By Rick Steves
Unfortunately, most of the tour groups that unload on Europe's quaintest towns experience things differently from the way independent travelers do. On the biggest tours, groups are treated as an entity: a mob to be fed, shown around, profited from, and moved out. If money is saved, it can be at the cost of real experience. For me, the best travel values are enjoyed not by gazing through the tinted windows of a tour bus, but by experiencing Europe on my own.
Generally speaking, the bigger the group, the more you're cut off from Europe's charms. When 50 tourists drop into a "cozy" pub, any coziness is trampled. A good stop for a guide is one with great freeway accessibility and bus parking; where guides and drivers are buttered up with free coffee and cakes (or even free meals); where they speak English and accept credit cards; and where 50 people can go to the bathroom at the same time. Arrivederci, Roma.
All that said, many people find that tours are 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. Tours can also be the most economical way to see Europe: Large tour companies book thousands of rooms and meals year-round, and with their tremendous economic clout, they can get prices that no individual tourist can match. For instance, on a tour with Cosmos (one of the largest and cheapest tour companies in Europe), travelers get fine rooms with private baths, some restaurant meals, bus transportation, and the services of a European guide — all for less than $150 a day. Considering that many hotel rooms alone cost around $150, that all-inclusive tour price is great. For people looking to travel comfortably and cheaply, tours can be a good option — and if you've got an excellent guide, it can be a great one.
How to Enjoy a Bus Tour
Be informed. Tour guides call the dreaded tourist with a guidebook an "informed passenger." But a guidebook is your key to travel freedom. Get maps and tourist information from your (or another) hotel desk or a tourist information office. Tour hotels are often located outside the city, which makes tour members more likely to book the tour's optional sightseeing excursions just to get into town. Ask the person behind the desk how to catch public transportation downtown. Taxis are always a possibility, and, with three or four people sharing, they're affordable. Team up with others on your tour to explore on your own.
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. In Amsterdam, some tour companies instruct their guides to spend time in the diamond-polishing place instead of the Van Gogh Museum (no kickbacks on Van Gogh). Skip out if you like. Your guide may warn you that you'll get lost and the bus won't wait. Keep your independence (and your hotel address in your money belt).
Discriminate among optional excursions. While some activities may be included (such as half-day city sightseeing tours), each day one or two special excursions or evening activities, called "options," are offered for $30–50 each. Your guide promotes excursions because he or she profits from them. Don't be pressured. Compare prices. Ask your hotelier, or check a guidebook for the going rate for a gondola ride, Seine River cruise, or whatever. While you are capable of doing plenty on your own, optional excursions can be a decent value — especially when you factor in the value of your time. Some options are cheaper through your tour than from the hotel concierge. Some meals are actually a better value with the group.
Some options, however, aren't worth the time or money. While illuminated night tours of Rome and Paris are marvelous, I'd skip most "nights on the town." On the worst kind of big-bus-tour evening, several bus tours come together for an evening of "local color." Three hundred Australian, Japanese, and American tourists drinking watered-down sangria and watching flamenco dancing on stage to the rhythm of their digital camera bleeps is big-bus tourism at its grotesque worst.
If you shop...shop around. Many people make their European holiday one long shopping spree. This suits your guide and the local tourist industry just fine. Guides are quick to say, "If you haven't bought a Rolex, you haven't really been to Switzerland," or "You can't say you've experienced Florence if you haven't bargained for and bought a leather coat."
Don't necessarily reject your guide's shopping tips; just keep in mind that the prices you see often include a 10–20 percent kickback. Tour guides are clever at dominating your time, making it difficult for shoppers to get out and discover the going rate for big purchases. Don't let them rush you. Never swallow the line, "This is a special price available only to your tour, but you must buy now."
Keep your guide happy. Leading a tour is a demanding job with lots of responsibility, paperwork, babysitting, and miserable hours. Very often, guides are tired. They're away from home and family, often for months on end, and are surrounded by foreigners having an extended party that they're probably not in the mood for. Most guides treasure their time alone and keep their distance from the group socially. Each tourist has personal demands, and a big group can amount to one big pain in the bus for the guide.
Independent-type tourists tend to threaten guides. Maintain your independence without alienating your guide. Don't insist on individual attention when the guide is hounded by countless others. Wait for a quiet moment to ask for advice or offer feedback. If a guide wants to, he can give his entire group a lot of extras — but when he pouts, everyone loses. Your objective, which requires some artistry, is to keep the guide on your side without letting him take advantage of you.
Seek out unjaded locals. The locals most tour groups encounter are hardened businesspeople who put up with tourists because they have to — it's their livelihood. Going through Tuscany in a flock of 50 Americans following the tour guide's umbrella, you'll meet all the wrong Italians. Break away. One summer night in Regensburg, I skipped out. While my tour was still piling off the bus, I enjoyed a beer — while overlooking the Danube and under shooting stars — with the great-great-great-grandson of the astronomer Johannes Kepler.