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First timer seeking advice

These boards have always been helpful so thanking you all in advance for your most excellent advice!

First, I typically plan my own trips and recently have done some extensive travel pre and post European river cruising. I like the solo travel mix with the detail provided by a guide but loath the feeling of “invading” a culture on a large tour. That said, I reflect on my trip to Spain chaperoning my daughter’s small (8 students) Spanish club trip. Our guide focused on Spanish artists and our 90 minutes in the Prado was the most informative of any museum I’ve ever visited because of that narrow, but deep, focus. My recent “drive-by” of Kunsthistorisches in Vienna left me feeling dissatisfied in comparison.

I’m looking to a RS tour to give me the best of both worlds....breadth with focus! The advice I’m looking for is which type of itinerary to start with, an in depth city (Rome) or a “taste of” regional tour? If I’m going to jump the pond I usually commit to at least 2 weeks so a shorter city tour would give me some solo before and after time and let me experience a RS tour. Just typing this makes me think I’ve already decided but I would appreciate your valuable input!

Posted by
5979 posts

Christine, we've done four RS tours, and looking at another one for 2021. I must say we've been happy with all of them, and I dont think there's a bad choice. I think the answer to your question is really based on what place you want most to see. Our first tour was the 10 day Venice-Florence-Rome which were places we'd never been before. We added a few days in Varenna and Milan at the beginning. We spent just enough time in each place to satisfy our interests. More detailed visits next time. Paris and the Heart of France is another good itinerary, because you can get a lot of Paris on your own before and after the tour. I think I would get antsy spending a whole week in one city, but others would find that ideal. Again, that depends on your interests: hit the highlights or cover as much as you can.

Look closely at each itinerary that you are considering and see how much free time you have to indulge those things that interest you. Adding a few days before and after any of the tours sounds like a good plan. Then there are the My Way tours where they provide the hotel and transport, and you're on you own for everything else.

Posted by
117 posts

Our first tour was Spain and Morocco (sadly shortened and no Morocco now). We chose it as the logistics of public transportation in Spain seemed daunting to plan while working. Our assistant guide recommended Berlin Prague Vienna. Our guide on that trip was a former opera singer and her insights as well as our local guides made that trip much more than just visiting those places on our own—we were sold!

Several tours were chosen due to limits in public transportation ( Adriatic) or special local sites (Eastern France and Village Italy). We have yet to be disappointed.
If you hate moving around, pick a single city. If you want to see more with transportation done for you, pick a bus trip. My guess is, you will have a great time

Posted by
873 posts

This is a good question. I have done 4 tours (3 with RS) so far and they all included moving from city to city. My next tour I am doing the 7 day Paris tour and adding another 7 nights on my own. In the past I thought that I wouldn't really need a tour if I wasn't using transportation, but I think having the guides adds a lot of value.
Anyways, it will be a great experiment, and after the trip, I will know better how to schedule the next one!

Posted by
1003 posts

I chose the Barcelona&Madrid tour as my first RS tour, mostly because it was on the short side and didn't involve bus time. I felt it would give me a feeling for the other parts of a group tour, as I would be traveling as a single.

It was a complete success, I enjoyed the group and the excellent guides! I am currently signed up for tours 7 and 8 for 2020.

Whichever tour you shoose, I think you will enjoy.

Posted by
18897 posts

You might want to read the detailed descriptions of potential tours to be sure they don't visit too many large museums, because I doubt that the large-museum experience on a group tour--even a Rick Steves group tour--is going to be what you seek. I have noticed that tour groups go through museums much faster than I do. I've learned that if Rick's guidebook suggests allowing about 1-1/2 hours somewhere, I will need more than 3.

I think with limited time in a large museum, the tour is going to take you to the highlights rather than providing an in-depth visit to a small part of the collection.

Posted by
2466 posts

We’ve done multiple RS tours including two city tours, London and Rome. We had visited these two cities several times on our own. But, with our experience touring with RS we wanted to see what added value we could find visiting places we’ve already seen. In summary, it was tremendous. Our tour in London, led by the fabulous Tom, was a very busy week. Lots of walking and visiting sites where we met our local guide. Places we’ve seen before, Westminster, the National Portrait Gallery, Windsor, and many others came alive thanks to these special people. We were at the keys ceremony at The Tower of London. Friends of ours traveling independently were unable to secure tickets and they really tried! A fabulous food tour of the East End, afternoon tea. Yes, the time in any major site is limited, as was your time at the Prada, but the guided tours were excellent. Many visited the highlights but spent time on lesser works that we might have breezed by on our own. These times were special. But on this tour as most RS tours, there is ample time to spend on your own once the guide has finished. Please, as you read these posts do take your advice from people who have done a RS tour, not these who speculate what it must be like (usually negative in some way). Rome was excellent as well. The fabulous Francesca took us to the Borghese and we found new love for the works we had seen before. We had several good tips for visiting other sites on our own from our tour guide Sarah Murdoch. A nice feature of the city tours is only having to pack and unpack once which frees up time. Having said that, our favorite RS tour yet was Greece. Have fun choosing!

Posted by
8248 posts

I'd agree that I would go with whatever calls to you most. I've done 11 Rick tours.

One of those was Best of Paris and unfortunately it has set up a bit of an addiction to Paris, lol!! Yep, I've been back 6 or 7 times since that Best of Paris tour! I was NOT a fan of Paris (having been there in 1976 or so for the last visit) but decided I would give this a try and see if the guide could teach me to manage the city. I loved the instruction on using the Metro not just the navigating, ticket/pass purchase, etc BUT the where to stand, what's rude and what's OK, what to keep your eye out for. It really increased my confidence level and my understanding on how Paris works and how I can be an effective tourist.

The other 10 have been the bus tours. Bus time on a RS tour doesn't bother me as there is usually a talk on customs, history, language, geography or something of interest.

Regarding RS tour groups in museums/churches - I've toured many of both on my RS tours. They DO tend to hit the highlights but they also show you (somewhat) how to navigate some of the bigger museums. I generally plan to go back to big museums or Cathedrals on my own time to look at things at a slower pace. One of the best museum tours was at the Orangerie in Paris where we had an art historian. I think some on the tour might have been bored with her lecture on the Water Lilies and Monet as we sat in one of the rooms but I found it fascinating. This spring I did the Belgium and Holland tour and we were broken up in to 2 groups for the Rijksmuseum tour. It was excellent and I saw things I had not seen on a previous visit. At the end of the tour I knew I needed to come back so I skipped some group activities the next day to return to the Rijksmuseum on my own. I was able to spend time in the Impressionist gallery and then move on to revisit the Vermeers and discover a lot more on my own.

I also generally have done about half of my Rick Steves tours solo. I always add time before and sometimes after to do my own touring. If you do sign up for a tour I do recommend you arrive at least one or two nights ahead of the tour start to give you time to adjust from jet lag/travel tiredness and to give you some flex in case of travel delays.

BTW, I've looked at the Rome tour itinerary a number of times and it looks terrific. A "friend" from one of my RS tours is in Rome now with her husband (his first time) and her FB pictures look wonderful. They are doing it on their own as she's been to Rome a number of times but it looks gorgeous with the Christmas lights! It's got me thinking.....!!!

Posted by
56 posts

I have done 3 tours and would suggest the Venice Florence Rome tour as a way to get a taste of Italy and you will see some amazing art. That was our first RS tour and we are heading on our fourth next year. We did arrive a few days early and loved exploring Venice on our own for a few days. Because we have two weeks off we added some extra days in Rome at the end of the tour and actually swapped hotels to be closer to the Pantheon area than the RS tour hotel which on that one was by the Baths of Diocletian if I remember, but they do vary sometimes. Rome is a city I could spend a month in and not get enough of! You will see so much amazing art and 3 wonderful cities. And there is a fair amount of free time to just enjoy yourself too. Either way, on any of his tours, you will have a great experience, that is why so many of us a repeat customers. Good mix of folks on tours too.

Posted by
2265 posts

Christine, I am one who also likes to combine solo travel and the RS tour experience. I will be taking my 12th RS Tour in May 2020 (the new Best of Tuscany Tour) with time on my own before and after. Of course this is easier with a shorter 1-city tour, and becomes a longer trip if the RS Tour is 11 or 12 nights or longer. A few years ago, I faced the same dilemma you mention: I had never been to England, and was unsure whether to take the RS London Tour and add on some time in other places in the country, or take the best of England tour and add on a few additional days in London. Then like magic, I saw an upcoming schedule for each of those tours “on sale” with a nice discount, and one tour ended on a morning in London, and the other began 2 hours away on that same afternoon, i took the 2 tours, back to back, and that worked out very well for me.

Given this choice, my advice would be to take an RS tour that moves through various cities and towns and countryside, more difficult to do on your own, and ends in a large city where you would like to spend more time, such as London, Rome, Paris, Seville, etc. That way, you spend time on your own after you are more accustomed to the culture, language, etc. and your knowledgeable RS guide can offer guidance on how to best spend your additional days in that city. You can also take some guided, small group, day tours in that city, if you enjoy the experience with a good guide.

Posted by
4984 posts

Haven’t taken an RS Tour yet, but we used Rick’s guidebook and audioguides extensively in Rome. Our one human-guided activity that trip was for the Colosseum Underground tour. But based on your Prado experience, the wealth of museums in Rome might give you the benefit of a professional guide(s). And since you value time for solo travel, while Rick’s tours appear to include generous free time, a shorter tour would let you “dip your toe in the water,” rather than jumping in all the way for a week and a half or more, meeting the bus at the appointed time early in the morning so many days.

Posted by
1954 posts

Christine,
I can share my experience with you regarding city tours. I took the 7 Days in Rome tour and added days to it. The Berlin Prague Vienna tour gives you 3 nights in the major cities and 1 night in Dresden and 1 in Cesky Krumlov. I added days before and after the tour. Bus time is minimal and most of the tour is focused on the cities.
I have also taken several tours with bus time that cover more ground in a country. The guides are good about providing interesting stops along the way. I have to make up my mind that I will use the bus time to rest, relax or visit with tour mates. There is no way to avoid the bus time on some of the itineraries. I see these tours as providing highlights of a country or region. The city tours allow more free time I think as well as a focus on the city.
I'm sure you will enjoy whatever tour you choose. I would love to know what you decide!
To clarify, I've been on 7 RS tours so I'm speaking from my own experience and not speculating.

Posted by
2466 posts

meeting the bus at the appointed time early in the morning so many days

From a poster who has never taken a RS tour. Most stays are 2-3 nights with 1 night stays the exception. Usually the bus leaves around 9, occasionally earlier if there is a good reason. Always time for breakfast. An example: the Greece tour where out of 14 days we had to get on the bus 5 mornings.

Posted by
4984 posts

Hey, I stated up front that I’ve not yet gone on an RS Tour. But I’ve read trip reports and postings from folks who said they had.

Christine, you asked about longer regional trips vs. a shorter city-focused trip, so I was offering a couple of factors that might help with the decision.

If some folks would prefer wording that could seem more accurate, or less judgmental, how about “X number of days” instead of “so many days?”

And, personally, when I’m on vacation, 9:00 am is plenty early some days!

Posted by
3409 posts

I look for tours where there is something of special interest
1. I chose Paris and the Heart of France because I liked where it went and felt a little cautious about getting everywhere myself.
2. I chose Best of Switzerland because I wanted to go everywhere on the itinerary and would have built in hiking companions.
3. I chose Best of Adriatic because I felt less likely to travel there solo.

I find it far easier to travel solo in when in a city rather than relocating from place to place. I'd go for the tour that moves.

I will say that the added value of the guide and the well thought out experiences and logistics are important elements of each Rick Steves Tour. I have only ever had the nicest groups of people to travel with.

I do suggest the single supplement. It is worth the investment.

Posted by
996 posts

Fellow Tennessean here. I've traveled to Italy multiple times, including one RS tour. I'm not certain I understand where you want to go in Italy, but if it were me, I'd focus on a couple of issues.

If traveling by yourself, you have SO much flexibility! If Italy is your goal, then first consider what you need/want to see/experience to feel that you have traveled to Italy. Specific sites? Food? Something historically significant?

For example, if I wanted a taste of Italy on my first experience, I'd consider booking a RS tour that takes me to the places I most want to see. Rome? Venice? Florence? Those are the big three. You can always add to that by arriving early/staying later and booking some local tours or striking out on your own to see various sites. What means the most to you when touring Italy?

Posted by
3768 posts

Hi Christine, for our first experience in Italy, we took the 17-day Best of Italy RS tour, and it was excellent! Many of our favorite moments were outside the Big 3, so I’m really glad we didn’t just start with a city tour. In fact, that’s been our favorite RS tour, and I have returned to almost every place we stayed in subsequent trips, adding new cities to explore more of beautiful Italy.

Any one of his trips you choose will be great!

Posted by
4601 posts

Christine, we've done 14 RS tours: a mix of city tours (Florence, Rome, Paris, London); longer "bus tours:" 21 day Best of Europe (twice,) Best of Sicily (twice,), Villages of South England, Village Italy, Best of Eastern France, Best of Belgium and Holland; and tours that might be considered hybrids: Barcelona and Madrid, Paris and the Heart of France.

One of the things we love about RS tours is that the guides focus on teaching. Teaching about the culture, the history and economy, daily life; but also, as Pam mentioned, teaching us how to get along. How to use public transportation, how to not be ugly tourists, how to get around on our own.

Another thing we love is the amount of free time on the tours. This varies, of course, but I've been amazed at how much free time there is on most of the tours. That gives us a chance to stretch our wings and practice what we've learned.

The third thing that makes RS tours special is the guides. Not only the tour guides, but also the local guides, who are specialists in their city or region.

We've had a few duds (sorry) but on the whole the guides are amazing. I was interested in Pam's story of the art historian at the Orangerie; I too was captivated by her, and learned so very much. (As it happens, she was not only our local guide for that outing, she was our tour guide for the whole Best of Paris!) We had a similar experience in Madrid. Our tour guide acted as our local guide in Madrid, and for the first time ever I was able to appreciate the art of Dalí, because of Federico's masterful explication.

To make a very long story short, sign up for any RS tour in an area that interests you. Do your homework before you go, and be sure to tack on a few days both before and after the tour. I'm willing to bet you a lunch that you will not be disappointed.

Posted by
1583 posts

Your post speaks in part as to why, while we are due to take our 3rd river cruise, we prefer the style of travel we’ve experienced on our 5 RS tours. When we’ve been dismissed for “free time” on the river cruise tours, there are usually time constraints based on location (not in the center of town) or sailing schedule. On our RS tours, when we’ve been dismissed there is either time to explore the museum in greater depth or explore the town for as long as we want. That keeps us from the getting the “drive by” feeling.

If you are set on Italy, either the suggested Venice, Florence, Rome would give you a good overview with enough information on Rome to send you off on your own, or maybe our first tour, Heart of Italy.” You mention that you’ve done extensive travel, but don’t mention where or if you are set on Italy, so I will just say we chose some of our tours based on trying to see places that may physically be beyond us in a few years and those that had an unfamiliar language.

Posted by
61 posts

Thank you all for your input! I am rather set on Italy. I was actually thinking of The Best of England to pull me out of London but got a sudden itch for something very different and I’ve not yet been to Italy. And for the first time someplace different I was thinking 7 days in Rome would be a bit more immersive and allow me to test the waters. Then again a “tour” would permit me to test more! Arrrrgh! Yes, I have a habit of overthinking almost to the point of paralysis, but the common thread in all the replies is that I probably can’t go wrong no matter what I choose, though Heart of Italy is rising in the ranks!

Now the question is when... I typically travel in late fall for cooler temps and fewer crowds but don’t feel like waiting now that the bug has bitten. How is the weather in March??? 😀

Posted by
362 posts

Go to the Heart of Italy tour info page on the Rick Steves site, scroll down, and click on the "When to go and Weather" section. There's a chart of average monthly temps for Rome and Florence and also average days with no rain. March would be cool, with highs in the mid to upper 50's, but looks like not too much rain. Also check online for average times the sun sets so you'll know how much daylight you'll have. The March tours are filling fast, there are still some left for April.

Posted by
31294 posts

Christine,

March might be a bit early for northern Europe, but you could get favourable weather. I took the RS South Italy tour in mid-April and the weather was great. On another trip a few years later, I was in Tuscany in mid-May and encountered a bit of rain and colder conditions. Regardless of what time of year you travel, you'll just have to take your chances. Your best bet is probably mid-to-late April or early May.

Posted by
69 posts

Like you, we've enjoyed being independent travelers for many years. We still do. However we decided to try the RS Heart of Ireland Tour in 2017 and we enjoyed an intelligent and friendly experience! We had excellent guides who very informative and engaging. We also had a very skilled driver who navigated country lanes and hairpin turns with remarkable accuracy; there was always plenty of room on the bus - and not driving meant we could both see more.

The tours seem kinda pricey (and certainly cost more than independent travel). Yet about halfway through our RS tour I realized it was a "bargain". The tour exceeded our expectations. We saw more and learned more than we could have in the same time on our own. We also enjoyed the fellowship of our fellow tour members - and we are still in contact with some of them.

I do recommend taking some time before the tour and/or after the tour to enjoy some B&Bs. This will allow you the pleasure of some independent travel as well. We had great hosts in Ireland and we exchanged Christmas cards after our visit. :)

Posted by
1954 posts

Christine,
To answer your question about going to Italy in March, I did the 7 Days in Rome tour the last week of March in 2017. Perfect time, fewer crowds, cooler temps in the mornings - jacket/sweaters and mild 70 degrees in the afternoons. I arrived a day early and stayed 3 days after to go to Naples/Pompeii for 2 nights.
Fantastic tour! I don't think you can go wrong with this tour.

Posted by
657 posts

IMHO you get more of the value of a RS tour when there are multiple locations. For a city tour (Rome, Paris, London) you could arrange for many tours yourself (a mix of public tours and hiring a guide) and still be under the RS trip cost. No, it isn't exactly the same, but it isn't the same cost either.

Where a tour really shines is in finding extra hours every day. You take a bus on the Italy tour to visit a hilltown and parking isn't your problem, the bus drops you off and you start visiting. The bus leaves from your hotel, you don't lose time getting to the train station, waiting for a train, getting from the stop to where you want to be, etc. Even little things like finding your next hotel and checking in goes quicker on a tour; the bus goes near the entrance and they announce your rooms on the bus, you just smile and pick up the key at the desk. The bus pulls into a stop, you get lunch and then meet a local guide who shows you around, then back on the bus to the place you're staying 2 nites; this would be difficult to do on your own even if there are public tours in the city you visit; what are the odds they are at the time you want? I'd say it would take an independent traveller 4 days to do what the tour does in 3.

The flip side, of course, are all the posts above from people that have loved RS city tours. You need to decide what is right for you.

Posted by
61 posts

Allrightythen… Thanks for all the advice! Given time to mull, and question, and research.... I've decided to book the Venice/Florence/Rome tour. The $300 discount on the March 20th itinerary helped! I think I'll fly into Milan, spend a couple days working my way to Venice then head to Sorrento after Rome for a few days. I've always wanted to see Pompeii!

So, folks, how'd I do???? And how long does it really take for RS to confirm your reservation? I'm ready to start booking flights and extra hotels!!!

Posted by
4984 posts

Good for you, Christine! My extra 2 cents worth, if you’re heading to Sorrento for a few days afterwards: consider seeing Herculaneum (Ercolano), as well as Pompeii. It was buried by the same volcanic eruption, is smaller than Pompeii, but different in other ways, as well, and certainly worth a visit. The Circumvesuviana train also makes it easy to get from Sorrento to Naples for a visit to its exceptional Archaeological Museum, with lots of amazing artifacts recovered from Pompeii.

Posted by
3409 posts

I expect you will receive your confirmation by the end of the day today (30th).

Good for you for trying something new and heading off for an adventure sooner rather than later. I think you will really enjoy your trip!

Posted by
8248 posts

Fun! I'm glad you made your decision and yes, I can see that discount being a motivating factor.

Looking forward to a Trip Report when you return!

Posted by
4601 posts

Congratulations, and welcome to the Rickniks!

Posted by
657 posts

I'll second the suggestion about also visiting Herculaneum, thought it was a great site. Actually liked it better than Pompeii. If you go to Pompeii I'd strongly recommend a guide, I think it would make things a lot more interesting. They have guides standing out front that put groups together, you can read more about them in the RS book.

Taking the Circumvesuviana train is easy; on the way to Sorrento the good views of the ocean are on the right side of the train. You might want to get the Campania Arte Card that includes 3 days transportation and admission to 2 museums. See https://www.european-traveler.com/italy/save-with-the-campania-arte-card-at-pompeii-herculaneum-and-naples/ or other sites you can find online. We bought ours at the Garibaldi train station (there was a marked booth) before going downstairs to the Circumvesuviana. Looking on the https://www.campaniartecard.it/tour-item/travel-around-campania-region/?lang=en official website, though, it isn't clear if the pass is good on the train all the way to Sorrento so you might want to check before buying.

In the evenings we really enjoyed getting a drink and watching the sun set on the patio at the Foreigners Club. Just tell the hostess you want seating for drinks only (of course you could eat there if you wanted)