To tour or not to tour

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Jun 11th, 2018, 04:45 AM
  #1
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To tour or not to tour

To tour or not to tour is a common question. I just returned from my first escorted tour after a lifetime of independent travel. It was an interesting experience and very different from what I had done in the past.

It was a relatively short European tour with a high end companies. It wasn't cheap, but I wanted to experience the best that a tour could offer. They really took care of virtually everything for you. However, I won't talk about the tour specifics, but rather the general touring experience. Since this was a relatively medium-short, land, high end tour, I can't say whether it all generalizes to other types, but I suspect that it largely does.

Pros

1. Ease and simplicity. This is the big one. You don't have make decisions. You don't have to worry about missing buses or trains. You don't have to drag your own bags around. Dinners and most other meals are scheduled. And they just kept pouring the wine. The tour took care of all expenses except for a lunch or two. I could literally have traveled with no money if I had wanted, except for tour director gratuities.

2. Visiting remote locations. I hate driving in Europe (and I'm not too fond of it at home either). As a result, we have usually stick near the train lines, which is limiting. We have seldom gone to some of the more remote or isolated towns, monasteries, etc. On this tour, we went to several isolated places that we would never have visited on our own because of their locations. The tour bus just zipped us from place to place. Yeah, I know we could possibly takes regular busses or hire private drivers, but planning schedules, figuring out European bus websites, finding trustworthy drivers, etc. is a lot more work than just being whisked from place to place.

3. Special experiences. Throwing in special experiences that you couldn't have on our own is the way the better tour companies market these days. They are selling experiences. You have dinners in a royal palace, private concerts, lectures and private access to usually overrun museums.

4. Time. Tours save you a lot of time on your trip. You never stand in line. You never have to worry about getting to the train/bus station ahead of time or that it will be late. You never have to check in or out of a hotel. You never get lost. (If you think that continually getting lost is a virtue, then tours are not for you.)

5. Insurance. This high end company is famous for looking out for their customers. They take care of you if something goes wrong. On tour, I heard of many experiences where the company went out of their way to solve a major personal problem. You are not alone in a foreign country if something goes wrong.

6. Pacing. The tour dictates the pace. This could be pro or con. I tend to be a kamakazi traveler who tries to pack in as much as possible, inevitably wearing myself down to a burned out heap by the end of a trip. The tour forced me to slow down and go at a more relaxed pace. I didn't see or do as much, but I wasn't exhausted by trip's end.

Cons

1. Early, early. On moving day, the bags had to be ready and us up far earlier than we would normally begin the day.

2. Lack of choice. Obviously, you have to go where they go. Their itinerary was not exactly what I would have chosen. The food was good and high end, but there were local restaurants that I would like to have tried. You do have the option of skipping day tours and meals to go off on your own. However, that means throwing away something you've paid for.

3. Superficialty. They try to take you as many places as possible, so they do not explore any one place in depth (at least on this tour). We repeatedly visited towns and museums where we saw the major point of interest but left many other sights untouched. They often spent a few hours where I would have spent a half day, a half day where I would have spent a full day or a day where I would have spent two. This problem depends on the amount of free time that you are allocated. It is a key factor in choosing a tour. This tour was relatively short and had very little free time. Longer ones might be better.

4. People. It was medium sized tour, and everyone was friendly enough. The size didn't impact the actual touring very much. We simply split into two groups when necessary. But being thrust up with so many strangers for so much time was a somewhat uncomfortable experience, even on this relatively short tour. I learned one lesson, though. Despite the supposed advantages of small tours, I would never take one. You have less choice in whom you associate with and less opportunity to avoid people you'd rather avoid. I can imagine things going very wrong when you travel with a small group of strangers.

5. Tour guide fatigue. Tour companies feel the need to fill every moment with a local tour guide. Some of this is good, but too much gets to be a pain. After a week of hearing about King Schmendrick III and his various relatives you want to scream. I don't want to know any more about the country's crafts, music and architecture, or how they were attacked by their uncouth barbarian neighbors, or what dictators they had to overthrow to achieve their freedom, etc. Day after uninterrupted day of this can become tedious. My tour was only in one country, so maybe touring through different countries wouldn't be so repetitious. Once again, having a good amount of free time would help.

6. Local color. Traveling with a group isolates you from the locals somewhat. I saw a lot of local things like museums, monasteries, villages, castles, etc., but I didn't have many local experiences, if you get the difference. The hotels were good but a bit too modern and bland, with a few exceptions. Granted, I'm not the type that starts conversations with strangers and gets invited to their homes for a hearty peasant dinner followed by an elderly uncle in a puffy shirt playing traditional folk songs while we get bombed on the home made firewater. Still, I didn't have much interaction with locals. The time and effort I had spent learning some of the local language was almost entirely wasted. Interestingly, I seemed to be the only person on the tour who had made any such effort.

7. Travel time. We spent a lot of time on the bus. This followed from the tour's attempt to cover as much as possible. I have noticed that tour literature seldom says that you will visit A and then B, but fail to mention the four hour bus ride between A and B. When I look at tours now, I figure the travel time by using maps to see how much of the tour is really sitting on a bus.

So what did I learn? To tour or not to tour? There is no clear answer. It depends on what you want. As I've gotten older, the savings in hassle and decision making and slower pace have grown in importance, yet I still have mixed feelings. Perhaps the best plan is to mix independent travel and touring. Many the people in my group scheduled independent travel time before or after the tour. That might be a good compromise. At the very least, check the free time allotment carefully. Of course, if there is too much free time, then you start wondering what you are paying for.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 10:52 AM
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Nice evaluation / analysis. Thanks

you mentioned high end several times. Which company was it? Lower end tours tend to be very fast paced with more ' commercial stops' and even more bus time
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Jun 11th, 2018, 11:53 AM
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I also would love to know the company name that your post is about.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 08:33 PM
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kja
 
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Thanks for sharing your observations!
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Jun 11th, 2018, 09:04 PM
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Thanks for sharing the pros and cons. In my opinion, you may not go on tour if the disadvantages outweigh the pros or the positive side.
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Jun 13th, 2018, 05:41 AM
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Nice analysis/review. I must say that some info are true.
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Jun 13th, 2018, 10:58 AM
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A tour we took years ago gave us many of the highlights, castles, churches, museums, tours etc. in the morning and early afternoon. Then we were on our own until dinner. During many of those times, we just took off and wandered to other places on our own, looking through the trusty guidebook and maps that we brought along (before internet). We did it so often that some other people on the tour joined us (which upset the tour director).Your pros and cons are very good observations.
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Jun 13th, 2018, 05:34 PM
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Analysis very well done and helpful; we are rather the "non tour" people, who dont mind (yet) all the planning that must be done, actually I enjoy doing it. We like our free time roaming. And "tour guide fatigue" struck us swiftly after one very long day (12 hrs) with a wonderful driver taking four of us to the Peloponnesse peninsula of Greece, so much that we dropped the tour to Delphi scheduled for two days later, wanting to further explore Athens on our own. It's like you must appear engaged and interested in whatever he/she shares. But sometimes, deals come up, timing is good, and so you go on a tour.
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Jun 13th, 2018, 10:11 PM
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Great analysis! Personally, I usually solo travel, and if I want to see something a bit out of the way I'll book a day tour along the way. My cousin takes 1-2 weeks tours and she loves them, she even has a lot of the same pros and cons as you do, and for her the pros definitely win. I did notice she doesn't much care for independent travelling. Guess it all depends on the person.
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Jun 14th, 2018, 10:18 AM
  #10
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To tour or not to tour

Originally Posted by suze View Post
I also would love to know the company name that your post is about.
I didn't identify them because I wanted to talk about touring per se and not the specific company. I've nothing but good things to say about them as a tour company, and I'm fairly picky - search for the Fodors talk Italy thread, Another Scrap With Friction". So, I'll just say that it starts with the letter "T" (and it wasn't Travacoa).

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Jun 14th, 2018, 12:42 PM
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OK, sorry guess I'm missing the point. That you are recommending a tour company for the great experience you had but don't want to name them.
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Jun 14th, 2018, 01:49 PM
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Likely Tauck - high end and (mostly) good reputation. Could possibly be Trafalgar but they aren't as high end. Not quite sure what all the secrecy is about. Your analysis is really only relevant to the company you used. If you had gone Globus or Cosmos you can bet your review would have been different . . .
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Jun 14th, 2018, 02:00 PM
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The discussion isn't really relevant or applicable to ALL organized group tours. Your comments only apply to a high-end company like the one you used, whoever that may be. Maybe some of the "cons" would be the same, but I'm pretty sure the "pros" are because of using a more expensive provider.
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Jun 15th, 2018, 03:45 AM
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As I was reading your report I thought it was Tauck.
The other posters are correct. If you had toured with a "lesser" company the pros would not have been the same and there might have been more cons.
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Jun 15th, 2018, 01:20 PM
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The company you use really does matter. Here is an example:

Many tours included required shopping stops on their itineraries, and you didn't mention this happening to you. There is typically nowhere to go during this stop if you aren't interested. You are stuck for an hour of a trip you paid for.
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Jun 16th, 2018, 10:49 PM
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Some of your pros would be cons for me. Looking at your list your pro #4 is really no different than your con # 1. Are you saving time or are you being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night?
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Jun 17th, 2018, 07:23 AM
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The company you use makes a very big difference. For instance, while I usually travel independently, I have used Rick Steves for Europe a few times. The hotels are small and central, while on lower end tours you are likely to be in big hotels on the outskirts. The tour itineraries state how long the bus rides will be, and there is plenty of free time. I have also used Intrepid for Asia, it's a budget company taking small groups and mostly leaving you on your own for sightseeing. On the other hand my first trip to Asia (China) was with the Smithsonian and I felt I was in a cocoon - a very comfortable one but still confining.
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Jun 17th, 2018, 09:13 AM
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I am certainly grateful to you for posting your thoughts, carfree, which I do feel have some relevance to other tour companies. For example, apart from 1, your list of cons coincides with some of my feelings about the river cruise I did a couple of years ago. Obviously we didn't have to get up early every day to get our bags out but I definitely found that we had insufficient time in the places we visited, with a few exceptions. And i got very frustrated with not being able to eat at the places we visited because we had to be back on board by a certain time in order to sail on to the next place.

OTOH we did have good excursions and guides [and not too many of them] and we had quite a lot of free time in most of the places we visited so it wasn't so regimented. In the interests of full disclosure it was a river cruise with Riviera which is a highish end tour company in the UK.

I'm particularly interested in this subject as I'm [still] thinking about doing a tour to India next winter. It would be my first time there so I don't want to do it by myself as a real solo trip and given India's reputation for assaults on women I don't think that this would be safe, so it has to be something organised. Last year I booked a tour which I then cancelled and I have toyed with the idea of organising it myself as a solo trip but despite the valiant efforts of thursdaysd and others to persuade me, I'm dubious that I would really enjoy spending 2+ weeks with just a driver and a variety of guides. So unless I can find someone to come with me, I think it will have to be a group tour, at least for part of the time. Many of the ones I've looked at spend what to my mind is too little time in each place and too long on the road when they are moving between places. I don't want too many internal flights [who wants to spend time in a succession of airports?] but I do like trains.

Thursdaysd - I will look again at Intrepid and Smithsonian. Thanks.

I suppose that
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Jun 17th, 2018, 09:39 AM
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Ann - Intrepid and Smithsonian are at opposite ends of the spectrum, lol. You might also look at Adventures Abroad and Imaginative Traveller. My UK-based elder sister travels with Saga. Road Scholar is another possibility for slower travel.
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Jun 17th, 2018, 12:59 PM
  #20
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Originally Posted by annhig View Post
I am certainly grateful to you for posting your thoughts, carfree, which I do feel have some relevance to other tour companies. For example, apart from 1, your list of cons coincides with some of my feelings about the river cruise I did a couple of years ago. Obviously we didn't have to get up early every day to get our bags out but I definitely found that we had insufficient time in the places we visited, with a few exceptions. And i got very frustrated with not being able to eat at the places we visited because we had to be back on board by a certain time in order to sail on to the next place.

OTOH we did have good excursions and guides [and not too many of them] and we had quite a lot of free time in most of the places we visited so it wasn't so regimented. In the interests of full disclosure it was a river cruise with Riviera which is a highish end tour company in the UK.

I'm particularly interested in this subject as I'm [still] thinking about doing a tour to India next winter. It would be my first time there so I don't want to do it by myself as a real solo trip and given India's reputation for assaults on women I don't think that this would be safe, so it has to be something organised. Last year I booked a tour which I then cancelled and I have toyed with the idea of organising it myself as a solo trip but despite the valiant efforts of thursdaysd and others to persuade me, I'm dubious that I would really enjoy spending 2+ weeks with just a driver and a variety of guides. So unless I can find someone to come with me, I think it will have to be a group tour, at least for part of the time. Many of the ones I've looked at spend what to my mind is too little time in each place and too long on the road when they are moving between places. I don't want too many internal flights [who wants to spend time in a succession of airports?] but I do like trains.

Thursdaysd - I will look again at Intrepid and Smithsonian. Thanks.

I suppose that
Your post raises another point that I didn't address. I took this tour solo since my S.O. could not make it. In fact, the reason that I broke down and tried touring was because I didn't have my S.O. to travel with. Virtually every one else was a couple or small group. Despite everyone being friendly enough, I found it uncomfortable at times. I would never tour solo again, especially on a high end, expensive tour because they attract older travelers.
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