To Bus Tour or not To Bus Tour

Guide Bill, Driver Tony and the bus. Ireland, 2002

Guide Bill, Driver Tony and the bus. Ireland, 2002

This is a blog about touring regions and countries on an organized coach or bus tour. Day trips on a bus with a guide are a different animal.  Overall, I like bus tours and have taken several in the past when I’ve traveled with a friend or alone.

I may have mentioned in past blog entries that I have taken several bus tours in my time. The very first time I went to the U.K. was one of those times. I had finally been able to save up enough money to afford to travel and the first place I was determined to go was to the U.K. I had long had an affinity for the British culture and history and there was no contest as to my first international destination.

I decided to take a bus tour with a co-worker. That started off with a hiccup (read what happened here) and I ended up on the tour bus on my own. It didn’t matter. The bus was full of people so I wouldn’t get lonely. There was always someone to talk to and eat with and hang out with if I wanted to. There were several other women traveling on their own, too. The guide was Irish and he was excellent, lots of fun and very informative. He traveled with a briefcase full of papers and notes (this being before the days of laptops for easy storage!) He told stories, recited poems, cracked jokes and was good fun to have on board!

The next tour I took was for nearly 2 weeks around much of Italy, with another friend. This friend stayed with me! We started with a few days in London and ended in London overnight as well. We really enjoyed it but felt that the 2 weeks was a bit much. By the end we were feeling a bit burned out. I can’t imagine how people take bus tours that last a month! My aunts did this for 21 days, covering 6 or 8 countries across Europe and were exhausted by the end. I can well imagine! The one disappointing aspect of this tour was that our guide was clearly inexperienced. He didn’t come across as enthusiastic or relaxed and read most of his information straight from his books and papers without embellishment.

I have two more tours under my belt, one around the Republic of Ireland and one around just Scotland, both with the same friend and we enjoyed those as well. They were both a week long and just the right length and luckily, both guides here were great with lots of experience! The first one back in 1993 was still the best, though.

Bus tours have advantages and disadvantages. Some people regard them with horror, feeling like sheep herded around from attraction to attraction, unable to go your own way. That’s kind of true but most tour companies also give you free time to do your own thing. You get to see the main highlights and you can then decide where you’d like to return on a future trip if you get to come back. For many people, they may not be able to travel very often and they can at least see the highlights. Transportation and accommodation are never a problem and they even schlep your luggage in and out of the hotel for you. You always get breakfast and often the evening meals are provided when you are not in a major city. The guide is usually very organized and very informative, often very entertaining, too! You often get the expertise of local guides and if an attraction is included in the price, the entry fee is as well and you don’t have to wait in the ticket queue.

Touring has an advantage for people traveling alone. Not everyone is an adventurous traveler willing to strike out on their own if they are not traveling with someone else or even if they are. Touring this way is a great way to see other countries and get a taste of other cultures. It might not be as in depth or “real” as interacting with the people that actually live in your destination, which is a point that some people make when deriding bus tours, but everyone has their own way of doing things and everyone has their own comfort zone. I figure that if it takes a bus tour to get out of your home and you get to see new and different things, then do it! Travel covers a lot of different definitions.

Tours can also be useful if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language. The tour guides will be speaking your language, English if you’re me. They often speak other languages so can negotiate their way around menus, shops, and even other co-tourers who may not speak English very well.

See the people in the yellow caps? That's a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

See the people in the yellow caps? That’s a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

Disadvantages are the aforementioned group “herding” though I was on a tour once where some of the passengers used the bus merely for transportation and did their own thing entirely, armed with guide books and made sure to be back at the bus by departure times. Most bus tours also include visits to various shops or factories and the fact is that the guides will get a kickback on the percentage of sales. Most of them will not or should not push you to spend your money, in my experience. Most of the visits for demonstrations will likely be interesting. I’ve never bought anything at any of those places as I found the prices were more expensive than at other shops.

Another disadvantage if you are traveling with a budget tour company will be the hotel locations. Often in major cities, the hotels that the budget companies use will be outside the city or in a less central area. They will usually be near public transportation so if you want to be out in the evening on your own, a bus, underground or short cab ride will get you back safely. Not always though. And if you don’t speak the local language, many people are a bit intimidated to try the transportation or try to communicate with a cab driver on their own. The tour company always provides the bus as a way of getting back to the hotel but you’re restricted to one departure time. If you aren’t ready to go back, you may your own way to the hotel that evening.

Many tours include dinner in the evening, either in the hotel or at a designated restaurant, usually with a set menu. But if you find that restrictive, you can always go out on your own and find somewhere else to eat, but it’s then at your expense. You can always request a special meal, say, vegetarian or Halal. When staying in major cities, the companies don’t generally include the evening meal. The reason for that is twofold. One, they can then sell you a fancy meal and entertainment and Two, there are so many opportunities in a major city to find a variety of restaurants and entertainment for the evening and it gives you a break from the activities and provides flexibility.

And evening of entertainment at Bunratty Castle, Ireland 2002

And evening of entertainment at Bunratty Castle, Ireland 2002

Ah yes, the “optional” extras. When reading the itinerary, if you see a sentence that starts with “you have the opportunity to…” or “Why not try….” then the chances are good that you will pay extra for that. These optional excursions and entertainment can really add on to the cost. Are they worth it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’ve opted in for some that were excellent value and some that were not in the end. Your mileage may vary, literally! If it’s something you really want to see/do, it will probably be worth it. If your budget is tight, no worries, it’s not required.

One of my friends recently returned from Paris where she paid quite a lot for an evening excursion but it included dinner in the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant, a night cruise on the Seine and a ticket to a show at the Moulin Rouge, including transportation to and from the hotel and between all of the events. She thought it was amazing! You’ve got a budget, you’ve got the descriptions on paper and from the guide so you can judge whether it’s something you want to do or not.

Many tours will take you to shops and factories to see how regional specialties and crafts are made. They’re hoping you will purchase something but you are in no way obligated and they should not pressure you. If they do, complain loudly. If you think the item is worth the higher cost they generally charge, fine. But be aware you can often get the same thing elsewhere in the region for less. It can be interesting to see the demonstrations. One that stays in my memory is how cameos are carved. We were shown this on a stop in Sorrento, Italy. Watching the glass blowers and etchers in the Waterford Crystal Factory was fascinating, too.

Would I take another tour? Yes, I might  if I ever had the opportunity, although my partner isn’t as keen. He finds the motion of a long bus journey bothersome and prefers to do the driving himself though he’s ok on a one day excursion.  Be that as it may, in spite of some disadvantages, I like a bus tour. They aren’t for everyone and I like traveling independently as well, but I’ll defend that type of traveling.

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993