flotsam, travel, ups and downs

Four considerations for choosing a tour

I hear the naysayers, saying Nay about the idea of a bus tour. There are pluses and minuses to such things.

For instance, I like the freedom of going and doing and setting my own itinerary. I like trying new and unknown experiences. But I don’t like how overwhelmed I tend to feel alone in cities, especially when I don’t have a plan. I don’t like driving in unfamiliar places, especially (1) if rental cars tend to be manual transmission only, (2) if they drive on the left side of the road, or (3) if I don’t speak (or read) the local language. Actually this alone is the single most likely decider for me of tour-vs-selfguided vacationing.

In the case of Ireland:

I don’t drive a stickshift, their narrow roads would be terrifying enough if I were driving on the correct side of the road (let alone inclined to default to the wrong side), and while I might speak the language, in the case of English-speaking Ireland (much less so with Gaelic-speaking Ireland), I have a lot less trust in my ability to follow directions when I don’t understand how to pronounce anything.

… Because anyone who’s seen PS I Love You knows that Dun Laoghaire might look like “Dun lOW guh hairy” but it’s pronounced “Dun leery” and that could make following GPS voice instructions very confusing….

That much hypervigilance just to get from point A to point B seems like it could undermine a vacation fast. Especially when one would be navigating alone. So I went with a tour. Tours aren’t for everyone, but I don’t mind them once in a while. Here’s some pointers.

Four things that, in my experience, make or break a tour experience:

  1. A reputable and service-oriented company
    CIE Tours came really highly recommended for tours of Ireland in particular, and that corner of Europe in general. I will admit, I was a little worried considering how long it took any of my phone calls to get answered (many rings, but full attention once answered) or the fact that after I paid for my tour and got my receipt, I essentially didn’t hear from them until 3 weeks before I departed, when my kit of materials arrived (just as promised).  But they were wonderful to deal with, everything went smoothly, and when he wasn’t giving us the local color, our tour guide was taking the “off” moments to call ahead and ensure there were minimal bumps in the road along the way.
  2. A knowledgeable tour guide and driver. 
    A bad driver will ruin your trip faster than you can say “feared for my life” and a disappointing tour guide makes you question why you didn’t just read a guidebook and make your own way.

    When I visited Atlantic Maritimes with Caravan Tours, our tour guide was from Halifax and had literally written histories of the city; you can’t ask for much better. When I went with them to Yellowstone, the tour guide was very capable and personable, but not exceptional. My parents went to Mexico’s Chichen Itza years ago and had a tour guide who had been a professor of Mayan history; he loved his subject and made it interesting and relatable; they loved the tour. I went 2 years later, and the tour guide was whomever they had thrown on the bus that day after a brief “How To Be A Tour Guide” course; the place was still interesting by its nature, but I was considerably less enthused with the experience.  

    In the case of my trip to Ireland, I honestly can’t say enough nice things about our tour guide, Joe Bonnie, or our bus driver, Anthony Keenan.  Joe’s been doing this for something like 20 years, and Anthony for 6 or so (more than half with CIE specifically). Joe was very knowledgable, and they were (are) genuinely good guys. They kept us on track and safe wherever we went… plus they were a lot of fun. Superlatives all around.

  3. Who you’re traveling with.
    Aside from your own traveling party, this one is completely the luck of the draw, unless you’ve booked the entire tour for your own private group.  Trust me, even people you really like can start to rub you wrong after an extended time in close quarters (ask my sister how much she enjoyed my incessant need to worry over her in Italy (not much), or how much fun I am when I start to get worried about schedules (decidedly not fun)), so if you are lucky enough to get on a tour with 30+ people you really click with, you’re golden.

    By the end of this latest trip, the 3-4 people who were habitually a minute or 2 late were starting to extend to up-to-5, but we didn’t have anyone who thought nothing of keeping the rest of us sitting there for 10, 20, 30+ minutes. We didn’t have Mr & Mrs Everything-Is-Better-In-America-But-We-Thought-We’d-Come-And-Tell-Everyone-So. We didn’t have Mr. I-Know-Everything-About-Everything.

    Trust me, if you get stuck on a bus with Mrs. JibberJabber, or Mr. Grumpypuss, or the Late-For-Everything Twins, you’re not going to have a stellar time. We could not have been more fortunate in this respect: I would be genuinely glad to continue to stay in touch with anyone I met on this tour.

  4.  Your own expectations.
    There’s the expectations of travel itself, first of all. I travel to see other places. I know they aren’t going to be “just like home” and I’m OK with that. I also know myself, and my travel style. I am OK with being on my own, but I also like company, and as I said at the outset, I think there’s some situations when a tour suits me.

    If you go to another country thinking everything is going to work the same way it does where you live, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you think anything is going to 100% perfect, I have bad news for you about living in a fallen world. Expect (and plan for) small bumps in the road. 

    Then there’s the expectations you bring to the tour itself. If you need solitude and privacy to rule the day, a group tour won’t suit you. If you tend to motion sickness, and can only travel by car in the front seat, you’re not going to be happy on a bus tour.

    I also suggest that you recognize where you are on the scale of Comfort Needs: are you a 5-Star-Everything-Gourmand, or a No-Comforts-Needed-And-Food-is-Just-Fuel traveler? Like most people, you’re probably in the middle somewhere, but matching your travel style with the tour you select is a must. 

    Personally, I tend to set low but reasonable expectations in terms of lodging and food when I travel by starting from a perspective of “basic privacy, clean rooms, safe areas, palatable food” and beyond that I hope for more than expect additional comforts. It looks like pessimism from the outside, but I’m rarely disappointed in what I actually receive. I wouldn’t be happy in a hostel and I wouldn’t be comfortable backpacking and sleeping on rocks, but I don’t need the highest end lodgings either (nor am I willing to pay for anything off-the-charts.

    In this case, I paid a bit more for higher quality than some tours that were available but not the highest price I could have. I feel that I received a great quality experience for the price. Other travelers with me tended to agree. (I’ve been on tours where it was apparent that some of my compatriots had decided to save a penny on the tour but weren’t happy with the tradeoffs. Traveler, know thyself.)

Oh, and one last thought… If you’re not a person who can be “on time” to anything… don’t go on a group tour. Save the rest of us from lynching you (in our thoughts, anyway). Seriously, it’s self-centered and just plain rude to leave 30+ other people waiting around for you; if you can’t keep to a schedule, set your own and avoid the tour route altogether.

Have you been on a tour? With who and where? Did you love it? Hate it? What would you have done differently? Your input could influence my next adventure, so please share!

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