A guide to coach touring

After almost 7 months of travelling around Europe, someone asked me how many tours I had taken. I counted back and realised I had done 10 in total! Some were only short around a week, and in one country only, others were much longer and one was spent entirely on a boat in Croatia.

The main reason I did so many was because as a travel agent before I quit to roam Europe, I was able to book my own tours commission free and already knew the itineraries which appealed to me. It particularly meant also that as a solo traveller I could stay in hotels for a lot less money too by sharing the cost and it was an easy way to meet people. I organised these tours before I left Australia and filled in the gaps between them as I went myself, mostly staying in hostels.

Since I have done more than my fair share of tours, I’ve compiled a guide outlining what coach touring is about, the advantages/disadvantages to them and what to look for when choosing one yourself.

Please note: All the tours I did were with either Contiki, Topdeck or Busabout (these were not sponsored in any way) which cater for the youth market. As such, I will reference them the most but keep in mind there are literally hundreds of tour companies available for all ages and tastes.

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The pro’s and con’s

1. You meet every kind of personality on a tour. This means either making amazing friends for life or dealing with people who deserve a right slap in the face to get their ego’s into check. It’s simply the luck of the draw!

For reference, I found the majority of nationalities on Topdeck and Contiki to be Australians and New Zealanders, with a few Americans, Canadians and South Africans too.

2. The above applies to your tour guide too. Generally the amount of strict training and experience required of them means most likely you’re going to get a good one.

I had some fantastic guides, one of whom went beyond all expectations, knowing so much about all the destinations and who was able to answer every question with a never wavering positive attitude and smile. In stark contrast, I also had one from the same company that had some questionable social skills and a head in the clouds.

3. If what you hate about vacations is planning and figuring out how to get around a country then coach tours are perfect in taking that stressful responsibility from you.

I enjoy public transport in foreign countries, I love people watching and believe that when you get lost it can make for the most interesting stories, but taking a break from having to catch trains and buses all the time when you don’t speak the language can be a welcome relief sometimes too!

However, this also means that you’re at the mercy of the tour/coach schedule and though you might want to spend a few extra hours in a city, it’s just not possible.

4. In pre-booking a tour you are paying for the accommodation and transport ahead of time, often many meals are included too, as are optional activity information so it can be easier to budget your travel funds appropriately. However, it can pay to look into optional activities ahead of time. The majority are pretty good value but I found that a few can be overpriced.

For example in Russia, one of the options was a ballet performance in St. Petersburg for around 70 EUR (105 AUD). I opted out on this one purely because the price was hefty and I don’t really enjoy ballet but luckily I did since most of the group said it was a very average performance, in an old theatre with outdated seats and no air-conditioning which apparently made for an uncomfortable few hours.

5. Prepare to be on a bus A LOT. Or train, maybe even a ferry. There can be so many different methods of transport on a tour depending on where you are in the world. Sure when you book you easily picture yourself in Rome eating gelato one day and then gondola riding through Venice the next, but you never picture the journey in between do you?

To be fair I don’t really mind drive days and love watching the scenery go by, but if you’re a person who gets restless when you’re in a vehicle for 6 or more hours in a day then come prepared with books, music and movies!

6. As a solo traveller tours can be a great way to meet people, especially if you’re heading overseas for the first time and are not overly confident getting around by yourself. I found that on almost every single tour the majority of people were travelling alone so it’s beyond easy to make new friends.

It can also be a cheaper method of travel for a solo traveller if you want to stay in a hotel standard (not always as much value to be had I feel, when it comes to hostels or camping tours though) since you are sharing the cost.

7. Tour companies often market their product in ways like ‘from $50 a day’ and there’s been a fair amount of discussion online about whether tours are actually cheaper than travelling independently. Nomadic Matt actually broke this daily price down in one of his posts. He also has written a few articles about group touring if you’re interested.

I personally have no doubt that most times it could definitely be cheaper to travel by yourself, especially if you have a partner or friends to share the costs, but the main drawcard for tour companies though is simply the convenience they provide.

In Morocco, partly why I chose to do a tour was because I felt it would be much easier as a solo woman travelling there. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s possible to travel by yourself as a woman in Morocco, because it certainly is and many do, but I personally wanted to have as hassle free a time as possible there since I knew a couple of people (men included) who had gone and gotten into some difficult situations there.

8. A frequent appearance on a tour itinerary is the promise of a ‘unique’ experience or an inclusion that is exclusive to only that company. For example, Contiki calls these inclusions a backstage pass. In Warsaw, this meant seeing an included private performance from a pianist who performed Chopin to our group only for about an hour. It was a really lovely experience!

In addition to these sorts of things, your tour guide is often an invaluable source of information and many times (depending on the company) you’ll even get a local city guide too who is an expert in their town and can tell you stories and facts you might not have heard otherwise.

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Is a coach tour for me?

My advice for people wanting to try out a coach tour is to just do your research first or visit a travel agent for advice and definitely give it a go if you think it’s something you would enjoy! Here are a few tips to choosing the best one for the kind of vacation you want.

1. The company

Are you passionate about the environment? Local experiences and cuisines? Partying?

There are more tour operators out there than most people realise and all offer have something to offer. So whether you prefer to cycle Vietnam rather than see it by bus or want to spend a few days helping out an orphanage in Thailand instead of only sitting by the beach, chances are there’s already a tour out there that caters for this.

To go through every tour operator in a nutshell would be an extensive task but for a general idea as an example: G Adventures, Intrepid, Peregrine and Geckos are well known tour operators for offering more grassroots kind of experiences, think local guest houses, volunteering opportunities and the use of public transport.

Topdeck, Contiki, and Trafalgar are just some of what you’d picture traditional coach tours to be with their own buses but will give you a lot of variety with local guides and unique experiences, such as eating a pasta ragu that is slow cooked for days in Tuscany by the mamma in a family owned winery (this happened on a Topdeck tour I was on and it was definitely as good as it sounds).

It pays to research tours in the destination(s) you want to visit and compare not only the costs, but the different tour operators to see if any offer specially designed trips to cater for your particular interests.

2. The style

Though some people assume certain tour companies only offer one particular style of tour, often this is not the case. For example, Topdeck and Contiki both offer a choice of camping, hostels or hotel tours. Some are a mixture of different types of accommodation in one tour too.

Many companies, particularly in Asia, even offer homestays with local families to give a more authentic experience to travellers. Geckos, G Adventures and Intrepid are just a few that spring to mind.

Often companies will also offer certain tour types which cap the number of travellers at a limit. For example, if you prefer a smaller group you could look out for tours with a maximum of say 15 people.

The other element to consider is your fellow travellers ages. Some tour operators have age restrictions such as Topdeck (18-39 years) and Contiki (18-35 years) so if you fall into this category you know that you’ll be with fairly like minded people who are generally either travelling solo, as friends or in a couple.  Whereas many others like Intrepid or Trafalgar don’t have age restrictions so you could find yourself on tour with anyone (including families or more active type seniors) while companies such as G Adventures and Geckos have age barriers for some, but not all of their products.

It’s important to determine what style of tour you want and book appropriately. Whether your choice is the creature comforts offered by hotels or the communal feel of camping there is truly something for everyone.

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3. The length

The longest tour I ever did was 21 days and I chose it because it was 2 weeks in Scandinavia and another in Russia, so it kind of felt like two tours in one. There was different people coming and going for certain sections of it which kept things interesting, but what wore me down in the end was the sheer amount of driving we did in the space of three weeks.

Choosing a tour length is easy if you only have a certain amount of time off work or you happen to find an itinerary that includes everything you want to see in a set amount of days. However, if you have time to spare and haven’t been on a coach tour before it can be difficult to guess how long a tour you’d like to go on. I’d recommend around 2 weeks maximum and avoiding an itinerary with a lot of one night stays, if in doubt.

From experience, 2 weeks is my limit to fully enjoy a tour before I get a little worn out. By this point I find that the frequent moving between accommodation, long bus rides and packed days of sightseeing with many nights out can turn from exciting to tedious – but everyone’s got a different tolerance level. In fact, a couple of friends have even done 49 day tours and loved it. This would probably be one of my worst nightmares but hey if it works for you then by all means go for it and enjoy!

4. The itinerary

I was lucky to have a lot of time to travel more in depth through Europe and because of this most of the tours I’ve ever taken were focused in one country only and over a couple of weeks. I’d recommend this as an option for those who are most skeptic of coach touring.

By picking an itinerary in just one country it means that even though you’re still only spending a couple days in a few cities, you are at least able to get a much better sense of the culture. There is always going to be places on a tour that you wish you’d had longer in and others you never want to see again and that’s OK, but I feel one country itineraries are a great way to get a better overall picture.

For those who are particularly worried when booking a Contiki or Topdeck, which have more of a party reputation, I found that on tours such as these (that are one country only and hotel based) the types of travellers were generally around the mid-late twenties age bracket and more interested in seeing the culture and history in places rather the nightclubs and I believe it does come down a lot to the itinerary.

You’ll find that in comparison, for example, itineraries with these same companies, which blaze through 10 countries in 12 days or are camping based (therefore having a much cheaper price tag) are likely to attract younger, first time European travellers who want to party more. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this if that’s what you’re after, but if that’s not what you’re looking for, don’t be surprised if you choose such an itinerary to find that this will be the priority of a lot of the other travellers.

It can also be important to note that often tour companies divide a large itinerary into smaller comparments. For example, one itinerary on offer may be a 25 day tour that let’s say.. starts and finishes in Bangkok. Then there could be another tour, maybe for 10 days which starts at the same time in Bangkok but may end in Siem Reap instead. In Siem Reap yet another group may join the first, original large group and end with them in Bangkok.

It might sound a little confusing.. but imagine if you had no idea when originally booking your tour that you would be in fact joining an existing tour with people that could have been together already for two weeks. This may not bother some people, but for others it could be a deal breaker. It’s always nice to find out whether or not a tour you’re looking into will fall into this category.

Conclusion

If you have a positive attitude and realistic expectations when going on a tour, like most things experienced abroad, having these attributes will only add to your enjoyment.

Being on a tour is kind of like playing in a sports team, there’s many people to consider and you have to sometimes make sacrifices for the majority. Of course you’d like to spend longer in bed when the alarm goes off at 6am, but when everyone’s waiting on the bus on time you don’t want to be that one person who overslept, meaning you all left later than anticipated, which resulted in getting stuck in a traffic jam and therefore cutting into your free time for the day.

Coach tours are not perfect, there are pro’s and con’s to them, and there are aspects to all I have experienced that I wish had been a bit different. However, some of my best travel experiences and the greatest people I met were through tours and I think they provide a great way to gain an introduction into a destination(s).

I feel as long as you do your research beforehand to try and narrow down the closest tour to your taste and needs then you have a high chance of really enjoying your experience. Of course there’s always going to be factors beyond your control, like who your tour mates are, but go into it with the right attitude and you could definitely have an unforgettable holiday!

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