Enjoying a Big-Bus Tour

Some tour companies offer optional excursions that cost extra. Before signing up, check the going gondola rate to see if you can do it on your own for less.

For many people, a bus tour is the best way to scratch their travel itch. Having someone else navigate for you, arrange transportation and hotels, and make the decisions takes the stress and work out of travel.

A tour can also be the most economical way to see place: Large tour companies book thousands of rooms and meals year-round, and with their tremendous economic clout, they can get prices that no individual tourist can match.

If you’re looking to travel comfortably and cheaply, bus tours can be a good option — and if you’ve got an excellent guide; it can be a great one.

Once you’re on board with a bus tour, you’ll be part of a group dynamic — but that doesn’t mean you can’t have control over your trip. Here are some suggestions to help make sure the good times roll for you while you’re on the road:

Be informed. A good guidebook and map are your keys to travel freedom. Get maps and tourist information from your hotel or a tourist information office. If your accommodations are located outside the city center, ask your hotelier how to take public transportation downtown. Taxis and Uber can be affordable if you split the cost with other travelers.

Remember that it’s your trip. Don’t let bus tour priorities keep you from what you’ve traveled all the way there to see. Feel free to skip out and sightsee on your own. Your guide may warn you that you’ll get lost and the bus won’t wait. Keep your independence — and remember the name of your hotel.

Discriminate among optional excursions. Some tour companies include certain activities in the price (such as half-day city sightseeing tours), then offer optional special excursions or evening activities for an additional cost. While you are capable of doing plenty on your own, optional excursions can be a decent value — especially when you factor in the time and energy it requires to plan and execute logistics independently. But don’t feel pressured to join. Guides may promote excursions because they get a commission. Compare prices by asking your hotelier or checking a guidebook for the going rate for a gondola ride, a cruise, or whatever.

You’ll find that some options are a better value through your tour than from the hotel concierge, but others aren’t worth the time or money. 

If you shop…shop around. Many people make their holiday one long shopping spree. This suits your guide and the local tourist industry just fine. 

Don’t necessarily reject your guide’s shopping tips; just keep in mind that the prices you see often include a 10–20 percent kickback. Do some comparison shopping, and don’t let anyone rush you. Never swallow the line, “This is a special price available only to your tour, but you must buy now.”

Keep your guide happy. Leading a tour is a demanding job with lots of responsibility, paperwork, traveler hand-holding and miserable hours. Very often, guides are tired. They’re away from home and family — often for months on end — and are surrounded by foreigners having an extended party that they’re not always in the mood to join. Most guides treasure their time alone. Each traveler has personal demands, but don’t insist on individual attention when the guide is hounded by others. Wait for a quiet moment to ask for advice or offer feedback.

Seek out unjaded locals. The locals most tour groups encounter are hardened businesspeople who put up with tourists because they have to — it’s their livelihood. But if you make it a quest to find your own beer hall, it won’t be long before you’re clinking mugs with friendly locals. Break away.