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Japan tour: Tauck vs. Road Scholar

First-time visitors to Japan in late Fall 2020 considering approximately 14 day tours (with a few days on our own before and after.)

Looking for recommendations from folks who have experience with any of these specific tours and/or experience with Tauck or Road Scholar, in general.

Road Scholar:
Cultural Highlights or Japanese History/Culture/Society tour

Essence of Japan


Posted by
61 posts

While not a land tour, I did take a Rhine river cruise with Tauck. They are a top notch operation and really look out for their guests.

Posted by
1893 posts

We have traveled several times with Tauck, but not to Japan (yet). Tauck is first class in every way, and you will have experiences that are several notches above those other tours might offer.

Tauck's customers are primary repeat customers or customers who have come to them word-of-mouth from other highly pleased customers. You will NOT be disappointed with Tauck.

Posted by
1985 posts

We did a small group Gate One tour this summer and thought it was very good. It was 10 night tour (they call it a 12 day tour) and we added 3 more on either end of the tour to Tokyo and Kyoto. This is the tour:

This tour was well-run, with a great guide and a small group. It's thousands and thousands of dollars less expensive than the Road Scholar tour. It's shorter, but you can easily add your days onto Kyoto and Tokyo. Our extra nights hotel in Kyoto was the Solaria Nishitetsu. It's a fabulous hotel in a great neighborhood.

Posted by
16 posts

Two years ago I took Tauck’s Australia and New Zealand tour. Excellent ... with luxury accommodations, full services for schlepping luggage, private air flights between locations, outstanding guide and extra special activities. (A friend and I compared three companies and decided Tauck met our interests the best. Also, please know, I’ve taken three Rick Steves tours and they are my most favorite .... wish he did Asia!!) I’ve not taken a Road Scholar tour but friends have, and I believe they are very good too, tho not at the high end luxury level like Tauck. On a Tauck tour u do see all the sights, however, not much interaction with locals or local restaurants. Most included meals were at the hotels. (I took myself off to a grocery store one day in New Zealand to see what it was like. Lol) I am planning on taking a Tauck tour to either China or India in 2021. In the end tho I would think your choice of a tour company for a tour of Japan would mostly depend on itinerary. Which do u like best? Good luck with Japan plans!!!

Posted by
10260 posts

I leave tomorrow for Tokyo and will join an Odysses Unlimited tour this weekend. It will be my third Odysses tour.

Posted by
5004 posts

Tauck is highly rated and should be excellent, however it will be pricey.

We did Japan with a mix of do it yourself, local day tours, a three day tour from Tokyo to Kyoto and Nara and then a cruise that included five Japanese ports (cruise ended in Hong Kong).

We used Viator for the local tours as well as the three day tour to Kyoto and Nara. We were not disappointed.

Posted by
21329 posts

This is truly a potato and apple comparison. Other than both being slight round. Two totally different programs, travel objectives and approaches. Road Scholar is the renamed version of Elderhostel. Are you familiar with Elderhostel? A low budget travel experience for seniors. Elderhostel/Road Scholar does an excellent job within its framework. Has great appeal for a travel segment that is willing to do a lot of their own work on tour. Tauck tours is at the other end of spectrum. The difference in price should give you some clue. On a Tauck tour everything is first class, five star accommodations, luggage handled for you, etc, etc. There is simply no way to compare the two. It would be unusual to find someone who has taken both a Tauck tour and a Road Scholar. My personal observation from when we hosted Elderhostel on our campus is that you probably will get great value for the dollar from Road Scholar but be treated more like royalty on the Tauck tour.

Posted by
379 posts

We took a Road Scholar tour of Japan in 2016. We like Road Scholar for the education aspect. We have done four Road Scholar tours and are scheduled to leave on another at the end of this month.
The hotels and food in Japan were fine, no need for 5 stars accommodation. Japan is very clean and well-maintained. On Road Scholar tours, there is a group leader who handles the logistics and an instructor, plus local lecturers. We had a retired PhD history professor. When we were traveling on the bus, she answered questions during the journey - various topics ranging from education, housing, mental health to how we got into WW II.
We saw a kabuki performance. Before the performance, a local lecturer explained the general aspects of kabuki - the stage, the music, the plot, etc. We had earphones describing the action on stage in English during the performance, which made everything more understandable.
Another lecturer explained Noh theater, which was my favorite lecture.
We had one dinner to interact with local Japanese. They spoke English.
We went to museums to learn how prints and lacquer ware are made.
For us, Tauck is too expensive, not our preference.

Posted by
6843 posts

We had an excellent two week tour of Japan with Odysseys Unlimited. We also took the additional excursion to Hiroshima and Miyajima.
The itinerary included more places and more days than other tours we looked at. Road Scholar doesn’t seem to use the excellent Japanese rail system which is a shame. They use buses and we will not take any tour with primarily buses. They loose the cultural aspect of trains in Japan, buying bento boxes for lunch, on time to the second, etc.Nice hotels.
We added on independent time before in Tokyo and after the tour we returned to Kyoto for several days. We had learned how to use the train system and loved using it by ourselves too. We also used luggage forwarding, a wonderful service.

Posted by
8630 posts

Oops...didn't see this thread when you posted in October because ..... I was on a Road Scholar tour, lolol!!

Someone above posted this: "Road Scholar is the renamed version of Elderhostel. Are you familiar with Elderhostel? A low budget travel experience for seniors. Elderhostel/Road Scholar does an excellent job within its framework. Has great appeal for a travel segment that is willing to do a lot of their own work on tour."

I don't find this assessment to be true. I've done 11 Road Scholar tours and 11 Rick Steves tours. That might have been the MO when they started but it wasn't back when I did my first ElderHostel in 2009 and certainly not in the ones I've done since 2013. I'd say they are medium budget, hotels a little bit above the Rick Steves hotels altho on the tour I was on in October we stayed at the same hotel in Arles that Rick's tours uses. I've never had to do any work on my own for a Road Scholar tour. I DO it anyway just because I want to but it is not necessary. I also split from the group sometimes if there is something specific I want to see that is not on the agenda.

I have not traveled with Tauck but they are known as a higher price range tour.

I hope you've made your decision by now!

Posted by
7854 posts

This doesn't answer your question but I need to agree with Pam about Road Scholar for overseas tours. We were in Cuba for two weeks with Road Scholar, staying in 4 and 5* hotels, bags ported, good meals (considering the restraints), two guides, etc. The overseas trips and cruises are comfortable but not luxurious. It’s inside the US that Road Scholar offers educational getaways in National Parks, campuses, retreat centers, etc. for low prices.

What did you decide CSB?

Posted by
12544 posts

We returned 10 days ago from a fantastic trip to Japan. We combined a 10-day walking tour (Nakasendo Way plus Tokyo and Kyoto) with 3 extra days on our own in Kyoto and one night in Kyoto. The tour was with an adventure travel company, Mountain Travel Sobek, which we previously used for hiking in Patagonia. At $6300 each it was half the cost of the Tauck tour, and we felt it could have not been better. There were only7 of us with one Japanese guide from whom we learned so much about the culture, history, religion, architecture, etc. The lodging was in 4* Western-style hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo, and Japanese -style inns and ryokans for 5 nights in the mountains. (Meaning tatami rooms with futons on the floor). All the meals were amazing, with numerous dishes presented on little plates for each person, even in the little family-run mountain inn. I do not know how they do it.

Our guide arranged a number of very special experiences for us, including lunch at a “make your own sushi” restaurant; another lunch at a little soba restaurant where the head chef came out to sing to us at the end of the meal; sake-tasting at a local brewery in Nara; a night walk around illuminated temple grounds in Koyasan; visiting a tiny that made hand-cut wooden combs and another where we learned about making lacquerware and watched the master at work; ducking down a small unlit passageway in Ginza to see a secret shrine to Inari, the rice god, complete with talisman foxes, and a semi-private Shinto blessing ceremony at the Meiji shrine in Tokyo to ensure our safe travels homeward. None of these would have been possible in a larger group; certainly not a group of 20 or more (both Tauck and Road Scholar call a “small group” 24 people).

The timing of our trip (November 6-20) was excellent for fall foliage in the mountain areas, but a bit early for Kyoto when we were there for 6 days early in the trip.

Of the tours you have listed, I much prefer the Road Scholar History and Culture tour. At $8200 it is more expensive than what we did, but it includes more days and more stops. Although billed as 17 days, they include the day you fly to Japan, losing a day when you cross the Date Line. You actually meet the tour at the end of Day 2, and you depart after breakfast on Day 17, so it is really only 15 days. But most tour companies count the days this way, because it is the number of calendar days you are away from home.

Other things I like about this tour: they use the train and other public transport (unlike the ultralight HIghlights which as Suki points out uses a coach); they visit a village on the Nakasendo way, and provide at least a few nights (3 total) in Japanese-style ryokans or inns with a tatami rooms and futon on the floor, and the timing of the November trip will likely cover some fall color. I think you could have a good experience of Japan on this tour.

The Road Scholar Cultural Highlights tours appears to be designed for older, less mobile travelers, as they specifically say they avoid public transport, sleeping on futons, and dining with floor seating “as far as possible”. I think you will miss out by avoiding these quintessential Japanese experiences.

Which brings me to the Tauck tour, which I find over-the-top-expensive at $12,000 - $13,600 for a “13 day” tour (the latter price is for the “small group” of up to 24 people). That is roughly $1000 a day per person, and you are on your own for 4 of the dinners. Wha??? This tour appears to be all about the 5-star hotels——Hyatt, 4 Seasons, Sheraton Grand, etc., with a single night at a ryokan. In other words the only thing you will experience of a true Japanese hotel room is the Toto toilet with Washlet (build-in bidet function).

Sorry if that sounded harsh, but I think it would be a shame to miss out on the wonderful hospitality of the small inns and ryokans, and dining on floor cushions with a beautiful array of wonderful dishes.

Posted by
12544 posts

A bit more: (I ran out of room).

You say you are planning to add a few extra days before and/or after the tour, and I highly encourage that. We flew into Toksy (our only option for direct flights) and I felt a bit intimidated, so we spent only one night there before catching the Shinkansen to Kyoto to spend 3 nights before meeting our tour. This was a good choice, as from what I have seen most tours do not include some of the more popular (and worthy) shrines and temples because they can be so crowded. A perfect example is the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, the #1 site to see in Kyoto.

It can indeed be impossibly crowded, but we managed it by arriving before 8 am, and completing the walk to the top and back down, through 1000’s of vermillion Torii, before 10 am. When we arrived back at the shrine base area, it was so crowded we gave up on finding a bite to eat at the numerous food stalls, and jumped on the JR train to Kyoto station to admire the architecture and get an early lunch when the restaurants in The Cube opened at 11. It was a good call.

Others we enjoyed in Kyoto before or after the most crowded times were Nijo Castle, the hike up Daimonji, and Yasaka Shrine in Gion (the neighborhood where we stayed). We visited Nishiki Market numerous times for various purposes and it was always crowded, but manageable. Since our hotel was close to the river, we enjoyed walking the path alongside, and sometimes discovered some new delights, such as the teen kids practicing some amazing jump rope skills (I wish I could post a video).

Basically, Japan is a very welcoming place and you will experience that if you venture off on your own.

Posted by
10260 posts

I recently returned from the Odysses Unlimited tour of Japan and I recommend it. Excellent hotels, great food at included meals, good mixture of coaches and trains. Great mixture of included activities and free time.

I also took the Hiroshima extension.

I will suggest getting there a day or two early to get accustomed to the time difference.

I will probably go back but will do it next time on my own. Much easier than I thought it might be.

Posted by
11275 posts

I was in Japan for 13 nights in October 2019, on my own without a tour. I'm still trying to write a trip report, but the short version is, Japan is no harder to see on your own than any other developed country. If you want a tour, you can of course take one, but don't feel you HAVE to because of language barriers or any other barriers - it's very easy to get information about sights, transit, hotels, etc. I'm already thinking of going back to see places I missed or need more time in.

One warning: Kyoto is now suffering from overtourism like Prague, Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, etc. Be prepared for swarms of "selfie takers of all nations" at all major sights. Even going right at opening doesn't always help; at the Silver Pavillion, that was when school group after school group after school group was also visiting.

Whether going on your own or with a tour, look into visiting Nagasaki. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki has a whole fascinating history quite independent of the atomic bomb. My sister insisted I go, and she was 100% right; my two nights there were sensational. Due to its location, it's easiest to fly in and/or out. Flights within Japan can be cheap if bought in advance (for me, the train from Osaka to Nagasaki would have been about $180, while the flight was about $80; flying was a bit shorter, end to end).

Posted by
6843 posts

We plan to return to Japan independently too. The train system is very easy to use, great electronic signage with English.