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To tour or do it yourself around Europe

as a first timer in Europe, i have 15 days to see as much as i can? I have done a lot of research on tours etc which seem to be the best way to see a lot in a short time period but as i am travelling with my husband i really don't like the idea of sitting on a bus for long periods and seeing only the suggested places. I have a lot of time on my hands and happy to research the www and this site has been brilliant.. but just wanted to ask is being on a tour very restrictive and uncomfortable? or is it the best way the first time.. thanking you in advance

Posted by
31318 posts

Tarn,

Given that this is your first time in Europe, IMO taking a tour would be the best way to get a good overview of continental Europe, and provide a good starting point to plan for return visits. Rick's 14-day Best of Europe tour sounds like a perfect fit for the time frame you're considering.

My preferred travel method lately is a combination of a RS tour along with an equal amount of time on my own. I've found that the tours provide a very efficient way to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, and the experience is so much more rewarding and interesting having not only the Lead Guide but also local Guides.

I haven't found "sitting on a bus for long periods" to be a problem with the RS Tours, as they stop for breaks at regular intervals, and there always seemed to be something "fun" happening with the group. The trips are usually no more than 4-6 hours (although a few legs can be a bit longer), and the groups are always no more than about 28.

Planning a totally self guided trip is certainly possible, but it's an enormous amount of work to figure out lodgings and transportation especially (my last "2 month mega-trip" took several months to arrange and lots of research before that).

Happy travels!

Posted by
24 posts

Hi Ken

Thank you for your reply, Ricks tour looks great i think we will go this way.. i really appreciate your feedback.

Posted by
506 posts

Personally, I'd opt for the DYI route, but then I'm not a tour kind of guy. There are advantages either way, and as Ken points out the self-guided thing is a lot of work. For me, that's a big part of the fun. I also don't like to travel around in a pack.

That said, I've heard great things about the RS tours, both from this board and from personal friends. So if you want to avoid the upfront work and want to travel with a reasonably-sized group (reasonable by tour standards anyway) with knowledgeable guides, then the RS tour could be right for you.

Either way, you'll have a great trip.

Posted by
9363 posts

A tour would be great for you. You will not only have all arrangements for transportation, housing, etc., taken care of, but you'll probably learn a lot more about what you are seeing than you would on your own. Different tours offer differing amounts of free time that you could use to see anything not covered on the "official" itinerary.

Posted by
10238 posts

As a former tour director who personally prefers to travel independently, let me help you with the pros and cons.

On a tour, you will have a lot of things done for you...hotels, transportation while on tour, someone to point out what you are seeing, faster admission to sights, and some there to help should any problems arise or you need help to find things during your free time. On the down side, your time will be limited, you'll have to follow the itinerary of the tour, and yes, you will have to spend some time on the coach.

If you travel independently, you will have to do everything for yourself but you can also make your own itinerary and allot time where you want.

IF you do decide on a tour, I'd suggest the RS tours as they seem to offer more free time than other similar t

Posted by
11450 posts

I have never been a tour type person either, I have taken many trips to Europe, mostly France , but also England and Italy, plus, a three month( where we went all over , plus Greece) backpacker trip with a friend when younger,, I have gone solo, with a friend, and with a child,,.. BUT..

This past summer I took my 12 yr old daughter on a 2 week Rick Steves Family Tour,, ( plus we had another 12 days on our own).
I really wanted to take my dd to alot of places, but also knew I didn't want to be responsible all the time for checking schedules, arranging all train and bus tickets, and being the only grown up. Its fine when you are solo, or with another ADULT ,but with my kid I wanted easy and fun. I had taken my 14 yr old son a few years before , but stuck to England and France only( easy).

The RS tour was great,it really was, we were a small group ( as groups go) ,, we did not get driven around in tour buses , we took public transport while in all cities( Rome , Paris etc) so we got a great lesson in "how to" travel. We got the advantage of things being prearranged and skipping long lines at places like Colisuem and Vatican, and Louvre, it was great. Our guides were smart and funny, and we did not ever make stupid "shopping stops" . We did not get nickeled and dimed either. The tour was not the cheapest one I found online, but it was the best one for the type of trip I wanted to take,, I highly recommend . or, really, go solo, and just pick two cities, , ie. London and Paris are easy to DIY, but if you want variety, and taste of lots, then try the RS 14 day tours.

Posted by
277 posts

I am in favor of independent travel. Why be part of the "sheep to slaughter" group. You are told when, with whom, and where you will go. If you do some homework, you can very easy travel to the destinations that interest you. It takes time and effort that many do not want to do. I know from personal experience it can be done. My first trip to Europe I traveled (backpacked) to five countries, and many more cites in three weeks. Traveled all by train. Many times slept on the train. True, I was only able to get a flavor of the city, my choice, but I was able to determine which city I wanted to return to. In 15 days you can see a lot. I always use: Frommers, Steves, Lonely Planet, and D&K. Each will give you a different perspective on the same destinations. Pack very light. Steves can give you information on packs. Fly into one city and out in another. It will save you time from backtracking. The train system in Europe is fantastic! Don't worry about the language. I speak only English and never had a problem. Hit the large cities the first time out: London, Paris, and Rome. Use each city as a "homebase" then travel to out areas based on your reading and interests. If you plan, will not have a problem. But remember, travel is adventure. One example of many that I have experienced: I, at one time, took the Metro in Moscow. I got lost and a Moscowvite not speaking English, help me to get around through gestures. I was a wonderful experience. You really get to know the locals and more importantly the culture of the area you will be seeing.

Posted by
1147 posts

It sounds like you would have no problem doing it on your own. The biggest difference is the time it take to do the research and make plans and reservations. For some of us that is 1/2 the fun of the trip. For others-no time or interest and a guided tour is best. I have never done a tour, but I love the freedom that going on our own provides.

Posted by
3112 posts

My very first trip to Europe was on a RS Best of Europe tour. The plus was that all the hard work (lodging, transportation, etc) was done for me, and a tour allowed me to focus on my vacation and visit more places than I could have visited on my own. There was ample free time to explore, and all in all it was a very positive experience. Depending upon your objective, a well-chosen tour could be a good option. Heed Jeff D's warning and avoid any tour that even remotely suggests you'll be herded through Europe on a rigid itinerary and a packed bus. If you prefer more flexibility than a tour offers, want to focus on fewer places and would enjoy planning your own logistics, then DIY is the way to go. I do mostly independent travel now and prefer it, but good tours can be an excellent way to get oriented to Europe and help decide where to focus on future DIY visits.

Posted by
71 posts

There is alraedy a lot of good and varied advice here to help you with your decsion. I'll just add this: traveling on a tour or doing it independently are two different kinds of experiences and really depends on whst you want, what you, want to get out of the trip and what you're comfortable with. We've traveled independently in Europe twice and wouldn't do it any other way. However, this year we traveled on a tour to Egypt and Isreal and three years ago on a tour to China. I would not have been comfortable traveling independently in either case, particularily China. But in Europe, transportation, language, money etc. is relatively easy and somewhst of an adventure, albeit an easy and safe one.
Happy travels
Duane

Posted by
24 posts

Thanks heaps everyone, great feedback.. your experience has been very helpful, thank you

Posted by
5572 posts

I am basically and independent traveler, but I too tried a Rick Steves tour a couple of years ago and found that it was a great experience. I didn't feel like part of a mob. We met each other the first night and there was emphasis on getting to know people, so we were a group of friends, some better than others, but still friends by the end. My other recommendation is that you think either getting them early, or staying longer to have a bit of time on your own. Pam

Posted by
85 posts

I've done it both ways and have enjoyed them all.

A few years ago I took a RS tour of France and got there 4 days early to spend some time on my own. It was great, but . . . one disadvantage I found was that I wasted alot of time either getting lost, figuring out how to do things (like subway, trains, etc.), or wandering around to get where I wanted to go. Eventually I got it all down, but on the tour our time used wisely because the guide was organized and efficient. The RS tour was not like other tours I've been on - there was alot of time for independent exploration and a small group that didn't seem like a herd. Soon I'm returning to Europe on my own for 2 weeks of traveling around by train.

Personally, I would recommend taking the RS tour for your first trip and staying afterward on your own for a few days. By then you'll be a pro at riding the subways and blending into the new culture. Have fun no matter how you do it!

Posted by
588 posts

I take RS tours but always add days before and after the actual tour for some independent travel. On RS tours, you do have considerable free time and bus trips of any length are always broken up with stops for sightseeing, picnics, or lunch on your own. If I recall correctly, European standards for bus drivers are pretty stringent. They have to have breaks. Actually we had a lot of fun on the bus and they are very comfortable. Everyone usually gets the equivalent of two seats. You can sit in a seat with an open one beside you. Your husband can sit in front or in back of you and have two seats. People move around all the time and we have bus activities.

Posted by
1357 posts

Do whichever you think you'll be most comfortable with. I'm too much of a control freak when it comes to my vacations -- if I'm spending that much time and money, I want to be able to do what I want and not have to be somewhere at a certain time.

I think many Americans are afraid to travel internationally on their own. I've met several who are afraid of the language/cultural differences and think they can't navigate the country on their own. We met a couple on our first trip to Germany who were so impressed that we rented our own car and knew which sights to see. If you get good guidebooks, it's not hard at all. And if you do run into difficulty, it's just part of the adventure and makes for great stories later.

Posted by
11798 posts

I've done one tour (it wasn't a RS tour).

The good side: You don't have to plan, it's all done for you. I never had to worry about where or when to eat or sleep. Sleeping arrangements are made for you and included in the price. Eating WILL be on schedule and might be included (most breakfast and an occasional dinner or lunch), dropped near a number of places with time to eat and return or at a given place that you pay for on your own. They give you plenty of time to shop. Sites are predetermined as part of the package and listed in the brochure.

The bad side: I'm more interested in sites. I would gladly lose eating, sleeping and/or shopping time to see a great site. I eat quickly and start early so the tours go at a disappointing pace. Tours tend to have long stops for eating and shopping in places where there aren't other touring options.

One of my worst examples was stopping at Gretna Green (spelling?) in Scotland for food and shopping. It's a famous place where people elope. It's basically a tourist trap. We stayed three hours then made a one-minute "photo" stop in the parking lot of Jedburgh Abbey ruins (a site I would prefer).

The way a site is listed is specific rather than a variety of synonomous terms. "See" means you'll look at it as the bus drives by. "Stop" might mean you will stop in the parking lot for only a few minutes or a restroom break. Only when it says "tour" will you actually tour something. When it says you have the "opportunity" to explore or tour, it means it's optional and not included in the price of the tour as does the word "option".

The tour delivered exactly what it promised, nothing more. We stayed in very good American-style hotels.

Overall, I prefer to plan a more flexible itinerary, eat and sleep on a budget, spend lots of time on sites and very little on shopping. A tour isn't for me.

The tour was actually for my mother. She liked it and has done many since.

Posted by
31318 posts

Brad, the tour you described sounds considerably different than a Rick Steves tour. It sounds more like the "standard big bus tour" that Rick mentions in his tour literature (especially the reference to "very good American-style hotels"). I'm curious on how many were on that tour?

Although any tour requires some structure and conformity, in my experience the RS tours have a greater degree of flexibility and a more "relaxed" atmosphere. All of the breakfasts are provided and about half of the lunches and dinners, so there's lots of opportunity for people on tours to explore local restaurants, dine on a budget or skip meals to spend more time sightseeing - whatever they want. I'm sure the group meals are also "optional" to some extent, although most people would probably want to attend as they've paid for them in the cost of the tour.

Tours are not for everyone, but I felt the RS Tours delivered excellent value and in conjuction with some "self guided" time on my own before or after the tour, it's been the perfect combination for me.

Cheers!

Posted by
515 posts

As first timers, we did the 14 day RS Best of Europe. It was fabulous...a great first time experience...time on bus is minimal and they even make that a great experience...lots of free time, very comfortable always....look at the tour scrapbooks on the RS site.

Posted by
85 posts

Brad,

Your tour was nothing like a RS tour. On the RS tour I took, one lady had her son coming to Paris while we were there, so she didn't even stay with us for about 24 hrs while visiting with him. It was fine with the tour guide. They're flexible and give lots of free time. If you want to skip a planned activity and do your own thing it's OK. And there were NO shopping stops. I did do some shopping on my own while wandering through a town, but we were never taken somewhere just to shop. I think this is the best type of tour available. I've taken other ones (like the one you were on) and felt like a steer on a cattle drive.

Posted by
331 posts

I have never taken a tour, but instead have always travelled on the fly.

2 months Eurail from Holland to Greece and Back (w best friend).2 years backpacking/working around europe/egypt/israel (w husband), 5 weeks backpacking Holland/France/Italy(husband & 2 Tweens).

That being said, If I was going for the first time, and it was in the budget, I think I would try the Rick Steves tour, and then try to have a few days at the end of the trip to use my newfound knowledge (and confidence) to enjoy Europe on my own.

Doing all the planning and arranging yourself is Great, but alot of your trip time can be spent waiting at train stations, hunting for rooms and trying to find an affordable local restaurant. Having someone else make all of those arrangements can take lots of pressure off of you, and make your trip more enjoyable.

Although its true that you may be stuck doing things you might not want to do on an arranged tour, the same thing can happen when you plan your own trip. You may Hate the museum/castle/village/restaurant etc that you added to the trip based on your research, and just have to grumble through it.

I hope this helps a bit.

Posted by
2771 posts

While a tour can be interesting, a tour is not an adventure. Go on your own. Have an adventure. Step out of your usual safety net. You'll feel incredible afterwards.

Posted by
168 posts

Hi Tarn - I recommend you doing it on your own. When my husband and I went to Europe for the first time we did the first part on a tour and the 2nd half not...and the non-tour part was so much more fun. Tours are nice because you have someone else do the planning...however then you are on their schedule. We had the most fun choosing where we want to go and when. Plus it is more of an adventure and you'll have more fun stories to tell :-)

I would recommend you pick 2 countries you'd like to see first (you could potentially do 3) and then plan yourself. Something I usually do is look at the itinerary of tour groups then decide what interests you the most and plan your own. I also always bring my Rick Steves book. He has so many great walking tours and highlights in there it's like having your own personal guide.

Germany, Austria, & Switzerland you could see in 15 days ( I did all 3 of those in 12 days). Another good spot to start is England and then France. That's where we went on our first trip...it was nice starting somewhere that spoke English first to help get is situated.

If you have any other questions on places to go let me know. You'll have a great time!

Posted by
875 posts

As my husband says, "there are pros and cons to being on an escorted tour". He likes for us to go independently; however, I am the one who spends the uncountable hours on the internet and at the library doing the research, making reservations, etc. But as someone else mentioned, for some of us that is part of the enjoyment -- as it is for me. That being said, we are going to Greece this year on a tour that happened to include everything I wanted to see in a country where I not only don't speak the language -- I also can't read the language. After the tour, we are going to London to do our idependent part of the trip. So we are doing some of each and expect to enjoy both parts. We will probably not be having all our meals with the tour group as we prefer to go off on our own.

When all else is said and done -- it's a very personal decision, but hopefully we have all told you some of the pros & cons of each method.