Tours are an essential part of travelling. You’d be hard pressed to find a major city that doesn’t have some type of bus tour.
Some tours are reminiscent of primary school days with name badges and an anxious teacher. The main difference is you don’t get yelled at by your tour guide and it would be weird holding hands with a stranger while crossing the road.
For someone who’s never travelled or is nervous about seeing a new country, an all inclusive tour can be a great option.
There are other people who cringe at the thought of getting on any type of tour because they want an authentic experience. You can still have an authentic experience on a tour. Use free time to your advantage, explore and don’t settle for drinking heavily if you want to be present in the moment. Early mornings while be alert instead of hungover are incredible, you notice so much more.
Tours are perfect for solo travellers who want to meet other travellers. You can quickly find others who have a similar mindset.
Throughout the world I’ve travelled on many bus tours.
They can be categorised into five main areas.
1. All inclusive luxury tours
Full disclosure I’ve yet travel this way. When looking at Trafalgar brochure you get the distinct impression that the tours are squarely aimed at an older demographic. My parents went on Trafalgar and loved it. They were the youngest by 10 years, but they enjoyed seeing Europe with helpful guides.
2. Medium level tours
Companies like Contiki, Busabout and Top Deck that cater for a younger audience who want a guide, but don’t need luxury at every step. Usually last a week to a month staying in hotels or hostels. Aimed at travellers who are 18-35. These tours cover most parts of the world depending on the company.
I haven’t been on Contiki or Topdeck. I’ve talked to many who have. The vast majority said Contiki was for young first time travellers who wanted to see many countries and party along the way. It’s not to say you can’t book a tour and stay away from drinking. In the end it comes down to luck. You could be the only non-drinker on the bus or you might be the class clown on a more reserved group. Due to the popularity, especially in Europe, many people couldn’t book a Contiki tour so they went with Busabout.
Busabout are hop on hop tours across Western Europe, Asia and North Africa which works well if you want some flexibility. You can hop-off and book a seat a few days ahead or try your luck hoping there’s enough seats when the new bus comes along. Many people I spoke to described the tours as similar to Contiki with a party atmosphere. Summer throws the hop-on, hop-off part out because the buses are booked most days. This means it’s hard to organise a seat if you hop off, becoming not so flexible.
3. Adventure travel tours
Companies like Intrepid or G Adventures offer smaller group tours for more rugged, off the beaten track style tours. Staying in more rustic locations with an emphasis on sustainable travel. Usually last a week to a month. Tours run in just about every country that is safe worldwide. Including the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Unfortunately I’m yet to try these types of tours. Friends have told me the main difference between G Adventures and Intrepid is the training. G Adventures have many local guides. Sometimes you might not get the tour you would expect. Intrepid have training across their tours so you know what you will get. Either way they sound like a great way to travel.
4. Short 1-5 day tours
Companies like Haggis or Paddy Wagon. These tours can be around a city for a day trip or a more extensive region for 3-5 days usually staying in hostels. Tours like this run across the world in many different forms. The best part is the vast majority are locally owned/guided.
Short tours like these are perfect because usually you’re not trying to see 3 countries in a day. You’re able to stop at some nice little places. Another great reason is with Contiki or Topdeck style tours you’re stuck with the people on your bus. If you’re the odd person out then you might hate the atmosphere. Putting up with someone for 3 days is much easier than 30 days!
I went on the Haggis 3 day tour in the scottish highlands and also the Irish 4 day Paddywaggon tour. Both were awesome because the groups were small and the guides were magic.
5. Hop-on, Hop-off tours
The most famous are the red double decker buses – City-Sightseeing Tours that operate in every major tourist attracting city in the western world.
I’ve been on many mainly throughout Europe to get my bearings quickly around a city. They offer one of the quickest ways to jump from landmark to landmark if you’re short on time.
Canada has a company called the Moose Network, which is a network of hop-on, hop-off style tours in small groups. These tours run across multiple provinces. You need to book a day or two ahead, but it works well for backpackers that don’t want to hire a van or travel on a Greyhound bus. You stay in hostels along the way. The guide were fantastic and knew all the hidden gems along the way as well as some great stories.
Each tour caters for a different type of audience. Many have age restrictions, but often you will find older travellers who don’t want the luxury style travel and prefer to tag along with a more youthful group.
Tours without a bus
Some great alternatives are either a walking or bike tour around a city. Especially historical cities like Vienna or Denmark. The reason why is because they’re affordable. A walking tour is free, but it’s customary to tip. With bike tours there are two options. First you can rent a bike (usually a colourful one.) Many cities have an app that tells you places to see with recordings to explain landmarks. The second way is a guided bike tour which can cost a little more but are usually affordable depending on which city you’re in. The biggest benefit is you get exercise while you learn about a new city.
There would be very few people who could go on all the tours above and enjoy them the same. Each tour is designed for people in different demographics. Everyone has different tastes. It’s best to look around and find what works for yourself. Never assume that the higher the tour costs’, the higher your enjoyment level will be. Sometimes the best tours are the low-budget tours with an incredible guide!
Don’t think that being on a tour will mean you won’t have an authentic experience. Some of my most amazing experiences have been on a bus tour. On one tour my guide convinced a group of women I was a famous singer from Australia, but I couldn’t strain my voice for a show in Edinburgh. A priceless moment on a tour! Not to forget some of the best friendships I’ve ever made while travelling!
You may have noticed above that there are variations that blend different elements such as Hop-on, Hop-off with small tours. This is just a guide to show you what’s out there, but there are plenty more tours out there.
Do you have any great tours that don’t fit in with these 5 bus tour styles? I’d love to hear in the comments below!