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How Rick Steves tours are different than other tours.

I often get asked this question by people who are interested in why I keep taking Rick Steves tours. I like the fellow tour members and getting to know them and staying in the center of the historic parts of the cities. But the main reason is that the RS tours utilize all five of your senses. Let me explain, all tours use vision as the main sense in your trip, for many they are loaded on buses and driven around a city with someone pointing out the key sites, you might stop and someone with a flag on a stick takes you through a museum,etc, but it is mostly just seeing things of interest.

I have found that on the RS tours they like to involve all five senses, the group dinners are usually in non-tourist restaurants, so you taste what the local cuisine is really like. You get to take a cooking class on most every trip that also brings taste into the experience. When we were in Scotland we went to a sheep dog demonstration and as we sat on the rocks watching the dogs work the sheep, one came over and sat next to my wife and she petted and interacted with him the whole time., touch is a powerful experience. While on the Sicily tour we were invited into the home of a Countess and at one point sang for us (she had been a opera singer), while in Tuscany a local farmer had us operate a machine that shakes olives out of the tree to be harvested. While in Switzerland we visited a family home in the high meadows and helped make cheese, the smell of that experience was a mixture of the heating of the milk vs the cows and milking them.

So, in conclusion, I think that the reason I enjoy taking the RS tours is that they work hard to involve all five of my senses and for me that makes the trips exceptional experiences.

Posted by
111 posts

Thank you for this post. I am already convinced that a Rick Steve’s tour is right for us. Reading your post makes me even more thrilled with our upcoming trip. I agree with your thoughts about involving all of our senses for a truly memorable experience. Hands on has always been my prefered method of learning. We are scheduled to go on the Best of Venice, Florence, Rome trip this fall. Yes there is a cooking class among other wonderful experiences. I believe that we have chosen wisely with regards to tour group experiences :)

Posted by
9091 posts

There are many other tour companies very similar to RS Tours… Road Scholar is one.

Posted by
98 posts

Nice post. Valuable perspective. Thanks! (I have yet to actually take a Rick Steves tour but have used his guidebooks and other resources in planning trips to Italy, Ireland, Scotland, etc.--and now Iceland for next year). A tour has long been on my bucket list, and more so now after reading your post.

Posted by
4082 posts

It's so interesting that you should say that. I commented the very same thing about my recent RS Best of Istanbul and Best of Turkey tours.

The variety of activities is a mix for all the senses: the blockbuster sights of the Mosques, palaces and ruins, the varied taste of the Turkish cuisine, street foods and surprising Turkish desserts, the smell of the spices and teas at the Spice Market, the sounds of the Calls to Prayer and the imam who sang a prayer for us, the feel of the Turkish silk carpets and the swim in the Mediterranean!

It was also a great mix of indoor and outdoor activities: Mosques and museums, boat rides and (optional) balloon rides.

I agree, it made for an exceptional sensory experience!

Posted by
13796 posts

How many other tour companies have you traveled with? I'm guessing none.

Almost all decent tour companies do what you describe you get on an RS tour. Hands on experiences, demonstrations, cooking classes, and much more are found on most guided tours. It's far more than just raising a flag and pointing out a window.

I have worked a 400 year old olive press in Crete, rode a former narrow gauge log hauler in Northern California, had a cooking class in Takayama, Japan and then walked a few blocks to learn how sake is made; visited numerous wineries, breweries and distilleries, hunted truffles in Italy followed by a dinner where every course contained the fruits of our search, visited a farm in Sicily and was shown how they were able to work despite being close to Mt Etna.It was followed by lunch where everything we ate was grown or raised on the farm. In Greece, we learned how to pick wild herbs and identify them by what they look like, how they felt and how they smelled.

I could go on and on. And all of this was done on non-RS tours.

Posted by
1683 posts

I have been on tours with 2 other companies. One was Road Scholar. I went on 3 tours with them. 1 was excellent, 1 was average and 1 was below average in every way. The group size was larger and their hotels were not consistent or as comfortable. The other tour company was twice the cost of RSteves and we were stuffed in a bus where they played videos during bus time instead of the tour director talking to us and answering questions. Their hotels were mainly out in the country, not near the center so you were stuck in the evening to either the bar in the hotel or watching tv in your room. All meals were served in the hotels. I encountered a problem on the tour at one of the hotels and the tour director's answer was "well, at least we will only be here one night." No offer of help. I like Rick's philosophy of teaching us to travel on our own, I like the smaller tour size, I like the tour guides (all but one out of seven has been absolutely excellent and always helpful.) I like the people who take the tours. They tend to be mature professionals who watch PBS and have also traveled independently, but using many of the skills they learned in Rick's books and shows. I especially like the 'no grumps' policy.

Posted by
2185 posts

Odysseys Unlimited is another small group tour company. We have taken 6 Odysseys Unlimited trips and I highly recommend them. They stay at more upscale places than the Rick Steve’s tours. That being said we are due to take our 6th and 7th RS tours in a little over a month. We choose a tour based on the itinerary for the most part. We have also traveled with Scenic USA and NatGeo Lindblad which are also excellent companies.

Posted by
2105 posts

I've been on tours other than Rick Steves, and none have been quite as good as RS.
I've done 2 with RoadScholar, and both had flaws. I found them very inconsistent.

I'll be doing a second Odysseys Unlimited this summer. It seems to be the best choice for non-Europe destinations. The first was fine, but I would rate the guide a bit below any of the 7 RS guides I have traveled with.

National Geographic was a once in a lifetime wonderful in all respects delight.

Trafalgar was the stuffed big-bus, shopping and tipping tour. Once was enough.

Posted by
992 posts

Yes RS tours are excellent. I have been on 8 and 1 coming mid July. But when Covid hit, it was not nice to your guides and the industry. I have been fortunate to have two RS guides strike out on their own. In small group tours.

I am finishing up an Iceland tour with Igot2travel. James MacLetchie . His good friend / guide does Iceland.(Hildur). Only four of us on this tour plus her. It has been fantastic week. She knows history, stories, places see and what time to get there, etc. We travelled in a 8 person Mercedes large van. Very comfortable. I highly recommend this tour. We will see how Our RS tour will go next month. But I am liking this small group thing!

We leave on Monday to head for Scotland, again, for another tour for two weeks. I will report more on Iceland when we get home.

I am going to miss Hildur, our new friends and Iceland.

Posted by
8061 posts

we've been on tours with two other companies. As Laurie Beth, says, the difference to me is the people. RSE has a set of expectations and assumptions for participants, that screens out people who are high maintenance, those expecting handholding and luxury, and the uncurious. People on other tours were like the stereotyped Americans, who wanted to avoid any contact with any non-english speakers, weird food, or any unfamiliar customs.

i've mentioned it before, but I had a conversation with one of our coach drivers, a Belgian, who told me he loves driving for RS tours, because we were " . . . above average, for Americans".

Posted by
884 posts

I agree with others that these unique experiences on a tour also happen with other companies. We've take 8 tours/river cruises with Tauck. Yes, there is a level of luxury reflected in the tour price, there are drive by and guided tours, the hotels generally been in the heart of the action, etc. But there are also experiences such as a sheep herding demo in Ireland, lunch and a chat at a Irish dairy farm, other meals with estate owners in England and France, a tour and lunch at a Loire valley winery, etc. I like what RS brings to tours and wouldn't mind the itinerary at all. And I don't have to stay in 4/5 star hotels. But I do want to know up front what the hotels will be like. Even if I limit myself to carry-on only, I don't really want to schlep it a couple of blocks, drag it up flights of stairs, or attempt to sleep in a room with noise or no AC in a heat wave. I'm currently looking at a 2 week Scotland tour that is mid price between Tauck and RS. It tells you up front what hotels so you can check them out before committing money. None were luxury but decent hotels with reasonable amenities and affordable restaurants.

Posted by
836 posts

I agree with cj-traveler = we LOVE Tauck over all other tours. The price is higher, but it's worth it. We have been on a few RS tours - which we liked a lot and plan to do Sicily and maybe Spain. But - our hotels with RS were not so great, we had to carry luggage up 6 flights of stairs in Venice (no elevator). Hotel in Florence was across the bridge and not that big of a deal, but not super convenient either. All the included dinners was a SET menu, no choice at all -- in Italy, we did NOT like that - most people go to Italy for the food and we were VERY disappointed with all the included dinners. No choice at all, all set menus. I love that Tauck lets you order whatever you want. Now we loved our 'on our own meals' with RS, but not one group meal made us happy. I will say that the guides and things we learned on RS was just as good as Tauck -- Tauck was maybe a notch above, but RS was still very very good. If you go just to see and learn things, RS is GREAT. But the hotels and food have always underwhelmed us.

Posted by
81 posts

ChinaLake67: I think you are hitting on a difference between the tours, but I'm not so sure it's the right difference for me. (In other words, I think I am more aligned with the Rick Steves tours, though I have never been on a Tauck tour.)

About the food: yes, I did not get to choose what I ordered in the last tour (South Italy) - but I tried some things I never would have ordered. In fact, I don't think I would have chosen a single one of the courses that we had on our last meal - and yet it was perhaps the best meal I've ever had on a tour. Pasta with potatoes? Sounds heavy and not very interesting, but it was fantastic. Steak? Who cares, I can get that at home anytime, but it was great. And the baba for dessert: eh, it looks kind of syrupy and besides, I don't like rum - isn't it served with rum? Wow, that dessert was to die for.

I agree with you that one goes to Italy (at least in part) for the food. For me, that's about 99% of the reason, actually - but wow, I was very happy with the meals.

The best meals, in my opinion, were the ones where there were a large number of things to try and you could graze, go back for different items; Each of the tours so far has had some of those, and they are always fantastic to me. Sometimes something as mundane as a vegetable dish is so outstanding you want to go back and have seconds.

As for the hotels: some are just "eh, ok" and some are charming in some way. Personally I don't mind the lack of an elevator or having to carry luggage up flights of stairs, but just about all the hotels have something interesting - and many are in very good downtown locations; they all have one thing in common: they all feel like they are not catering to american tourists, but are offering something a bit more "local". I don't know, maybe that's an odd or subjective thing, but a Hilton feels like a Hilton: you could be in Tampa or San Diego or Buffalo. But the places we stay at on Rick Steves tours don't feel at all like a Hilton. They feel like you are local.

I'm not saying they are for everyone, of course.

Posted by
40 posts


Thanks for posting a little "balance" here.

Posted by
3009 posts

I think the idea that a "person", Rick himself, is behind it, is a draw for many. This is as opposed to a "faceless" tour company; many people are just wired to identify with a "person", and that identity gives them comfort and provides a framework, a philosophy, a mission statement as to the style and type of travel.


Posted by
4082 posts

Tony, you make a good point that I hadn't really considered since I've only been on an RS tour. In at least one of our on your own lunches, we had a blended meal where one specific dish (with various options for meat and vegetarian) was made available to everyone and we could choose the rest of our meal from a counter. Had that one dish not been encouraged, perhaps I wouldn't have tried it. And I'm very glad I did.

I guess we had a best of both combination.

Posted by
30 posts

Donald, your post was very enjoyable to read. Reading it I felt like I was on a mini Best of Europe trip! The experiences you've described are exactly what I am looking for as I consider booking my first group tour to Europe (had originally hoped for 2022, but more likely 2023),

Having worked in the travel industry in my previous career I know there are other companies that offer similar experiences to RSE. But I wonder if those companies attract more "grumps." For example, Tauck has a travel forum similar to RSE. I've read through some of the posts to get an idea about Tauck's trips. There is a guy over there who jumps all over anyone who comments on posts he deems are too old, and a woman from England whose comments are so passive aggressive I wonder how Tauck allows her to continue on their forum, let alone their tours.

Still, like CJTraveler I would like to know ahead of time what hotel I am staying at before I commit. It's one of the reasons I haven't pulled the trigger on a RSE tour yet. (That, and the possibility of little or no AC. Ack!)

Currently on my coffee table I have brochures for 2023 trips from Tauck, Odysseys Unlimited and Smithsonian Journeys. All look very appealing, but I keep coming back to RSE and this forum. (I am a regular viewer of Monday Night Travel, too!) If I decide on a RSE tour I will likely go with a one week city tour - like Barcelona/Madrid or Paris - to see what it's like before making a 2-3 week travel commitment. Honestly, it's tough to decide!

Posted by
9091 posts

Paul, you hit the nail on the head. The fact that there’s someone many of us “know” that runs the company, that so many of us have watched his TV travel shows for decades, and that he seems so accessible (podcasts, blogs, hosting his tv shows during pledge drives, seminars, etc) distinguishes RSE from others. It makes people feel like we know him personally, that he is a friend.

Rick Steves is the Mister Rogers of travel… lol.

Posted by
113 posts

Observations from the 3 companies I’ve toured with:
Rick Steves - enthusiastic and nice group of people to tour with. Hotel rooms are mediocre. Tours reasonably priced. RS tours are the largest I’ve traveled with. Guides are knowledgable, kind and helpful. (Best of the Adriatic; My Way Best of Europe. Will add My Way Alpine Europe next month.)

REI - exciting, outstanding adventure and locations! Hotel rooms were better, but cost of tour was also more expensive. Small tour group. Guides were personable, but not particularly helpful. (Hiking the Camino de Santiago)

Adventures Abroad - exotic destination options. The average age on these tours is “old” - but the travelers on these tours were also the most traveled people I’ve encountered. Many were close to having visited all countries on earth! Modestly priced and good accommodations. 3 absolutely amazing guides, and 1 mediocre guide. Two of these tours remain my lifetime favorites. (Mongolia including the Gobi Desert and the Naadam Festival; Ladakh Gem of the Indian Himalayas; Costa Rica family tour; Greek Islands family tour.)

Posted by
206 posts

I have taken tours with a number of companies, although none with RSE. I’ve done the large coach 40 plus person tours, which I would never do again. Still, they did offer some of the experiences the OP mentions.

The tours I enjoy the most are the small group, maximum 16 people tours. These use small vehicles that can go so many more places than the large coaches can go. They also offer the experiences that the OP mentions. They also offer budget tour to premium tours so cater to different budgets.

I like staying in local hotels (not chains) that are well located. They don’t have to be luxury, but they have to have character. I hate set menus and prefer to do tours where not a lot of meals are included.

I have to agree with the poster who mentioned having a “face” and tv show behind the tour company is something that would differentiate RSE tours.

@travelnurse I have seen some of the posts on the Tauck board. There is one person who is quick to label everyone as fake if they only have one post or post anything slightly negative about a tour. My view is, there is a difference between a grump, who complains about every little thing, and someone who posts about a valid concern. Not everything can be sunshine and roses on every tour all the time.

Posted by
58 posts

I have taken tours with REI, Backroads, Collette, Insight and RS. REI and Backroads are adventure companies, so their trips are active and a little different than the others. The active trips are more about communing with nature and less about seeing sights.

REI only does US domestic now as they closed down their international trips (I was not happy because they canceled our trip to Norway a couple of months before we were supposed to go). I really enjoyed our trips with them and they are more reasonable than Backroads so I was disappointed they stopped their international trips.

Backroads is a high-end active company. Their trips are limited to 5 nights/6 days which I think is too short. Backroads are smaller groups and they pamper you. They stay in 5-star hotels, which I thought wasn't necessary since you hike all day then eat and sleep so you don't really spend much of your waking hours in the hotel. The guides are first rate. You are expected to tip the guides (which there are 3) at the end. I would do their trip again only if the itinerary fit my trip.

Collette and Insight had the same formula. Bus trips with 4-5 star hotels. Great guides. I didn't like that they pushed optional excursions for a cost. It seemed to me like it was just a way to get you to spend more money for your trip. Also, unlike RS tours you are expected to tip the bus driver and the tour guide. Collette does offer a small group option for some of their destinations. We liked the small group option better than the larger group option. It was fun on Insight because it is a British company and our group was all Australian which made for some good fun since we were the only Yanks.

A colleague of mine has done Odessey Unlimited and really swears by them. I've often heard they are like RS but with better hotels. We are going to use them on our non-European trips. We plan to do our first Odessey trip to Vietnam next year. I'll report back.

We are also doing a Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) trip this summer. This is another active company. Originally, we were supposed to do an REI hiking trip to Peru but the Pandemic hit and like I said REI no long offers international trips. We found MLP with some research and found that they were the company that contracted with REI (and I think the Backroads) to conduct their trips before so I think we are cutting out the middle man. We saved thousands of dollars on our booking. I will report back on our experience doing the lodge to lodge hiking on the Salkantay trek.

We really liked RS trips more than most of the others. We liked the fact that they were active but also allowed for free time. My wife and I typically only take the hiking trips to appease our kids desire to be active although hiking to Machu Picchu is something we really look forward to doing on our own.

Posted by
884 posts

I'm a regular on the Tauck forum and yes things have been testy the past year or so. Was not this way before covid. Last year it was mostly the arguing over covid discussions re restrictions, politics, etc. Now it's been because of issues on tour. River cruise staffing and supply chain issues were causing issues though I suspect Scylla (the company that actually runs the ships Tauck uses) has resolved most if not all of that by now. There's also been mixed reports of how things were handled if people tested positive on tour. Now that the US test to return requirement is gone, I believe that too will be less of an issue.

I've also been on this forum long enough to remember there have been fights and rude comments here as well. I would assume that that doesn't mean people on RS tours are rude and grumpy.

Pick the company that best suits your interests, physical capabilities and pocketbook. Everyone is different. I wished I'd discovered RS tours when I was a younger single eager to travel but not having a lot of money to spend on it.

Posted by
99 posts

We are going on our 3rd RS tour next month (Germany & Austria) & have our 4th RS tour booked (Greece) for next year.

Up until 2017, we hadn’t used a tour company except for day or side trips.

Maybe there are other tours out there very much like these – but we are happy with these so – we’re good!

Stan - your post gave me a chuckle!

Susan - RS is the MR Rogers of travel - smiling - VERY GOOD!

Posted by
111 posts

It's a shame some of the comments on here have been reduced to political commentary (and I say that as a Canadian). Perhaps we should embrace the fact that travel has the ability to supercede politics. No matter what side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, we can all appreciate the fact that travel is perhaps the best way to break down barriers and preconceived notions.

Posted by
4010 posts

I've now been on 6 RS tours. Five of them I traveled solo. Being older, having some medical issues and not being a drinker, I probably haven't socialized as much in the evenings as many tour participants.

Perhaps that's why with all those people, I have absolutely no clue as to what their political preferences are and I don't remember a single discussion about politics in the US.

I do remember what I learned from the tour guides about the politics and social situations of the countries we were in. That was both from what they told us and from their answers to the questions we asked. It was mostly factual information, but I appreciated their experiences of and viewpoints on related matters. Based on the comments up thread, I think the tour guides I've had share the real people gene with RS.

My most recent example of that was our Best of Ireland in 14 Days tour guide this summer. It was fascinating learning what this Belfast native lived through as she grew up during the "Troubles." But we never learned whether she was Catholic or Protestant, nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist.

We did learn that she has passports for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, that she's glad she lives in Northern Ireland partly because of the UK's health system and that she's a huge fan of Van Morrison. 😊

Posted by
890 posts

I've removed several posts that pertained to US politics. Please don't politicize our tours. Our tours are for everyone. And having guided our tours, we get a variety of viewpoints and interests among our tour members. It's what helps our groups be fun and interesting. We're all there to enjoy travel together.

Posted by
153 posts

I'm curious if other companies offer tours similar to RS' "My Way" tours......does anyone know of any?

Posted by
8061 posts

lamb616, its probably worth starting a new thread with your question, as it will be buried in this old thread.

Posted by
21 posts

Thank you for removing the political statements. I go on trips to relax, not to talk politics!