Bus Tour Self-Defense: Tips for Enjoying Europe on a Big-Bus Tour

Local Tour Guide, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
The best bus-tour guides can bring a place alive with interesting stories and history.
Gondolas in Narrow Canal, Venice, Italy
Some tour companies offer optional excursions that cost extra. Before signing up, check the going gondola rate to see if you can do it on your own for less.
By Rick Steves

For many people, a bus tour in Europe 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.

Bus tours are also 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.

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 fifties 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.

I also learned a lot about what tour members can do to make the most of their time and money on tour. Of course, once you’re on board with a bus tour, you’ll be part of a group dynamic — but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any control over your trip. Here are some suggestions to help make sure the good times roll for you while you’re on the road:

A good guidebook and map are your keys to travel freedom. Bad 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. If your accommodations are located outside the city center, ask your hotelier how to catch public transportation downtown. Taxis can be affordable if you split the cost with other tour members.

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 guide schedules a trip to the 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 keep your hotel address in your money belt.

Discriminate among optional excursions. Some tour companies include certain activities in the price (such as half-day city sightseeing tours), then offer one or two optional special excursions or evening activities for an additional cost. While you’re capable of doing plenty on your own, optional excursions can be a decent value — especially when you factor in the value of your time. But don’t feel pressured to join. Guides promote excursions because they get a commission. Compare prices by asking your hotelier or checking a guidebook for the going rate for a gondola ride, Seine River cruise, or whatever.

You’ll find that some options are a better value through your tour than from the hotel concierge, but others 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 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 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. 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.”

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 not always 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.

Seek out your own experiences and connect with people. 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, Germany, 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.