By Rick Steves
Although I advocate independent travel, I'm not anti-tour. In fact, my company offers tours. I started my career leading big-bus tours for other companies, figured out what didn't work, and then designed my own tours. Three decades later, they're still going strong.
Besides my tours, there are probably hundreds of tour companies to choose from. The predictable biggies range from high-end expensive (Abercrombie & Kent, Maupintour, and Tauck) to low-end cheap (Cosmos, Globus, Insight, and Trafalgar); every company has a website where you can get more info. Groupon and other sites advertise "flash sale" tours which sound fun and spontaneous, but require you to make a quick decision on a multi-thousand-dollar purchase that's nonrefundable. If you're willing to take the risk (though I wouldn't), scrutinize the fine print and compare rates elsewhere before committing.
No matter which tour company you go with, it's important to do your research. Start by browsing your options online, asking friends, or talking to a travel agent for advice. When considering tours, remember that some of the best sellers are 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. Choose carefully among the itineraries available. Do you really want a series of one-night stands? Bus drivers call tours with ridiculous itineraries "pajama tours." You're in the bus from 8:00 a.m. until after dark, so why even get dressed?
Hotel location is important. It can make the difference between a fair trip and a great trip. Beware: Some tour companies save money by parking you in the middle of nowhere. If the tour brochure says you'll be sleeping in the "Florence area," that could be halfway to Bologna (and you'll spend half your sightseeing time on transportation to and from the city center). Centrally located hotels maximize your sightseeing efficiency. Get explicit locations in writing before your trip.
The cheapest bus tours are impossibly cheap. There's literally no profit in their retail price. They can give you bus transportation and hotels for about what the tourist-off-the-street would pay for just the hotels alone. But there's a catch: These tours tend to charge extra for sightseeing, and make money by taking you to attractions and shops from which they receive kickbacks. However, savvy travelers on a tight budget can actually get the last laugh on these tours by thinking of them as a tailored bus pass with hotels tossed in. Skip out of the shopping, don't buy any of the optional tours, equip yourself with a guidebook, and every day you can do your own sightseeing. Just apply the skills of independent travel to the efficient, economical trip shell an organized coach tour provides.
When you're selecting a tour, the cost you're quoted isn't the only factor to consider. Investigate how many people you'll be traveling with as well as what extras you'll be expected to cover. Most tour companies include customer feedback on their websites — look around and see what previous tour members have to say.
When comparing prices, remember that airfare is not included. The chart below illustrates what to expect from a range of tour companies.
|High-End Tours||Rick Steves' Tours||Low-End Tours|
|Price per day||$350–915||$200–300||$120–285|
|Group Size (max)||20–40||20–28||40–50|
|Meals||50–75% included||50% included||35–50% included|
|Sightseeing||All included||All included||Most cost extra|
|Tips||All except guide's||All included||None included|