So, what is the deal with this headline? Beware of bus tours! Many of us have gone on a bus tour before and enjoyed it, right? So why would I make a comment about being beware of bus tours, when I myself cut my teeth as a tour guide in Europe on bus tours?
Well, let me clear the air and say that I am not making that statement for all tours that are offered via bus. Many are well run, well planned, well costed and offer an amazing guide on your adventures.
However, there has been a massive change in the industry in regards to many bus tours offered. This has evolved due to the huge competition in the travel market these days, and people more willing to take a tour with a smaller operator and move away from the big boys, in search of something that offers more than the generic tours offered.
With this competition growth and people trying to squeeze into a market that has until recently been gripped firmly around the neck by the big tour operators, it has meant that many have had to rethink their products and make changes to try and win your business.
So in that case what tours should you be very wary of?
Bus tours that promise too much!
You know that old saying: If it’s too good to be true, it usually is!
In this case it’s no different at all. When you’re about to choose your dream tour of Europe, or any tour for that matter, do your homework and see what all the competition is doing. You’ll thank me in the long run for this piece of advice! If you see that one company you are considering is offering much more than others then stop and wonder how they can afford it.
Having worked for many tour operators as a guide and also in the beast of the belly in the operation departments, I know firsthand that the name of the game is to get the cost per person as LOW as possible and then charge as much as you can to maximise profits.
So, things to be on the lookout for:
More meals offered
If a company is offering many more meals than others you researched, wonder what would be the quality of meals to have to spread out that low costing of that tour. I have indeed worked for high end operators who ideally like to pay no more than 10-20 Euro per dinner, even less for lunches and breakfasts. Now ask yourself, what three course dinner could you buy for 10Euro?
If you did find one don’t be surprised if its generic and not suited to your personal tastes and wants!
Offer far more day stops along your journey
This has been the biggest trends of late from many companies trying to stand out from the rest. The thinking here is “lets add more stops on the itinerary for places to see and add more value to the passenger as it seems like too good for the price we are offering”. You have to love marketing at its best, but I want you to stop right here and think about what is really being offered to you. I call this perceived value and I will tell you why.
The average tourist on a bus tour has usually never been to the locations they are wanting to see, they have no idea of the distances they have to travel, the time that’s lost to stop the bus and people to get on and off regularly, the distances people need to walk from bus parking into the actual city centres they want to see, or the road laws that require frequent breaks on long journeys. Therefore, the thought of being able to see so much in one short trip is a perfect idea.
However, being a guide I am here to tell you that this is not the case. All it ends up doing is creating VERY long days driving, lots of hoping on and off the bus, Lost time walking from bus parking to city centres, potential to lose people and lose more time waiting for them and therefore minimal time in those stops and late arrivals into the cities you really want to see.
Below is an example of a common travel day from the eyes of guides planning on how long a travel day can take on a bus. Note some of the warning signs you should be aware of before making such an important decision as to your dream holiday.
Summing it up:
Please believe me when I say that if you see tour operators running long days like this or days that have around 500 km a day of travel and are placing more than 1 extra stop in that day….. RUN.
There is no real fun being in a tight crammed bus for 9-12hr days whilst not being allowed to use the onboard toilet, leaving early morning after a rushed breakfast, seeing roads and motor way all day just to arrive in the late afternoon when everything is closed leaving you limited options and exhausted to boot.
All they are offering you here is a packed itinerary that won’t offer the value or follow through on their empty promises when you went to pay for them. All being said, when you are about to head out on a tour do your homework before hand. Google maps can be a wonderful tool when knowing how far you need to travel from one city to another, so use it!
Hotel tours at cheap prices
This is another problem I have seen creeping into the tour scene. Hotel tours offered at lower prices promising the world, but regularly failing to deliver. Do you remember me saying earlier the name of the game is about reducing the cost to the lowest cost possible per person? So, don’t you think that would apply to one of the most expensive parts of the tour costs? It sure does
Tour operators will normally try to firstly find a hotel that will fit a large group and secondly one that is the cheapest they can find in the area, as long as it covers minimum requirements. The fact that groups are large on many group bus tours usually means the operators are looking to score huge discounts on costs per room, unfortunately the hotels that are located in the city centres of the cities you wish to see so badly don’t need the tour operator’s business, as they know they can ask for top dollar from regular tourists and get it. What does that mean for a bus tour?
It means staying in hotels that are located further out and often on the outskirts of town, or in the case of more luxurious branded tours, located in other towns near the city you thought you would be staying in.
I’ve seen this lead to people needing to take public transport for journeys of 45mins to an hour to reach the city centres or in some cases being so far out there is no option at all to go back to the sites you want to see when out of planned tour activities hours. That’s right! I’ve seen people stuck in the hotels or surroundings not able to spend their free time the way they want to simply because it doesn’t suit the tour operators bottom line.
If you can, before booking try to find out where hotels are located. If they are vague or won’t give you a list of them to research then you have a pretty good idea now of why.
Lots of optional activities
Optionals are add ons that tour providers offer on bus tours to ‘Add Authentic Experience and Value’, however always be sure to pick these activities after careful consideration. In my experience as a guide the can often they can be very generic, time consuming, not worth the money and simply added in there for the tour guide and company to get commissions from you. Be wary of companies who have way too many in each place, as to not leave you with a lot of your own free time to make it your own personal journey.
A second note of caution is never be pressured into signing up for all of these at the beginning of your tour. You should be able to consider each one at least a day or two in advance before making your choice.
Lastly If you don’t feel like doing an activity because you changed your mind ask for your money back. If someone says no to you and that the activity is already paid for before the activity takes place then they are 9/10 times lying to you, as many activities are paid at the time of the optional.
Some companies add these in as included in your price, but once again often not worth the time lost when you could have been having your own local experiences without the whole group needing to come along to take away it’s holiday feel. Once again be wary of buying these tours.
Consequences of picking the wrong tour
Let’s sum up the consequences of picking the wrong tour from a provider that promises too much in their itineraries.
Cheaper meals designed for a group – Generic
Longer travel days
Very early departures on travel days
Late arrivals – everything is closed
No quality time to see anything at the extra stops
Not enough time to see the cities you wanted to see
Feeling of being rushed from place to place
Feeling exhausted because it’s simply too much
Wishing you picked a better tour
Thinking about how long it took you to save and how long it will for the next holiday!
How to pick the right tour
Be realistic in your approach
How do you become realistic in your approach? Well get real with yourself and know that a tour is set to a schedule that won’t change for you no matter how much you wish it. Understand that Europe is a huge place and it takes a lot of time to get to some destinations. Know that there will be time limitations and that you need to understand how a tour works so that you can make the right plans to get the best out of each place you visit. Become comfortable knowing that you might not get to see everything you wanted, but if you pick the right tour from the beginning you have a better shot of making it pretty damn memorable
Do your homework first
By doing your homework on a tour you may just save your tour from being an exhausting rush to being the best time of your life. Make sure you know exactly what each city is on your itineraries. You would be amazed at how many people I have taken through Europe who haven’t even had a look at the itinerary or know all the stops.
Secondly know how far each place is from the previous and approximate travel times so you can know approximate arrival times to each place. This will give you an idea of how long you have in reality in each city to make your plans. Many people make grand plans for each city, but soon realise if they pick the wrong tour that they can’t do most of what they planned. Don’t be that person.
Lastly, get an idea of where the hotels are located. This will help you weed out tours where hotels are not located close to city centres and that cost you tons of travel time to and from the hotels or miss out completely on spending time in a city by being in hotels located too far to travel on your own.
Don’t go for the tour with many day stops
As already mentioned a day stop in theory sounds like a good idea, but remember that each stop along the way will add at least 1.5-2hrs to your travel day. So, if you have big plans in the major cities really want to visit find a tour that has less of these, as this will mean less travel time, earlier arrivals and most importantly more free time to explore the places you really want to see.
Optionals should be accepted sparingly
Think about what it is you want to do in each place and only add in optional activities if you really think they are the best thing for you and your adventure. Why fatten your tour guides pocket and the company they work for if it’s not in your best interest?
Use Trip Advisor
Before booking a tour read reviews on a platform like Trip Advisor. These are unbiased reviews written by people who have lived out these tours. You can get a good feel for what the tour might be like if you read the more detailed ones. Don’t read and go by the ones that some companies have on their websites. I mean honestly, no one is going to put the really bad or average ones up on their sites to sell their tours.
A message from your guide
I hope this blog has helped you in your quest to find the perfect bus tour. As a guide, I hate seeing people miss out on the adventure they deserve and I’m hoping many of you will read this and feel the same by sharing this with your friends and loved ones.
Holidays and tours are meant to be fun and full of adventure, but with a competitive travel market, many tours have become over filled with what I like to call ‘fluff & fillers’ and become so rigid and packed that they rob people of the joy of travels.
If you’re reading this please know that I don’t want that to be you. Best of luck with your travels.
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