I am a self-confessed Euro-phile. I’m happiest when I’m turning left out of Australia, and onto the plane for that matter 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I have travelled to all the continents and they each hold their own magic, but the call of Europe is usually too strong for me to ignore (like that chocolate sitting in the cupboard you’re trying not to eat).
Because of that, people have started to ask my advice for their own European adventures. Ahem, well they’ve either asked for my advice or I’ve just given it to them unsolicited! Either way, they seem to appreciate what I tell them so I thought I’d share a few of my own travel tips for Europe here.
First thing to think about : Independent travel vs Tour?
This is a tough one for me to be objective about as the vast majority of the travelling I’ve done within Europe has been independently, but that’s not to say that tours don’t have their place. If you’re travelling solo, or if this is your first time to Europe, then a tour may well be the way to go. You’ll have a group to travel with, a guide to tell you what you’re looking at, transport and hotels taken care of, and you won’t have to think too much. If you don’t have a lot of time, a tour can be the perfect answer in that you can get a great overview of a region in a small amount of time.
For me though, travelling independently through Europe allows you to spend more time in the places you’re enjoying, take a turn down a country lane that looks inviting, stop at that little village that’s having a market day, wait endlessly for the colour changes at sunset or just get thoroughly lost and have those little experiences that end up being the most memorable years later.
But firstly, let’s have a look at joining a tour. If you’ve decided a tour is the way to go, how on earth do you decide which tour will be right for you?
Here are my Top 15 Tips that will hopefully make choosing a tour a little easier.
1. Decide how long you have, and how much time you’d like to spend travelling. A 10 day tour of 5 countries is going to mean a lot of time spent sitting in the coach getting from A to B (and C, D, E, F…..). A 10 day tour of Tuscany will mean an awful lot more time to explore, experience the country and the locals, and will be far more pleasant for your bottom.
2. Think about how much you want to see – a brief overview of many different countries (if it’s Tuesday, I must be in France), or a more in-depth experience of one country.
3. Write down a list of your must see’s, this will help you decide on which tour is the best for you and whittle down the many to a short list.
4. Look at the length of time spent at points of interest – carefully read the trip itinerary and take note if you’re “seeing” a place or “visiting” it – you may not even be leaving the coach!
5. Take note of the number of nights spent at each stop – if you’ve only one night at a stopover point, what time do you arrive, what time to you leave, what are you doing there? If this is one of your ‘must sees’, will the tour give you enough time to do it justice?
6. How much free time do you have at each place? How much free time would you like at each place?
7. What kind of people is the tour aimed at? Every tour company has a demographic it’s pitching to, make sure you’re it! You’re going to be stuck with these people for the next week, 10 days or however long, and if you’re a 25 year old on a bus full of 60 somethings, that could get old quickly (no pun intended!). Likewise, a ‘youth’ tour may not necessarily be the way to go for a younger person. A 29 year old may fit into the demographic of the companies aimed at the youth market, but if you’re not interested in visiting a different bar every night and potentially being too hungover to enjoy the next day to the fullest (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), then that may not be the right choice for you. So it’s not just about your age, it’s about what you want to get out of the tour as well.
8. Think about choosing a tour that starts and finishes in a different place. Most of them will start and end in the same location but there are some tours that will ‘open jaw’, meaning the start and end cities are different and there are plenty of airlines who will allow you to fly into and out of different European cities for the same cost (taxes will vary). This will give you the option of spending more time in the final destination before heading home, and potentially cut out some travel time getting back to the start.
9. Failing the open jaw tour in #8, ask whether you can just get off the bus at the 2nd last stop. For example, if you’re on a tour from London into Europe, many will have Amsterdam or Paris as a last stopover before heading back to London. Save yourself some travel time and just finish there. By not flying out of London you’ll also save yourself a considerable amount of tax on your airfare (and I mean considerable!).
10. Carefully note what’s included in the tour. What looks like a cheap tour may not have all meals included, or only limited entrance fees. A tour that on the surface looks more expensive may not have you reaching into your pocket at every given occasion and actually work out more cost effective. Compare tours of varying lengths by looking at the per day rate.
11. How many ‘optional extras’ are there, and at what cost. Some companies offer more optional experiences than others, and at vastly different rates. Make sure you know what you want to do, and how much extra it will cost you.
12. Are there any extras you have to pay for in cash on arrival – a food kitty, fuel surcharges or guide/driver tips.
13. Are there any special events happening at that time of year that the tour will overlap – for example, will you be in Rome on Easter Sunday and have the opportunity to go to St Peter’s square? Will you be in Munich over Oktoberfest? Will you be travelling while the Christmas markets are on? Do some research before you go and look carefully at your tour dates: a simple change from one departure date to the next could mean the difference between a regular tour, or one that has a special experience.
14. What kind of accommodation will you be staying in and where is it located? If you were thinking you might ditch the group at night and go and take some night photos of Paris, make sure the hotel the tour stays at is not actually 30 minutes outside of Paris.
15. How many people on the tour– is this a 50 person big bus tour, or a 12 person mini van tour ( or indeed, a guided local transport tour). The tours operated by a big coach tend to be cheaper (not always though!) but a 12 person maximum on a trip will mean you’ll have a far more intimate group and you’ll not have to compete with as many people to ask a question of the guide.
Most of all, be prepared to be flexible – you will never find something that is absolutely perfect for you unless you’re prepared to pay for a private tour tailored specifically to your needs but by taking the time to do some of your own research and think about each of these tips, you should be able to narrow down your options and find a tour that will give you the best experience of Europe possible (on a bus 😉 ).