Brian, an employee of the Untours company which specializes in renting apartments to people who want to travel independently with a bit of support from a local expert, and I (as well as a couple other people) have been debating the advantages and disadvantages of a trip planned completely independently and one offered by Untours. You can read the thread here.
Brian's point is that novice travelers may be hesitant to plan their own trips because they fear the unexpected. The Untours company tries to ensure no unpleasantness occurs during the entire vacation experience. An Untours representative personally inspects the apartments on its list so there are no unwelcome surprises when tourists unlock the front door, and an English-speaking guide is on-site to handle—via telephone—any emergency that might arise from a lost passport, unforeseen medical problem, or an apartment key code snafu. I suppose Brian has a valid point if someone is extraordinarily nervous about traveling or is so busy he doesn't have time to do research on his own.
But Untour trips can only be had at a hefty price.
If you want to get the most for your travel dollars, planning your own trip is much more economical and rewarding. All you have to invest is a bit of time for research. And it is possible, I promise you, to have all those assurances Untours offers at a fraction of the Untours' price.
Let's look at a week in Paris during early September, 2010. Untours will pick you up at the airport, take you to your apartment, provide a printed guide written by their staff and a Paris street guide, an orientation lecture, and one group dinner at a restaurant. They will also supply each couple (Prices are listed per person but two people must share each apartment.) with forty metro tickets and two-day museum passes. They offer three small—as most apartments are in Paris—places in the 15th arrondisement and two apartment rentals in the Latin Quarter to choose from. The costs vary only slightly for each apartment, but let's say you choose the first apartment in the 15th arrondisement. The total for this Untours trip is $3668.
Now, let's assume you make the same trip to Paris in early September, 2010, but do all the planning on your own.
There are several options for traveling from the airport to your apartment, some costing less than $20, but, let's do what Untours does and have a car service waiting for you, with a man holding a sign with your name on it, as you leave customs. The cost, for the round-trip, (This same company will return you to the airport at week's end for this one price.) is roughly $147. Let's assume you also picked up a $25 guidebook before leaving home so you could do some preliminary research. When you go to the metro the next day or to a tourist bureau, you will pick up a Paris street guide for free. You do not need an orientation lecture because you have already done considerable reading and Internet researching before you left home. Besides, you know you can ask any questions you might have at the tourist office. You will also buy two 2-day museum passes and four carnets (ten tickets in each carnet) of metro tickets for a total of $166. Being the cautious type, you've also bought traveler's insurance for both of you for $120 that will cover any cancellations in your lodging arrangements and pay for any medical costs you might have including being air-lifted back to the United States. You have also, after thoroughly checking the reviews left in the guest book and after many informative and reassuring e-mails from the owner, reserved a lovely one-bedroom apartment in the 10th arrondisement, a lovely and safe neighborhood with lots of cafes and shops and just steps away from a metro stop. The apartment is also equipped with a telephone, computer, international-channels TV, a washer, dryer, and dishwasher. All this for $662.
The total for the trip you plan yourselves will cost only $1120. Compare that to the Untours' price of $3668. Doing a bit of the legwork and research saves you a whopping $2548!
Besides saving $2548, you will know that you have resources for dealing with any emergency. Having thoroughly read your guidebook and blogs on the Internet, you will feel more at ease. You will know how to foil pickpockets. If you lose your passport, the identity theft assistance component of your insurance policy will cover the replacement costs. Should you have a medical emergency, you can probably handle it at a pharmacy or clinic—See my series of articles about my friend's broken leg in Provence here--but you have your insurance policy to fall back on for serious medical problems.
There's not a thing the Untours package offers that you cannot do on your own except for the group dinner. And, with all the money you're saving by doing the trip-planning yourself, you can take yourselves out for not one, but several gourmet dinners! Or you can save your money and take three trips for the price of one Untours vacation!
So, if you have no time for planning or you're a novice traveler who's afraid of making a misstep, by all means, use Untours. But, if you've got extra time and the inclination to explore the vacation area via guidebooks and the Internet before you go, please save your money and do it yourself. One trip or three? It's your choice.
For airport to Paris transport: a Shuttle Inter driver will meet you at the airport with a name board and lead you to his taxi.
Paris museum pass information and prices.
Metro pass information and prices.
There are dozens of agencies offering apartment rentals in Paris. Here's just one example from the Beau-Paris site. It's a one-bedroom apartment in the 10th arrondisement for $662 (1 euro = 1.47 US)
There are many travel insurance companies. Check this website to see what a typical company offers.
For a step-by-step guide on how to plan your own trip, see this article.