The Coach Tour – Friend or Foe?

My apologies for the lack of regularity with the posts lately.  Life seems to be so busy, what with Michael, work, and yoga teacher training.  I have to teach a yoga warm-up to my fellow trainees on Saturday, and let’s just say I am NERVOUS!  So lately I’ve been feeling like it was more important to make than food, than to blog about the food (which, by the way, there will be food again on here someday soon), and better to live the life than blog about it.

But I’m back and today let’s talk about coach tours!

I’ve been on two coach tours, both with Trafalgar.  The first one was their Best of Italy tour last fall, and the second one was their Best of France tour this fall.  Both Michael and I have been quite happy with the service we received, and the company in general.

We picked a coach tour because it seemed like it would make the whole experience a lot easier.  The first time around, I’d never been to Europe before, and definitely felt a little nervous about it.  Knowing that we were part of a group helped relieve some of my worries.

Some of the reasons why we went with Trafalgar over other tour companies were that we liked their itinerary, and we weren’t really into the whole Contiki thing.  Contiki definitely has a younger age demographic, but we’re not into the late night partying thing anymore.  I’ve talked to people who have done Contiki, and they seemed to really enjoy it.  You just have to pick a tour that’s right for you.

There I am on the bus!

Now let’s get into the pros and cons.

The Good:

  1. They plan EVERYTHING for you.  This makes the whole experience super easy.  They take care of planning where to go and how to get there and where to stay, meaning you don’t have to worry about any of the logistics.  The travel director and bus driver figure out the timings so they know exactly when to leave to get you where you need to be on time.  They know the short cuts, and they know the routes with the same travel time that offer better views.  The travel director even tells you where the all the public bathrooms are!
  2. You get to see places you wouldn’t necessarily think to visit on your own.  With both the Italy and France itineraries, I ended up in some towns or villages I never would have thought about visiting if I’d been on my own.  Assisi in Italy?  Who’s St. Francis?  San Gimiagno?  Lourdes?  Lourdes wasn’t even in my Frommer’s travel book!  But we got to go to a holy pilgrimage site!  Eze?  Monet’s garden?  Would I have bothered if I was by myself?  Maybe not.  But seeing these places added to the experience.
  3. You get to jump the line.  Waiting in line to go up the Eiffel Tower?  Waiting in line for the Colosseum?  The Vatican? Nope!  As part of a group, you get an appointment time so you just show up and walk in.  No waiting!
  4. You have a travel director who can take care of any issues or problems that may arise.  I liked knowing that if I got sick, there was someone who knew the health care system in that country who could navigate it for me so that I could get the help that I needed.  Never had to use it, but on our Italy tour, someone did need a doctor, and our tour guide arranged one to see him right at the hotel.  When we were delayed twenty-three hours in Montreal and missed meeting up with the tour, we were put in touch with our tour director, Cindy and she told us what to do so that we’d meet up with the rest of the group.  There was a leak or something to do with condensation from the air conditioner in one of our hotel rooms in France and the floor was all wet, Cindy, traded rooms with us.  Problem solved and we didn’t need to deal with the front desk.  The tour directors are just amazing!
  5. The travel director also speaks the language.  Comforting to know there’s a translator if you need it.
  6. The travel director is a wealth of knowledge!  Both tour directors we’ve had were absolutely fantastic!  They give you mini history lessons during the long drives in the coach.  They recommend restaurants or take aways depending on what you’re looking for.  Cindy was so awesome!  Wherever we were, she’d tell us about the local specialties for food in that region, and what souvenirs to buy there as well.
  7. Local tour guides are often included at sights.  They point out things I wouldn’t notice on my own, like pieces from the Colosseum that the people of Arles took and used to build the buildings in the city.  And they’re extremely helpful in museums, where I’m so overwhelmed by all the art on my own that I don’t even know where to begin.
  8. Pretty good value for your money.  Not that I’ve actually done a price comparison, but Michael and I would look at the prices on the hotels we stayed in, and I’m pretty sure we couldn’t stay in the same places and do all the stuff we did for the price of the tour package.  Trafalgar also gives discounts to returning travelers.
  9. You get to see a lot in a short amount of time.  This is great for me, because I only have so much vacation time, and as much as I would love to take a month off and really take my time seeing a country, that’s just not realistic.  As part of a group tour, I felt I was able to hit the highlights, as well as some lesser known places in a country, all in a reasonable amount of time.

The Bad:

  1. They plan EVERYTHING for you.  While this makes it easy, it takes away your flexibility.  Michael would have liked to have gone to Cognac in France.  I would have liked to have seen Cinque Terre in Italy.  You have to go where the tour takes you.  And you have to leave when the tour leaves.  On the tours we did, this meant a lot of early morning departures so we could get on the road and beat the traffic.  Not necessarily a bad thing, and I will say that I find it so much easier to get up 6:00 am when I’m on vacation than I do when I have to get up at 7:00 am to go to work.
  2. You don’t always get as much time somewhere as you’d like.  I would have loved to have spent more time in Rome, the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the French Riviera, or the gardens at Versailles, to name a few.  But because you’re seeing so much in a short amount of time, things have to keep moving.  I understand that.  That’s why I feel like a group tour is a good starting point.  It gives you a good orientation to the country and gives you a feel for it, so you really know where to focus your attention the next time you visit.
  3. You don’t always get to eat where and what you want.  There were a lot of included dinners on the itineraries we did.  Now this is both good and bad.  Good because it’s good value for your money as you get a three course meal with wine included in the tour.  Bad because it’s Europe and I would have loved to be eating outside on the terraces of a lot of these restaurants, but because you’re part of a big group, they keep the “good” tables for “real” customers.  This also means a lot of fixed menus.  Sometimes there was choice between a couple of options.  Sometimes there wasn’t.  I learned in Italy to let the tour guide know that I don’t eat fish.  I learned in France to be more specific about what meat I eat.  For most people, this wouldn’t be an issue I’m sure.  But I’m a little choosey, so sometimes predetermined menus and I don’t agree.  That said, most of the food was really, really good!
  4. You spend a lot of time on the bus.  Necessary to get where you’re going and more flexible than public transit, but not the fastest mode of transportation.  And time on the bus is time not spent sight-seeing!  After needing to use a train to get from Paris to Lyon, I realized how easy it is to use the train system.  It made me feel more confident about navigating the system on my own in the future.
  5. You risk having a crazy person on tour with you.  Fortunately, Michael and I have been lucky and we’ve had really good groups.  But in France we ran into a lady on a different tour a couple of times, and I felt bad for her tour mates!  She complained about everything!  In Mont St. Michel she was trying to get the poor sales clerk to ring in half of her purchase on her debit and half in Euros, and the poor guy clearly didn’t understand.  Then he wanted to charge her for a bag.  Well, she was not happy with any of this, and that’s not the way things would go down in the USA and just wait til he comes to America.  Then I ran into her in the bathroom line (the ladies room line, another down side), and she proceeded to cut in front of me.  A few days later we saw her coming out of Versailles, complaining it was “too high” and she wanted her money back because her travel director knew she didn’t like heights.  I did feel bad for the lady because she obviously has some issues, but, I mean, she’s in France!  Of course things are going to be different than they are at home!  And if you’re on vacation in France, you shouldn’t be complaining.  I don’t know how you’d deal with someone like this if you were on their tour, but since she was on someone else’s, we got a kick out of her.
  6. It’s not so much “vacation” as a sight-seeing tour.  If you want to sit and veg and do nothing all day, I suggest you go to an all-inclusive.  There’s a lot of early mornings and a tightly packed schedule with not a lot of down time.

So there are my thoughts on traveling with a coach tour.  To sum up, I feel that the coach tour definitely has its place among vacation styles that I will travel in.  It’s a great way to get oriented to a country and it couldn’t be simpler!  All you have to do is book it and show up, and the rest is taken care of.  The downside is you lose some of that flexibility that you’d have if you were traveling on your own.

For our next trip, Michael and I have decided on something a little more relaxing.  Last week we booked a week at an all-inclusive in Antigua!  I’m very much looking forward to that… even if it is almost six months away.

Have you ever been on a coach tour?  What did you think about it?  How about back-packing?  What was that like?  Share your thoughts on how you like to travel!