Over the last two posts I promised I would talk about some different kinds of tours I have taken, and others that I know a little about from my research, and also which have tours that are ‘on my list’. So, here goes. Today I will talk about some of the tour companies that carry coachloads of passengers (the number of guests will range from around 25-50). But first, a disclaimer: please note that I have not been paid by any of these companies and these are my personal thoughts and reflections only. I strongly suggest that you do your own research before signing up, as what suits me might not suit you.
That said, I do believe that these companies are all worthy of a good look, and when weighing everything up I would not hesitate to recommend them.
Where do they operate?
You can find a coach tour on every continent except Antarctica, operating tours from India to Iceland, and from Russia to Argentina. Many of them have thousands of options to choose from – you could take a tour each year of your life and never double up. This in itself is impressive.
How do they take you there?
The coach is the hero of this kind of tour. It will be large, holding between 40 and 55 people. If you are on a tour like this, the coach will be your vehicle and day-home for a large proportion of the tour. You might, however, also do some travelling on a plane, ship, ferry or train (I have done all of these on tours, at one time or another). I’m focusing on the road-trip style tour for this post, but many of them also offer cruises and even rail-based tours.
Far from ordinary, the coaches will be state-of-the-art, with pneumatic thingies that lower the bus on the front to allow passengers to get on and off easily, on-board loos, wifi (whether it works or not depends on where you are, of course).
While on some of the more popular tours you might travel in a full coach (as I did in Spain), the companies will often limit their numbers. So you might expect there to be anywhere between 22 and 52 guests on board.
Where will I stay?
I have come to accept that accommodation will be clean and comfortable, but hardly ever rustic and local. Because the coaches are so large, this narrows the choice of accommodation to places where the bus can pull in, so you will find yourself staying in larger, generally modern, and less cosy hotels that may not be in the centre of town. They also can’t go down narrow alleys, so you spend a lot of time travelling on highways (when we drive ourselves, we love taking the B roads and stopping off in little villages for lunch or just to take a walk). Once you have landed in a town or city, of course there will be a walking tour, so you do get to see some of the alleys and backwaters. The up side of this is that you drive around in comfort on the long days and get to see wonderful views through the panaroma windows. I would not have wanted to drive around Scandinavia in a little van, I can assure you!!
If you are interested in following up, I have provided the company websites at the end of this post.
So far I have only travelled with two companies. The first was with a local Greek company, where David and I took a two-day tour heading north from Athens to Delphi, Kalambaka and Meteora (where the monesteries on the hilltops are found). I forget the name, but our hotel hooked us into this company which was taking people on a month-long tour around Greece; just six of us joined in for this component. Because the rest of the group had already bonded, we six (all Australians) tended to hang out together. The tour guide was amazing – she gave every bit of information in eight languages, reflecting the make-up of the guests. The driver was obviously well experienced, given the proximity to sheer drops and other tour coaches coming the other way that he had to deal with on narrow mountain roads. All in all this was an interesting trip, we enjoyed it a lot and I would definitely return to do a longer one.
The company that I have toured with quite extensively in recent years is Insight Vacations. This is a London-based company that caters for people of all ages (one tour I was on included a family with three children, the youngest being eight), but the majority of guests are between the ages of 40-70. The age of the other guests has never been a problem for me; diversity is good!
Insight coaches are lovely – like most tour companies, they are not owned by Insight, but by the company that also supplies the driver, and they must meet meticulous standards. Drivers are well-experienced and friendly, becoming very much a part of the tour. As well as the onboard wifi and footrests, they have toilets onboard (with the special mention at the start of each trip that they are ‘for emergencies’, but people can and do use them). They also have overhead screens positioned above every third or fourth set of seats so when they are showing a video or movie you can actually see it.
With Insight, I have travelled in countries including Poland, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Russia, Austria, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the USA.While I am very glad that I have been to all these countries, I have also come to enjoy the familiarity of travelling with a company that I feel I know well, and which knows me. There are many things that Insight does that make me feel at home, from the round disks that go on our bags and our personal name tags, to the livery on the coaches and the style of the TDs (even though they are distinctly individual, they must all go to the same school; even if they also work for other companies they can definitely put on the ‘Insight style’ when they need to).
Insight Vacations is a bit on the pricey side; this is partly due to the coaches taking a maximum of 40 passengers (there is lots of leg room); the hotels are generally 4-5 star (this can’t always be arranged in more remote areas, but they get the best they can); a lot of meals are included and most activities. As all the guests speak English, this makes communication simple and easy – travelling in Europe, the majority of guests are Australian, with others coming from the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia and New Zealand mainly, while in the USA we found most of the guests are actually US residents!
With Insight, I have always found the Tour Directors to be wonderful, they are so knowledgeable and supportive, and completely unflappable. On our Scandinavian tour in 2015 so many things happened – a guest had her bag snatched, another fell over in a town square and injured herself, and yet another came down with a mysterious illness – each of these crises were handled with empathy and professionalism by Chad, our TD. The organised activities are great and they go to great care to ensure guests have the best experience possible. On the down side, while many dinners are included, these are often at the hotel where we are staying, and this does become a bit tedious, and hotel food as we all know is anywhere from awful to acceptable, but rarely magnificent. Also, if you are wanting an authentic experience, this can be a bit of a let down; a lot of the time the meals are ‘international’ rather than local in flavour. Of course, there are ‘highlight dinners’ and ‘dine-arounds’ that take you into the local areas, as well as other options for traditional meals, but you will spend probably 70 percent of the tour in the hotel restaurant, unless you want to pay for a meal somewhere else. The only other negative (which is only a problem if you don’t budget for it) is that the optional extra activities can add quite a lot to your total trip bill (but you don’t have to do them). I usually do most of them as they are generally things I would like to do anyway.
I tend to look at Insight first when planning future trips, partly because I get the automatic 5% loyal customer discount, but I do also look around at others. One other ‘big tour’ group that I have looked into, and will probably use in the future (I have had several recommendations from fellow travellers), is Insight’s sister company Trafalgar. When I first looked into touring, I was told that Trafalgar was a lower cost company that had a lower level of luxury to that provided by Insight. While this may still hold true in part (their coaches hold 50+ passengers with less leg room), I think the differences might be less nowadays. Trafalgar coaches also carry wifi, and in many of the hotels I have stayed at with Insight, Trafalgar Tours are also there, and I don’t believe that Insight travellers get better rooms (except maybe in their ‘Gold’ category, that was introduced a couple of years ago to rival Scenic and APT).
On our tours we have noticed other ‘big bus’ companies on the road, including Globus and Cosmos, and the people I have spoken to on those tours have given favourable reports.A friend recently introduced me to Albatross Tours; this is an Australian company located in Brisbane. There are sufficient differences between all these companies to warrant further research before deciding which one is for you.
Insight Vacations: https://www.insightvacations.com
Albatross Tours: http://www.cosmostours.com.au/
See you on the bus!