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Guided tours - good, mixed or banal?

#1
An interesting discussion sprung up on the travel section of a wine forum I post on, and felt like something worth exploring here.

Do you go on guided tours on your holidays, and if so what has your experience been like? Any great highlights, or frustrating wastes of time?

Guided tours may range from traditional ones in popular tourist locations, through tours where a guide is essential / obligatory to get access, private driver / coach guided tours of a wider region, to the more eclectic where locals volunteer to show you around their city to let you see 'under the skin'. There are also tours involving Segway machines, boats, golf carts, and fiat 500s and no doubt many more.

We're not big on these, as evidenced by the small few we've done in Italy:

1990 (my first visit to Italy) - Pompeii (OK IIRC) & Capri (6 if us hired one of the old colourful taxis and it was a very enjoyable tour around the island. Split 6 ways it was good value too).

~ 2005 - Museo Pietro Micca (tour guide compulsory for exploring the underground counter-mining tunnels in Torino. Good atmospheric setting and I could follow some of the tour in Italian, as I'd read up enough to understand the story).

~ 2010 a tour of the (fake) Medieval settlement (Borgo Medievale) in Torino with multi-lingual headsets, but I found that bit frustrating, so I picked up what I could in Italian.

Barring that the closest things are an organised group walk in the countryside near Castino (a little south of Langhe wine region), plus a visit to a balsamic vinegar producer, but as there were just two of us visiting, that was more like a winery visit.

Worst ever 'guided tour' was in the UK - The London Dungeon near Liverpool St Station. A succession of sets supported by badly scripted ham acting. I would not recommend it if it were free.
 
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joe

100+ Posts
#2
Personally, I've never felt inclined to use a guided tour of any sort. There are certainly good guides at work, and very interesting niche tours - but OTOH there is so much easily-accessed information out there nowadays, that the "learning" part of travel has offered new possibilities, just like the aspects of "booking", "accommodation", "documenting", "communication" (and others) have morphed, as well. Independent travel is much easier in all respects. And while the perspective presented through the knowledge of a good guide is probably hard to replicate, for most of us a bit of research (and a spark of enthusiasm) can bring about quite satisfactory results.
Nonetheless, I very much like to strike up a conversation with a knowledgeable local - if he's/she's up to my lameness in their language....
 
#3
We've taken 3 guided tours, and here are our reasons for doing so:

Greece - our first guided tour, with a few days on our own both before and after. I don't remember where I read about the agency we used, but they specialized in Greece, and did smaller groups. Our guide was a retired teacher, so we learned a lot, and additionally she was very good at keeping the group on time and organized. We were hesitant to drive on our own because of the language - this was back in the early '90s, so not as much info available online, and not as much information/road signs in English. We knew we wanted to see more than just Athens (which we did on our own), and the tour allowed us to see much more of the country than we would have be comfortable traveling to on our own. We really enjoyed the tour and had good camaraderie with the group. There were no additional charges for tous along the way, everything was included.

Turkey - another early '90s tours, and another place where the language and distances were challenging. The agency we used was Turkish, with an office in NYC. We had no more than 24 people on a 42 person bus. I think we actually had about 18 people, but their guarantee was no more than 24. Our guide (Turkish, mid 20s) was incredibly knowledgeable and we all loved him. He took us to many 'extra' places that were not on the official tour, all at our request. Again, everything was included in the base price, no add-on tours, except for the ones we requested - one to see the Whirling Dervishes, and one for a dinner in a typical, local Istanbul restaurant. This tour remains our all time favorite tour/trip, anywhere. Turkey was fascinating, and having a guide gave us a better understanding of what we were seeing. We would re-live this tour again if we could.

Italy - After falling in love with Germany/Austria/Switzerland and traveling to that area for many years, we decided to visit Italy when my son was stationed there. Friends wanted to go with us. This was fall, 2000. I'm not sure if ST was even around then, but we discovered it shortly thereafter, and with the help of St and the internet began planning our own travel, This tour, with Globus, or Traflagar, was a much more typical tour-bus tour - 42 people in a 42 person bus. Many of the tours cost extra, for example, when in Florence, we might have gotten a city tour included, but had to pay extra if we wanted to visit the Ufizzi. Our guide was, again, incredible, and going with another couple made it much more fun. Had we done this on our own we would NOT have enjoyed the trip as much due to the large number of people. This was the tour that introduced us to Italy. After this tour we knew what we wanted to see more of, and eventually moved to Italy, so I can 't speak too harshly about it!

I know some people look down their noses at group tours but I do think they serve a purpose. In today's world, for us, travel information is so readily available so the need for group tours is much less. I would recommend a tour for an area where the language might present problems, but in today's world those places are fewer and fewer. In some countries logistics may play a part in the decision to take a group tour. I would research the companies very carefully. It will cost a lot more to take a smaller, more personalized tour, but will probably be worth it. A group tour can also give you a good over-view of a country/area, and be a good introduction for future visits.
 
#4
We have never done a guided tour for a holiday, but have family members who did one in the UK and one in England and thoroughly enjoyed them. However they are not people who would travel independently . I do agree with artnbarb about taking a tour in a country where language could be an issue or unrest - I am thinking here of some Asian and Middle eastern countries.
We have done a couple of guided tours at sites. For people who are really into history and want to find out new things these can be good. I am interested but the basic information is usually sufficient for me . I agree with joe about the wealth of information available these days. We do a lot of research before we go and this is enough.We have used the audio guides in places, not the same as a tour , I know, but after some that were really painful with characters and fake voices and re-enactments, I am selective. We did a guided tour of an Abbey in France as it was the only way to see it. It was in French of course ,as is to be expected and we had a sheet with some info in English. However, the guide spent over half an hour explaining all the capitals and we had three lines on our sheet, so that was long and we could not leave as we were locked in!! We have done another couple in french but they moved quickly and it was pretty self explanatory so not as bad. But we prefer to just wander around ourselves.
I know a lot of people do really like having a guide for the extra info they sometimes give. For us, the cost of some tours such as half day or day long wine tasting is way out of our budget.
 
#5
Well, it looks like I COMPLETELY misinterpreted the question, and for that I apologize. My only excuse is that it was late and I'd been watching hurricane coverage non-stop for 2 days. I realize now that the guided tours in question are day tours, or one-site tours, like of a church, or maybe a city walk. So, let me answer the original question: Generally yes, we like these smaller guided tours. The quality can vary greatly, so lucking out with a personable, knowledgeable guide is always a plus.

I like to do a walking (or even a bus) tour of a new city to orient myself. Although I don't visit every church, for larger ones like St Peter's in Rome, or St Paul's in London, a guided tour can make the visit much more interesting, because at some point it's just another church - you look up, look around, say oh wow! Look at those windows!, walk down the aisle and you're done. If the guide is good I might learn something about building, or architecture, or about the times in which it was built.

We've done the Scavi Tour under St Paul's which is one that is only available with a guide, and I enjoyed it. Generally, if I can get into areas that aren't open to the public, I'm interested. We've also done a guided tour through the Vatican Museums, and I think for a first-timer it's worth it. The alternatives are A) Simply look and enjoy B) try to follow along with a guidebook, which is annoying, and almost impossible to do while walking, and annoying for others if you're reading aloud to your companions or C) Opt for an audioguide. Audioguides have the advantage of allowing you hear as much or as little as you want, but I usually find them annoying, hanging around my neck, getting tangled in the cords, never seeming to find the right button to push. I think having a (good) guide at Pompeii would be a lot more interesting than just wandering around on your own.

I don't have much interest in Segway tours because as a pedestrian they always seem to be in the way!
 
#6
Hi ArtnBarb
Not entirely mis-interpreted, as I was thinking anything from a half hour wizz round a specific site, all the way up to multi-day affairs. I doubt many here do the latter, but it's feasible they've done them in the past. I did a 3 day organised tour of Kakadu national park near Darwin Australia back in the 1990s, which was interesting, though hard work. Saw a funnel-web spider and almost got the chance to eat a cockroach (it escaped or was liberated before the guide got to cook it). We were lucky though as the group that followed us lost one of their number over Motor Car Falls waterfall :(, and another only survived because someone grabbed their hand and held firm :eek:. When it rains there, it most certainly rains and the place becomes very dangerous.

I'm certainly interested in some of the more esoteric tours, such as the series run by the Torino tourist office visiting notable local producers including Leone sweets, Fiat, an artisan birreria, etc. One very good one that I'd recommend, and that is still going and still priced reasonably, is the Victorian tram car restaurant in Melbourne Australia, criss-crossing the city's tram routes while eating a multi course meal in a period restored tram car. They've started something similar in Torino, but it seems a little less ambitious.

However whenever I encounter a organised tour in a popular public space, I feel the urge to walk away from them, and none have ever tempted me to sign up for the tour, as they always sound so dry / old-fashioned.

There was one comment on that other forum that was quite a bold statement, that
1 in 5 is great, but 2 of 5 are awful and the rest are so-so.
I do so few to really put numbers to it, hence a particular interest in posing the question here.

Regards
Ian
 
#7
In 2015 my husband and I won a two-week trip to Ireland with Road Scholar. We had never been on a group tour before and we mostly liked it. We very much enjoyed the cultural activities they had arranged for us which included city tours, a lecture by a professor over dinner in a castle, music, lots of nature walks/talks and a dinner with a local host family. Road Scholar was organized and professional and we had a lovely guide for the entire two weeks. We also liked having everything arranged for us and not having to tow and stow our luggage, although we do all this on our own while traveling normally!

What we didn't like so much was being locked in with 20 other people, even though they were all perfectly nice. Most of the group were very well educated, (many former school teachers, librarians and college professors), and were quite knowledgeable themselves. For the two of us who have traveled quite a bit on our own, it felt a little weird to have breakfast, lunch and dinner together with the same people for 13 days. And I wasn't fond of all of the bus travel.

I do like taking short half-day tours when I'm places with a great deal of history or interest. For example, this past June we took a tour of the Coliseum and Forum, a tour I've taken at least three times over the years! I know that even with a book, I won't absorb a whole lot, so I prefer to have someone explain it to me and, if they are good, provide interesting stories and tidbits of history that make the site come alive. We also took a foodie tour of Testaccio, which was pleasant.

We are (well, I am, husband says it's too far out to get really interested) planning a long (6-8 week trip) for next Fall, 2018 and are considering taking an 8-day barge tour in Burgundy.

DD
 
#8
I've done 3 days in a mini-bus with the same people, so reckon I could probably survive a 2 week coach tour, the brains of the operation is pretty confident she could not. It is a long time to spend with good friends, so a bigger challenge with complete strangers. Indeed so much so, that they created a somewhat trashy reality TV program called 'coach trip', hosted by an engaging chap called Brendan, taking a group of couples / pairs of friends on a trip across Europe. People get voted off, which I'm sure adds to the internal tensions. Sometimes it gets rather tense / unpleasant.

For similar reasons cruise holidays give us cold shudders, almost certainly something not suited to us.
 

GailS

100+ Posts
#9
I am not a "tour group" person but I have done tours by well educated professionals that have made a big difference in my visit to a particular city/monument. I'd highly recommend www.contexttravel.com for tours in Rome. I've done probably 10-15 tours with them there including an after hours Vatican tour that was a truly amazing experience. The small group size and level of education/knowledge of the guides has been (with the exception of 1 case) outstanding. Through Slow Travel I discovered the incredibly wonderful Luisella Romeo [http://www.seevenice.it/en] who is a native Venetian and turned my husband into someone who wants to visit Venice on a regular basis (I was already convinced). None of these options is inexpensive but my experience is you do get what you pay for. Larger group hour or two tours have not compared (for me).
 
#10
Quite a few years ago we visited Ireland. Several friends persuaded us that driving ourselves was difficult and we wouldn't see as much as from a bus. We did both and had 5 days independently when we first arrived and then joined a 10 day group bus tour. It is a long time to spend with a group of strangers with not much in common.
We enjoyed our independent travel much more.
We have cruised 4 times, twice on 30 day trips and find that there is enough space to get away if needed. Tours at the ports are usually half day tours and most times the guides have been very good and we have enjoyed them ( not always so much our tour companions).
Last February we visited india and had a private guide and driver. It was fabulous and I can't imagine doing it with a group, even a small one.
Our guide soon learnt we didn't really like early morning starts and he would collect us at 9am most mornings. We were staying at amazing hotels and we were delivered back in time to enjoy them.
The knowledge of his country was excellent and we learned so much in the 2 weeks we were with him.

We did a Grapehops tour of Venice with Shannon and enjoyed it so much we are going back by ourselves next year for 4 weeks. Added on to that before heading home is a tour with Bluone http://www.bluone.com/emilia-romagna-fall--winter-tour.html that we are looking forward to.
Obviously small groups tours into food and wine appeal to us and large group bus tours aren't for us.
 
#11
Hi Fletch
Some friends of ours speak highly of (UK based) Arblaster & Clarke wine tours. Not cheap, but with a focus and common interest, plus on occasions they felt they were getting special treatment through this, compared to self-organised (though I am more than happy with the hospitality that is the norm in Italy). They did say the tour leader was a massive factor in success / enjoyment, with some (but not all) very good. In addition, I think they appreciated the simplicity of not having to plan/drive/book. For me the planning is a joy I wouldn't want to give up, and ditto the ability to have great flexibility is crucial for us. Different strokes and all that.
Regards
Ian
 
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#12
My husband and I are usually independent travelers, but we have done a few tours. Like Gail, we spent a delightful time with Luisella Romeo [http://www.seevenice.it/en] in Venice. She is knowledgeable and fun to be with. Well worth the expense. We have done a couple of food tours. One in Madrid lasted a few hours and was a worthwhile introduction to the city's offerings. We did a six-day cooking, wine tasting adventure in the Priorat with a group of friends that we organized. It was a fabulous experience. We had wine tasting, cultural explorations, and other sight seeing activities during the day and then came together in the late afternoon, early evening and had a cooking "class" in which we prepared the evening meal. I have also done two wonderful trips with Shannon Essa of GrapeHops.com: one in Croatia and one in northern Portugal. Shannon has a talent for combining experiences you could do independently (if you put the time and effort into planning and research) and other experiences you would never have by yourself. You can join one of her small groups--or bring a group of friends together and book a private tour. Highly recommended!
 
#13
Such interesting responses, and key elements that seem to emerge are specialist, small, engaging/enthusiastic.
 
#14
I have done a few day tours while on a independent vacation.

Two city walking tours - in Reykavik Iceland and in Paris. Both were 'free' tip-based tours. I enjoyed them both. I felt because they were tip-based the tour guide had a greater incentive to be engaging. The CityWalk tour in Iceland was really great, the tour guide was a graduate student and we learn a lot on the politics of the country.

In Thailand, we hired a private tour guide for 2 days. We were only there a short time and felt it was best instead of having to navigate Bangkok. Incredible inexpensive. There was a choice of using public transportation, which we opted for based on the traffic there. Our second day we went to Ayutthaya on a private tour with the same company. I think we paid less that $100 total for the entire day. We used Tours with Tong.

Later on the same trip we went to Hanoi and did a walking tour with Hanoi Kids. It's a group of english speaking students that serve as your guide - they stress they are not tour guides, but companions. No charge except paying for any taxi rides and to pay for their lunch. It was delightful.

The overall city walking tours are good if you are short on time, or want to get a general overview/lay of the land. I don't think I would have the tolerance to do a multi-day group tour.
 
#15
We've done a few multi-day tours with Insight (Trafalgar's higher-end brand). These were always because we were travelling with older family members who weren't comfortable with independent travel (which is what my wife and I prefer doing). We've toured Greece, Italy, and Scotland this way. For the most part, it's a double-edged sword -- you feel a bit like cattle, and everything is a compromise. On the other hand, we were able to get to some places that were a bit more off the beaten track, with relative ease -- the Orkney Islands in Scotland, Meteora in Greece, etc.

We also did one tour of Spain with Globus. We didn't find that as enjoyable, and eventually opted out of most group activities/meals and used the tour for transport and accommodation only.

What we do like is seeking out a guide at a museum, archaeological site, etc. E.g. while waiting in line at the Prado in Madrid, we had a guide come up and offer a one-hour tour of the highlights, which we found quite informative. We were then left to wander the museum for as long as we liked, so didn't miss anything that the guide didn't cover. Same with the Louvre, Tulum in Mexico, etc.
 
#16
I have traveled independently, except for a university tour to Russia and Finland in 1974. I've also had guided tours of the Vatican Scavi and a tour focused on Renaissance art in the Vatican Museum. Since my husband died three years ago, I found myself retuning to Paris all the time because I know the city so well and have friends here. I've taken a few guided tours that lasted only a few hours, such as Paris By Mouth.

I've always wanted to go to the Cotswolds, so I took Kathy and Charley's European Experiences Cotswold week this summer. I can't say enough good things about this small group tour! What I had feared most about "group" travel was having to follow a tour guide around. Being Slow Travelers themselves, they understand the desire to explore independently. They take care of all the tricky logistics for you-- lodging, most meals, admission, ground transportation. At the different sites, we'd sometimes have a brief overview or introductory tour, then we'd go off on our own until time to meet up again. I had a great experience, having the opportunity to visit my "must see" places. They also do a great job arranging experiences with the locals -- a walking tour of Chipping Campden, hearing about the wardens' care of the Cotswold way, visiting a working farm, and we had a special opportunity to visit in the home of a villager. I love the outdoors and the countryside and fell in love with the area. If they have a "Return to the Cotswolds" experience, I'm definitely booking. The only downside was gaining British pounds--weight, not money -- the food was delicious and plentiful.
 
#18
I have traveled independently, except for a university tour to Russia and Finland in 1974. I've also had guided tours of the Vatican Scavi and a tour focused on Renaissance art in the Vatican Museum. Since my husband died three years ago, I found myself retuning to Paris all the time because I know the city so well and have friends here. I've taken a few guided tours that lasted only a few hours, such as Paris By Mouth.

I've always wanted to go to the Cotswolds, so I took Kathy and Charley's European Experiences Cotswold week this summer. I can't say enough good things about this small group tour! What I had feared most about "group" travel was having to follow a tour guide around. Being Slow Travelers themselves, they understand the desire to explore independently. They take care of all the tricky logistics for you-- lodging, most meals, admission, ground transportation. At the different sites, we'd sometimes have a brief overview or introductory tour, then we'd go off on our own until time to meet up again. I had a great experience, having the opportunity to visit my "must see" places. They also do a great job arranging experiences with the locals -- a walking tour of Chipping Campden, hearing about the wardens' care of the Cotswold way, visiting a working farm, and we had a special opportunity to visit in the home of a villager. I love the outdoors and the countryside and fell in love with the area. If they have a "Return to the Cotswolds" experience, I'm definitely booking. The only downside was gaining British pounds--weight, not money -- the food was delicious and plentiful.
I have done mostly independent tours but have done a number of guided tours. I have also in the past 5 years or so done some car ,driver and guide tours.I have taken two guided tours with R. Crusoe ,one to Burma and one to Vietnam and Cambodia. Both had activities I could not arrange or would not have known to do them. I also had them arrange a trip to southwest China. Again, they did a very good job.I had a guide and car in Croatia a few months ago done by Cromotion, a local travel agency and they did a nice job. We have done many walking trips which are like guided tours done by ATG and Wayfarers. I probably wouldn't do well on the big bus trips but small groups as I get older hold some appeal. I don't have the patience for all the research I used to do to arrange trips to odd places and I don't want to drive as much as I did 20 years ago. In places like Paris, we just rent an apartment(the same one for the last three years} and pretend we are locals...
 
#19
The first 'tour' I did was to China. My husband and I and 2 other couples used an agency to help us with various travel difficulties in China. The company we used focused on trips for families with adopted children from China, but the service we used was to book our flights between cities, have a van and driver in cities, and a local guide to take us into the sights we wanted to see. We booked our own hotels and controlled the itinerary, but having locals to help with the rest was wonderful.

For the past 10 years, I've been taking a trip to Europe every year with my mom. We've done some trips on our own, but have also done trips with Kathy and Charlie. We've gone to the Luberon, return to the Luberon, Chianti, and the Perigord, and are going on the Alsace trip next summer. My mom went on the Cotswolds trip last summer with a friend. I would say that in addition to the benefits that Cameron mentions above, the friendship and community of the trips is also wonderful. I've stayed in touch with several people I've met on the trips & many people are like us and take a trip every year, so you're bound to reconnect with people from past trips. Return customers get early booking of the trips in February, so we always look forward to the schedule coming out & having a new trip to plan in the dreary days of winter.
 

Colo

500+ Posts
#20
So I have to be honest… I hate to travel in groups, with or without a tour guide. After the few guided tours we have taken, I always felt that they have limited what “I” want to see or do. I love to take pictures and when we have traveled in a large pack the pace is too quick to take the shot I really want to take. I know there are stories that Ansel Adams waited days with a camera on a tripod for the perfect light, and I am not that patient or nowhere near as good by any measurement- HOWEVER, just because the tour guide rises a flag that does not mean to me it is time to move to the next thing you are “supposed” to see.

While on a last minute trip to Vienna, we signed up for a “Back Alley Tour” of the city. It was a great tour, and a great guide. Unfortunately, as we were almost finished I set up for what I thought would be a great picture. The second time I heard the same story behind me, I realized my group and my wife had moved on.

I was now alone and very unhappy with the picture I took. (Damn Tourist would not get out of the way) Being an ex-Coast Guard aviator my sweetie knew I would remain in the same location for 1 hour, and then return to the hotel. As I was getting on the escalator to ride the subway back to the hotel we found each other. After being calibrated and a few warm mugs of glühwein we were back in the Christmas Market spirit.

So this year we are taking a Rhine River Christmas Market Cruise. I am not sure I am old enough (excuse me mature enough) to be constrained to a tour guide every day. However everything I have read, Ama Waterways gets high marks for their tour guides.

Bottom line… I will open this thread up in mid-December and let you know what I think about guided tours. The tours are part of the price of the trip, and we are going with four other couples. I think the real question may be… How many times will Colo get lost?
 
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