I will be taking my first tour to Europe (RS Best of Italy). I have been to Europe on many occasions, but never on a tour. I thought it might be interesting for those of you that have taken both a Rick Steve's Tour and another company's tour to compare their strengths and weaknesses to each other. I realize that there will probably be a bias towards Rick's tours, but I have a number of friends that swear by their favorite tour company and I would like to hear from those who have done both.
I've done 5 RS tours and 4 Road Scholar tours - 2 International and 2 activity based US tours (birding and hiking). I can compare both companies in the following areas:
Group+ Activity Level - Road Scholar does not have a no grumps policy. I think Rick's tour members are much more flexible, energetic and the no grumps policy really works so that people are not constantly belly-aching. In the 2 Road Scholar International trips, the people were also much less physically able and some had so grossly overestimated their abilities and grossly underestimated the physical activity level of the tour that the group was impacted every day. Even getting off the bus was an ordeal for some. I believe Rick is very cautious and specific about activity levels and wants people to be ready for lots of walking, standing, stairs etc. I found that when he said strenuous on the BOE in Amsterdam and Rome for instance, he meant strenuous. As in 10-14 miles strenuous. There was always an option to take a taxi back to the hotel, but my word, you might miss something, lol!! I did find both groups well educated and curious about the sights we were seeing.
Hotels - About the same levels of hotels, similar city center locations when possible. Road Scholar may choose larger hotels as they usually had elevators.
Food - Road Scholar includes more meals. This is not important to me as I prefer to seek out restaurants on my own as long as there are some in the area. I get tired of the big, group meals after a bit. Both seem to choose local restaurants.
Free time - Rick's tours have much more built in free time. The Road Scholar tours had none to very little free time and I got group-weary.
Travel skills - Rick and his guides are focused on helping tour members to be independent travelers. In big cities there is a neighborhood orientation and a city transportation lesson. You are encouraged to go out on your own. With the Road Scholar tours I've been on there is no focus on local transport. I did an 8-day tour of London and we took a bus everywhere. However, looking at the makeup of the group, the leader would never have gotten the group intact thru the Tube to a destination! Road Scholar usually arranges transport from the airport if you book airfare thru them. Rick gives easy-to-follow directions on reaching your hotel which is your first step toward independent travel.
Itineraries - Similar in that usually there are 2 or 3 night stays. Occasionally there will be 1-night stays for both companies. They also are similar in that they don't try to cover too much ground. I know on Trip Advisor I occasionally look at some of the bus tours of the Western states that people ask about, and merciful heavens, some try to cover 900 miles a day in a bus!! Yikes. So, my experience with both companies is comparable and provides me with what I want.
Guides - The guides I've had on Rick's tours have been beyond excellent. One of the Road Scholar tour instructors was the same level as Rick's guides. One was not and there seemed to be a lot of complaints about him, enough so that the Road Scholar office actually called me to discuss my evaluation and then I noticed that he was not guiding the London tour the next year. Both the activity based Road Scholar tour instructors and leaders were superb but really that is a different category of travel. Rick's local guides are mostly really good. In neither of the Road Scholar international tours did we really have local guides so I can't make a statement about that.
How do I choose? I would always default to a Rick Steves tour if the itineraries were similar because of the group members, the no grumps policy and the guides. I would choose Road Scholar if they have an itinerary that Rick does not cover. In fact I'm looking at one for next year that covers Brittany and Normandy. I particularly would like to see the pre-history sites this one covers.
Ran out of characters!!! Will just add:
Explanation regarding guides: Rick has a tour guide (some say this should be called a manager) that is with you for your whole tour and handles the administrative stuff, guiding thru sights, etc. Road Scholar has a Tour Leader who does the administrative work, is responsible for the group, meals, tickets, etc. The Tour Instructor is responsible for the tour content and narrative. These usually seem to be clearly defined roles altho on the Arizona Birding tour you really could not tell which was which.
Buddy system - Rick uses a buddy system to help speed up the process of seeing if everyone is there. Road Scholar does not and wow, does the leader spend a lot of time counting noses. Really a time waster.
Group size - Both go for about 25-28 members altho some Road Scholar trips go up to 40. I would not choose one that large. The Road Scholar birding tour was 18 which was a nice size for 2 vans altho that meant that the more agile group members had more time in the back seat of the van because some could not make it back there.
None of my friends who travel a lot will go on a Rick Steves Tour. They want someone to meet them at the airport, or as a minimum, they want the starting destination to be at the city where the plane lands. They also want to have more luggage and want the tour to be responsible for getting the luggage to the room.
I can understand people being a little nervous if it is their first trip abroad and they have to figure out how to use a train or bus to get to the starting location, but once they have done one trip, it shouldn't be as big of a concern.
I met some Road Scholar folks when I was on a RS tour of the Basque Country two years ago. They were staying at our hotel in Bayonne (elevator, central location, fantastic breakfast). Generally, the people seemed older than our group by 10 or 15 years and they had larger suitcases. Judging by the amount of luggage in the lobby, I guess there were more in their group than in ours. The women I talked to were engaged and energetic, so they could be us in a few years.
As I age I find that I need more "amenities" such as elevators, taxi rides, and help with hearing. The Road Scholar way may be for me. They have a tour to Cuba I'd love to go on!
We've only used one other tour company (Odysseys Unlimited) to Peru. It was a small group tour like RS. You have an option of booking just the land or the land and air with them. The hotels were all upscale and so were the restaurants so you pay more. The guides were excellent and you got a good taste of the local culture. I lost one of my dental crowns on the tour and the guide went with me to get the help I needed. Like RS guides, they're main concern is our safety and well-being. There was also some free time on your own but not as much as on RS but that may be because our tour was only (11 ?) days and they needed to fit a lot in. They also pick you up (if you have booked the air as well) and drop you off at the airport. More handholding there than I am used to. They do not have a no grumps policy and we had one tour member who was an absolute pain in the you know where. As there were only 5 of us on the tour, there was no avoiding her and she made things a bit unpleasant despite our guide's attempts to placate her. The other thing that Odysseys does is suggests that you tip your guide a certain percentage. I would use this company again if I was going somewhere like Africa or Asia but not for Europe as we are quite able to do this ourselves.
Mary made me remember one more thing about Road Scholar. They also have a no tipping policy. As on some Rick tours, I did see some tour members slipping a tip to either the bus driver or guide.
I agree there is way more hand-holding on Road Scholar tours than on Rick's tours.
Been on 2 RS tours. The tour guides have been great, a few rooms so-so, and on greece tour way too much free time considering the cost. I get that carrying your own bags equates to being more fit and willing to walk and long days. Imo RS tours have become pricey on a per day cost.
And inclusion of tipping is really no big deal.I went on these 2 tours becuz no shopping was a big RS
Pt on his TV shows. Well now there is shopping too much shopping. When you are paying his costs, shopping should be on travelers own time.
As someone who has worked in the tour industry, I'd like to chime in.
It is very difficult to compare one tour company to another straight out. All tour companies have a customer base that they try to reach. Rick Steves tours are different from Trafalgar tours which are different from Tauck Tours.
Most people going on a Rick Steves tour want to travel with his ideology. Carry on size luggage; smaller, inner city hotels with less amenities; more free time to explore; no tipping.
Someone going on a Trafalgar Tour wants to bring a full size suitcase and get bellman service, wants more hand holding, wants to go souvenir shopping (trust me, they really do), and would prefer almost everything done for them.
A person going on a Rick Steves tour may not be happy on a Trafalgar tour and vice versa.
For something like Tauck, they want the same as Trafalgar just more upscale.
So it's not just that one company is better than another, it's that one company delivers what you want better than another.
Frank, I think you are 100% correct in your statement. I probably should have phrased the question, "How do other tours differ from a Rick Steves Tour?" That would probably give more of an insight on who should take a particular tour company.
What did you mean by: "Well now there is shopping too much shopping. "? Are you herded into a store and the bus does not leave for an hour? One reason I am considering an RS tour (I am an independent traveler) is that I had always heard there were no shopping stops on RS tours. Several years ago I took a guided tour in China and we lost 1-3 hours a day on shopping "opportunities".
My husband and I have been on nine RS tours and can only remember a few times when we went anywhere with the group
which could involve shopping. In Turkey we went to a rug making operation with opportunity to buy. Those who were not interested browsed a slight while and then were taken back to the hotel separatley from the shoppers. We also went to ceramic
making demonstrations in Italy and Sicily and pottery demonstration in Delft but the time to shop for those interested was very limited ( maybe 15 or 20 minutes) and some tour members found a bench to sit on outside while others just enjoyed looking at the pretty pieces much like in a museum.
Absolutely no pressure to buy and all those stops were worthwhile. No tour had more than one of these stops and most tours had none at all.
I've taken several Trafalgar Tours and several Rick Steves Tours
I enjoyed the Trafalgar tours but once I found the Rick Steves tours I wouldn't take another European tour company unless I traveled by a cruise ship
Trafalgar Tours - 50 people, hotels are normally on the outskirts of the cities. Excursions are all extras (I think one tour guide wasn't happy when I had booked all my extra excursions via private companies and not through him). By booking with private companies I got more for my money and cheaper when comparing to the other tour members. Tour guides and drivers expect to be tipped. They will take to you shops and demos and we all know the company gets a percentage of the sales.
They do take care of your luggage - just leave it outside your room. There are additional costs for them to pick you up at the airport - I arranged it privately. I enjoyed the tours I took but once I found the Rick Steves tours I found something extremely better.
I enjoy the Rick Steves tours because of the number of tour members, local run hotels and the local tour guides and meals. They also know when to take you to sites when there are less crowds. In England for example we went to see a palace at the end of the day - only 1 or 2 other people so we had to whole visit to ourselves with plenty of time to see it. Yes the Rick Steves tours emphasizes the walking which worried me at first and it wasn't as bad as I thought
Agree with Frank - different strokes for different folks. I can only share my experiences with two other tour companies.
1) Tauck - Very nice hotels. There was one hotel on the trip that was similar to RS hotels. I thought it was great....comfy beds, clean and lots of character. Most of the other tour members hated it and complained about it loudly. Big luggage. A very good guide, but never really made much effort to get to know tour members, and I really felt she was getting tired of the group the last couple of days. Most of the people on the tour were snobs. A click of about 6-7 couples formed right away and wouldn't have anything to do with the rest of the group. A smaller group of about 7-8 people formed another click. Everyone else kind of kept to themselves. It was my first tour and I thought all companies were probably very similar. Boy was I wrong!
2)OAT - Small group of about 15 people. Guides were just ok and kept to themselves at meals, etc. There was tons of shopping which took away a lot of time from the sights. They used mini vans which were not all that comfortable.
Meals were mostly buffet style at the hotels. Very little free time. We had already taken our first RS tour before this trip, so the whole experience was kind of a shock for us.
We drink the Rick Steves koolaid, and will continue to do so until we are physically unable, and then perhaps Road Scholar.
FYI......anytime you're taken to a demonstration, it's a shopping stop. Glass in Venice, carpets in Instanbul, pottery, cuckoo clocks, winery tours, etc.....shopping stops. No tour company will make you buy or even force you to stay if you don't want to, but it's considered a shopping stop.
In almost all cases, the tour company gets nothing from any sales to tour members. The "guide", on the other hand, may get a small commission that is partially shared with the driver. It depends on the business.
I can say that all good tour directors will only take you to reputable places regardless of whether or not they get anything in return.
Most tour companies also have the tour director and driver eat separately from the group except for a welcome or farewell dinner. The reason is simple; they don't want any of the passengers to think others are being shown favoritism by the tour director.
I don't mind a demonstration with no pressure to buy as we have experienced on the RS tours, but with shopping stops on our trip with OAT there was a lot of pressure to buy, and there were way too many....at least 5 that I can recall. As I said, it significantly cut the time we were able to spend in the museums and other sights.
Personally, and this may not be an "industry" standard, I don't consider every demonstration a shopping trip. On the RS Portugal trip we stopped at a ceramics factory and there was no opportunity to buy their stuff. In Greece, we did a wine tasting to explore the effects of Greek volcanic soil and other factors and, while you could buy the wine, not a single person did. It was more of a "mini-lecture" about local wines. Even the stops where you may or may not buy, like carpet making in Turkey, were pretty informative and I enjoyed the "show" part of it as carpets are so important in many cultures. But I would say, IMHO, that I don't consider most of the demos shopping trips. I've been on tours where there are shopping trips and RS tours are much, much different. To each his/her own.
on our three RS tours, there was only one "demo" and that was on our free time when the guide (after much badgering by the group) offered to take whoever wanted to go, to a shopping area and left us there. Otherwise, they discouraged people from wasting time during scheduled days activities. I am very satisfied that they met the principle they espouse.
"Most tour companies also have the tour director and driver eat separately from the group except for a welcome or farewell dinner. The reason is simple; they don't want any of the passengers to think others are being shown favoritism by the tour director. "
FrankII, I did not know that. On both the Rick Steves tours and the Road Scholar tours the guides/leaders and bus drivers ate with us at every meal and our experience was richer for it. I believe the guides with both companies are pretty careful to sit with different folks at each meal. The bus driver on my last Italy tour was careful to always sit next to the guide as he had very little English so it was easier for him to have Trina to translate!
I always enjoy sitting with the bus drivers. They usually have great stories!
Any tour company that stops strictly to shop without either a demonstration or meal break, is a bad tour company.
The places that give demonstrations are not doing it for their health. They are hoping you buy.
The only time I took people specifically shopping was because it was requested. And in those instances, we left from the hotel and during free time. That was so those who weren't interested could do what they wanted.
And it also has to do with the type of people taking that tour. As I said in a previous posting, every tour company has a specific audience. When I started leading tours, I didn't waste time shopping, I figured people were like me and wanted to actually sightsee. At the end of the tour, the only complaint on my evaluations was that I didn't leave enough time for shopping.
So, you see, it depends on the tour and the passengers. Some don't want to waste time shopping and others see it as the highlight of the trip. How often do we see it on this board; people talking about bringing an additional bag along for all the "goodies" they're going to buy.
Eating with the group also has to do with the type of passengers. Some can be very hurt if they feel they are not given the same attention, or perhaps even more, than others. And they might complain. Tour companies hate complaints. Some even make the tour director respond, in writing, to every one. Too many, even if they are not the TD's fault, and he could be out.
A more sophisticated or experienced group, might not be as sensitive. The other thing is that the driver and I usually used meal times to discuss the tour, made sure the driver knew exactly where he needed to go, or to discuss any changes that we needed to make.
Frank II, always appreciate your perspective on these things. Thanks for the inside view.
The only other tour companies I've traveled with in Europe are small UK or Euro-owned active travel outfits for hiking and cycling so I can't really offer a direct comparison. With those companies, I was the only American on the tour. Has its pros and cons and is truly eye-opening. I was asked pointed (yet friendly) questions about everything from alcohol consumption to gun control to smoking to college campus culture. In many cases I found my political beliefs match my foreign counterparts better than it matches my own government, but in other cases I found myself feeling a bit like an "American Puritan" about some social issues. While there's a common bond in traveling with a bunch of fellow Americans on an RS tour; there's also benefit in spreading your wings a bit and traveling with an international crowd.
For now, I like RS tours and don't have a burning desire to try other companies except I do periodically look at trips offered by Explore, Exodus, VBT and maybe Headwater and Backroads UK.
I traveled to the west of Ireland with Back Roads Touring out of the UK. It was me, 4 Australians, and the driver/tour guide. The other tour members had lots of luggage while I had a duffel. I believe this was just one leg of an extended journey for them. We stayed in one hotel in Galway, so no shlepping of bags daily. We shared dinner in the hotel for 3 nights - not so great, but we did stop off at local places for lunch. The tour kept us moving, and we only returned to Galway by 5 in the evening which was too late to do even essential shopping. There really was no free time except for the evenings. I am not sure if this holds true for all their tours. I check out their itineraries, but nothing is calling to me just now.
I greatly enjoyed reading about other folks experiences.
I have traveled with Trafalgar, Tauck, EF Tours (students and girl scouts), AAT Kings (Australian company), small English touring company, on my own and as tour director for a company sponsored trip (travel agent made arrangements).
Trafalgar was a huge bus, middling hotels, luggage handled and arranged demos with more shopping than I was interested in. About half the touring cost extra. We had a wonderful tour director (Dante - very memorable and he got us into a lot of places in Italy through his "cousins"). It could have been really miserable so never again for this type of tour operator even though it was moderately priced.
Tauck was a slightly smaller bus, top hotels, sightseeing included, great food and luggage handled. Most of the bus was filled with travel agents from England. Not a typical experience but amazing fun. I don't remember much about the tour director as the travel agents kind of took over but that may also mean he was very good at making everything run smoothly. Very expensive and only worth it to me if you need the hand holding. As I age, more help is starting to sound better but it was too much time on a bus.
EF Tours is wonderful as long as you know you are on a student learning tour. Hotels far out from the city center, basic but clean. No luggage handling. Food that teenagers like, with seemingly fries at every meals. Girls who work this hard to earn money to travel are pretty special. Some but not all parents who come along not so much. If you have students who want to travel, I highly recommend this company. Watching the Changing of the Guard inside the fence at Buckingham Palace was amazing. Being a Scout in uniform is the only way to do that. We did bike tours in Rome and Paris which I would never have considered without the support (badgering) from my Scouts. Bike tour in Vienna on tap for the next trip.
AAT Kings is my second favorite tour company, RS being first. I loved traveling with people from Commonwealth nations. I got a different perspective everywhere we went. Smaller bus, upper middling hotels in great locations, you have choice of touring and great help with individual arrangements. Luggage handled and just the right number of meals included.
With RS you must be self reliant. Go in with that attitude and you will have a safety net with the freedom to make the adventure your own.
Happy and safe travels to everyone.
If I don't count the Viking River cruise, we've done RS tours and one with Odysseys Unlimited.It's tough as you go along not to compare. Odysseys Unlimited offers more hand-holding and, honestly, would be a good choice if you moved beyond the physical requirements of an RS tour. OU offers small groups, 20+, included airfare if desired,they move the luggage and include all breakfasts and most dinners. You are encouraged to tip the tour guide, but every thing else is covered. We still prefer the RS tours. We find the guides we've had to be superior,,we prefer to get out and explore the local restaurant scene and appreciate the level of exercise. Our RS guides have always approached the tours as though they were hosting us. We've been impressed by their ability to give time to each guest and never make it appear that they have favorites. The RS guides also did an excellent job with assigning rooms so that sometimes you got one of the nicer rooms and sometimes someone else did. With OU, we always seemed to be in the same spot given our place in the alphabet. Not a big deal, but we did appreciate the RS approach.
I've been on both Rick Steves and Road Scholar tours. I agree that the Road Scholar groups are usually an older group. I've been on tours with each company where there were tour members who grossly overestimated their physical abilities. In each case, the guide dealt with it, but it did slow the group down. Road Scholar includes most meals, which is not a positive for me, but some people really like that. In my experience, Road Scholar hotels have been a little better quality than the ones we stay in with Rick Steves. Road Scholar will take larger groups (up to 35, I believe), but they do offer small group tours. One of my tours with them had six members! My largest Rick Steves tour had 29 members, one over the stated max. All of my Road Scholar guides have been from the country we were touring. Rick Steves will use Americans as guides, which gives the tour a very different flavor. The most important difference for me is that Rick Steves includes ample free time and Road Scholar doesn't. Too much togetherness is exhausting to me.
I'm wondering if anyone has done any college alumni tours. We get brochures all the time and I often wonder how these might differ from other tours? Any input?
There may be "shopping" on a RS tour, but it doesn't feel like it. :-)
If you count a shopping stop is anywhere that wants to sell you something, then every site the tour stops at with a gift shop is a shopping stop. But you can't avoid that. What the RS tours does avoid is making a stop for the only reason to give everyone a chance to shop. I have actually encountered a few people on RS tours that got upset that there is no dedicated shopping stop included, but definitely a very small minority!
I have toured with a couple other companies, but keep coming back to RS. The tours just seem more relaxed than others, the tour guides (mostly) seem to be more focused on making sure everyone has a relaxed time. And, for me, the fact that you don't have to pay out extra in tips for anything included with the tour is great. One tour I went one was more like the My Way tours offered by RS in that it seemed everything was extra and not included in the price paid even though the provided info made it sound like everything listed was fully paid for in the tour price.
The hotels RS chooses seem to improve every year. Not saying you still won't get one or two that have seen better days that you might have a difficult time seeing the "charm" in, but over the years the move has been to hotels with round-the-clock on site staff, air conditioning, more modern, and more expensive. My first tour with RS the average hotel price was around 40 Euro and did include a few dumps and even an actual barn! My last tour it was closer to 150 Euro and we shared the hotels with business travelers.
It all just comes down to what you want. If you prefer more independence and a fair amount of free time to go out on your own yet still have a good amount of structure when you travel, then RS is for you.
I have only taken one tour.. a RS Family Europe in 14 days..
We had only one "demonstration" .. in Venice.. and it was optional , and timed so that you didn't have to join it to be able to participate or miss other tour activities. It was a demonstration on glass making, and was pretty interesting. I bought nothing and felt no pressure to.. basically because we could leave when ever we want and continue on with our day.
Susan.. yours is the first good review I have ever read about EF tours.. perhaps its a taste thing, but the kids on our hs tour did not think the food was good at all.. it was a major complaint. And parents and kids alike did not like the hotels that were often not centrally located. We ( our daughter and I ) agreed she would not go on it because the price was too high for what you got.. and I was miffed to see they charged for things like a visit to Versailles from Paris.. when this was for kids aged 16-17 and Versailles is FREE for them.. so a 40 dollar bus ride to Versailles was price gouging ( the train is 8 euros return!) . For same price she could go almost twice as long on her own after school, and with research pick better hotels.
Perhaps that's what you meant by the adults not being so impressed with those tours.. some of them knew they were getting the short shrift !
I do understand that going at Girl Scouts would afford one some very nice opportunities though.. not sure how EF had anything to do with that though.
Having the bus driver included in the group dinners can be very interesting, if he speaks English. Often you will get a different twist on the the culture and politics of the region you are visiting. And sometimes different insights into where you might want to spend your spare time. It's a small benefit, but a nice one.
Hey, Mark, why not try one of the Denver travel meetings at Panera in Aspen Grove Shopping Center, 3rd Sat. of the month, 10am.
We are friendly bunch and share travel ideas and stories.
Our bus drivers have all spoken excellent English and were pleasant company at dinners. One of them told us that he loves driving RS tours because the people on the tours are "...above average, for Americans".
Our group tour experience includes:
Two Rick Steves' tours
Three Tauck Tours
National Geographic expedition
And, also have done many independent trips.
Loved RS tours, excellent guide, excellent local guides, good value, small local hotels, good mix of group vs. individual time, good prep materials (guidebook and phrase/translation guide).
Tauck Tours - attracts a slightly older crowd, also well educated, more well-traveled group, excellent guides, very unique high-end experiences (like private after-hours in Vatican/Sistine Chapel, canal trip in Amsterdam on same boat the President of Turkey had just been on, private castle meals, etc.) Incredibly nice (yet often historic, very well positioned) hotels, deluxe rooms w/ view, incredible food, luggage handled, picked up and dropped off at airport (on our first Tauck tour picked up in a Mercedes sedan...nice). Wider choice of itineraries/experiences. Special offers to previous guests, such as hotel night included for early fly ins. As loyal Tauck travelers know, things just work out perfectly and seamlessly on Tauck tours....no worries ever.
Cruises - depending on itinerary, can be a fabulous way to travel. Prefer the small ship. Small ships (Silversea/Seabourn/National Geographic) have excellent staffs, shore excursions, etc. Carnival - mass market..not as personal.
We first started using Tauck after literally begging (and I do mean begging) Rick's tour product manager to offer additional one-week itineraries. But, he evidently was always pushing them for longer trips. So, we found the trip we wanted with Tauck. And, then we realized we liked the higher-end experience.
The only surprise (or disappointment) we had on a RS tour is that our guide needed cash to pay the bus driver, so he asked to borrow from us. We were gracious about it, but still internally surprised. He said he'd get the cash and pay us back at the next city. Okay, but we had to remind him after the meal that evening, when he seemed surprised, like he'd forgotten all about it. So, I always sort of chuckle when I read all the pros/cons about taking cash to Europe for any unexpected situation.....and yet, here was the official Rick Steves' guide caught without ample cash to pay the bus driver!!! Hmmmm. We didn't mention it on the tour evaluation at the time, because he was otherwise excellent and we didn't want the guy to lose his job. But, we never forgot that little oddity, and believe me, that NEVER would have happened on a Tauck tour.
Would we do another RS tour? Absolutely, if the itinerary was what we wanted. But, although we have moved on to other types of travel, travel beyond Europe, and more specific travel experiences, I do not hesitate to recommend RS tours to friends and others, and many have become loyal RS fans/ repeat RS tour goers, based on our recommendations. And, we even more highly recommend Tauck for those who like more of the extras. And, we would not hesitate to recommend Silversea/Seabourn/National Geographic (especially for Antarctica...would not even consider anyone else for that location).
I'm shocked that the tour director would take up a collection to pay the bus driver. Been on several RS tours and never experienced any situation like that! However, on one of th RS tours the bus driver got a fine for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. She certainly didn't ask us for the money, but we took up a spontaneous collection for her. We didn't think it was her fault and she was such a lovely person and good driver - made us all feel very good. Again, totally voluntary donations, and not the same thing at all as a tour director asking for money like that.
I remember where an airline had to make an unscheduled landing at an airport where they didn't recognize the airline's credit account. The airplane needed fuel and the only option was for the pilot to collect money from all the passengers. Obviously, more than a few dollars were required to refuel the plan and it took most of the cash that the passengers were carrying to pay for the fuel.
Just to clarify: A collection was not made from all the tour members by the tour guide. He approached us and another couple who were sitting at our table at the Autostrada (sp?), explained his situation and asked if he could borrow from us. We had the euros in cash, so he borrowed from us. None of the other tour members was aware of it, and we sure did not tell them. I was more surprised that we had to remind him (after he had ample time to have hit the ATM at the next city, and after dinner that night). It was all very discreet. I think it had something to do with the bus driver having hit the legal number of hours that he could drive without a break or day off or something like that.
But, the "hat was NOT passed." I think that would have shocked everyone, and it probably would have made the bus driver feel odd.
My understanding is that the RS tour guides pay the bills for meals & other things (maybe hotels too for that matter) in cash. Since the group total bills are variable, I can see where one could come up short of cash if not tracking well.
I guess I'm pretty surprised about the cash shortfall as well. During the intro session of my 21BOE the guide was talking about money belts. He lifted his shirt to point to his money belt and "I usually have 3000 to 5000€ with me and I always wear this". I guess I was surprised he had so much cash!
I'm not surprised at the amount of cash. Guides have lots of expenses they need to pay in cash - entrance fees, restaurant bills, tips and more. It can't be that easy/;convenient to replenish large sums en route.
Yosemite - loved the refueling story!
In the US we are all seemingly paying for everything with credit cards, even a pack of gum at the corner store, so carrying large sums of cash seems strange to us. In Europe it is a cash economy so having the tour guide carry large amounts of cash is not out of place.
On the 10 RS tours I have been on, how the tour guide paid for thing varied from country to country. While I was not tracking the activities of the guide, sometimes it was hard to miss. I did notice that on the Scandinavian tour it seemed the guide used a credit card for nearly everything. On the Berlin, Prague, Vienna tour it was all cash. The others were a mix.
I have never had any tour guide ask to borrow money (on one tour the guide actually loaned money to one of the travelers when she was unable to get her pre paid card to function at ATMs) and am extremely shocked that happened on a RS tour.
I have been on several RS tours, veteran of 10 tours, where the guide offered to help someone needing money, myself included. This was on the occasion of spouse misplacing his debit card(we had to cancel card). Thank goodness we always carry two, on separate accounts. The guide knew about the card being lost and offered to float us a loan. I find the guides to be very caring, but they have to be made aware of what has happened.
Also, I was told about a guide that had all the tour's money stolen. But this might have been a scare tactic for always wearing your money belt and using it correctly.
Pat - your comments about EF Tours were well said. The food is supposedly for the "average American teenager" with a few amazing meals thrown in. I was able to ask for and receive salads/vegetables at our dinners as no veg at dinner seems very odd to me. The waiters clearly took pity on me.
I should have specified that two of the tours I took with EF were custom tours. Our group leader those times had control of the bus and we were able to do some amazing things. No Autostrada lunches for us, we went into lovely locations for our lunch breaks. We also "upgraded" to central hotels. I like that the groups were taught how to use public transport, we never waited in line to enter a venue and we got into places we couldn't have gotten into on our own. Of course this holds true for RS and other tours. Those things can make a group tour worthwhile rather than going it alone.