Bus Tour Self-Defense
By Rick Steves
I've spent months on typical big bus tours and have some hard-earned advice. (And this is not leading to a plug of my tours.) If you follow these tips, even a big bad bus tour can be a good value.
When calling tour companies, here are questions to ask:
Nail down the price
- What does the price actually include? (How many nights and days? How many meals? Admission to sights? Exactly what kind of transportation?)
- If the dollar drops, will the tour price stay the same or will a supplement be charged?
- If the tour doesn't fill up, will the price increase? Are prices lower for off-season tours?
- Do you take credit cards? Pay by credit card if at all possible. A credit-card company can be a strong ally in resolving billing disputes.
- Do singles pay a supplement? Can singles save money by sharing rooms?
- Are optional excursions offered? Daily? Average cost?
- Is trip interruption/cancellation insurance included?
- Will the guide and driver expect to be tipped? How much? How often?
- Are there any other costs?
- Do customers receive any freebies for signing up?
Find out how much the guide guides
- Is the guide also the driver?
- Does the guide give talks on the cities, history, and art?
- What are the guide's qualifications (education, experience, fluency in languages)?
Run a reality check on your dream trip
- How many tour members will be on the tour?
- Roughly what is the average age and singles-to-couples ratio?
- Are children allowed? What is the minimum age?
- How many seats on the bus? Is there a bathroom on the bus? How much time is spent on the bus each day?
- Is smoking allowed?
- Roughly how many hours a day are spent shopping and watching product demonstrations?
- How much free time is usually allotted at each sight, museum, and city?
- Are all the hotels located downtown or are they on the outskirts?
- What's the average length of stay at hotels? One night? Two?
- Does each room have a private bathroom? Air-conditioning?
- What percentage of included meals are eaten at the hotel?
Let's get personal
- How many years have you been in business?
- Roughly how many tours do you run a year?
- What is your policy if you have to cancel a tour?
- What are your refund policies before and during the tour?
- The detailed itinerary and location of hotels.
- The names and phone numbers of satisfied customers, though these aren't always given out.
- Written tour evaluations, if available (may be posted on their website).
How to Enjoy a Bus Tour
Avoid "pajama tours." That's what bus drivers call tours with ridiculous itineraries. You're in the bus from 8:00 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 7 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 located 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.
Updated for 2012. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.