Using my very limited experience with tours (I have booked exactly one tour in my life) I want to explain what happened to me, and maybe help someone else avoid making the same mistakes I made as a Newbie .

Learning from other’s mistakes is supposed to be smart, or something.

My experience

So, first, I want to write (rant) about what happened to me.

Due to the laws of the country I live and work in, I was forced to take a vacation without much notice. Here, you get 15 days (business, not calendar) of paid vacation every year. You can bank your days to a maximum of 30 days, at which point you stop accumulating days. I had 29 days, so I was forced to take time off, and it had to be this year.

Due to the short notice, I booked a two-week circuit across europe for myself. I already had the idea of visiting europe for the first time, but due to busyness, procrastination, and simple forgetfulness I never did plan my trip. A pre-planned tour looked great, I didn’t have to do a thing, just fork over the cash and go.

The tour I ended up selecting spanned the countries of Spain, France, and Italy. Starting from Madrid, going to Barcelona through Zaragoza. Then going into a cruise ship across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. From the port in Civitavecchia, it went to Rome, then Florence, and Venice. From there, it went to Paris by way of the small town of Anemasse, with a visit to Geneva. And finally back to Madrid by way of the cities of Lourdes and San Sebastián.

It included plane tickets, hotels, transportation, a local guide, and insurance for the whole trip. It did not include any local tours, but it did have a bunch of optional visits to the points of interest of each city. For example, you could purchase the visit to the Vatican in Rome, a walking tour of the Roman fountains, or seeing the night lights of Paris from the Seine river.

It would be operated by a local agency, and all for the low, low price of ~3.500 US dollars one month before the departure date. Looks good, doesn’t it?

The bad

Well, not all was good. See those long stretches between cities? those had to be travelled by bus. Want to guess how long 650 kilometers takes by bus?

Venice to Anemasse

Ow my back

That’s right, 7 hours without stopping, which means about 10 hours with a stop for lunch and the mandatory stops for the bathroom every two and a half hours. From Anemasse to Paris was almost 8 hours. The worst ones were from Paris to Lourdes, taking almost 14 hours, and Lourdes to Madrid, taking another 12 hours.

If you do the math, it means four lost days in the bus. If the tour is supposed to be 14 days, four days means ~30% of the time was lost in transit. And of course, this meant departing every day before 8:00 AM, some days even before 7:00 AM. The rest stops did not have the greatest food in the world, not the worst either. At the end I was calling the bus the “vamp-bus”, as it was sucking all of my energy, I was getting mad / sad, and with my persistent cough and long legs, I couldn’t really sleep through it, at all.

This was my first mistake, not checking how long transit between places takes. It probably was the worst one, as this cascaded into having less time in the places we actually stopped at. Which meant less free time for actually appreciating each place. Which also meant rushing the local tours, as the itinerary was tight. Rushing meant spending all the time looking at the guide, not at the sights, because if you lose sight of the guide in the very crowded spaces we visited, you get in trouble. It also means stopping briefly at each point of interest: 15 minutes in the Colosseum, 10 minutes at the Arc de Triomphe, 15 minutes in the Fontana di Trevi, and so on. I couldn’t actually appreciate much of the places we visited during the day tours (more on this later).

The tight schedule and long distances, made us stop in rather irrelevant places for a circuit across Europe. I don’t mean the places we stopped at are not important or ugly, but that we could have either avoided stopping at those places, or stopped for longer. For example: In Zaragoza we only stopped for lunch, so we could only visit the “Básilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar” and a bit of the old town. Zaragoza is a beautiful city, with many parks and museums. Stopping for a day would have been very gratifying. The same happened in Lourdes: we arrived at 10:00 PM, so the sanctuary was already closed. We left the next morning at 6:30 AM. I at least managed to get some rushed pictures:



My second mistake was not checking if the operator of the “cruise” from Barcelona to Italy was any good. It was not. The cabins were dirty, the beds were hard and small, the bedsheets were thin, and the crew was rude. I hesitate to even call it a cruise ship. It was more like a ferry with a bar and a couple of themed cafeterias.

My third mistake was not checking how long a ship from Barcelona to Italy takes. I was sure Europe was small, but I underestimated the size of the continent. It took almost 24 hours, another lost day. It mostly sucked (also more on this later). I count it as lost time, because if the “cruise” hadn’t sucked, I think I would have enjoyed the experience.

My fourth mistake was not checking how much the optional visits cost outside the agency. Had I purchased them directly it would have costed me about half of what I paid. This left a bad taste in my mouth. To me, it seemed like the operating agency took advantage of us, the tourists.

And finally, my fifth mistake was not to check the hotels we were going to stay at. Most of them weren’t good. All but one were located far from the points of interest (usually 1+ hours away from the city), some of them had uncomfortable beds / pillows, most had below average breakfasts, and one specifically, was so bad I was physically disgusted to sleep there: it had dirty floors and walls, persistent smell of cigarettes, bugs on the bed (not bedbugs, thankfully), and the towels were musty.

I also got sick during the trip, with a bad flu (not COVID, I got tested), so I was coughing for the last half of the tour. I think I got it from the local guide that accompanied us during the trip, who arrived late the first day because of it. Like half of the people in the tour got sick, but I got the sickest of all. I got through it with italian flu pills and cough drops, they were very good to be honest.

But not all of it was bad, au contraire, the rest was excellent.

The good

First of all the price was a sore dick deal, especially after booking it without much lead time. Tickets and hotels have become way more expensive after the plague, so for the price, this was actually not that bad. Cheap tour, remember?

Second of all, the people made the trip very enjoyable. On the second or third day of the tour, we had a group lunch of seafood paella, and I got seated with a group of Mexicans. From this point onwards we did everything together, from going to dinner, to going on late night adventures in Barcelona, Rome, and Paris, to drinking and partying in the " cruise".

Our first “adventure” was in Barcelona, where after lunch we went and walked around the Gothic Quarter, following one of our group who had compulsions to buy every souvenir she could find there. Then we went to all the cool places, cathedrals, and plazas in the Quarter. At the end of the afternoon we had a nice dinner and bought some things for the “cruise” to come.

We arrived at the port around 9:00 PM. We boarded half an hour later, and had a mini adventure looking for our rooms. After looking at the lack of windows in the rooms we decided to go to the bar and wait for the boat to depart. The plan was simple: drink a bottle of wine, wait for the ship to set sail, and go to bed. We didn’t stop with a bottle, it devolved into gin and tonics, beers, and vodka cranberries. Then we made the crew open the “disco” the ship had. This was no easy task, remember I said the crew was rude? Well, they did not want to open it, but with the girls of the group making puppy eyes and with the help of other group of europeans, we managed to convince them. The “party” did not last very long, as the crew made us stop at around 2:00 AM and kicked us out. We finished on one of the cafeterias with music from a cellphone and the last of the alcohol bought. We talked until 5:00 AM.

At around 9:00 AM the loudspeaker announced that breakfast was available, and then again at 9:30. This woke me up, which sucked big time. I think the crew did that on purpose. I took a bath in the cramped showers, and ate what I had bought the day before for breakfast. When I got to the cafeteria I found two couples from our group already up. The rest of the day we talked more about ourselves and finished with taking some pictures at sunset. Those turned out pretty good:

Boat at sunset

Shoutout to Oscar, Laura, Pepe, Erika, Alex, Saúl, Toño, and Elena

One of the best, and most tiring, days of my life started as soon as we got out of the boat. After arriving at the hotel, at around 10:00 PM, we went to a McDonald’s to eat something, and our second “adventure” began. We booked an Uber van to take us to Rome. We arrived at around 11:30 to the Fontana di Trevi, where we were welcomed by a completely empty place:

Fontana di Trevi

If you have ever seen this tourist spot during the day, you know how full it gets. We could take all the pictures and videos we wanted. I even made a video call to show someone the fountain in all it’s splendor. We walked to all the other fountains, obelisks, and historical buildings in the area. It was freaking great.

Steps of Rome

Steps of Rome

The next day, on the city tour we visited the same spots we walked the night before, excluding the Vatican. It was so full of people, we took one and a half hours just walking from place to place, where the night before we could walk from place to place in less than 30 minutes. Due to that we decided to start skipping as many of the tours made during the day as possible. This amounted to a full day in Paris and Madrid, where we could go where we wanted, and so we did. We went shopping in Paris, watched the Eiffel Tower lights as they were turned on, walked by the Seine, went to the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre (I didn’t go inside, that one stays on the bucket list for later), and ate parisian crêpes. Also, great.

Same in Madrid, we went shopping on Black Friday, visited the Christmas markets, the Madrid royal palace, drank mulled wine (it was freezing, something like 3°C), and ate tapas.

I think, this is one of the best things about tours: the people you meet. As you have to be in a group during the trip, you are forced to interact with the same people during an extended period of time. Inevitably cliques tend to form. I even heard that people from another group of our tour literally pissed themselves laughing during their night out in Madrid.

The ugly

Not too much ugliness, maybe the flu I got?. The ugly bits are hidden in the bad things that happened, so I didn’t want to include them in this section. Also, I only wanted to complete the titles.

The end

All in all, it was ok. Maybe more bad than good, but this is one of those experiences that I know I will look back at fondly. Not only because I finally went to europe and crossed many of the items in my “cliché list”, but because of the people I met there. I’ve heard people say that the world is less about what you know, and more about who you know. In my personal, and limited experience, this is true to an extent.

To me, life is supposed to be about the “good” and “bad” bits. The purpose is to live, to experience all this world has to offer: to laugh so much you no longer make a sound, to ugly cry when something gut-wrenching happens, to get irritated at inconsequential things, to be afraid to ask for forgiveness for something you’ve done. I want to experience all, to live a worthy life. This experience of a (cheap) tour is another one of life’s experiences for me, This paragraph may sound really pretentious, but it’s what I think and feel right now.

Hope you liked this story (rant over).

My advice

For future reference, the things I found you have to look out for, or to better enjoy, a (cheap) tour are in no particular order:

  • Check the route first, particularly the time taken in transit between the points of interest. The more time taken in transit equals less time actually visiting places.
  • Confirm with the agency the type of vehicle used for internal transportation. Is it a bus? a van? or a car? This is important to know, because in countries or cities with narrow streets, the larger the vehicle the slower the transit is.
  • Check reviews for the hotels listed. Knowing if the breakfasts are good, if the staff is nice, if beds and pillows are comfortable, etc. makes my trips more enjoyable. Not having to worry if the places we are going to rest are actually good. It’s one less thing to be worried about during the trip.
  • If the tour has a lot of optionals, either: don’t book any of the optionals and enjoy the free time, or if you want to book them, check the price of the activities on sites like TripAdvisor or Expedia, as most of the optionals offered are actually commonly found there. It probably will be cheaper.
  • Check reviews for the operating agency online, or via referrals. Maybe you can avoid having a bad time by knowing beforehand how things worked out for other people.
  • If you travel alone, like I like to do, a tour may be a bit stressful. Following the plan that someone else made, or visiting places you may not be interested in, might make you feel uncomfortable. It’s something to be aware of.
  • If the tour is a cruise, or it includes a cruise, for the love of Superman, check the reviews for the company that operates the cruise. Also don’t forget to check the amenities of the boat you’ll be traveling in, if possible. Depending on the length of the cruise, the amenities become way more important. Being stuck in a boat without much to do is akin to torture.

Would I book another tour in the future? Maybe. If I do, it would probably have to be a more “premium” tour (i.e. more expensive) that offered a more refined itinerary, with better hotels, and in general better things.

And I think that’s it. This is what I learned to do / avoid when booking a tour.