Pros: Knowledgeable guide, good hotels w/ private bathrooms, see all the tourist sights
Cons: Quick pace, poor breakfasts, bad London "transfer"
TOUR vs. HOLIDAY
My fiancee and I made our first visit to Europe via the Trafalger "Cost-saver" European Cavalcade. This is a break-neck paced bus tour of 12 European countries and most of the major tourist sites within them (Paris, Nice, Rome, the Vatican, Venice, Amsterdam, Monte Carlo, Black Forest in Germany, Austrian Alps, and more)! It was just the vacation that we we'd expected and hoped for ... just be sure to do your homework (which you are by reading these reviews) to be sure this is what you expect and hope for, too. This (and the many similar) Trafalgar tour will give you a great introduction to Europe for first-timers, for those who wish to "see it all" on their once-in-a-lifetime trip, for those who like to pack tons of sightseeing into their vacations, for those who have the vigor and energy to take on a quick touring pace in order to appreciate Europe and take it all in.
Our tour guide prefaced the trip perfectly on the first morning's introductions when she said something like the following: "This is a TOUR, not a HOLIDAY. On a Holiday, you lounge by the pool or by the beach. You sip on cocktails and relax. You go by no schedule and do as you please. On a Holiday, you come back home refreshed. --- On a Tour, you do not relax. You are here to see and experience the world. We keep a tight schedule in order to pack in thousands of kilometers and scores of sites all around Europe. We get up early and may go to bed late. We need to rush at times. If you do a tour right, you will not be refreshed at the end. Many people say they need a holiday after these tours! But most people feel it is worth it to have the memories and pictures that you'll have --- like "holding up" the Leaning Tower, overlooking Paris from the observation level of the Eiffel Tower, laughing in the outrageous back streets of Amsterdam, standing at the peak of an Austrian Alp, taking a gondola ride down the canals of Venice, etc."
If a leisurely holiday is what you're looking for, it may be best to check out another option (cruise, all-inclusive resorts, etc.) If you'd love to see what Europe has to offer in a time-effective and cost-effective means, Trafalgar's Cost-Savers are the way to go. You'll find the Cost-Saver tours in a completely separate brochure than their regular First-Class tours. The itineraries are nearly identical between the two, but process is considerable cheaper in the Cost-Savers. The main difference between the two seems to be the hotels that you stay at each night.
Cost-saver hotels are generally farther from the city-center, making exploration on your own difficult due to transportation issues. The accommodations with Cost-saver are basic, but very much adequate. You always have your own bathroom, which is not necessarily the case in Europe. Almost all had A/C (except ones high in Alps, which did not need A/C because of cool temps at altitude). Many of our hotels had nice outdoor pools. Trafalgar staff takes care of check-in and check-out every stop. Your tour guide tells you which room you've been assigned for the night, very convenient. Likewise, hotel staff and your Trafalgar bus driver deliver your luggage to your room & pick it up each AM of departure. We regularly passed huge tour groups from other companies lugging their own bags while pushing to the front of the check-in lines.
Trafalgar prides itself on having knowledgable and professional guides. Their guides must have several years of experience before Trafalgar will hire them, and I believe it shows. Our guide, Rita, was exceptional. The guide gives background information as you ride in the bus via a microphone. She points out places of interest and tells you when to get the camera ready for upcoming panoramic views. At the stops, she leads a walking orientation to an area before allowing time to explore on your own. She had the "flow" of the locals at each country we stopped at. She rattled off different languages impressively no matter which country we happened to be in. She juggled the varying demands and abilities of 50 tourists from different countries. She kept us to the minute on our tight schedule. All the while, she kept things light with her corny jokes and kept things interesting with her historical insights. She made a great trip even better for us, without question.
In some tourist destinations, the local governments demand that a "Local Guide" takes over the guiding duties. In these places (i.e. the Vatican and Rome, parts of Paris) the local guide takes over the microphone. Here it is a roll of the dice on which you get.
You are expected to tip the Trafalgar guide and Bus driver at the end of your tour. This is natural for American travelers, but members of our tour from other countries did not know of this custom. I tipped our guide and driver more generously than I usually do for cruise staff and hotel staff, as they were excellent. I felt so fortunate to have been able to benefit from their services.
You are seeing thousand of miles worth of sights in a couple weeks of time. This means you may put in hundreds of miles in a day. You are going into major cities with heavy traffic. So yes, you will spend a lot of time onboard of your bus. As mentioned above, your tour guide will fill up a lot of that time previewing your next stop, reviewing meeting times and places, pointing out interests along the road, and telling stories of travelers woes from the past tours (like an American who mixed up the bidet with a water fountain). The seats are like most coach seats --comfortable for the first couple of hours and then you can't seem to find a good spot afterward. I'm 6 feet, 3 inches tall, which may be the absolute limit for leg-space and comfort. Seats recline a few inches, which was enough for many people to sleep during some early AM drives.
You do make stops to stretch, grab a snack, and use the restrooms at highway road stops. Rita would call our short stops "Shakespeare Stops" ---- to pee, or not to pee, that is the question. Trafalgar may advertise bathrooms onboard the bus, but these are strictly emergency use only as there are only a few waste-dumping stations on the route. This trip is not for those who need potty-breaks often.
Bus was A/Cued, sometimes too much! Bring a jacket for long bus rides and don't be afraid to ask the driver to cut the cold air.
Bus has nice big windows for viewing everything. You rotate seats one row each day so that no one gets to hog the front seat, which affords the best viewing out the windshield. This also allows you to mingle with the other guests.
Your fellow tourists are likely to cover all ages, interests, and nationalities. Our trip had a few fellow Americans, a few Canadians, a young couple from Singapore, a few passengers from China, a family from South Africa, and a large preparation of Australians. Trafalgar asks that all of the passengers speak English. Trafalgar has poured a lot of $$ into advertising in the Australian tourist market, as Americans have been less likely to travel overseas after recent terrorism. Most passengers were married couples. Three families were along with their teenage kids. Most passengers were in the 40-50 age range. A few older cute couples were along, probably in their 70's. Eight or so of us were in our late 20's/early 30's. We found the wide range of individuals was a true treat. We learned as much from each other as we did on the trip itself. At dinner and on the bus we discussed world politics, the traditions of our lands, and sports. We ended up swapping email addresses with many of our new friends at the completion of the trip.
SEEING THE SITES
You'll likely start your tour in London. London days are completely on your own. This is your chance to do things at your own pace. Ask your hotel concierge to recommend a hop-on, hop-off double decker bus tour of the city. Great way to see the city. Tons of ATMs (called cashpoints) are in the city. Put in your card, and out comes pounds! Check out the several kiosks selling last minute tickets for plays and musicals. We were able to grab up tickets for Kiss Me Kate and The Full Monty at great bargains 3 hours before curtain. Tubes (subway) in London are easy to navigate, and locals and bobbies (policemen) are helpful if you get lost.
On the tour, you will be on a tight time schedule, and you are held to that schedule. Your guide will likely give you a brief walking intro to the area, and then set you loose to visit at your own pace. You'll have a set meeting place and meeting time for the completion of the visit. It is a heart-pounding pace at times, but this is needed in order to see everything that's listed in that impressive brochure description. You'll quickly get adept at time management, which enables you to maximize your touring time. During lunch stops in a city, grab a quick sandwich at a local stand and keep moving. Hang behind the bus group and go the opposite direction to avoid the crowds. Save shopping for postcards and trinkets until after you've actually had time to view the Sistine Chapel and Eiffel Tower, as many of those souvenirs can be picked up at the hotel front desk or at a roadside rest stop later that day.
Most of the best activities and site seeing are considered OPTIONALS. These optionals are run by the same tour guide in the same Trafalgar bus, but cost extra. These "optionals", in my opinion, are musts as they will absolutely make the trip memorable. We did them all, as most people did, adding an additional $1,800 or so ($900 each) to our trip cost. Don't be surprised, as most companies do this. This is what lures you in as the brochure rate looks to be less than $100 a day, but that is for bare-bones essentials of touring. The optionals are were you get the trip to the top of the Alps on a cable car, get to ride in a gondola in Venice, get to ride in a boat eating cheese and drinking wine while touring the Seine in Paris, get to see the can-can style revue in Paris, ride a tour boat down the canals of Amsterdam, attend a yodeling and dancing dinner show in Austria, etc. You will be disappointed if you miss the optionals, so save extra $$ before the trip so you can experience everything. The cost of these optionals often covers a meal as well (the best meals that we had on the trip, in fact).
Speaking of money, you'll need some cash as you go. We found plenty of ATMs in London to get a few pounds to spend. No need to get pounds before coming into the country. Don't get more pounds than you'll spend, as no other country will accept pound. If you have any left over, use them up on the ferry over to France. After England, Euros will likely do just fine. Trafalgar has currency packs that you can purchase, but you might get a better exchange rate at home before you leave. Don't stuff your wallets too full of cash, as pickpocketers are prolific in the main cities. One passenger on our tour had her wallet lifted on the subway in Paris. Be sure to have phone numbers of your credit card companies to phone in the theft. The Euro is almost exactly equal to one American dollar, making it easy for we Americans to know what things are costing. Except small souvenir shops, most everyone accepts credit cards.
I believe that I've hit many of the drawbacks of the Trafalgar Cost-Saver tour. Basic hotels far from the city. Yes, long bus rides to get to the next destination with a quick touring pace. Extra $$ needed for the optionals. Breakfasts (included in base $$) are boring and largely disappointing. Rolls, jelly, and a juice are as far as some of the hotels went. We often found a local market or bakery to get our own goodies. The included "transfer" to your hotel on a Cost-Saver tour is nothing but a train ticket to a Tube stop. You still lug your own luggage the entire way, and you must find a way from the tube stop to your hotel. The tubes are underground, meaning steps to carry those bags up. Taxis can be taken, but they can rack up the charges quickly. Those who do not do their homework and know what to expect are most likely to b disappointed. Talk to the travel agent, read the brochure and fine print, check out web reviews, see the message post board on Trafalgar's webpage, and talk to those who've traveled group bus tours to Europe in the past.
Overall, the best traveling experience of my young life, and I've traveled pretty extensively over US, Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. With Trafalgar, in every picture of the 40 rolls that we shot (not exaggerating), my fiancee and I have huge smiles on our faces. We feel that we got the taste of Europe that we were looking for. That taste was enough to satisfy us in some areas (like Nice and Rome), but not others (like Venice and Paris). That helps us to narrow the destination of our next trip to Europe, whenever that might be. If it ends up being our only trip, at least we can say that we saw it and did it. We loved our trip and thought the price was right, including the extra charges for the optionals. We would recommend Trafalgar, based on our experience.