Saturday, October 17, 2009

Independent Trips Compared to Tour Company Trips

Organized tours are advantageous for some countries where the language and custom barriers are too great to bridge, so David and I will probably use a commercial company when we travel to China, India, or Vietnam. But for trips to other parts of the world, we much prefer to travel independently.

Since organized-tour companies do all the planning, it is certainly easier for a traveler to arrange a trip this way, but we find tours unsatisfactory for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that your days are scheduled according to the group's needs, not your own. If you want to sleep late some mornings or laze about in the afternoon sun, you cannot do either if the tour bus must leave the parking lot at 7:30 am or there's a city tour scheduled for the afternoon.

That tight scheduling also means that you see what the tour company wants you to see for whatever length of time the company decides, rather than spend time at places that interest you most. For example, I had no desire to see a furniture manufacturer in Sorrento, but there was no choice. The tour group spent well over an hour learning more than we wanted to know about marquetry when we could have been exploring the town instead. I couldn't help but wonder if the tour company received a portion of the sales made that day.

On another day, I was anticipating a particular stop along the bus route. After teaching Romeo and Juliet for many years, I was interested in seeing Verona where Shakespeare's play was set. Since the tale was supposedly based on a true story, I looked forward to going through Juliet's house and visiting her grave. The tour company allotted only an hour, though, and that included lunch. There was time only to see the outside of Juliet's house and grab a sandwich before climbing back on the bus.

That's the other thing that bothers us about tours. The bus. If you've booked a tour that promises many cities in a short amount of time, and the majority of tours are of this type, you see more of the bus than you do any of the sights. Spending four to six hours a day on a bus certainly allows you to see a lot of the countryside, but we prefer to visit places and museums instead.

That bus also limits where you go and what accommodations you get. A huge tour bus cannot reach some secluded sights that may be on your wish list. You can also forget that charming B&B in the heart of a historic village. The bus needs a huge parking lot and that dictates a large, often personality-less hotel, usually on the outskirts of town.

Perhaps the very worst thing about organized tours, however, is their price. There's a supposedly “budget-priced” seven-night independent Paris tour by a popular company being offered for $1365 dollars a person based on two people sharing the hotel room. The cost for two is therefore $2730, or $390 per day per couple. We saw all of Paris, including Versailles which is included in the tour package, and loved our apartment home-base for only $166 per day for the two of us. That's a difference of $224 a day!

Even more dramatic is the difference in price between a tour of the Dordogne, offered by the University of North Carolina, and the price we paid for a glorious week in this historic valley. Housed in Sarlat and traveling to two cave sites as well as many of the same towns and castle we visited, the seven-night trip sponsored by the University, in 2007, cost each person $2795 or $5590 per couple. That's $798 per day! Again, we saw the same caves and visited even more towns, including Oradour, for only $166 per the two of us per day. That's a whopping savings of $632 per day!

At least one company seems to be aware of the huge profit margins involved in organized tours, so they have developed their own niche by specializing in non-tours. The company touts the advantages of living in an apartment in Europe so you can feel as though you're part of the neighborhood and get a real feel for living as the Europeans do by shopping the local markets, using public transportation, and setting your own itinerary. There is an expert on-site should you need advice, but you are on your own in deciding what museums or sights to visit. Since this is the travel philosophy I believe in, I was hoping their prices for this immersion experience would be similar to those David and I experienced.

In the company's most recent catalog, a one-week experience in Paris, in an apartment the company has chosen, plus a Metro and museum pass, costs $1769 per person. They also throw in a guidebook and some pre-trip planning advice. The catch is that the rate assumes two people share the same apartment, so the cost then becomes $3538 for two people for one week in Paris. (Note that no meals are included in this price.) That is $505 per day for two people. Again, David and I had the same Paris experience with a lovely apartment, a Metro and museum pass, plus three meals a day, on only $166 a day for both of us. That is a difference of $339 a day per couple and our budget included food!

One point I find particularly galling with tour companies is that a per person price is quoted, yet two people must occupy the same hotel room (or apartment in the case of the non-tour company) or pay an additional fee. If you are traveling solo and insist on a single-room accommodation, the supplemental charge is around $600. Yet, when hotels list their prices, rates are quoted per room, not per person. The hotel assumes one or two people will occupy a room; the rate remains the same even if only one person spends the night. Why is it, then, that the tour company charges a supplemental fee for single rooms? I can only assume it's because they make a large share of their profit from charging each person for a hotel room that is rented to them by the hotels for two people.

Truly, given the advantages of independent travel and the huge difference in price between a do-it-yourself independent trip and a tour company trip, I find it difficult to understand why anyone opts for an organized tour.

If it is fear that keeps you from planning your own travel, I hope that this blog will help alleviate your concerns. Although a lot of work is involved, David and I truly enjoy planning our own trips. Studying guide books and reading material on-line not only makes us better informed when we arrive, but those preparations also build anticipation. And, after all, isn't anticipation part of the fun of going some place? We also appreciate the money we save by doing it ourselves because that means more frequent travel to more places. An upcoming article will focus on the steps needed to plan your own trip.

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