How to Tell If A Tour is Good Value or Not


We break down an $850 11-day tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy — its real costs, pros and cons — and discuss the questions you have to ask before signing up for any tour.

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Yesterday, a friend asked me to take a look at a tour he was considering going on later this year. I’m hardly a tour expert but, from experience, I think there are basic questions we need to ask before we decide to take a tour or not.

First, a few points:

  • On the road, I’ve met people who proudly say they “never do tours” and I think that’s a shame. There are good tours and bad tours, and even good tours have their pros and cons. The trick is to figure out whether a tour’s pros outweigh its cons far enough to make its price worth it.
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  • I usually go DIY because I have to stick to a certain budget and because when it comes to itineraries, I’m often fiercely independent to a fault. That said, I have loved many of the tours I’ve joined; there is a lot to be gained by listening to a local or an expert. A few favorites come to mind:
    • The tour with an archaeologist at the Colosseum in Rome — fascinating, plus signing up for a tour gets you through the mile-long lines much more quickly
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    • The Louvre tour with an art historian a/k/a how the French feel when people go to their museum only to see an Italian work of art 😀
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    • The tips-basis walking tour we joined in Munich, learning about the Beer Hall Putsch and the Kristallnacht and standing in a square where Hitler had marshalled his army
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    • Our Highlands tour with Andrew MacDonald which brought up a lot of surprising parallels between Scotland and the Philippines and touched on a lot of the things that I personally value very much, like freedom and loyalty and family
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Now back to the topic. 🙂

How to dissect a tour

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Below are the basic questions that will help you decide whether a tour is good value or not:

  1. What does the tour include? What doesn’t it include?
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  2. How much does the tour really cost when you add the “hidden” charges?
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  3. What are the tour’s stops? How much time do you spend in each stop? Is the time per stop consistent with your goals for the trip?
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  4. What are the tour’s advantages and disadvantages?
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  5. Given all of the above, is the tour worth it for you? If you don’t take the tour, do you have the time or resources to come up with an alternative itinerary?

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11-Day Tour of Europe: Italy, Switzerland and France (from $848.62)

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At first glance, this tour seems like a pretty good deal. Eleven days for $850 — that’s around $77 a day. Not bad, right?

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Nice_Promenade des Anglais_01

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What does the tour include? What doesn’t it include?

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According to the tour’s Pricing section, the $848.62 pays for:

  1. Airport pick-up and drop-off
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  2. Hotel accommodations for 10 nights with breakfast of coffee/tea, juice and bread
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  3. Ground transportation by coach (which accommodates up to 55 people, according to the Q&A)
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  4. Tour guide

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What’s not included in the tour price? ← This is very important. These are the costs that are usually excluded from the price of any tour, not just this one.

  1. Airfare from your home country and back
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  2. Lunch and dinner
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  3. City taxes
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  4. Service fee for tour guide (minimum EUR 5.00/day per person)
    • “The wages of tour guides and drivers are determined factoring in that they will receive service fees to augment their earnings. Please pay at least the recommended service fee because the tour guides and drivers work hard to accommodate many people on the tour.” In other words, the tour company intentionally does not pay the guides and drivers enough, and are counting on you to make up for it.
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  5. Optional tours such as the 45-euro Sistine chapel tour ← Many tours leave the entrance fees or prices for attractions out of the quoted tour price, partly because some tourists might not want to enter a certain attraction, and partly because adding the entrance fees to the tour package will drive up the price considerably. Look out for this in the tour exclusions list.
    • And according to the tour company, “Guests are not allowed to use a CITY PASS and admission ticket purchased by themselves to join the sightseeing attractions included in this tour. Guests who do use a CITY PASS or admission ticket purchased by themselves, will not be offered the transportation service for that day, and will possible need to pay a penalty fee.” So if you want to see the Sistine Chapel, you can’t just buy the 16-euro ticket to the Vatican Museums, which already includes entry to the Sistine Chapel; you have to avail of the tour company’s “Sistine Chapel Tour.” And considering that no one is actually supposed to talk inside the Sistine Chapel…bit much, isn’t it?
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So how much does the tour really cost?

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Factoring in the city taxes, the guides’ service fees, and the fact that the tour’s Paris itinerary specifically includes going to Versailles, the Hôtel National des Invalides, and the Louvre, the actual cost of the tour would run up to $1,011.61.

Dissecting a tour_cost

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This still doesn’t include airfare, meals, and the “optional” tours that you can’t buy your own ticket for.

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What are the tour’s stops?

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Ostensibly, the tour covers France, Switzerland and Italy.

But.

A closer look at the itinerary shows that Day 4 is devoted to driving from Paris to Lucerne, Switzerland. According to Google Maps, the drive will take 6 hours without traffic. If you leave Paris at 8 AM and stop for an hour along the way for lunch, under the best conditions you’ll get to Lucerne by 3 PM. The very next morning, you leave for Milan, so that — 3 PM till morning the next day — is the “Switzerland” part of the tour. It’s really just a short overnight stop to break up the long drive from Paris to Milan.

Note: This is something you should really scrutinize when looking at the tour details. How many days or hours do you actually spend in each stop? You might be surprised to learn that some of the stops advertised in the tour title are actually just a couple of hours long.

Here’s the rest of the itinerary and the driving times involved:

  • Day 5: Lucerne – Milan – Venice
    • Lucerne to Milan – nearly 3 hours without traffic
    • Milan to Venice – nearly 3 hours without traffic
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  • Day 6: Venice – Rome
    • Venice to Rome – 5 hours without traffic
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  • Day 7: Rome – Vatican City – Florence
    • Rome to Florence – 3 hours without traffic
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  • Day 8: Florence – Pisa – Genoa
    • Florence to Pisa – 1 hour without traffic
    • Pisa to Genoa – 2 hours without traffic
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  • Day 9: Genoa – Monaco – Nice – Grasse – Cannes – Avignon
    • Without traffic, total driving time of at least 5 hours
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  • Day 10: “Take a well-earned rest today as you sit back and enjoy the rustic charm of the French countryside on our journey north to Paris”
    • Avignon to Paris – 6 hours without traffic

It’s also worth pointing out that Day 1 is actually arrival day and Day 11 is departure day, so the tour proper is only 9 days, not 11 days.

To sum up, for $1000:

  • 2 days in Paris
  • 1 day in Venice
  • 1 day in Rome and the Vatican City
  • And the rest of the tour seems to consist of a long drive with a few short stops and/or overnight stays in 10 other cities

What are the tour’s advantages and disadvantages?

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Pros:

  • You pay up and you show up — that’s it. You don’t need to do much planning.
  • You get to see 13 European cities in 11 days — 14 if you count the Vatican City separately, which is fair enough.

Cons:

  • With the exception of Paris, Venice, and Rome, you only get to spend a few hours in each city. It’s enough time to take photos of the requisite sights and buy the souvenirs that say you’ve been there, but that’s it.
  • You spend a lot of time sitting on the coach.
  • Except for Paris, you’ll be transferring hotels and bringing your bags with you everyday. They will obviously stay in the coach during the day but every night you will have to bring them up to your room and then bring them back to the coach every morning. After a while this can take its toll.
  • It’s a tight schedule so there’s a good chance you’ll at times be too tired to properly enjoy some of the stops.

Important:
Read the reviews of people who have been on the tour — the full reviews, not just the star ratings. Pay particular attention to the stuff they didn’t like and ask yourself if those things are acceptable to you.

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Humanity_Venice_03

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Given all of the above, is the tour worth it?

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This is the question that’s hard to answer because each of us has different goals when we travel. We also have different ideas about what makes something good value.

There’s certainly something very attractive about the idea of visiting 14 European cities in 11 days. I do think you don’t necessarily have to spend a very long time in one place to appreciate it. You won’t get to know it very well but you can appreciate what you see of it, and sometimes that’s enough. Is it worth nearly $100 every day, not counting lunch, dinner, and most attractions? For some people, probably. For some people, the convenience alone of sitting back and having someone work out the details of where to go and what to do makes the tour worth it.

As for me, well, I like planning my travels. I like deciding where to go. I like choosing my hotel. I like having wiggle room in my schedule for places I want to go back to or things I suddenly feel like doing. I’ve never tried it so I’m not sure what it would be like to go on an 11-day tour with a large group — remember, the coach can accommodate up to 55 people — but I do know the type of people you travel with can make or break a trip. I don’t like the possibility of having to room with an unpleasant person…or having to pay an extra $400 to avoid that possibility. I also don’t like the fact that the tour company forbids me from buying my own tickets to “optional” attractions along the tour and threatens to penalize me if I do.

TL;DR
I personally wouldn’t take this tour but I understand why some people would.

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Here’s what I would do instead:

11 days in Europe sample itinerary

11 Days in Europe: Paris, Venice and Rome Sample Itinerary (and Insider Tips)

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9 thoughts on “How to Tell If A Tour is Good Value or Not

  1. This is so informative and so right! I loved the way you dissected the tour, much like the same way you dissected ur cadaver in first year med – methodical and meticulous and with special emphasis on the small details that count! personally, before i read this article, I would take the tour for the simple reason that i dont need to plan or book anything. As you said, you just need to get there then seat your ass on a coach and just get up when you reach a stop – doesnt get any simpler than that. Also, i am not an experienced traveller and the thought of being with a group is a security blanket for me. Now thats before i read your article and i cant wait to see what you would do instead! Thanks for all your thoughts 🙂

  2. I’ve always tried to do everything independently when I’m traveling but I realized later that for older people (like my parents), it is much easier to use an organized tour. When I traveled with my parents in Europe without tours, I found it harder to navigate with them as they get very tired. When my mom and I went to Eastern Europe on a tour, it was a much better experience for her (but I felt I missed out on some things as tours aren’t flexible).

    • Hi Boots! Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience. You made me think about the trip I’m hoping to take with my parents one of these days… Now I’m thinking maybe we can take day tours within one city but have a day or two in each city with nothing planned, so that they can rest if they want and I can visit places not covered during the tour…

      • Yes I think that’s a great idea. When I took my dad to Boston he really had a difficult time walking around and I really regret not doing the hop on hop off bus on our first day. Good luck! I’m sure it’ll be a great trip. Vacations with parents are truly priceless

  3. Before I finish reading, because I’ve only just begun, I’m going to wholeheartedly agree with this “On the road, I’ve met people who proudly say they “never do tours” and I think that’s a shame.” I haven’t taken a ton of tours but the two I went on were worthwhile. The first one was a 2 week tour and since I was freshly 17 & traveling with my parents (and on their dime) I had no say in the arrangements but I fully enjoyed the tour including the schedules, hotels and stops. The first tour I took as an adult was with several friends in Romania for 8 days or so and since that country was so foreign to me (but so so very interesting!) I felt more comfortable paying to have a bus driver, the tour guide, all the accommodations booked for us ect…and sharing the bus and walking tours with like-minded travelers. I’ve also traveled making every arrangement on my own because I’m always scrimping & going for a bargain and I like the freedom and possible spontaneity of being “tourless” for the duration of the trip. There are pros and cons to both and as you said good and bad tours and people just have to take a moment to look into the options and differentiate between the two. There’s a really intriguing tour I want to take in the future that involves a small van, so the tour group is limited, and walking & bikes. There are so many varieties of tours and sometimes paying the extra cost (within reason) is worth it because it can be convenient, safe and take the hassle and stress out of logistics and planning. I LOVE planning trips but there are advantages for sure to some of these tours and sometimes it’s nice to relax and just let somebody else handle it all for me, go with the flow and not be responsible.
    Okay–off to finish reading and find out how to tell if the tours are a good value or not. VERY useful information, so I thank you in advance!!

    • That’s very true! I really felt that during that one-day tour I did that covered the Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge. It was really nice to just sit back and handle everything. I think if I’d been doing the planning, I would have done, like, one day for Bath, one day for the Cotswolds, etc., because I would get all anxious and think about all the possible things that could go wrong if I schedule everything too tightly.

      • Good way to put it. Plus when it’s all pre-arranged if something goes wrong it’s up to the tour company to appease their customers and find a solution. If I planned something trying to stick with a tight budget and time table I’d end up buying those inflexible types of tickets in advance and discounted entries, because those are the cheaper ones, and if something happened, well I’d have to buy whole new ones and break the budget.

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