In my early days, I earned my plane ticket to Europe by working as an escort for a bus tour company. On one tour, I was paired with German guide Monica, a hardened, chain-smoking woman in her 50s who plotted potty breaks as if on a military campaign. She could sense the pain in your bladder even before you got the nerve to raise your hand. Clenching the mic, she’d splice in a terse “cross your legs” midway through a lecture on Mad King Ludwig. Thanks to Monica, I developed an appreciation of tour guide charm — and what a good tour should be.
Bus tours are an efficient way to see Europe. A typical tour includes a professional, multilingual guide, a comfy bus, decent hotels with mass-produced comfort, and some meals. The cheapest tours can cost less than $150 a day, making this an economical option, too.
For many people, this is the best way to scratch their travel itch. Having someone else do the driving, arrange the hotels and make the decisions takes the stress and work out of travel. If you have limited time, or you want to travel comfortably, tours can be a good option — and if you’ve got an excellent guide, it can be a great one. The best guides bring Roman life alive in Pompeii or help you recall recent history in Berlin.
But before you say bon voyage, it’s important to choose the right tour and be aware of their pitfalls. Here are some tips for getting the most out of a big-bus tour:
Avoid “pajama tours.” That’s what bus drivers call tours with ridiculous itineraries. You’re in the bus from 8 a.m. until after dark, so why even get dressed? When choosing a tour, forego those that promise more sightseeing than is reasonable in a given amount of time. No tour can give you more than 24 hours in a day or seven days in a week. What a wide-ranging “blitz” tour can do is give you more hours on the bus.
Before booking a tour, check the locations of all hotels. Some tour companies save money by parking guests in the middle of nowhere. If the tour brochure says you’ll be sleeping in the “Florence area,” that could be halfway to Bologna. Centrally located hotels maximize your sightseeing efficiency and allow you to fully experience a destination.
Check the list of included sights. Do you at least recognize them? Some companies choose sights for their convenience rather than merit. For instance, the Lion Monument in Luzern, Switzerland, is mediocre. What makes it “great” for tour companies is its easy tour-bus parking. However, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan may be passed over because it’s expensive to visit and its mandatory reservation system is inconvenient.
Beware of optional excursions. Some tour companies offer add-on excursions, such as a gondola ride or Seine River cruise. Guides promote excursions because they receive a commission. These can be a decent value, but before committing, ask your hotelier or check a guidebook for the going rate for that activity. In general, I’d skip most evenings of “local color.” Three hundred tourists in Barcelona drinking watered-down sangria and watching flamenco dancing to the rhythm of their digital camera bleeps is big-bus tourism at its worst.
If you shop … shop around. If you’re buying souvenirs at guide-recommended stores, keep in mind that the prices you see often include a 10-20 percent kickback. Do some comparison shopping, and don’t let anyone rush you. Never swallow the line, “This is a special price available only to your tour, but you must buy now.”
Remember that it’s your trip. Don’t let bus tour priorities keep you from what you’ve traveled all the way to Europe to see. If your Amsterdam tour guide schedules a trip to a diamond-polishing place instead of the Van Gogh Museum (no kickbacks on Van Gogh), feel free to skip out. Your guide may warn you that you’ll get lost and the bus won’t wait. Keep your independence — and the address of your hotel.
A good guidebook and map are your keys to travel freedom. If your accommodations are outside the city, ask your hotelier how to take public transportation downtown. Taxis can be affordable if you split the cost with other tour members.
Seek out your own experiences and connect with people. The locals most tour groups encounter are hardened business people who put up with tourists because they have to — it's their livelihood. Spending a “Bavarian evening” with 40 other Americans at the most touristy beer hall in Munich, you’ll meet all the wrong Germans. But if you make it a quest to find your own beer hall, it won’t be long before you’re clinking mugs with friendly locals.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.