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Tour itineraries appealing to experienced independent travelers

There is a thread on Fodor's forum right now about people who have always been independent (not tour group) travelers but now are worried about being in a foreign country if there were to be an emergency (medical). They would want someone who spoke the language and knew their way around to help them. But they find most tours (including RS) go to places they've already been to multiple times, don't spend enough time in places, etc. I'm wondering if, due to Covid showing us how scary it could be to get sick/injured in a foreign country, Rick couldn't start designing some itineraries that would appeal to these people. I'm thinking of things like spending more time in more out of the way places, having more free time (days, not hours), having less 'included' in the tour so the prices could be kept down a bit. I know Rick's tours mostly target the people who have never been to Europe - who are afraid to travel. He tours a wonderful job exposing them and opening up a whole new world to them. But there are many, people who've been using his guide books for decades to successfully travel independently, who might be interested in things designed for them when they no longer want to travel all alone, but who've done most of the things on his current tours.

Posted by
1381 posts

I saw that Fodors post and I'm not sure what the right solution is for the OP.

Rick Steves' business model seems to work well for him and the many thousands who use his tours, me included. He does have the My Way tours that work for some.

Edited to add:
I traveled to Europe independently with my DH many times. I travel with RS or friends because I prefer to not travel alone. Fear has nothing to do with it.

Posted by
6802 posts

I know Rick's tours mostly target the people who have never been to Europe - who are afraid to travel.

Not to start another round of this old discussion, but we've found the opposite to be true. Most of the folks on our 4 RS tours have been experienced independent travelers, not fearful or unskilled. They just want someone else to do the work. Yes, its often first time in that country, but not first time travelers.

I don't know what they're saying on the Fodor forum, but I think it would take a very high end market to support a semi-custom tour itinerary with personal care services as you describe.

Posted by
2740 posts

I know Rick's tours mostly target the people who have never been to Europe - who are afraid to travel.

I don’t know where you get that idea. I just signed up for my 15th tour and have made an equivalent number of independent trips as well. I find that the majority of travelers on Rick’s tours are seasoned travelers with a smattering of first timers.

Posted by
2422 posts

I know Rick's tours mostly target the people who have never been to
Europe - who are afraid to travel.

I'm with Stan and Phillip on this one.

Have you looked at his My Way tours? Is that more what you're thinking?

Posted by
6880 posts

There is a thread on Fodor's forum right now about people who have
always been independent (not tour group) travelers but now are worried
about being in a foreign country if there were to be an emergency
(medical). They would want someone who spoke the language and knew
their way around to help them.

Is a tour guide the only resource who could help travelers with this? What about hotel staff? The premium that is paid for guided tours is for tour guides' expertise in the country; I am not sure people would pay a premium for a tour guide to help them naviage the health care/ medical system. I'm also not sure how much time/ effort a tour guide has to give to this anyway, given that they have to lead a group and are on the move. If (hypothetically) a person is in a hospital for several days, I don't honestly know how much a tour guide would be expected to stay deeply involved and present. Also, making this need more explicit puts more liability on the organization and sets expectations - but are they prepared to deliver on them? I guess it depends what the expectations really are.

I'm wondering if, due to Covid showing us how scary it could be to get
sick/injured in a foreign country, Rick couldn't start designing some
itineraries that would appeal to these people. I'm thinking of things
like spending more time in more out of the way places, having more
free time (days, not hours), having less 'included' in the tour so the
prices could be kept down a bit.

My initial thought is if Rick as a businessman has enough bandwidth to take on more business risk at a time that is already very uncertain. At a minimum, he'd have to do market research to see how sizable this so-called population is and what they are really looking for, before he embarks on designing brand new itineraries which are bound to be more attractive to a smaller set of people. A thread on a Fodor's forum is a start, but not exactly enough to base business decisions on. Also, there are certain fixed/ sunk costs with a tour that won't decrease even if you take some attractions out, or would increase marginally and maybe not enough to make the numbers work in a way that you are thinking of.

I'm even more skeptical than that. Running tours in a pandemic doesn't seem like a great idea in general. I feel for Rick and his guides. Tough spot to be in.

Posted by
5716 posts

Group tours by bus rather than hiring a car and doing your own thing must be a higher Covid risk at present. In my experience, most doctors and pharmacies in Europe speak good English.

If a tour were to include more down days, the cost would still be high as you would have to pay for the bus and the guide and these tours may therefore be perceived as less good value if you are seeing less.

Posted by
3472 posts

I agree with with what Stan reported. We have taken 4 RS tours and 2 other guided tours with another travel company. We were experienced independent travelers prior to our tours. We also found that most travelers we met on guided tours had traveled independently as well. Over the years we have used guide books, this forum and have hired local guides on both organized (pre & post) as well as independent journeys. I have attended many RS travel classes at headquarters in Edmonds WA. The instructors always emphasized that there is no wrong way to travel. You can take a guided tour or use their tools to travel independently. What a great philosophy.

Posted by
1673 posts

I know Rick's tours mostly target the people who have never been to Europe - who are afraid to travel.

Isabel, you're getting a lot of pushback on that statement. You are making assumptions. "Afraid" probably not; stepping outside their comfort level, maybe. Although I am not the experience traveler that many on the forum are, I had done independent travel with a friend that included a horseback tour in Ireland years before taking my first RS tour.

Perhaps you should have asked why people take RS tours. My answer would have been to visit places that are slightly more off the beaten path and to meet new friends. My first tour was pre-covid on the South of Italy tour. Had I been afraid to travel, post-tour my sister-in-law and I would have not rented a car in Naples to drive to a tiny village in Calabria.

My upcoming trip in September is my first solo trip and incorporates RS South of France tour. Again it is to easily transport through the area, learn more about it and to meet people because 10 days pre-trip and 5 days post-trip of my own company will get tiresome. I am also sketching out a trip in 2023 that includes both solo independent travel and RS Munich, Salzburg and Vienna for all the same reasons.

As others have stated, if you get sick, there are local resources to navigate doctors, hospitals, etc. As you probably do before your trips, research before traveling either independently or on a tour and having medical and evacuation insurance are important.

Posted by
5536 posts

I think (getting back to the original question) that the “My Way Tours” come very close to what you are suggesting. Transportation, lodging, (includes breakfast), tips, and the services of a tour manager are included. The tour manager is available each day to answer questions, etc, but the activities are done independently.

What I wonder is what makes now so different in terms of becoming ill or having an accident overseas? Is it the mandatory quarantines where before we would have boarded the plane ill? I think advance planning makes the difference here.

PS. I think being on a bus with the same group of people that have all passed a covid test, proved immunization status, follow all local health protocols, and have agreed to the RS Health Agreement is probably less risky than solo travel on public transport.

Posted by
4376 posts

We've traveled in Europe a lot, and we've done both a Rick Steves tour and a Viking River Cruise, and enjoyed both. Both of those were embedded into a larger itinerary of independent travel. The people on our RS tours were predominantly seasoned travelers.

The RS tours that make sense to us, are the ones entirely based in one city or region. I do agree that they race around countries spending very little time at each destination. However, for some people that just want a taste of the country, that can be great.

To be honest, I don't see the point of a "My Way" tour for seasoned travelers, however. I feel like they handle the easiest part of trip planning and the parts I find most valuable like the visiting sites and gaining background and insight, travelers are left on their own. They handle transportation and lodging.

Check your medical insurance. Our insurance does cover us in Europe and aids with emergency situations by finding English speaking doctors and facilitating care as well as emergency evacuation.

Posted by
847 posts

OK, OK - I should have thought more about who would be reading this. I do know that many people on RS tours are experienced travelers who do pre and post tour travel and who have also done plenty of independent trips, and who do the tours for various reasons not at all related to being first timers or 'fearful' travelers. And that especially pertains to those of you on this forum. I do sill believe that a LOT of people who take tours (not just RS tours) ARE doing it because they aren't sure of their own abilities to navigate a foreign country.

I also realize that Rick's current business model is the most profitable and he is running a business. But many things he has said and done - especially since the start of the pandemic - have shown that he is not JUST concerned with making money. He has often stated that he takes pleasure out of introducing people to the joys of travel, exposing them to a more educational and culturally sensitive way to travel. So it wouldn't surprise me if he would entertain the idea of tours that would benefit some people even if they weren't quite as profitable as the standard. Obviously he still needs to make money, just possibly not the maximum.

People (on other forums) have long criticized Rick for the fact that his books/videos/tours just focus on the "biggies" (the obvious places that are the most popular). Those of us who have defended him have said he knows you can't include every place so he's chosen to focus on the places he thinks the 'most' people would 'most' want to visit. But in recent years he has branched out doing tours/books/videos on places outside of Europe. I'm just suggesting that another option would be to include some of the lesser visited areas in Europe. And that there is probably a subset of travelers who would appreciate having the transportation and accommodations (and chance to meet people) but don't want all day every day (almost, I realize all tours have some 'free time') full of 'experiences'.

I'm also not suggesting a tour where the tour guide would 'babysit' a person who became injured or sick. Just that I think any tour guide would spend an hour or so to help the tour member who needed it find English speaking health care, etc.

Posted by
1812 posts

I think the Rick Steves picked the travel model he uses in part because of the length of the average American vacation time frame. He’s talked in the past about wishing that he could do longer tours, but because of limited American vacation time, that didn’t work out. In looking back at old tour catalogues, there used to only be a 14-day Ireland tour, but there was demand for a shorter tour, so now there is the shorter tour as well.

We’re going to do the My Way Italy tour this spring. It will cover some places we’ve been and would like to spend more time in, as well as some new locations. We could have done this on our own, but the idea of having the travel taken care of, a loose group to travel with as well as a travel host was appealing.

There has been a certain amount of evolution in the RS business model ( he no longer drives us around in a van and expects us to scrounge for lodging) , so maybe now that a percentage of his demographic has more time for travel he’ll incorporate that.

Posted by
13732 posts

isabel, i have been blessed with many wonderful private tour guides over the years. I suspect the same guide that brought me home for mom's home cooking would get me to the hospital and help me get checked in. The cost? Still less than a RS tour, but my perception of RS tours are that they are social events as much as tours. I dont like people, so they dont work for me.

Posted by
1787 posts

But you love all of us here on the forum, don't you???

Posted by
11451 posts

I'm also not suggesting a tour where the tour guide would 'babysit' a person who became injured or sick. Just that I think any tour guide would spend an hour or so to help the tour member who needed it find English speaking health care, etc.

Having been a tour director--the proper term for the person RS calls guides--I can tell you this may or may not happen. It all depends on what it going on. If the tour director has free time, he might do something. More than likely, it's going to be the people at your hotel who will know of english speaking doctors or local hospitals. The tour director will help get the hotel involved but he can't leave the group if there is something planned.

If for some reason, you as a tour participant don't get what you were supposed to get due to actions of the tour director, you have a right to complain to the tour company. They might have to issue partial refunds. They don't like to do that and the tour director will be spoken to.

I've had instances where people were sick. When I could, I would help them find help. A couple of times, when the group had free time, I went with the passenger to the hospital. Other times, I spoke to the hotel's receptionists and alerted them to the problem. I would also get the name of the nearest hospital or clinic along with the address and phone number so if the passenger needed it they would have that information.

If for some reason you needed to get home, or find other accomodation if leaving the tour, I would contact the tour company and they would take over assisting you.

One other thing.....tours are not planned on a dime. More than likely, arrangements for tours are done 1-2 years ahead of time depending on how popular the destinations might be.

Posted by
254 posts

Isabel, thank you for starting an interesting discussion! It got me thinking about all the questions pertaining to navigating Covid testing and ever- changing regulations as the pandemic continues towards its 2nd (!) year and whether that will create change either in Rick's (or other travel business) model or my own.
But, there have always been risks associated with travel- civil unrest, strikes disrupting scheduled itineraries, a horrible case of food poisoning or the flu, breaking a limb, etc! As one who identifies most often with the independent traveler category I used to attempt to proactively plan with travel insurance and a really good first aid kit, including antibiotics. And with good fortune never experienced any of those things. Now I haven't been on an overseas trip since Covid began.
My deposit for a small group tour to Greenland was extended, yet again, to next summer. That is an example of when I use a tour- when transportation and logistics are too daunting and most of all, for safety in remote locations. (Yet I traveled independently to far northern Finland for a week, staying in a small family- run hotel where English was spoken.) I loved the RS Turkey tour and that was another case where as a woman traveling alone and concerned with the language barrier having the arrangements taken care of as part of a tour was really reassuring.
I think it would be so limiting to say I would never take a cruise or a tour. I absolutely loved the Hurtigruten "cruise". I used Road Scholar to get to Cuba and am so glad I went when I did, although I was a good 20 years younger than everyone else. Again, I knew I was only seeing what the government wanted me to see, vs an independent option a Spanish- speaking friend experienced, but I also felt it was safer.
The most terrified I have been in my life was a situation that happened in Israel, another solo trip, but using a day tour.
I am not a social person and am most happy with my own company but trade that for being part of a group if it means I can see and experience things I wouldn't be able to on my own.
I can't wait to be able to go on adventures again and would love to join a RS Germany tour!
I have been on 4 RS tours and appreciated the deeper understanding with local guides and experiences. Very different from the huge bus that pulled up only for photo opps when I was having my (solo trip, Denmark) moment with The Little Mermaid.

Posted by
13732 posts

Having been a tour director--the proper term for the person RS calls
guides--I can tell you this may or may not happen. It all depends on
what it going on. If the tour director has free time, he might do
something.

Yea, that's why I hire private tour guides -- the proper term for the person I hire.

In point of fact, my guide in Romania many, many years ago did take the time to get me to a doctor, did show me that as a cash patient I did not have to wait in line, did translate for the doctor, did advise me that the doctors work for tips, did take me to the pharmacy for the prescriptions that were prescribed, did apologize when the pharmacy only had vitamins; then did drive me across the Hungarian border when the railroad went on strike.

I have had two guides take me home to meet mom and eat dinner over the years, one threw up sea sick on a boat in the Black Sea, and one brought a gift of local food or wine each morning when she picked me up; but I suspect no different than a RS Tour Director (guide).

But I admit I have had to pay as much as $200 a day for this service; sort of excessive I guess.

Posted by
367 posts

I commented on that post on Fodor's . The OP there is totally missing the point I suspect. I don't think his wife is "anxious" about navigating Europe if he was laid up some how- I suspect she just doesn't want to do it with him 24/7 - particularly if they are a couple who never split to do things separately. Having the other compatible couple made it easy - now the dynamics has changed. He came across as the one who did everything and she just tagged along. She's saying tour group so she has more connections outside of just him.

I don't think there is a market for a tour group full of sick, vulnerable people - but I do think there is market for independent travellers thinking harder about how to manage when the proverbial hits the fan.

Posted by
1244 posts

I've never been on a tour but there are some good suggestions for smaller, slower paced and more offbeat tours on the Fodors thread. Having someone on standby 24-7, just in case you might need them, is no different to having a full-time guide/director, or whatever you want to call them. I don't know why Rick Steves would consider providing such a service at a reduced rate - "After all, we are not communists." (Emilio Barzini).

Posted by
188 posts

For starters a very experienced traveler in England (over 140 nights) , Paris (over 20 nights), Italy (over 30 nights), and Prague (a wonderful week). I've also done RS tours in England, Paris, and Italy. My first RS tour was Rome as a tour test drive; my thought being I know Rome (I've taken friends there and played tour guide) and if I didn't like the tour I could just fire the guide, do my own thing, and just use the hotel room. I had a great time on that tour and throughly enjoyed the group and as a result have taken other RS tours- all to areas I have been to before on my own.

Have I had a serious medical issue while overseas? Yes- in England, ON a RS Tour while in Bath. I spent 3 wonderful nights in the Royal Hospital in Bath; cardiology ICU. It happened 2 days into the tour, the night before the tour left Bath. Did the tour guide help- damn right. Got me to the hospital that night. Communicated with the hospital during the night and learned I was going to be staying for a bit. She packed up my room/suitcase and had the hotel store it. Oh, the hotel was the Brooks Guesthouse and it has NO night clerk NOR phones in the rooms. The Guide also contacted RS HQ. They in turn contacted Travel Guard. Understand I did NOT have Travel Guard insurance coverage. It didn't matter. While Travel Guard wasn't going to pay any of the bills they stepped in and contacted me in the hospital. At no charge they contacted a hotel in London (Aster House, my favorite) and set up a post hospital stay until my return flight home as well as worked with my airline to change my return date. Again on my dime but all things that would be hard to do from a cardiac ICU in an English speaking country, let alone attempting to do in a non-English language country.

Do I take RS tours because of this aspect, no. But it is damn nice to know of the help that can be brought in if necessary.

Oh, the people I have met on RS tours- experienced? Yes. But for many they took the tour as it is either a new area, don't feel like doing the planning, or want the social aspect (especially if I'm traveling alone)..heck, I have met couples who take tours to socialize and experience the trip and sights with others (wow, what a concept). Can tours cost more at times vs independent travel. yes, but who cares. It is not always about money.

As to the OP's original question-- I think the RS My Way Tours would be the best solution if searching for a blend of in-country assistance and independence. Not an ideal solution but a solution. The others being a major hotel in a major city...much better odds of staff assistance. OR a very good and reliable travel agent (to the extent they exist anymore) in the US that could be contacted and who could help with arrangements from the US.

Posted by
4 posts

My husband and I have always been independent travelers and have been to Europe probably 25 times since we began traveling. When we decided we wanted (finally) to visit Sicily where his grandparents came from, I was a bit intimidated to plan the trip on my own, as I always have. I looked at several group travel sites and decided that the Rick Steves tour looked the best. We thoroughly enjoyed this trip and met some wonderful people who were also experienced travelers, and we had a great Sicilian guide, Alfio. (We have since become very close friends with one couple who live in our state who were also on this trip.) Now, if we want to visit Sicily again we will feel more comfortable after this initial introduction. After the Sicily trip we booked another RS tour to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Again, a great trip with wonderful companions (also very experienced travelers) and our great guide Tina. We have kept in touch, emailing back and forth with both of these groups from time to time, and we all compare travel notes on trips taken or planned. Our next RS trip is already scheduled for the South Italy tour, again an area that we felt would be better “handled” professionally, especially with regard to navigating the Amalfi Coast and Naples. I think as we get older, it becomes easier to have someone else plan the logistics and do the driving. Not to say we have given up on independent travel, but for some trips it makes perfect sense.

Posted by
319 posts

It sounds like you would like more My Way tours that perhaps stay in locations for more than 2 days.

I primarily travel solo independently and have not experienced any medical issues...not even a headache or a cold. However, the covid has made me realize I really ought to know what I would have to do if I needed medical or hospital emergency services in each locale I stay. I'll work on that before my next trip.

Posted by
16 posts

I think the best solution would be to assemble a group of like minded travelers and arrannge for a private guide or guides to take you around.

Posted by
16 posts

My last visit to Europe before Covid hit was three weeks in Eastern Europe which was planned and carried out 99% by me, myself and I.

But, I also have done a number of RS tours. Why? I can travel about alone for about a week. But, I find I miss not being able to share the experiences with others. RS tours let me do that. I've even been known to skip an official tour activity to do something I find more interesting, and later catch up with the others at that night's group dinner. To each his/her own.

My only travel fear is driving in Italy. Especially the cities. Other than the highways connecting the various cities and towns which are just like driving in the USA, I was scared to death. One of my happiest moments touring Italy was returning the rental car in Rome and knowing I did not have to drive one more kilometer in Italy.

Posted by
16 posts

From what I have heard most hotels, hostels, etc. have the number of an English speaking doctor available in case a guest gets sick.

Posted by
177 posts

It seems that many RS alumni travel frequently to international destinations. Planning for that many trips can be time-consuming and, during the pandemic, frustrating as the landscape continually changes. We are independent travelers who are going to Greece with RS for two reasons: Covid and reluctance to navigate the Greek travel infrastructure outside Athens. There is plenty of opportunity to explore on our own in the itinerary, and our arrival in Athens 5 days ahead of the tour will allow us to visit sites not on the tour that hold and esoteric interest for us.

Posted by
130 posts

I was surprised when one of our tour companions on a My Way tour of Italy asked our tour guide if they could buy toothpaste in Italy. Maybe they were just kidding.

Interesting thread. I am considering booking a RS tour to minimize logistical planning and help narrow down the itinerary (I'm suffering from the shiny objects) but we tend to spend more time in locations than the tours are doing. We've never done a multi-day guided tour (only day long tours) and are experienced independent travels so the group thing would be new too. I was wondering about who goes on RS tours, nice to read a mix of ages as that was a question too. What happens on the bus (drive) portion - is this down time or does the guide talk?

Posted by
2422 posts

I was wondering about who goes on RS tours, nice to read a mix of
ages as that was a question too. What happens on the bus (drive)
portion - is this down time or does the guide talk?

I've only been on one so my sample size is small. But I'd say half of our tourmates were retired couples 65-75. There was a large group of us in our mid-50's, some were couples, others were travelling with friends. Lastly were a couple of solo travellers, one male, one female in mid 50s.

My main concern before the tour was the time on the bus, but it turned out to be one of the highlights. Our guide used it to talk about the French culture, language lessons, history and customs. It was outstanding.

Posted by
6802 posts

aimee, the coach has to stop every 2 - 2 1/2 hours by law to give the driver a rest. So its never too long. Yes the tour leader will use some of that time to brief you on where you are stopping next, give some language and history information, and maybe play some local music. But not all that time. They can read the mood of the group. There's also a lot of visiting and sharing or snacks that goes on, but no forced socializing. Some people just put their earbuds in, and tune things out.

Posted by
5536 posts

@Aimee. Try one, then decide if tours are for you or not. That is truly the only way to know for sure.

Posted by
13 posts

I agree with what others have said about the bus. It's actually a highlight of the tours. We're about to take our 9th RS tour this summer with our daughter and 2 grandkids, 13 and 15, and are doing the Family Tour. We're in our early 70's and our first one was in our 50's! We love meeting other people. Everyone on all of our tours have been very friendly, nice and easy to get along with. The main reason we do RS tours is the convenience of them making all the arrangements. So far there have been extra's that the guide will do for us. Such as an unplanned picnic in the most perfect spot! I would suggest you try one. We have really enjoyed all of them but you might want to look at Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GAS) Tour but you can't go wrong with any of them! Best of luck and happy travels!

Posted by
317 posts

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. If you have Google Translate on your phone, an emergency contact card in your wallet, and decent travel insurance you will be fine.

Travel health insurance pretty much only covers stabilization and repatriation. If you're prudent with mask wearing and up to date on your vaccinations you have no more reason to worry than you would driving around your own town. Either go and have fun, or don't. There's no magic combination that will keep you 100% safe--as we've learned.