great boutique ones in Europe. And then in some countries, like Germany,single rooms in hotels are so cheap that splitting a double would not help you. But I'm an introvert too, and being stuck with the same people on the bus for multiple days in a row would be a little hellish for me. I like solo travel.

You could consider a river cruise or something like that? More freedom than a tour, but structure and help available. Unless there is a specific tour that interests you, I would consider a tour or cruise at the beginning of the trip as sort of an intro, and a way for you to get your bearings.

I do tend to take day tours of things I can't easily navigate on my own whether for language or transportation reasons. Context has some great small group tours and I loved them in Rome. I also like bike tours because people tend to be a little younger, sociable and active.

Rail is really easy to use and I don't like driving period. You're lucky you still qualify for the youth pass, although I'm not sure how much it will help you on such an extended trip. You can get pretty much anywhere by rail, and the worst that I ran into is a few long connections by bus or train. The smaller places radiate off a main hub. So let's say A is on one branch of the Berlin hub, and B is in the othe branch. A to B, in a car, might be two hours, but because you're relying on transit, you may need to go back into Berlin, so the trip will take you 4 hours. So doable but irritating.

Something you need to consider are the tourist rules for Schengen. I think it's 90 days for Aussies, which means if you go for 4 months, you'll have to spend at least 30 days of that in nonshengen. Ireland is Schengen but Belfast is nonschengen (UK), so border crossing and different rules.

Get a good general guidebook, like Europe through the back door, and start researching.

Language barriers were not a problem. Many people speak English. Or you can use google translate. It will help a lot to have internet access- data and cell phone. Knowing a few words of the local lingo and knowing local customs, will get a lot of good will and it'll help you to not panic. And observation helps a lot. If an announcement comes on when waiting for a train, and everyone leaves your platform, follow them. Church signs on train against your ticket- if it looks weird, ask someone. Trains get delayed, platforms change.

Safety really wasn't a concern either. Use street smarts. Ignore scam artists and beggars. I've yet to see a valid petition thrust at tourists anywhere. Ask your hotel or hostel if there are areas you should avoid at night. One of my hostels in Paris said taking metro was fine, but I shouldn't wander around solo after dark in that neighborhood so I didn't.

I covered part of Germany, Florence, Venice, Rome, Paris and London in about 40 days. My advice is that you need to travel at a pace that won't kill you. I like 4 nights minimum. Look st what you want to do in each place, decide on how many nights you need, and then if it's somewhere like Rome or London, double or triple that number.

I didn't wear a moneybelt in London, but I was really happy to have one in Rome. Wear one in trains or in crowds. Even if you can replace your passport, it's a hassle, and security will make feel better. I mean, you should always be aware and watch your belongings, but a money belt is comforting because you don't have to be quite as paranoid.

Specific advice about what to see is hard to give- I don't know what you enjoy, other than opera. And each country is very different in terms of customs. For example..,In rome, you need restaurant reservations, even if it's just made the day before, and anything before 8 pm is too early. Stuff opens at 7, maybe, but that's not when Romans eat. In Germany, I made no reservations at all. So you need to do a lot of research and come back with a rough itinerary so people can help. I recommend breaking the trip into segments. Just take it a few weeks at a time, and don't book anything non refundable. You might make friends, you might here about something you really want to see. You might get sick, and have to stay a few extra nights.

What month can you start? Because given the choice, I would start in Belfast in September. Some people like to start in the U.K. Because it makes them feel better about the language barrier. You'll miss the summer crowds but not the good weather. Prices will be lower. Resort towns will be less mobbed, staff will be in a better mood. You can be more flexible in terms of changing your plans. You could end the trip with Christmas markets if that's of interest. I loved the holidays in Italy. I loved Italy period, but I would not want to go to Venice or Rome during high summer season. The crowds were intense enough over Christmas but at least it wasn't hot,

Hope that helps.,,
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 09:10 PM
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Hi, Heatherzilla –

I’m FIRMLY committed to solo travel, but I think the choice is really a very personal one. I can’t speak to any specific tours – I’ve never joined one! – but I can, I think, speak to some aspects of independent travel as a solo woman.

I find solo travel a pure self-indulgence! I can do what I want, when I want. ☺ ☺ ☺ And I NEVER hold anyone else up, or worry about how my choices might affect someone else. Guilt free travel! ☺

Too, I don’t have to pay attention to anyone else’s experience of the places I visit – I can think what how my mother or best friend or business associate (or whoever!) might view something – and I often do that! – but I don’t have to put my reactions into words right away, nor do I have to respond to someone else’s words right away. I can wait until my impressions percolate a bit, and I love that aspect of solo travel! Mind you, I DO put my experiences into words within a day or so, as I keep a journal, but I always have the time to sift through my thoughts before reifying them with words. I find that ability to delay verbalization invaluable.

And I’m not distracted by conversation – I can always pay attention to what draws ME. Of course, I do have conversations along the way – but only when I choose to enage with someone, not because I am traveling with someone. I can see and experience places from a purely egocentric perspective. And yes, it is purely egocentric -- and I say that without apology! it really is, IMO, the core advantage of solo travel.

As an odd corollary – I feel safer traveling solo, as my attention is ALWAYS on my environment. I’ve almost always traveled solo, but I did spend a few days with a dear friend on one trip, and it is the ONLY time that I was almost pickpocketed – I was listening to my friend, and only noticed the hand about to reach into my purse at the last moment. Of course, traveling alone does not guarantee safety, but with reasonable precautions, traveling alone need not be a risk, at least not in Europe. I think it is easier to be attentive to the environment -- and any potential risks -- if nothing (and no one) else is distracting me.

As a solo traveler, I have much greater latitude to move about than I would with a group. I don't have to wait for everyone to gather, or for everyone to return from the WC, or whatever. Of course, I do have to manage all my own transportation, and tour groups don’t have to do that – so once everyone returns to the bus, it can simply move to its next pre-arranged destination, while I might have to walk to a metro stop and wait for a train and figure out where to get off and then walk a bit … and all of that can take time. I think this difference is one with pros and cons – I might not be able to move from place to place as quickly, but I can take full advantage of every moment I have – I don’t have to leave a place to get to the bus, etc. I can stay for as much or as little time as I like.

Another corollary to note here: Many tours include, on their itineraries, places that they simply drive by, without stopping. If you decide to join a tour, make sure you know which places will be stops and which drive-bys.

Many tours include guides for specific sites, and that’s another place where I think there are pros and cons. I must admit that I rarely use guides – I prefer to read about the things I want to see and take advantage of audio guides when they are available. A part of my preference is financial – as a solo traveler, hiring a private guide would often pose a rather substantial fee, and joining a tour offered by a shared guide has, IME, often meant that I am herded through places without regard to my preferred pacing, told things that I already know, and given little opportunity to learn things that weren’t covered in my advance reading. But people differ in their experiences with guides, and with the priority they place on the interpersonal exchange involved.

For many solo women, a central concern is about meals. Only you can decide what feels comfortable, but I can assure you that I have dined solo at everything from the lowest end imaginable to restaurants with 3 Michelin stars. I carry an old-style Kindle (I hate having my face illuminated by an iPhone or other device) and read quietly, or make notes in my journal, or just sit and enjoy.

IMO, solo travel is not for everyone, but it has many merits, and particularly in light of your description of yourself as on the introverted side, I would think it would be worth considering.

Fodor’s has a whole collection of links to trip reports by solo travelers – you might find some inspiration in some of our reports.

If you have further questions about solo vs. tour travel, please ask them!

And whatever you decide, please delve into guidebooks (please consult several!), narrow down your choices (or at least your decisions), and come back to us once you have narrowed your options.

Whatever you decide, I’m sure you will have an awesome experience! I hope these thoughts are helpful....
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 09:15 PM
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Tours need to make money. If they put you in the same hotel and provide transport they still tack a profit margin on top.

The one advantage of tours is you avoid the planning.

The big disadvantage of tours is you avoid the planning. If you do the planning yourself you tailor things to your interests,schedule and budget.

Rail passes are rarely a good deal.


If you expect to travel ALOT in Germany that discount card for under 27 year olds might make sense. Do the math and see if the discount outweighs the purchase price.

Don't ignore flights. With in Europe you can often book flights for very little.

Trains with in countries if bought in advance are equally cheap.

What to see really depends on you. The more varied your interest the less tours will work. Tours will take you to the top sites which may not be your top sites.
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 09:32 PM
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>>I haven't found tours to be very cost effective to be honest. << Especially for solo travelers. There are a few companies that are 'solo-friendly' but most group tours tack on large single supplements.

I'd consider booking some one day and maybe a few 4 to 5 day tours in various places your don't mention any countries other than Ireland but just to give you an idea -- in Scotland (and to a lesser extent in England and Ireland) Rabbies is a great company offering small group tours. https://www.rabbies.com/en/scotland-...from-edinburgh

>>so at the moment I'm thinking that tours for part of the trip and solo travel for the rest might be the way to go.<<

I'd think in terms of traveling on my own but joining short tours for a few days here and there. Plus almost every city in Europe has local free or low cost walking tours. Including things like pub crawls so you can socialize and not feel tied to a group.
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 09:48 PM
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Ireland is not Schengen. It is EU but not a Schengen country. Nor is the UK, which includes Northern Ireland. So you can easily spend enough time out of the Schengen area.
The rule for Schengen visa free is 90 days in any 180. Arrival and departure days included.
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 10:36 PM
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In your timeframe I would spend most time travelling by yourself and some on short tours of a week or so.

The thing with selecting a tour is to be really clear in your own mind about what's important and what's not. There are a zillion tours and many/most of them wouldn't appeal to me. For example, for me I'd prefer a slower pace, central hotels, local public transport, small group, etc. Your priorities will be different of course. I'd also check G Adventures (affiliated with Intrepid) and Explore (a UK company). Also do a google search of your chosen destination to find local tours (often from a few hours to a few days). Another option is a special interest tour such as cooking, art, music, hiking, archeology, etc. But as already said, a tour is almost always going to be more expensive than travelling independently.

You have a wonderful opportunity - it will be fantastic.
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 11:01 PM
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Ah, my bad! Sorry, I knew U.K. wasn't but I thought Ireland was for some reason. That's what I get for taking sloppy notes.

I would be surprised if contiki charges extra money for a solo travellers and I think intrepid does only for a few tours. You can pay for extra for your own room but it sounds like the OP expects to share a room. Tours for young backpackers are kind of marketed towards solos to begin with, and I think both companies have tours that are solo only. But I agree, in any case, a tour is not generally cheaper and it can be crazy fast paced- one of contiki's tours covers something like 7 countries in 14 days which really makes me wonder what they see outside of hotels and transit.

Something else to consider- large group tours are usually either focused on the majority or handicapped by the slowest member of the group. So if your interests differ from the rest of the group, you'll see the tour as less valuable. You can do whatever you want as a solo- you don't have to wait for anyone, or skip something you wanted to see because the group took extra long at the earlier activity.

Hostels often have group activities or tours. I don't like pub crawls, but I've participated in organized hikes, theater/concert outings, walking tours.
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Aug 22nd, 2017, 11:55 PM
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I am an extrovert so quite different. On one hand I cannengage conversations easily and can end them as easily if I find it boring / rarely the case. But after one month traveling solo I was starting discussions with my shoes.
Tours however can be a challenge if you stay too long with the same group.
I often picked someone at a hostel and we would travel one or more days together.
Have fun.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 12:52 AM
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I'll just echo or reinforce what most here have said: most of the travel for me would be solo with day tours or even a 2-3 day tour if it were to someplace that would be difficult to get to without. (Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh in Armenia comes to mind.)

A few more things to consider:
Prioritize! Even with the amount of time you have, the temptation may be to go to as many places as you can. The travel time/cost is one consideration in this, but the other is that you can savor one place a bit more if you stay for a time. In your planning, you might want to build in a few longer stays in places that really appeal to you and take day trips out from there.

Don't forget to add in a bit of nature time. It's easy to get "monument fatigue" after a while, so a recharge in the mountains or the like works wonders.

Go for it! Solo travel is awesome.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 02:30 AM
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Thank you all for your thoughtful answers. It has been very helpful and makes me think that mostly solo travel will be the way to go. Travel agents all very much push various tours so it's good to get a dissenting perspective.

I hadn't considered a river cruise, but I'll definitely have to look into it. It seems like a nice way to start a trip. In terms of longer group tours, the only one I've come close to booking has been the Red Star Special offered by TopDeck.

I'd very much like to see some of Scandinavia on my trip and that tour has great reviews and doesn't seem to be quite as "party bus" as other tours offered by TopDeck. Can anyone weigh in on whether the pacing of that tour is likely to allow time to get to see things? I don't have a great idea of the travel times/distances so I'm not sure if that trip would involve more time being spent on the bus than off it. I'd also love any suggestion for the best time of year to visit. The tours seem to only run for half the year and I'm not sure if that's because some of the attractions shut down over the Winter.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 02:40 AM
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Amy's right. Even 3-4 months can go by surprisingly quickly. Don't go to just the famous places and the cities; explore the villages, rural areas and beaches as well. Better - and cheaper - to see a smaller area well than skim over a much larger area. Choosing a town which has good public transport links and staying there a week or two and taking day trips can work really well, especially when part of a longer holiday.

Also, when comparing the cost of a tour with independent travel, the cost differential is greater when travelling as a couple. Travelling solo - except when staying in dormitories - is usually more expensive per person than sharing a double room. I sometimes forget that when thinking tour vs independent.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 03:01 AM
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In Italy convents and monasteries are inexpensive and pleasant places to stay, especially in Rome, Venice and Florence.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 04:18 AM
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I would qualify for a youth priced Eurail pass. Would I be able to travel most places by rail?>

Most places folks would go on a first trip to Europe and buses go everywhere virtually where trains don't go. Eurails not valid in U.K. but they have their own BritRail Youthpass and even cheaper National Express Bus pass - cars can be isolating - group trips are good for some others who want to travel to their own beat not so great.

anyway for loads of great info to plan a rail/railpass trip: www.ricksteves.com; www.seat61.com; www.budgeteuropetravel.com (check their free online European Planning & Rail Guide for suggested rail itineraries in each country).

Youth hostels are great meeting places- even for introverts like you- get a copy of Let's Go Europe (amazon.com) for a lowdown on zillions of hostels and a wealth of info for folks your age traveling around Europe.

Contiki is another bus tour company that is very reputable and many folks enjoy - they began I believe as an Aussie company.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 07:29 AM
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Lots of good advice here. One option is to consider starting with a short tour to "get your feet wet" and then branching out on your own. My kids have both stayed in youth hostels and found they made friends easily and even made some brief travel plans with their new friends.

You might want to check out the Lonely Planet travel forum as well as this one for more info geared towards young adult travelers.

Happy planning!
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 08:06 AM
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My kids have both stayed in youth hostels and found they made friends easily and even made some brief travel plans with their new friends.>

Yes my first trip to Europe when 20 I at first stayed in hotels and found them so isolating -then tried hostels and yes met several folks along the way I traveled with for short periods.


Good planning info here

and www.hostelworld.com is about the acclaimed best site for info and booking hostels in Europe. Can book as you go to keep flexible itinerary.

A Global Eurail Youthpass would also give your complete felxibility to take trains anywhere - say if you meet others changing your original plans. No need to pre-book most trains in Europe and just show up and hop on - save Italy, France and Spain mainly where you must get a mandated seat reservation first - just take pass to ticket window and get one.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 12:06 PM
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The link you've got posted- that pace would kill me. 37 days, a new destination almost every day. Places like Berlin and Copenhagen have so much to see- 2 nights is not enough. Scandinavia is one of the easier destinations, I think, I would do that solo.

On a long trip you really need to pace yourself. You can go at high speed for maybe 10-15 days max, and then it would b smart to find some nature or just chill out somewhere for a few days.

But. I would find the Russian part tempting. Maybe find a 10-15 day tour of just Russia/Warsaw? I think that might be a place that would be more challenging just due to the alphabet.

Re: tours in the winter. It's not that places shut down. Some places- like seaside towns do of course. But plenty of people travel at all times of the year, and Europe is very pedestrian oriented. The cities are lively and busy even in "off season". Off season is actually really nice- there were still lines, but the main attractions were less crowded. Tours are based on the most people's time off, not necessarily on when it's good to see a place. Summer is high travel season and tours can fill up easily. Take day tours for example- the context tours I mentioned earlier; I met one of their Paris guides in Japan, and he said in summer he could fill a tour every day- in winter, he's lucky to get clients twice a week. Those tours don't run if they don't have at least 3 people signed up- when I was in Paris, I didn't get to take a tour because I could not find one to join that week. When I was in London, I couldn't take a bike tour because apparently I was the only tourist who thought biking in January would be fun! But I got to take several walking tours; the free ones run year round. It's more that I couldn't take any of the specialized tours I was really interested in. BUT- think of it this way. If I'd been in Paris in August, and wanted to take a tour at the spur of the moment, I wouldn't be able to either, because all of the tours would be booked. And I would have spent a lot more time in museum lines.

Except for Rome, all of my day tours were booked as I went along. If you have specific interests, google the topic in each city. I took a really neat street art tour in London, and I got recommendations for food and stuff to see from the tour guide. Day tours guides are great resources because usually they are local and young and know what's happening in that location right now.

If you want to see specific museums, by the way, buy advance tickets as often as possible.

You know, if you have Facebook, put word out that you're looking for backpackers who have "done" Europe. I have met a LOT of Australians who did trips similar to mine, so I bet you have a friend or friend of friend who would be happy to sit down and talk over coffee.

I bought travel insurance through the local travel agent, and I picked her brain a bit for information on where she'd been. She knew I wasn't going to buy a tour, but she liked to talk about her travels too. Talk to a few. Find out where they've been. I wouldn't trust someone who had never been out of the US and I've met a few of those- they are usually the ones who try to sell me a tour. So first find travel agents or advisors who have been to Europe. If they seem knowledgeable, you could ask how much a consultation would be.

But- there really isn't a short cut on some stuff. I wouldn't let anyone book hostels or hotels for me, for example. Not a tour guide, or family or travel agent. I know what I like in terms of location and amenities and I don't trust anyone else. You've got to read reviews and go through all of the information. I'm an introvert- an extrovert would consider a party hostel to be a positive thing, and I would consider it to be a negative thing. I only stay in female dorms, I need to know what kind of bunks there are because I can't climb into the high wooden ones. Some people like mixed dorms because they are cheaper and don't care about what kind of bed it is. Some people think modern art is a must, but I think it's a snooze. I'd rather find a funky pop culture museum. So...I think a travel agent could help you a lot in terms of trains and main sites, but some things, you really are better off doing yourself!
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 12:30 PM
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I have traveled with Intrepid, although not recently. They have small groups and you get a lot of independence. They have a short Russia tour if you just want a taste and don't want to go solo.

I would never sign up for a 37 day tour - what if you decide on day three that you don't like it?

Scandinavia is the most expensive area you can visit in Europe, aside from Switzerland. Whether to visit depends on your budget.
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Aug 23rd, 2017, 12:47 PM
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Personally I'm a solo traveller for the most part. But have found recently I prefer to mix it up... arranging to meet with friends etc. I have also done a small group tour which I quite enjoyed...having instant company was good but I always had my own room. But I'm a lot older than you and I'm too old for sharing!

I never book tours when I'm in a city, i do my own thing or go on one of the free walking tours that most larger cities offer, they are a great introduction to the town, and you may even meet some other young people.

I agree, don't let anyone else book your accomodation, hostels are a great way to meet others, some hostels are very flash but others more reasonable. Generator Hostels are more up market...

My 24 year old extrovert son went travelling to Europe from Aus for five months. He started in London, had a couple of days at a hostel then joined a top deck tour around the UK as an intro, he had a great time. Yes, he was no doubt one of the loud ones at the back of the bus but he met some fun people and still keeps in touch with a couple.

He then headed to Europe and stayed in hostels, where he teamed up with others and went to places with them, he'd move on, perhaps with a couple of people he'd met and then meet new ones and keep doing this. He had a great time, so great he now lives in Amsterdam! I think he used buses quite a bit as they were cheap. He didn't mind the time they took as he could see things along the way.

A structure for the trip is important for you but also you need to be prepared to change your plans if something more exciting is offered... That's often when the memories are made. My son ended up walking in a lovely forest in Poland with a group he'd met at a hostel...that wasn't on his original plan, it was one of the highlights for him.

Research, research... Find out what is free in a city, then you can splurge on something else.

Make sure you have copies of all your documents either with you or in the cloud where you can access them easily, just in case.

And if something doesn't feel right, trust your instinct and get the hell out ...

Look up all the scams, be prepared by knowing what is happening so you are not hesitating.

I used the National Express bus in the UK this year a couple of time and was impressed, very efficient. I also rented a car for a few days.

Have a great time and make sure you let us know how you are going...
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Aug 25th, 2017, 12:09 AM
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Thanks for the suggestions, especially the suggestions for guidebooks. I've grabbed a Kindle copy of Europe Through the Backdoor which I've been flicking through on my commute. I'll have to see if my local library has a few things I can check out too. I had underestimated just how useful a guidebook can be.

Thanks for the opinions on the tour too. I think I'll probably do a shorter tour instead. I'd definitely be doing a tour if I do travel through Russia, if only because they'll take care of some of the paperwork and visa applications. My brother has travelled through Russia this year and found the visa application process a bit of a pain.

I've done plenty of day trips and free walking tours just holidaying in Aus and enjoyed them, so I imagine I'll love them elsewhere too.
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