Let me start out by saying that I do not speak German. We are wondering if it is worth while to sign up with one of the Rick Steves tours - Berlin, Prague & Vienna in 12 Days Tour or should we do it on our own.
That depends on what you want. You do not need to speak German to go to those places, though it is always nice to learn a few words in the language of the places you will be visiting. The real question to ask yourself is if you want someone to handle all your arrangements for you (tour), or do you feel comfortable booking your accommodations and transportation, then figuring out what you will do with your time (on your own).
I wouldn't take a tour just because I don't speak the language. Last year we went from Istanbul to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and Netherlands. by ourselves. Once in a while you may have a problem, but not often. There's not much English spoken in the part of Bulgaria we were in. Don't worry. You won't have trouble. If you do just find a young person to translate for you. As was mentioned, if you want someone to do your planning then go on a tour. There are all kinds of people and all kinds of ways to approach tourism, but not speaking the language should not be a major factor in your decision making. Learning a few words before you go is really a good idea.
A tour of the caliber of RS is more than hotel, food and transportation arrangements. It's also a good local guide who gives insight into the country, culture and history. So it depends on how hungry you are for this cultural and historical knowledge. The guide also answers your questions as they come up, rather than leaving you wondering about the whys and hows of what you are seeing. On the other hand, you may just want to kick back at your own pace, soak in the scene, and see the main sights without numerous details.
I have never taken a Rick Steves tour, but my impression of Rick's tours is that they move at a fast pace, spending relatively little time in any one city and trying to cover as many major sights as possible. And that may well be a big factor in deciding whether one of his tours is the right choice for you. If you are trying to see as much as possible over a limited time period with a structured itinerary and guides, if you want your travel arrangements in Europe handled by someone else, and if you think you would enjoy the Europe experience with others (and I am sure friendships form quickly), then I would think a Rick Steves tour would be worth considering. For me, just looking at the tour itineraries, I think that too little time is spent in Europe's great cities and that the tour pace is too fast. But it does seem that there is a lot of bang for the buck.
If your main concern is language, then I don't think you should have any problems doing this on your own. When we were in Germany and Austria, most everyone spoke at least some English - even in the little towns. Take a phrase book with you in case you do encounter someone who doesn't speak English. And, of course, it would be polite to learn at least a few phrases (hello, good bye, thank you) before you head out. And if you drive, download European maps to your GPS and take it with you.
Not speaking German should not be a problem. If you do it on your own you definitely get out of your comfort zone. But it can be very rewarding and stimulating.
According to a poll conducted for the European Union, 50% of Germans can speak English at at least a basic level. I've spent a lot of time in Germany, mostly in small towns, and I've encounter plenty of people who don't speak English. If you think most people speak English, you haven't been as far off the beaten track as you think. However, if you stick to the popular tourist attractions - Munich, Middle Rhein, Rothenburg, Fuessen, etc - you'll be ok with only English. There is one other factor that no one seems to mention - cost. I've made four trips (52 nights) to Europe (Germany and Austria) in the last 7 years, and my total expenses on the ground have been just over $5000, single occupancy. That's not much more than one 13 night RS tour single, occupancy.
Steve, I have done both. I've taken the RS Great Britain in 14 days tour, and traveled most of the continent on my own with my family. There are definitely pros and cons to both. Tour: Pros - Pretty stress free, very informative guide, great group meals, and getting to know other travelers with similar interests. Transportation is taken care of for you. Cons - you really do only get the highlights (however they are very well chosen), but generally do have a little free time in each place to spend as you wish. Traveling on your own: Pros - you get to decide itinerary, and choose your own accommodations. It's definitely more adventurous, and you are more likely to spend time interacting with locals. Con's - it takes time to plan (I find this fun!). You spend more time finding (getting to) accommodations, and places to eat. You are responsible for transportation. Overall, I prefer travelling on my own. I love riding the trains and finding my own way around. However, I do hope to take another RS tour someday, but will probably be to a location that doesn't have great public transportation options. I agree with everyone else that not speaking the language shouldn't factor into your decision at all.
'If you do it on your own you definitely get out of your comfort zone.' People who travel on their own are uncomfortable?
Our experience with acquaintances is that many Americans (and other nationalities) are only comfortable travelling with a group of and interacting almost exclusively with other Americans. They travel to see sights and have significant information related to them. When they return they tell us of the things they have seen and learned. We travel on our own and spend countless hours planning and learning about the sights we plan to see. We then enjoy our travels, finding our own way around, sometimes keeping to our itinerary and sometimes not, interacting mostly with the people of that country and other independant travellers, eating in small local places and staying in small European style hotels. When we return we enjoy the memories of a personal trip, suited to ourselves. Tours and independant travel are different - we have to decide which suits us best.
Steve, As you've noticed so far, you'll get a variety of opinions on this question. IMHO, a RS tour is definitely "worth while"! I've taken five so far, and will likely be signing up for sixth tour very shortly. I find that I learn far more about the history, culture, customs and people in the places visited than if I had travelled on my own. The Lead Guides, local Guides and Drivers have all been outstanding! The tours do "pack a lot in", but I don't find them to be especially rushed. Several free afternoon or evenings are provided, and always at least one free day. Tour members aren't required to take part in all activities. If someone wants some time on their own for a rest or whatever, just let the Guide know. I usually combine a RS tour with some self-guided travel, and have found that to be a great combination! The tour is a very efficient way to travel and when I'm on my own I can visit places that are of interest to me. However, the self-guided portion is a LOT of work, and often takes months to arrange (I plan my trips very precisely). The fact that you don't speak German shouldn't be a big problem, as that's true of most of us here. You also shouldn't have a problem not speaking Czech. I was in Prague a few months ago, and had no problems at all. Of course, it's always a good idea to learn a few of the polite words for any country you'll be visiting - "Please, Thank you, Good Morning, etc." If this is your first trip to Europe, a tour might be a good idea as it will give you the skills and confidence to travel on your own in future. Happy travels!
Thank you all for your great advice! It is very much appreciated!
Steve, I have taken one RS tour, but over last 30 years or so have travelled independently all other visits. I took the RS tour because I had my 11 yr old with me( we took a "RS Family Tour" for 14 days, we spent another 12 days on our own)and wanted to pack alot of places into a shorter time then I could comfortably do on my own. I am glad I did it,, it was a great tour, my daughter got to Rome, Venice , Switzerland, France, etc etc,, all in a 14 day format that although we got alot of tastes,, was really NOT that hectic, doing all that on my own would have been hectic though, getting to and from train stations, figuring out how to get to hotels etc all on my own,, fine if you have weeks, but as I said, i wanted her to get a taste of many places. I really think taking a GOOD quality tour for a first visit it not a bad idea,, and RS tours are good quality, you actually will learn how to travel comfortably, its not just being herded about. You do get some free time at every stop, and no activity is compulsory,, in Paris we didn't sightsee with group at all, just would meet them for dinner( I have been to PAris many times and had my own agenda) Whether or not you decide to go on your own or tour you will have fun, and yes, going on your own is a great option, but I really want to stress a RS tour is not like the big bus tours,, its really fun, and informative, and no nickel and diming like alot of tours, so although you seem to pay more then some tours,, other then some meals and souvenirs ,, you know what you are spending up front.
I did both. With R.S. you see more but it cost more. Everything is taken care of and you have enough free time, too. These cities I would do on my own. It's easy. Direct train connection between B. and P. and P. and V. Do your homework. Google a lot, read guidebooks. I can give you a useful website for Prague: http://www.pragueexperience.com
In response to Bets' comment: If a traveler is "hungry" for information about local culture, history, etc., it is also possible that he/she research this prior to the trip. I enjoy history tremendously and prepare for each trip with extensive reading. My biggest frustration with tour groups is that too often people in the group arrive with little preparation for their trip and the tour guides end up giving superficial overviews. In addition, if you want to participate in local culture and interact with local people, it's easier to do this by traveling alone.
Anita,, I think the fantasy that one is interacting more with locals independently is ,, just that , a fantasy. I travel independently , have for decades, most of my interaction is talking to the waiter, desk clerk, metro ticket seller, shop assistant,, sorry,, I rarely find myself randomly talking to locals. Perhaps one occaisonally may say pardon to me if we bump into each other, and in one case a lady in Paris motioned me to follow her into a shorter newly opened line at the grocery store,, but really, have not had more interaction then the most superficial.
On a tour you do have time to talk to the same people. I also wonder ,, how many of YOU talk to tourists in your hometowns,, I mean, really talk to them, invite them in for coffee, share a meal with them etc etc,, yeah, bet if you are honest you will admit you don't really. I have relatives in France, and friends in England,, sorry , they have no desire to share time with a tourist, they are busy working, going to school, they wish you well, but they have their own lives and are not there to culturally enhance your visit. That is something you can do by doing some research on your own ( and Anita is right about that,, but she assumes people on tours don't do that , and I disagree, I have seen the same level of ignorance of people on tours as independent travellers) . Ultimately since Steve has only about 2 weeks, and wants to see three or four places,, he will have as much interaction with the locals whether on a tour or not,, I think the only way to MAYBE have a little more chance at meaningful interaction is the rent an apartment for a month in one spot,, then maybe, you will get to know the local baker a bit, but still, its just cause you are a customer,, he ain't taking you into his life, lol
Maybe it's the approach....a guy in Carmona, Spain, invited us into his home to admire his courtyard and we spent quite a while chatting, limited unfortunately by my Spanish. There was the woman in Budapest who shared pictures of her family, talking at length about their lives. An older fellow overheard us in a restaurant in Slovenia and asked if he and his wife could join us because he liked to practice his English. A couple in Evora, Portugal, asked us to join them at dinner and we spent hours exchanging political views. A couple in a London pub chatted all through beer and a pub meal about the economy, etc., etc., Now, none of these interactions continued beyond a few hours, but they were far more extensive than any I've had with "locals" while on groups tours.
If your worried about a language barrier, don't be. The cities you are interested in are English friendly.
Lee's extensive knowledge of rural Bayern is irrelevant because the OP isn't asking about traveling to rural Bayern but three major European cities where almost everyone in a tourist area is going to speak English (and most people in general). I do not live in a highly touristed area (although it is a major city) and it's very rare to find people who don't speak English (although they all seem to be medical receptionists!) But yes, rural villages that aren't on the tourist track are less likely to have English-speakers. This isn't really relevant unless people are going there. The average age in those types of villages is quite old which probably has more to do with the lack of fluency in English than just about anything else. Young people largely tend to be quite fluent and often prefer just switching to English as opposed to muddling through with your terrible German (unfortunately for those of us trying to learn the language). As far as the tour question goes, it's really just your personality that should dictate it. I'm a control freak and I do a lot of research about cultural/historical stuff before I go to some place. So a tour would not be a good match for me. My mom is the opposite, she is only interested in a basic level of knowledge and doesn't want to mess with the details, so she loves tours. But your itinerary with those cities would be quite easy for a first-time traveler on your own. Memorizing "Hello" "Please" "Thank You" "Sorry/Excuse me" and "Do you speak english" in the language of the countries you're visiting is important but that's about it.
These are all great comments and suggestions! Once again, thank you all for taking time to respond. It is very much appreciated.
I have had some of those interactions also Anita,( well not dinner in someones house,, that is an exception) but seriously, if one was on a tour, what would prevent any of the other instances you have sited,, on tour( have you ever taken a RS tour) you usually get a 1/2 day tour of the city when you arrive, then often the afternoon and next day free,, you are not always in a group. Perhaps you are thinking of a different type of tour.
It depends on you. I've taken one tour and probably won't take another any time soon (If I did, it would probably be a Rick Steves tour). I took the tour because I was traveling with my mom. The tour's pluses were: - Lodging and Sights are planned for you. You don't need to spend much time preparing (but the more you do, the more you get from it). - Admissions and Guides are included, read the brochure carefully. Only the items specifically listed are included - don't assume anything. - There is ample shopping/down time. - You won't miss meals. Many tour people are older and schedule their day around meals. Tour guides know better than to make them late for their lunch or dinner. The minuses are essentially the opposite: - You pay for lodging extras you probably don't need (elevator, en suite bath, air conditioning, concierge, etc.) - You don't get to choose sights based on your own preferences. - When the brochure says "See Checkpoint Charlie", it means you drive by and the guide says, "See, there's Checkpoint Charlie." If it doesn't say "tour" or "stop", you won't. - There is way too much time spent in tourist traps generating kickbacks for the guide (not supposed to be true of Rick Steves' tours).
- You don't eat on your own schedule (although many meals aren't included so you can choose where you eat).
Language is not an issue in tourist areas; I don't know more than 4 or 5 polite phrases in german and had no trouble getting around Germany and Austria, including buying train and subway tickets (they have english menus). I've done mostly independent travel, but have taken RS tours. Here's a plug for the tour approach. It takes of time and effort to research a region to pick where to go and make hotel reservations. Some really like this part, as you've seen in this thread. If you take a RS tour you already know where you're going so you can just focus on sights where you'll be. I do think that for most people a RS tour can accomplish in 2 days what would take you on your own 3+ days. You show up and the rooms are ready, the bus picks you up and drops you off near your hotel instead of hiking from the train station or where you parked your car, the guide takes you to the sights without getting lost; in my experience this adds up to the equivalent of several extra hours a day. I also enjoy learning about what I'm seeing and you get local guides in many places; even just walking down a street on a recent tour had our guide pointing out influences and motifs in buildings that I might not have noticed and never would have known the significance of. You also get free time, and in fact are welcome to skip any group event you want if you'd rather do something else. So if you turn a 12 day (it's really 10; 12 is the "tour math" all companies use) into a 14 or 15 day trip, the cost actually may be comparable to your own.
"So if you turn a 12 day into a 14 or 15 day trip, the cost actually may be comparable to your own." I think I understand the logic. You're claiming that it would take 14 or 15 days on you own to see what one would see on a tour, and the 15 days on our own would cost what the tour costs. At the rate I spent per day for my last trip, I could buy 44 nights (45 days in "tour days") for the cost of a GAS 13 nights trip. Actually more, because the tour only provides half the dinners. The cost of half the dinners would buy me at least another day. BTW, I'm not against Rick's tours specifically, just tours in general.
Lee, I agree with what you wrote. That's why I qualified it with "for most people". I believe you have extensive travel experience, especially in Germany and Austria, plus are proficient in the language. Trust me, I'm envious of what I imagine you can do in terms of traveling like a temporary local! But what I think you find easy and fun to do would likely pose significant challenges for many people. Not everyone, though, so its always worth thinking whether to try it with a tour or not.
I have been on a couple of tour groups associated with out of country meetings. They are fine for what they are. I have traveled many more times on my own. I choose the later for the reasons noted above. I go at my own pace. I see what I want to see. I do not care about who lived in that building or what great event took place there in 1236, and the like. I do read up before traveling, carry a couple of good guide books with me, find my own travel and lodging, and read lots and lots of comments on this and other sites. Trip Advisor is good as to the hostals and hotels I consider. Moon Guide to Spain is great as to that country, etc. It takes time and patience but the results have been great for me. If I want a guide in a specific city, one can usually be located. And talking with the locals whereever you may be is often the best source. In answer to your question - I would do it on my own.
Of course we should note, the OP asked specifically about a Rick Steves tours, and everyone on this thread who had actually been on a RICK STEVES tour seems to recommend them if one decided on not going indendently , as opposed to some who a) have never been on a tour before but have their preconcieved ideas or second hand opinions.
, or b) took a tour with another company and therefore had a different experience altogether. Also interesting to note, many who have taken RS tours also have or had travelled independently or start to after taking a tour, since they gain their travel legs so to speak.
Lee I am thinking you have obviously have not observed a RS tour. And yes, agree independently can be done cheaper, one can always do things cheaper. But then there is VALUE for money spent to be considered, some people value the ease of a tour, and their time at home may be too valuable to spend doing the research needed to plan a GOOD and Cheap trip! I love the process myself, as I guess you do too, but not everyone is willing, or able to spend the time looking stuff up.
I haven't been on a tour, but I can read brochures, and I know I can travel comfortably for a third or less of what they charge. Also, I've observed tours, and how the tour members run after the leader like a gaggle of ducklings following their mother. I guess my first time in Europe was like a tour. It was a business trip, and the company made all the arrangements, hotels and transportation. Someone from that country's office escorted us around all day and, about half the time, took us to dinner. The rest of the time we were on our own in the evening. The first week we were in Brussels and, except for the hotel staff, not one person ever spoke English to me. I did not enjoy that trip at all.
I know I can travel comfortably for a third or less of what they charge. Yes, Lee, but you pride yourself on traveling comfortably for much less than most people choose to pay, tour or independent.
Hello Steve from Calgary. My .02 worth (actually I believe it to be a least a .10 value!) Let me start of by saying I HATE the idea of tours. At least tours as they are portrayed in "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium". That being said, I've signed up for my sixth Rick Steves tour this fall -- Best of the Adriatic. I first experienced Prague on a RS tour, and have travelled there on my own several times since. I have also lived for six month stints in each of Munich, Milan, and Madrid, and I still return to Rick Steves, AND I travel extensively in Europe and the Middle East on my own as well. Next point -- not speaking German need not even be on your list of why to consider a tour or not. You will find English widely used in all of these locations.
If you were travelling to Village Turkey, for instance, I would say maybe take a tour for language reasons but not for these great cities.
(continued...really) Yes, there are cheaper ways to see BP&V than a Rick Steves tour, but I have not found a better value yet. You would be hard-pressed to do this trip on your own more efficiently, and include more "Wow" moments for your hard earned Canadian dollars. Plus you won't waste time looking for hotels, waiting in attraction queues, etc. You will have a main guide on this trip, a great driver, and local guides in each of the cities you visit. Their insights into their cities and countries will, I think, prove to be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. I have had my share of lackluster guides in my life, but never on a Rick Steves tour. There is simply no substitute for standing on Wenceslas Square in Prague with a guide who actually took part in the Velvet Revolution, or being with another guide at the Lennon Wall, and hearing how she visited there with her father during the Communist era, and added her own Beatles-inspired artwork to the montage.
Even so, I don't like being 'minded' 24/7, but rest assured, the RS tours allow plenty of time to do your own thing, and further connect with locals. Bottom line – I heartily recommend the tour. And if you can swing it, fly in a day or two early or stay over after the tour ends. Just one example – there will no doubt be some Berlin sights that interest you that are not included on the tour. Check the itinerary and do those before the tour begins)
I've been on a big bus tour, an Elderhostel tour, and a RS tour. The only tour company I'd repeat is the RS. It was great - surprisingly great. The guides were very good, but it was the little things that made the difference. The group meals were wonderful. On other tours, the foods seemed Americanized. On the RS tour, we ate in regular restaurants & they were good! Also, I like time to myself & felt as tho that was fine with the RS guide. The Elderhostel guide didn't seem to like it much. The hotels were decent - better than the big bus tour & some better than I've done when going on my own. In my experience, all tour companies are different. RS is different in a really good way. I'm taking my 2nd tour with them this yr. If this is your first trip to Europe, I'd definitely recommend RS. Going my yourself can be exhausting especially if everything rides on you.
My wife and I have never taken a tour so we can't speak to that and someday I want to go on a RS tour. Hoiwever, we have travelled to a number of countries in Europe. Not knowing the language has never been an issue and in fact has led us to some very fond memories of trying to get around on our own. In some cities we have used guides recommended by Rick Steves and their these tours have been great. We used the RS guide to take us around Dingle and in Vienna we arranged for the RS driver to take us to parts of Vienna we just didn't have time for by public transport. I also believe we used the RS guide in Florence as well. All of them were execellent.