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New world traveler questions...

Hi,

I am new to Rick Steves' tours, new to the planning of a Europe trip, etc.

A couple rookie questions:

When it says these tours plan in "plenty of free time", how much free time is there on a typical day? Or... what is a sample of one day's schedule (with times)?

WHERE to go? First trip... aiming for 3 weeks total. We think Italy and Greece sound good. How many places is reasonable for a tour? Can we fit in more than these two countries and still hit the best of each?

Thanks!

Posted by
2480 posts

I'll only answer the free time question.

Every tour shows a daily itinerary, but they are only general, because exact timing needs to be flexible due to changing situations.

Posted by
598 posts

For your first question, I'm signed up for my first RSE tour in September, Best of Munich, Salzburg and Vienna in 8 Days. The amount of free time varies. On the first day nothing is scheduled until 4pm. On the second day there's a walking tour in the morning, then we're on our own. On the third day there's no time on our own. On the fourth day there's a morning walking tour then we're on our own. On the fifth day it's the afternoon that's free. I find it helpful to pick a tour and look at the "What's included" tab. In my case that's "All breakfasts and half your dinners" so you're on your own for all your lunches and half your dinners, and some time surrounding those meals.

When I travel on my own I look at how many nights I spend per location. Two or better yet three per location is my minimum. And I look at how far apart my destinations are. Rick's website and guidebooks give suggestions on how much time to allow per location, which is helpful. But guided tours move at a faster pace than travel on your own, so don't expect to cover as much ground when you're waiting for trains, standing in line to buy tickets, etc. So: with a guided tour you could spend 14 days on the Best of Greece and still have time for a week in Rome but two entire countries is a stretch. Note too that with a guided tour you want to plan to arrive the day before the tour begins in case of cancelled flights.
Hope this helps,
Marty

Posted by
10334 posts

Are you considering back to back tours in different countries?

Posted by
4 posts

Andrea... Potentially but not sure. We don't want to be too rushed, but since it is an expensive vacation, we'd love to see more vs. less. I just don't yet understand the correct balance.

Posted by
4 posts

Marty,
Thank you for the detailed examples. That gives me an idea of what to expect and how to plan. I have a lot to learn still but this gives me a good idea.

Posted by
509 posts

I have taken two tours with Rick Steves.

Regarding the question on free day, it varies by the individual day. Some days of a tour there is free time, and others there is minimal free time. When there is free time, it is generally an afternoon or morning.

As for your other question, you have to decide where you want to go. I have been to 17 European countries and five outside of Europe. Each was worth visiting.

Posted by
6619 posts

I've done three RS tours, including one in Italy, and a few tours with other companies. I think RS in general offers more free time than others, and doesn't waste time with "shopping opportunities" as many other tours do. You can shop in free time if you want, or explore on your own. You can also skip any scheduled activity, after notifying the guide, as long as you're on time for bus departures so you don't hold up others. There's no "typical" day but a common pattern is a walking tour or site visit in the morning and a free afternoon.

I agree with the point about logistics. With a tour you spend little or no time standing in line or waiting for a train or bus, you get taken straight to and from your hotel, and the included meals happen when they're supposed to. RS tours expect you to handle your own luggage, which can save time too. The RS groups are small, which saves time getting on and off buses and moving around on foot.

With three weeks you could experience a lot of Italy and/or Greece. Maybe try the RS tour in one country and make your own arrangements for the other. (Perhaps a tour would be easier in Greece because the language and alphabet are more difficult than in Italy.) I wouldn't recommend additional countries in that time frame, and you could have a wonderful visit to either Italy or Greece in three weeks.

Posted by
364 posts

You could easily spend 3 weeks just in Italy.

We like a mix of a tour and time on our own. This gives us some downtime from being "on" with a group, as well as time to see some things not included in the tour. Our experience with RS and other tours is that they are very active - you are up and out the door at 8 or 9 am, every day. Some days are all day touring, some days have longer bus travel, some days have ample free time. Check the itineraries of the ones you are interested in. Personally, I think back-to-back tours, unless they were short, would be a little too much go-go-go for me. YMMV.

So we tend to book a tour, and then add days before and after, although we try to make it fairly simple. For example, we did a Rick Steves Portugal tour and just added days in Lisbon before the start, and then added days in Porto, which is where the tour ended. The tour was 11 days, we were gone a total of 18 days. There was a lot in both cities that was not included in the tour, so that worked out great. We did an OAT tour of Greece and Croatia, and added days in Athens prior to the start of the tour (the tour - a small ship cruise - did not include much of Athens, and we wanted to see the major sites). That tour was 16 days, and we were gone for 21 days.

My advice is to decide if you are booking a tour, and then plan from there. Some are 7 days, some are 16 days or more, so that's a consideration. And make sure you factor in travel time with plenty of cushion for late flights, cancelled local trains, etc. Stuff happens!

Posted by
1158 posts

aiming for 3 weeks total. We think Italy and Greece sound good. How many places is reasonable for a tour? Can we fit in more than these two countries and still hit the best of each?

we'd love to see more vs. less

You can't really do justice to these two countries in three weeks, let alone more. Each time you change locations on your own it takes at least half a day, sometimes most of the day. In fact less is more for most travellers.

My suggestion is pick one RS tour, say the Greece one. We did it a few years ago and thought it had a great mix of historic sites, great food, free time including beaches. They call it a "14 day tour" but that's the tour math everyone in the industry uses; it's really 12 days. The first "day" is going to be meeting for introductions and dinner around 6pm, the last "day" ends at breakfast. As you posted tour time is expensive so you want to get over some of the jetlag and build in a cushion for travel delays. I suggest getting to Athens at least the day before the evening start of the tour. So that accounts for 14 days. Then do something like 7 days in the Greek islands or fly to another place. Since it's your 1st trip London/York might be good since no language barrier, or split the week between Rome and Florence.

If Italy is more interesting to you then 14-day Village Italy followed by a week on your own in two larger cities. Tours IMO provide more value when they provide transportation and guides that would be difficult to arrange on your own. Without a car it would be time consuming to visit all the stops on the tour, and you probably wouldn't find guides in most of them. Larger cities (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, etc) are easy to get between on fast trains and there are public walking tours you can take both around town and in museums.

Posted by
14157 posts

"we'd love to see more vs. less. I just don't yet understand the correct balance."

TBH, there is no correct balance. The good thing about Rick's tours is that many do cover a lot of territory so you get a taste of lots of things and can decide which to go back and visit for a more in depth trip. Your view of a correct balance will also change over time as you become more experienced travelers.

I'd agree with others that Italy and Greece is too much for 3 weeks. If you have an interest in Italy, I'd suggest the 17 day Best of Italy tour to start with. You get the 3 famous cities, small cities, rural areas, mountains, lakes and the sea. Go a day or two before and plan to stay maybe a day extra in Rome.

Italy and Greece cover 2 huge cultural areas and may be a bit much for a first trip.

Posted by
1243 posts

I find there is almost always a fair amount of time available to oneself as described in the tour itinerary for example: Your afternoon and evening are free for exploring Athens' marketplaces.

Benefits of the guided tour format: in addition to transportation and lodging, you get not only the entrance to sites, but the tremendous knowledge of the guides. My Way: I loved MyWay Alpine and will probably do this trip again because I enjoy having the transportation and lodging arranged for me, and I enjoy meeting new travel companions. But, I also speak German and have been to many of the locations before. Not having the same level of knowledge of say, Spain, I would probably opt for a guided tour there and not the My Way. I would do My Way as a repeat visit.

Three weeks and you are thinking of 3 weeks in Greece and Italy: how about the Greece tour and the Venice/Florence/Rome tour? Those two would give you a combination of a tour with bus travel and some relatively far-flung locations plus a 3-city tour with lots more feet on the ground time in each location. Just a thought. I have done V/F/R twice. It is an easy choice for when I have not planned in advance - there is always something new to be seen in each city.

Happy Travels!

Posted by
70 posts

Is this your first visit to Europe? Do you anticipate returning to Europe for future trips? Don't feel like you have to see everything the first time!
Are you set on a more immersive tour of a few countries? Conversely, have you considered a more "sampler" approach to your first visit, such as with the Best of Europe tour?
I also like suggestion above of just B o Italy, or Greece plus city stay (I'd like to alternatively suggest Instanbul!)
Have you taken multi week guided tours before? It can start feeling like a long time being scheduled each day, with the same folks, great as the tour is and nice as your tour mates are! (The longer tours do build in a "vacation from your vacation" day.) What about ~ 2 week tour and then ~ 1 week in a city you think you can manage on your own? (with all the travel skills you've learned on your tour ;-)
Look over the Tour Experience Videos and Tour Alum Scrapbooks on this website for more ideas of the RS tour experience. Happy Travels!

Posted by
4 posts

Thank you ALL for your input! For those who asked, this is our first trip to Europe. We have only ever vacationed in the states and in Mexico (5 times). We have also never vacationed for more than about 10-11 days at once. Regarding Europe, this feedback saved me hours of digging to try to figure out how to start planning. Sounds like based on how my wife and I like to travel, we should either just aim for one country this trip or try to add more time.

I also now understand more about how the days play out which will make me more comfortable picking a tour. I will definitely plan to add some days before or after the tour for down time.

THANKS AGAIN!
Colin

Posted by
346 posts

We've been on three RS tours and understand your question about balance. Each tour is unique in free time because it depends on activities and transportation. However, RS does a very nice job of balancing out those items without wasting time. That's one of the reasons we like his tours. His guides are great about giving history lessons on the bus (which makes the trips fun and interesting) and are masters at movement within cities.

Pick one of those two countries and stick with it. We did the Greece tour several years ago and loved it. While the RS tour does not go to the islands (Naxos, Milos, Santorini, etc), they do go to the Peloponnese Peninsula which most people never get to experience. Plus, there aren't a whole lot of road signs so I think it would be difficult driving. We've been to Greece on our own as well and went to Meteora which we absolutely LOVED!!! It would be easy to add on prior to the RS tour. Then, if you want an island experience, Naxos is an easy ferry ride/plane ride from Athens. You can easily plan 3 weeks in Greece and it would be a great first tour to take!

We're scheduled for the Best of Eastern Europe tour this Autumn. I wanted to take a tour for this area because of the history and movement between 6 countries. I know many people say they can do it for cheaper...and I say let them. And because we can, we added the 9 day Italy tour on. I know it's a smattering and we won't get the full experience of Italy, but it works for our schedule.

If the last couple of years have taught us anything it's to jump in and give it a try. The only thing that can go wrong is you experience a fabulous country with friendly people, beautiful sights, and excellent food!

Posted by
40 posts

We’re about to take our 9th RS tour in October. One of our favorites was a back to back. We did one week in Paris which you’re probably thinking you’d rather spend more time seeing more of France but if you’ve ever wanted to go to Paris the tour is fantastic! Then we did Germany-Austria-Switzerland (GAS) tour and that was also fantastic! In April 2024 we’re doing another back to back. Turkey then Greece. We’re in our mid 70’s so hope we can survive it! We’ll be in Greece during Orthodox Easter which I’ve wanted to experience for a long time. No matter which tour you chose you’re going to have a wonderful time!

Posted by
6619 posts

A couple of ideas for your planning:

-- Pick the RS tour you like. Then plan a few days in the city where it starts, or nearby, and the same where it ends, or nearby. Often the tours start and/or end in places like Paris, Berlin, Rome, or other large cities where there's much more to see and do than the tour covers. Some tour materials list major sights not covered. If you can stay in the tour hotel before or after the tour itself, so much the better. Nothing to plan except local sightseeing and maybe a special dinner or two.

-- Choose the flights you like to your starting point and home from your end point. If your choices involve a European hub airport, spend a few days in that city instead of just a few hours' airport layover. For me the relevant hubs are Reykjavik, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. Any of those would be worth a few days' stopover, or even a week. Note that your total flight cost may be more if you treat stopovers this way.

These are ways to break down your choices into manageable pieces. Instead of planning three weeks, you're planning a few days here, there, and maybe somewhere else along the way.

Posted by
131 posts

Colin,

I've been on 3 trips so far (all in Italy) and have one in France later this year, and then back to a 4th Italy tour next year. Here are my perspectives on your questions.

  1. The tours cover half of your dinners, but in reality one or possibly two of those meals might be lunch meals. In other words, if you have a 10 night trip, then you get about 5 non-breakfast meals; maybe 1 of those will be lunch. I think most tours include a first night dinner and a last night farewell dinner. In my experience, the lunches are the best because they are often in a setting such as a winery or a cooking demonstration where you have a huge spread of food and you can try many different things, rather than just a set course.

I mention that just as a way of saying this: even if most of your day is planned with activities, it's entirely possible that you will be on your own for dinner. So even on a very busy day that includes bus transportation between hotels, there will not be activities right from when you get up until you go to bed.

  1. Some days are completely "on your own" days. Generally there is one or two of these on a tour, if I remember correctly.

  2. As to where you should go, I would say this: pick whatever country (or countries) that you are the most excited about seeing. Some people say you shouldn't go to too many places and just focus on one place, but I'm not opposed to adding on a second country. The more you add, the more hectic your trip will be. Our first tour was "best of Italy" and we added 4 days on our own in Switzerland after the tour. On subsequent tours we just added a couple of days pre- or post-tour in the same country. I think I prefer the focus. The more you go on tours, the more you will develop your own preferences.

One of our friends said that if you want to see Greek ruins, a great place to see them is Sicily. I haven't been to Greece so I can't compare, but Sicily was fantastic. But then again, if this is your first trip to Italy, perhaps you don't want to focus on just one part.

What do you want to see? I recommend watching some of the Rick Steves videos/shows to see what looks exciting to you.

Have fun exploring! I hope this helps. Feel free to ask if you have further questions.

Tony

ps: you said "still hit the best of each": I wouldn't try to hit all the "bests". First of all, it's subjective. Best for me is probably not best for you. Second, if you are striving for perfection you are likely to be let down. Instead, just try to appreciate whatever you do end up doing and seeing. Unless this is a once in a lifetime trip, you can always return in the future.

Posted by
66 posts

Hi, Colin,

I’ve just seen your question and want to suggest that scrapbooks and trip reports are a great way to get a feel for what a tour will include. I’ve found both very helpful in making decisions. Also, the maps and daily itinerary detail offer a lot of information.

I love Italy and think one could happily spend three weeks there. Maybe you’d like to consider something like this: Choose the Best of South Italy, which begins in Rome, but get there a few days early so you can see the big sites that aren’t included. Enjoy the tour, then either spend an extra day in Naples, where it ends, or take the train to Florence and spend a few days there.

You could make a similar plan for the Village Italy tour, starting in Venice a few days early and spending a few days in Milan at the end. I’ve done both of these tours and they’re great ways to experience a lot of Italy.

Posted by
2094 posts

We’ve done four RS tours. Our first was Turkey. Take a look at the 21 day Best of Europe tour. We enjoyed this tour immensely and was our second tour. The following two were back to back Portugal and the best of Barcelona and Madrid.
Free time varies and itineraries can change at times due to rain, or whatever!

Posted by
11382 posts

WHERE to go? First trip... aiming for 3 weeks total. We think Italy and Greece sound good.

With 3 weeks doing both Italy and Greece is not practical.

The 17 day Best of Italy, with a few added days nicely fills your 3 weeks.

The 14 day Greece trip with about a week to do a couple of Greek islands, also nicely fills 3 weeks.

When it says these tours plan in "plenty of free time", how much free time is there on a typical day? Or... what is a sample of one day's schedule (with times)?

You need to read the 'Itinerary' for each tour you are considering. Some days on some tours, all day will be your free time; some days may be a morning tour and then travel to the next destination, leaving only a small number of 'free time' hours.
The closest thing to a 'typical day' is a morning walking tour ending around noon and the rest of the day is on your own.