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Comparing RS, Odyssey, and Smithsonian tours of Italy

If anyone here has been on both RS and Odyssey and/or Smithsonian tours, I'd love to get your impressions of how they compare. I've been on 2 RS tours, and enjoyed them a lot. My biggest complaint is that I always wish there were more time to explore the places we visit. I noticed that the Odyssey and Smithsonian tours spend 3 or 4 nights in the same location. That's appealing to me. However, in looking at their itineraries, it seems like they have guided day trips from their base, spend about a half day on the trips, and then return to their hotel. I'm wondering if that's an accurate assessment....and if so, whether that might be just as frustrating--especially if the hotels aren't centrally located.

I'm also interested in learning about your experience with Odyssey/Smithsonian guides and tour mates. in what ways are they similar to those on RS tours, and how are they different? I'm suspecting those on Smithsonian tours might be either older, more wealthy, or more academic than the people on the other tours, just because the primary difference between Odyssey and Smithsonian tours seem to be the addition of the academic subject matter expert, and an additional $1500. What differences have you seen in the makeup of the groups?

I am a long way from actually scheduling my next tour, but I'm looking at the Odyssey Northern Italy and Southern Italy tours, as well as the RS Southern Italy and Village Italy tours. Thanks!

Posted by
20729 posts

It is not a complete apple to apple comparison. Each tour has different objectives as to tour "comfort." Our only experience with Odyssey Small group was 16 days to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. It was very high end about $500/day/person. One hotel we used at the entrance to Machu Picchu had a posted rack rate of $1000/night. Odyssey provided a very high level of support - never carried a bag - outstanding meals and first class and then some at hotels. Tours guides were exceptionally good and, of course, the tour group was less than 20 -- actually on our trip we had 17. It was a fairly intense 16 days BUT very worthwhile and informative. Min amount of "shopping" time.

RS tours tend to be more low key and at a more economic level of travel. Excellent guides with good hotels and meals but you carry your own luggage. I think you really need to look at the details of the daily activity.

Posted by
270 posts

I have not done a Rick Steves tour yet (it's on my bucket list), but I have done two Smithsonian/Odysseys tours, including the Southern Italy tour, and one Smithsonian cruise.

  • Smithsonian usually has a guided tour in the morning and free time in the afternoon. I never went back to the hotel during free afternoons, although some people did. I have found Smithsonian to be very flexible. On the Southern Italy tour, a few of us decided to go to Naples one day instead of to the Amalfi coast, and our tour guide had no problem with it. Another day, a handful of us decided to hike Mt. Vesuvius instead of taking a cooking class in Sorrento. Once again, it was not a problem. On the Turkey tour, we mostly stayed pretty close to the tour guide. I think I was the only person who explored Istanbul on her own, but there were extenuating circumstances that required it.

  • The hotels are almost always centrally located or easily accessible to a central location. In Taormina, our hotel with a gorgeous view of Mt. Etna was at the top of a steep hill, which made for a challenging but manageable walk. There was also a frequent shuttle to the hotel. I didn't feel that I missed anything because of the hotel's location. In Istanbul, we were close to Taksim Square, and I would have preferred to be in Sultan Ahmet. Other than that, the hotels have always been very centrally located. All of the hotels have been extraordinarily nice, sometimes down right luxurious --- I am guessing a step up from the RS tours.

  • The demographic for Smithsonian tends to skew marginally older and wealthier than other tours. They are usually exceptionally well-read, and just about everyone has traveled extensively. Our group in Turkey was especially congenial, and three years later we still sometimes exchange correspondence about reading lists and world events.

  • The subject expert is a big difference between Smithsonian and other tours. Our expert on the Southern Italy tour was both erudite and fun, a delicate balance to strike. He provided a lot of deep context that made the trip more meaningful. On the Turkey tour, our subject expert was fine but possibly a bit superfluous, largely because our regular guide was so amazing. On a river cruise with Smithsonian, I thought that the subject expert was a tad stuffy, although I did learn some things.

  • The activity level is pretty much what you make of it. You can take it easy, or you can give yourself a workout. Turkey was a bit more strenuous than Southern Italy.

  • The food is really good on the Smithsonian tours. I gained 9 pounds on the Southern Italy tour. (Ouch!)

Posted by
270 posts

Judy, Smithsonian contracts with Odysseys for some of their tours, including the Southern Italy tour. You make the reservation through Smithsonian Journeys, but then they hand it off to Odysseys Unlimited. The Smithsonian branded version includes a subject expert and all tips; Odysseys does not. Occasionally, there are some minor differences in the itinerary. For example, the Capadoccia extension on the Smithsonian version of the Turkey tour included a night in Ankara. The itinerary and accommodations for the Smithsonian version of the Southern Italy tour, I believe, are identical to Odyssey.

Posted by
20729 posts

Many organizations hand off their tour programs to a tour/travel agencies such as GoNext or Odyssey Small Groups out of Boston. I would have no problem using Odyssey but they are a high end group. By definition Odyssey tours probably do attract more wealthy people since they are more expensive. A few years ago we did a Cuba trip with GoNext. It was the most exhausting, demanding trip we were ever on. Absolutely exhausted after one week but the most enlightening/educational trip we have ever been on in 30 years of travel.On returning to Miami we spend a week on a Ft. Lauderdale beach recovering. Truly a vacation from a vacation was needed.

Posted by
1002 posts

We have done both RS and Odysseys and like both. We choose the tour company based on the itinerary. Odysseys is more high end, you are expected to tip the main guide, the tour participants are well educated and well traveled but can be a bit spoiled some times. RS tour people are a bit easier to live with and more independent. Both companies give excellent service, have great guides and stand by their product. With Odysseys the airfare is included in the price. You can request the land only price and book your own airfare. That being said, if your flight doesn’t arrive when the other tour participants arrive at the airport then you will have to transfer yourself to your hotel. With the free afternoons on the tours, if you are pooped you can go to room or wherever and chill. Or you can do your homework before the trip and see something the tour doesn’t cover. Next year we are planning on doing the RS Sicily and Southern Italy because we like the itineraries. Either way you can’t go wrong.

Posted by
1472 posts

I would agree with Mary. We’re leaving on our 5th RS tour - Southern Italy and toured Spain & Portugal with Odyssey. I still like RS tours better, but dear friends have moved on to Odyssey tours because they don’t have to carry their luggage and the hotels are more corporate and less quaint. The food on the Odyssey tour was top notch, but sometimes I prefer something more casual. In our experience the RS guides have been more personal - our Odyssey guide was very nice but kept his distance, nothing spontaneous. Travel partners were all nice, but required and expected more service. We ended up getting based in Carmona and did day trips to Córdoba and Seville - it would have been nice to actually stay in one of those towns and get to spend more time. I also agree that I would make my decision based on the itinerary.

Posted by
8731 posts

I have done three RS tours and I'm currently on my second Odysses tour. (I take tours when public transportation isn't great.) This tour is Southern Italy and Sicily. I did their Northern Italy last year and also the RS Village italy the year before.

I prefer Odysses. All hotels are very centrally located. The coaches can't always park near the hotel but unlike with RS tours, the luggage is transported to and from the coach.(In Venice this was well apprecitated.) All tour directors/guides are licensed and from the country you are visiting. The included meals have been great with wine included. Local guides everywhere. You are given plenty of time when visiting a location that includes both guided time and free time.

My current tour has 18 people. Everyone is getting along. All types from different areas of the U.S. and backgrounds. I will say the RS tour people are a little more knowledgable of the local culture but our tour director is doing a great job in teaching people. The only tipping is to the tour director. We are spending 3-4 nights in most locations (but this depends on the tour.)

Having a local guide really helps. I'll give you an example. Sienna was included on both the RS Village Italy tour and the Odysseys Northern Italy. With Odysses, a local, licensed guide gave us a tour of the town. With RS, our guide was not licensed to "guide" so we were told to either use the RS app or the guidebook to take a tour ourselves.

Odysses also has amazing customer service. On my current tour, there was a problem with our hotel stay in Matera. We had to skip the overnight. Instead, we spent one night in Alberobello about a five minute walk to the central areas of the Trulli and an extra night in Lecce. It turned out we all loved Lecce and was glad for the extra night. (I know RS does not really push Apuglia and I'm glad. Hardly any english speaking tourists. It was a highlight I never expected.) Odysses also refunded us $250 and added an extra included dinner as a "We're sorry." We had that last night and it turned out to be one of the best meals we had on the trip. I think the included limoncello helped.

Posted by
460 posts

Thanks, everyone -- this is really helpful information!

For those of you who have been on Odyssey tours, how does tipping the tour director work? Is this done in cash? How much is one expected to tip?

If you have taken an Odyssey tour and opted for their transportation, how was your experience with this? Once you select the airport you want to fly out of, do they give you any options about flights or just tell you what flights you are on?

For me, one of the biggest drawbacks might be the flights. I know you can fly on your own, but it seems to be a better deal financially if you select the package with the flights included. However, I usually like to arrive a number of days ahead of a tour, to get over jet lag, do some touring on our own, and acclimate. The idea of hitting the ground running for a tour isn't super appealing.

How would you compare the amount of time you are given to explore/visit any particular sight on RS vs Odyssey? On the RS tours I usually wished I had more time most places. I'm guessing that would be the case with any tour, but I'm wondering whether you felt you had more time with Odyssey?

For those of you who took the Odyssey Southern Italy tour, how did you feel about combining Southern Italy and Sicily? It seems like that might be too much ground to cover in such a short time?

Of the 4 itineraries (Odyssey Northern Italy, Odyssey Southern Italy, RS Village Italy, and RS Southern Italy) I like the RS Southern Italy itinerary best. But combing through the reviews, that tour has fewer 5 star reviews than do many others, and that concerns me. I have already visited Venice twice, and been to the Cinque Terre on the RS 21 day tour. I'd like to see areas of Italy I haven't visited before. Appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

Posted by
8731 posts

No tour is going to give you lots of free time. They want to include as much as possible. That's why people take tours; to cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time.

You have to go with the itinerary you like best. I'm glad RS does not include Apuglia in any of his books. It was amazing. Very few American tourists so it was not overrun. Most everone we ran into was Italian. No "we serve spaghetti" restaurants. Contrast that with Matera and Alberobello where it was wall to wall people. (And that's April. Can you imagine what it is like in Summer.) I'm in Sorrento now and I can hardly move through the crowds. It's fun to see five British/Irish style pubs on the main pedestrian street. (Not).

That being said, I enjoyed Sicily and will probably go back to see the rest of the island.

As for flights, Odysses will only book flights that leave on day 1 as per the itinerary. I always book my own flights as I like to arrive in Europe a few days before so I can acclimate to the time. Some of the people on my current trip have 6 AM departures from Naples to they can make connecting flights back to the U.S. Their transport to the airport leaves the hotel at 3 AM. Most of the ones who had the tour company arrange the flights were those who wanted everything done for them.

As for tipping, the company states that is is completely up to you but suggests about 10 Euro per person per day for the tour director. All you have to do is put it in an envelope and hand it to him/her at the farewell dinner. Not as earth shattering as some think. All other tips are included.

One thing I will say about Odyssey......since none of the hotels were near where the coach could park I was glad to have baggage service included.

One thing I would like to comment on is the cultural experience. Every day, except travel days, we had a local guide with us. Local as in is from the area. We went to three working farms for lunch/dinner and to see how they each produce different products. We went to one former palace where the owner, the fifth generation of the family, opens it up to groups for meals and they bring in local musicians and singers to perform and teach us folk music of the area. At no time were we told to use a guidebook or listen to a recorded audio for a tour. (That has happened to me on RS tours.)

And there is nothing wrong after a full day of sightseeing and activity to return to a comfy hotel. (Our hotel in Lecce was a former palace.)

Posted by
460 posts

Frank II and Marie -- did you "lose" an entire day on the Southern Italy tour traveling from Sicily to Matera? There are a lot of compelling things about the tour, but I worry it tries to cover too much ground in too short an amount of time. How does the amount of time spent on the bus compare with that of the RS Italy tours you've been on? Thanks!

Posted by
8731 posts

You arrive in Matera about mid afternoon. The other long drive is between Lecce and Sorrento but you spend the morning and have an included lunch in Polignano al Mare which is a beautiful town on the sea.

But I think you are looking for something that doesn't exist--a tour that goes at your speed. If you are afraid of seeing a long drive on one day and that will ruin your trip, then go with RS. RS changes hotels basically every two nights while Odyssey tries to let you stay at least three.

Ultimately, you have to go with the itinerary you like best and the one you feel more comfortable with.

Posted by
270 posts

Ruth, the trip from Taormina to Matera took most of the day, but it was a very pleasant and interesting. The long bus day came after three pretty active days in Taormina, Etna and Agrigento, and so it was nice to be able to relax a bit.

Frank II, I am sorry to hear that Matera was crowded. When I was there in 2014 there were very few tourists. Residents would walk up to us and ask us (in Italian, of course) if we were enjoying our stay and whether we would recommend Matera to our friends. The hospitality was outstanding, and I found the whole place magical in an offbeat way. Of course, this year, 2019, Matera is a European Capital of Culture, which may account for the crowds. When we were there, they had just been selected for the 2019 Cultural Capital status. Everyone we met was so excited about it.

Alberobello is indeed touristy, but still worth seeing. Lecce was great, and I found Otranto especially fascinating. I had not realized before the trip how important Otranto was to stopping the Ottoman advance toward Naples and Rome. Also, the 12th century mosaic on the floor of the Otranto cathedral combined biblical scenes with Greek mythology, Alexander the Great, King Arthur, and more. I have never seen such diverse cultural references in a single work of art. (Oh my, I am enjoying reliving the whole experience.)

Posted by
8731 posts

Marie, we were in Matera on April 25 which is a holiday and that could be the reason it was so crowded.

Our tour encountered some hotel problems. So instead of staying overnight in Matera, we spent one night in Alberobello and added an extra night in Lecce. With that, we got to go to Galatina and Gallipoli on the western shore of Apuglia. I only heard one person outside our group speak English. Never in my life have i seen such clear water as I did at Gallipoli.

At first my tour mates were unhappy with the change. But once we actually did it, we were all happy that we got the extra night in Lecce. We saw parts of the unspoiled Italy rather than just the checklist overcrowded tourist sites.

Posted by
580 posts

@Frank II: You have to go with the itinerary you like best. I'm glad RS does not include Apuglia in any of his books. It was amazing. Very few American tourists so it was not overrun. Most everone we ran into was Italian.

RS doesn't have the whole guidebook market although you're right, places he mentions tend to zoom in popularity both due to his books and others that "discover" the same place. We had a wonderful time in Apuglia, but in general the entire Adriatic side of Italy is far more Italian tourists than British or American. So Apuglia is not the exception, its almost the rule. We liked Trani a lot too! The flip side is you need to learn at least a few words of Italian and be comfortable (or accomodating) to situations where you can't understand everything or communicate all you'd like. Whereas in Sorrento you can do fine without a single Italian word.

The flip side of the story is that even right down the road from the heavily touristed places you can find a more local existence. For example Cinque Terre is filled with tourists, many from America. We read a NYT article a few years back about Lerici, about 15 miles away. Same ocean, same charm, also an Italian tourist destination but unknown to Americans. So again outside of the larger hotels you'll need a few words of Italian, but you can take a vacation with a completely different feel and still take a boat ride across to Porto Venere, drive to Portofino or Santa Margherita Ligure (a better place to visit IMHO), etc. Lerici isn't well served by public transit, but other than that if you visit you might get a sense of what RS might have found a few decades ago in the CT.

Posted by
8731 posts

John....yes, you do have to have some Italian in Apuglia. But that's what makes it great.....it's catering to Italians and not Americans.

I also agree regarding Santa Margarita Ligure. A charming little town that seemed to be lacking in tourists when I spent time exploring. Contrast that to Vernazza that felt like the streets of NYC at rush hour......or even worse.

Posted by
61 posts

Since you are at least considering a tour that includes Sicily I would suggest looking at Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) for a tour of Sicily. They tend to spend three nights at each location. They handle your luggage for you. The tours are smaller than RS, our tour of Sicily had 16 members. The people on our tour were on average a little older than on RS tours (OAT travelers were similar in terms of wealth or education as RS tour members, although overall maybe they hadn't travelled quite as much as the RS tour members). The hotels are generally nicer than RS. The tour guide was just as good as RS guides. The hotels were mostly centrally located (with one exception but it was a really nice resort hotel). They did use local guides just like RS does and they were similar to RS tours. The tour bus was comparable to RS buses. You have the option of booking your flight through OAT and having them pick you up at the airport, however, the cost was more expensive than we got on our own. Instead, we bought our own flights and arrived a few days early to get over our jet lag (we stayed in Cefalu before the tour - we used a car service that we found on Trip Advisor to pick us up from the airport and take us to Cefalu and then a few days later pick us up from Cefalu and take us to the hotel in Palermo. The car service was either Alex Travel or Adriana Viaggi, they may be affiliated companies). On the day we left Sicily we just got a taxi through the hotel to take us to the airport. I really liked seeing Sicily, I found that there were fewer tourists in general than on the Italian mainland (of course they did have tourists like me just not as many and definitely fewer Americans, of the tourists more were from other parts of Italy and some from other parts of the EU). It seemed to me that the people of Sicily were friendlier as a rule than in some big or touristy Italian cities, even in the cities of Palermo and Catania . Also, I felt safer (I did wear a money belt). OAT also offers pre-trip and post-trip extensions to different parts of Southern Italy, we didn't do that (instead we flew from Sicily to London and stayed there for a few days before flying home).

Posted by
5934 posts

We have only ever taken one guided tour and it was with Odysseys Unlimited. We did our own air reservations and went several days ahead to adjust to the 16 hour time change in Asia before the tour began. We stayed in the tour’s first hotel which was very nice. Only one other couple went early which really surprised us. We also added three days at the end and returned to a place which we felt deserved more time. Odysseys had the best, most inclusive itinerary of all the tours we studied and considered. It was also a good value for the length of time for the tour.
The tour was well done, several special events, cooking class was one. Some very nice hotels, one not so nice, one average.
Many of the other participants did not seem to have any confidence in traveling independently but were a nice group from all over the USA. Tips- cash to the guide was suggested at $10-15 per day per person, given at end. We put it in an envelope. Guide was excellent, a native of the country we toured. She had to shepherd 19 people on and off high speed trains, not easy for her.
Odysseys is a good tour company. No one complained about their flight arrangements.

Posted by
25 posts

I have traveled with Rick Steves tours (Eastern France) and Odyssey (Pousadas and Paradores and to Italy).

  1. Odyssey uses mostly 4-5 star hotels but not necessarily in the towns that you are visiting (use hotels as a base and do day trips to major sights).
  2. Odyssey local tour guide tips are included however we were encouraged to pay for local tour guides (why?, felt we were always paying).
  3. Odyssey does take the luggage to/from the bus.
  4. Odyssey the meals were not necessarily "local fare" but more Americanized.

For the money, I enjoyed Rick Steves much better although I had to carry my own luggage. Loved the charming family-run hotels located in town - no bus and close to amenities and tourist sights. The included meals were also better as they were more regional.

Posted by
8731 posts

Local tour guide tips are included however we were encouraged to pay for local tour guides (why?, felt we were always paying)

You should not have had to pay anything extra to any tour guide. Did you tell Odysses about this?

Odyssey the meals were not necessarily "local fare" but more Americanized.

Just the opposite on my two Odysses tours of Italy--we ate regional dishes known to that area and definitey not "Americanized."

On my last tour, there was a last minute problem with a hotel and we had to change the original plans. This happened two days before the tour was supposed to begin. (We didn't miss anything just a minor change of hotels and timing.) It was not Odysses fault. However, Odysses called every tour member to apologize and let us know they were going to refund each of us $250 and added an extra included dinner that turned out to be one of the best meals we had.

Posted by
351 posts

Another vote for OAT. We took their TERRIFIC tour of Sicily, also Umbria & Tuscany (combined in one itinerary). Took RS for Greece & Portugal (two separate tours), Greece being the outstanding-er.

Posted by
2901 posts

Not Italy, but we have taken two Odysseys tours. On neither was any hint given that we should tip local guides. It sounds like there may have been some collusion between the main and local guides. It should have been reported to the Odyssey’s office.
On the general question of carrying your own bags and the related issue of hotels without elevators (thought by some to be “quaint”). One of the main reasons we have taken some tours is our advanced ages, 80 and 82. There is no way I would pay the substantial prices RS charges and carry my own bags, either up stairs, or even from the bus.