For parts of the world not covered by Rick Steves, are there any tour companies with a similar approach and philosophy? I would love to find one or more such tour companies.
I have used other tour companies for various places. Where are you looking for a tour? I haven't found any two tour companies to be really similar but they all have their pluses and minuses. I do find that, wherever I travel by group, most of the people end up being pretty companionable - people who are willing to get out there and travel at all are a pretty okay group with me. I've had a few duds on groups here and there - but it's not specific to one company. And, similarly, there are things I've liked more about my RS tour and things I've liked more about other companies I've used...Smartours, Perillo and Caravan.
I would be particularly interested in those that also have a no tipping policy. I was on a SE Asia tour recently where the "having a hand out for tips" at every turn drove me crazy.
I especially want to visit Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan.
Smartours goes all those places but they're a bargain company, sort of. Their prices are pretty low but the trade off is that their groups tend to be bigger (although I had a group of 18 for China with them but 44 for Turkey). They also ask for tips, which someone mentioned above, and that did add to the cost. The also have optional tours that you pay extra for. I still like Smartours, but you really need to look at their total price.
As to similar approach? I can't say. Smartours had guides that were as good as my RS guide for Scotland. Perillo Tours had a guide I didn't like and I thought he was kind of creepy. Caravan had a terrible guide (they don't do Europe anyways) and I would not use them again.
One thing I find with all tour companies so far is that the lodging leaves something to be desired...even RS lodging. The tours I design myself have way better lodging.
If you're sold on only touring these places with a group, I would look at the basics....there's tons of companies out there. But the smaller group, no grumps philosophy? You can try Odysseys Unlimited and OAT for small groups. The hotels that Odysseys uses tend to rate out higher on TripAdvisor than the OAT hotels do. I've done side-by-side comparisons of most of these groups for a trip to Japan that I hope to take some day. Highest rated hotels were consistently the Smartours hotels but Odysseys was fine too. Gate 1 has a small group trip to Japan with pretty good hotels listed and their price isn't bad.
Bottom line? I don't know any tour company that nails it on every detail and I think that's why I prefer to travel alone. But there's a lot of good options out there for you. I'd choose a trip location first and research tour companies from there as you'll surely come across specialists for each country, like Samurai Tours for Japan.
Thank you Valerie. Samurai Tours looks very appealing for Japan.
Also if anyone has experience with Classic Journeys in San Diego I would welcome the feedback.
I am going on my first RS Tours in June to Scandanavia.
I have traveled to China with Wild China (a China specialist - they were good but not great). I went to Egypt with A&K (pricey but flawless).
The more I travel I focus on the quality of the guides. To me they really make a trip. Hotels are less important as long as they are well placed, clean and comfortable.
Hi dclawyer, we did the Rick Steves Switzerland tour in September 2016 and our guide was Reid Coen. Reid has another tour company called Imprint Tours that covers some of the destinations you mentioned. He has been a RS guide for 20 years and said he has adopted the same philosophy for his company. Check it out!
I have stopped taking RS tours after I discovered smartours.
They cover the world. The prices are excellent, single supplement ok,
Lodging far better than RS by a mile, and imo excellent guides. Yes, tipping is up to traveler but if you have envelopes and small usd bills to use. I find it not such a nuisance for all the benefits of a smartour. They are based out of new york.
Ck it out. I have just returned from Patagonia with them. Very good indeed.
Our group size was 14.
I also recommend Imprint Tours. We (wife and I) have traveled with Reid Coen as a Rick Steve's guide (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and then with his own company to South Africa/Botswana (for safari)/Victoria Falls, then to Myanmar/Vietnam/Cambodia, and just returned from Morocco. He has arranged excellent local guides, has a no added tipping policy, pack light (carry own luggage). Some group meals and some on your own with free 1/2 days to do your own thing depending on your own interests. He has taken groups to Thailand and has another trip there early next year. Also has trips scheduled to China and India next year. We recommend checking out his web site at imprinttours.com. Lots of pictures mixed into the blogs to wet your imagination! Contact him if you have questions. He will respond personally and usually fairly quickly.
When going to Europe I have always gone with the Rick Steves groups but for other parts of the world Friendly Planet is excellent, you can view their website at friendly planet.com.
This is hands down the most helpful travel advice I have received on any forum. I have several options I did not previously know about. They alll look like desirable options. Thank you so much I will update as I explore.
I have heard good things from multiple people on "Road Scholars" tours. No experience myself.
To supplement Stan's comment about Road Scholar: my mom has used them many times and likes them very much. They've got some pretty interesting itineraries. Group size varies. Their Japan trip is one of my favorites as it's a more unusual routing. They have hundreds of trips to almost everywhere. Their trips are very educationally focused. My mom is always going to lectures etc. as she travels.
My Mom did many Road Scholar tours and loved them.
One company that is small group, with a high quality guide, is SmithsonianJourneys. They are associated with the Smithsonian Institution in D.C., and frequently have as their guides college professors who teach Art History or History of Western Civilization, or are experts/authors in their field. They have a no-tipping policy. Excellent hotels. The tours cover many areas that Rick does not cover, such as Russia, China, Japan, and Egypt. More expensive than Rick Steves tours.
Another company that covers many areas that Rick doesn't cover is Tauck. They have trips to the Orient, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and many other destinations. Small group, good guides, no tipping, great hotels, but more expensive than Rick Steves tours.
Both of these companies have tours around the U.S. Smithsonian has tours of New England, the Southern Coastline, and Civil War battlefields. Tauck has tours of Civil War sites, and trips to the western U.S., specifically a tour that goes to several of the National Parks. Either of these companies would be a good choice for someone from Great Britain, Europe or Australia (or elsewhere) who wanted to see some of America.
Worth noting, it's not always the company but the particular guide you get. You can find a great guide at a so-so company (and vice versa). So take the recommendation of a particular company with a grain of salt, but it's a good starting point.
SRM Travel is run by the two Rick Steves guides who wrote his Istanbul guidebook. They specialize in Turkey, but list other possible destinations. They recently organized an Iran tour and have a couple more scheduled. Mert Taner, a wonderful Rick Steves guide, led the trip to Iran. Their website is http://www.srmtravel.com/
Thanks for all the great replies. I am learning more about each firm. I thought I would post a list of the recommendations I have received so far:
National Geographic Expeditions
New York Times Journeys
Also National Geographic Expeditions and New York Times Journeys (they are both very pricy though - much more so than RS tours - but have similarly strong educational/cultural expertise component).
I would think that Australia and New Zealand, which you're most interested in, lend themselves to a somewhat different travel philosophy than RS. I would expect tour options that are more tailored to adventure, outdoors, hiking, and other sport options (not as much focus on cultural and historical artifacts that you'd see in European cities). I may be wrong, but it's a hunch given the differences in density patterns and historical developments between Europe and the others.
Take a look at Holiday Vacations for Australia/New Zealand. All of the airfare is included in the price including flights from the US. You can put a $200 deposit that is completely refundable up until 76 days before departure. I went ahead and put a deposit down on a tour in early 2018. The prices is locked it then. If I find another tour that I like better, I can get my money back. Everything I have read indicates that fuel prices will be going up sometime next year and there are 6 flights on the tour I selected. One good thing about their tours is there are no optional day tours to pay for. All touring is included in the price like Rick Steves tours. Unfortunately, tipping of the main tour guide and bus drivers is not included.
I have used G Adventures for a Local Living Italy tour which was good and Pac Set Tours, which focuses only on Japan. I am planning on using G Adventures again for my upcoming New Zealand and South Africa tours.
I followed up with Samurai Tours as it looked really interesting. I don't eat pork and they said they could not accommodate that.
Here's what they said:
Please know that Samurai Tours tries to accommodate various dietary
restrictions and preferences. Note that Japanese restaurants tend to
specialize and focus on one thing. Restaurants are the same focusing
on one thing. For example, a noodle shop or a tonkatsu (breaded pork
cutlets) or an okonomiyaki shop, etc. Plus, many restaurants in Japan
are very small and are not able to have all of the different equipment
they need to make many different things.
We cannot take individuals or couples to a special restaurant; the
group stays together. If the restaurants have something that will fit
dietary requirements or preferences, that is great. If not, then there
is nothing else we can do. But we make sure to tell everyone, rice is
always available; we encourage snacks; and 7-11 shops serve fresh
I understand but why would I pay for rice?
This is the first time a tour company has responded this way.
Well, it's good to know that they are honest and up-front about it so you aren't blindsided when it's too late. At least it gives you a chance to make your decision knowing their limitations. By the way, in most restaurants, even those specializing in pork dishes, there are vegetables to go with rice, so I don't think anyone would starve. Especially if this was only one or two restaurants on a tour. I am a very picky eater and also have some dietary restrictions and have taken several tours. I know there will be places where I have trouble finding something I can eat so I always carry something with me to tide me over, pick up foods in stores to snack on if necessary. Even though I may have payed for the meal (if it's included as part of the tour), I don't usually get upset if I have to buy something else. It's just the way it is.
Nancy: You make a good point. Still I am not sure Samurai is the tour company for me.
I've heard good things about MIR Corp. They have a couple Europe itineraries, but their destinations are pretty exotic: Iran, Russia, Siberia, the -stan countries, etc.
dclawyer: I can't speak to Samurai or any other tour group. But I can say that their description of Japanese restaurants in Japan is quite accurate. Many places specialize, and only serve one kind of food - and nothing else. For instance, a sushi place will only serve sushi, sashimi, chirashi, etc. Other restaurants won't have sushi at all.
So, if you are taking a tour of Japan, you may have to be prepared to skip some of the group meals.
I want to thank Nancy and Harold on helping me understand Samurai's response. I you each make good points. I am reconsidering traveling with Samurai to Japan. This is a great forum. The best I have been fortunate to participate in.
New Zealand does not have tipping at all....everyone is paid a full wage by law so tipping is discouraged. Australia is pretty much the same. Americans can be taken advantage of a wee bit here as wait staff are aware Americans feel uncomfortable not tipping. Please be assured that if you tip, you are paying twice 😉
We have friends who do National Geographic and Smithsonian tours. They get up close and personal to whatever the experience is. Out of my budget range but would love to go to the Galapagos Island with National Geographic.