Europe, there’s a heck of lot of it: 52 countries, 10 million sq km (37.3 New Zealands), 733.5 million people or 9.3 per cent of the world’s population, 15 major languages and at least three times as many local dialects.
Stands to reason you’re not going to see much of the place in one holiday, so – whether it’s your first trip or your 10th – you’re going to have to make some tough decisions.
Do you want to come home with memories of unforgettable art and 13th-century castles or cathedrals, still tasting that wine you sipped in the Tuscan sun, reliving that hike amid lakes and lochs, or the satisfaction of pursuing a personal obsession like visiting obscure football stadiums. (A mate did that on his honeymoon. He’s single now.)
You can do any or all of these because – although this continent is packed with diverse cultures, centuries of history, breathtaking landscapes and delicious cuisines – they’re only a short flight or train ride from one other.
So, How Long Have You Got for this Coach Tour?
If it’s only a couple of weeks, focus on one or two countries and deep-dive. Doesn’t have to be the heavy hitters – Switzerland and Croatia have gorgeous scenery, mouth-watering food and photogenic architecture. If you prefer natural wonders, you can see Iceland or Norway’s waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, icebergs and fjords, and drop into fishing villages for meals you won’t find elsewhere.
Three weeks allow a trawl into a broader region – say, beginning in Madrid, heading to Barcelona and the Mediterranean, detouring into sunny and off-beat Portugal, and back via the beaches, mountains, vines and menus of San Sebastian and Bilbao. A good length of time, too, for a river cruise or coach tour, excellent ways to immerse yourself in local lifestyles.
Having worn out several passports between the Southern Cross and Northern Lights, I’ll suggest choosing some form of guided tour rather than winging it.
Travel is still shrugging off the lingering effects of the pandemic. People and planes, fuel and food, plus accommodation shortages, mean you’ll want to eliminate as many hassles as possible.
Take a guided tour and you can forget spending nights googling accommodation, connections and trying to work out a budget. The package will take most of that off your shoulders and the hit-and-miss factor from your credit card bill, especially for solo travellers. Many operators offer a work-round for those “single supplement” surcharges.
“Myriad” and “multiple” are overused words but you only have to type “Europe tours” into your search engine to realise there are hundreds of travel companies and thousands – if not more – packages and itineraries.
Prepare to be bewildered, but today we’ll be your tour guide on a quick trip around the essentials of solo, group, coach, river and adventure tours. If that’s the first decision, and you haven’t decided whether you’d prefer a coach, river or adventure holiday, Globus offers guided coach tours under its main brand, plus Cosmos adventure trips and Avalon river cruises, which will help compare apples with oranges and pears. If 6-star travel is your style, examine the opportunities at Scenic.
Choosing which tour is best for you comes down to research. Time-consuming, sure, but you get to travel vicariously. Start by searching “group tour companies”. Find a few operators that interest you and take a closer look at one tour from each.
Check reputable (okay, I hear you snigger) online reviews to see what people think about the companies you’ve shortlisted to get an idea of what previous travellers liked (or didn’t).
You could be spending several weeks and several thousand dollars in their company, so a good tip for seeing if you’ll fit in with your fellow travellers is to look at the company website and social media to see what kind of people take their tours. Trafalgar, which has been running “premium guided tours for ages 5-99 years” since 1947, has an exceptional portfolio of Kiwi customers’ experiences.
Write down the pros and cons. Friends planning their first trip later this year have Excel spreadsheets and recommendations running to myriad pages.
Once you’ve found a few options, go a little deeper. You might want to consider the group size – younger travellers might like large parties, mature travellers generally don’t, and those who aren’t comfortable in crowds will generally prefer small group tours. A couple probably won’t want to be on a tour with 50 “Class of 73″ Reunion carousers.
Small groups are usually more personal, there’s more individual attention and it’s quicker to get around. Larger groups may offer opportunities to meet more people, enjoy cheaper activities and often lower prices.
Ah, the Big Kahuna. Or euro. Price is important but investigate what’s included. That higher-price tour may be all-inclusive – accommodation, meals, transport connections, sightseeing – while the low-cost option might involve hidden expenses that could stretch the budget.
Accommodation is a major. Determine whether it’s 4-star hotel, a B&B or motorway-side motel, and where it is – city centre or in the suburbs, a 90-minute coach ride through commuter congestion to the Louvre. Ask for hotel names and check out their websites.
In several parts of Europe, “vegetarian” means taking the steak off the plate just before it’s served, so, travellers who are not meat-adjacent, vegans and those with allergies and intolerances should make it known before leaving home.
For those who remember the 70s Con-Tiki … um, experience through rose-coloured glasses (and probably hearing aids these days), the good news is that coach tours have come and gone a long way since then.
Earlier advice about the operator and group size quickly comes into play. Larger coaches usually come with onboard toilets, reclining seats, dining trays and screens. Insight Vacations, for instance, has reconfigured coaches to 40 seats with business-class legroom and more space to enjoy panoramic views.
On a small group tour, you may travel in minibuses but you’re more likely to detour down byways that large vehicles can’t.
Travel at your preferred pace: some tours spend one night in each destination and are on the move each day while some will take several days to explore a place like Florence. Some will schedule your whole day; some will allow plenty of free time, particularly in the evenings.
On most coach trips you’ll need to pack your bags and hit the road every morning. You’ll rarely spend more than a few hours on the road without stopping for sightseeing, meals or comfort breaks.
Well-organised coach tours will get you close to local life, either dining or visiting vineyards and regional bistros, or staying in smaller hotels or boutique accommodation.
Travellers are encouraged to rotate seats daily, so you’ll get to know everyone on your tour, so coach tours are a good choice for singles. You’ll have little trouble finding a dinner companion or someone to go exploring with you.
River cruises are one of the best ways to immerse yourself in European life – drifting past fields, villages, castles, picking up titbits of history – not to mention sips and nibbles. For centuries, rivers have been the continent’s motorways, so there’s a story (or a legend) around every bend.
The bonuses are obvious: you only have to unpack once; it’s a more intimate experience than ocean cruising, with more ports and less sailing; you dock in the heart of a city or village; most lines will include a guided tour in every port; there’s much more free time.
Having waltzed down the Danube and wined on the Rhine several times with Uniworld and Viking, I’d recommend riverboats as a great option for couples and singles.
From this distance, “adventure holidays in Europe” might seem like a contradiction in terms. Pedalling around Amsterdam? Ambling along the Cinque Terre? The highest peak in the British Isles is only 1345m and a 7-year-old can knock the bugger off.
Don’t be fooled. The risks might be more obvious in Aotearoa but rock and mountain climbing, kayaking and cycling and skiing around the Continent can be just as tricky.
And that’s before the hassles of planning transport, food and logistics in an environment that’s not familiar. Again, guided trips are convenient and stress-free, the way to discover a new destination with the details organised for you and a support team with or behind you.
On walking and cycling trips, even though you’re travelling in a small group, you can still travel at your own pace – as far or as little as you feel comfortable – knowing assistance is at hand.
You can forget the stress of researching the best routes and finding the restaurant or bed in the next town and know you’ll have somewhere comfortable to relax and unwind after a long day on foot or in the saddle.
Two companies that have proved extremely popular with Kiwi travellers are G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. They operate from strongly ethical positions on the environment, sustainability and local communities, restrict groups to around 12-14 travellers, and – as well as active holidays – have a broad vista of themed itineraries using community-based guides.
Best part of a European tour? It may be the Old World, but there’s always something new to see. Next time.
Source : NZ Herald