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A toast to the tour where you get most of what you hope for

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard P. Carpenter
Globe Staff / February 20, 2005

"I don't like tours," my neighbor has said more than once. The other day, she returned from Australia and New Zealand -- countries she visited on a tour.

Welcome to reality. Even many naysayers realize there are times when group tours make more sense than individual exploration. Sometimes it's the savings, sometimes it's the ease of getting around, sometimes it's both. In any event, those who haven't toured in years, or perhaps never, may be in for a pleasant surprise. Tours have changed for the better since the days of "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium." The improvements still don't mean such outings are for everyone, but let's look at the highs and lows of today's group tours.

You save -- sometimes. Because tour providers buy tickets and reservations in bulk, they can pass some of their savings on to you. They also buy months in advance and can lock in a rate. When contemplating whether to go by tour or by yourself, start toting up the probable cost of flights and other transportation, hotels, meals, taxes, and entertainment, then compare that with the $1,000-$3,000 that most tours typically cost. For instance, an 11-day, three-island exploration of Hawaii from Perillo Tours costs somewhere around $3,000, including air fare from your home city. It also includes interisland air fares, Hyatt and Sheraton hotels, 19 meals, taxes, wine with dinner, three cocktail parties, several tours, and a few shows.

Be aware, though, that all tours aren't cheaper than travel on your own, especially if you're booking with a high-end company that offers loads of luxury and individual attention. A while back, freelance writers Timothy Leland and Julie Hatfield compared the price of a do-it-yourself biking tour of the Alsace with one by Butterfield & Robinson. Even though they spent two nights at the same luxury hotels the tour company booked, their land-only cost was $1,786; the tour company's would have been $7,990 per couple.

You get where you want to go. A former colleague recalls how on a trip to England with her significant other, her daily refrain was something like, "They drive on the left here -- and those cars are coming right at us!" Beyond the left-right factor, however, is the problem of getting lost in your rental car or figuring out the local transportation system, and the time lost doing either. Yes, you might meet friendly and helpful people while struggling to get somewhere, but a professional driver who knows where he or she is going, especially when great distances are involved, can be an invaluable asset.

You might learn something. Travel is educational all by itself, but a knowledgeable guide can make it much more so, pointing out sites you might have missed and spouting facts you may not have known. True, some guides have been known to fake it, supplying a fact or answering a question with "information" plucked out of their imaginations, but such ringers are fewer and fewer. Also, if you go on a specialized tour, such as one that concentrates on the history or food of a region, a guide may be the most valuable part of your tour. I am still reveling in the many facts I learned during a tour a couple of years ago of World War II sites in Europe.

You do have time on your own. Gone -- well, mostly gone -- are those tours where you seldom leave the bus, peeping out the window as you whiz through several countries in a week. Today's tours build in time for shopping, relaxing, breaking away from the group. Even devoted tour veterans appreciate that. While not every tour gives you an in-depth look at a country or city, you do spend enough time, and see enough, to decide whether you'd like to come back on your own someday.

Then there are the disadvantages. All right, you've saved money, avoided getting lost, learned a lot, and snagged some nice souvenirs. But you had to do so on a bus or van with people you didn't know and might not necessarily have chosen for travel companions, or even liked. (To be fair, you might find you like some of the people very much; lifelong friendships have started on a tour.) While today's tours try to build in some flexibility, someone else still decided what you should see and how long you should spend in a given place. Face it, there is also the snob factor: Telling your friends you took a tour doesn't quite compare to telling them you wandered through an exotic land on your own, befriending the locals wherever you went.

In the end, more than the money or the convenience, the deciding factor in whether you are a "tour person" may be an intangible: Do you feel more relaxed, secure, and happy when someone is providing a helping hand while leading the way, or more of a true traveler when you strike out on your own, difficulties be damned?

Mohegan specialsThe Mohegan Sun resort and casino in Uncasville, Conn., has a series of specials. Among them:

The Escape offers a $15 dining coupon and $10 free bet per person. Rates are $69.99 per person or $154 per room per night. The Getaway includes a $70 dining coupon and $15 free bet per person. Rates are $129 per person or $272 per room. Romance features a $100 dining coupon and $20 free bet per person along with an in-room bottle of champagne upon arrival. Rates are $179 per person or $372 per room. The packages, which include tax, are available to guests 21 and older Sundays through Thursdays.

Call 888-777-7922 or visit www.mohegansun.com.

It's free -- if you winRoyal Caribbean International is giving away six family cruises for up to 12 people. Enter the sweepstakes before Feb. 28 at www.royalcaribbean.com.

Wining and diningFour northeastern Connecticut bed-and-breakfasts, known as the Historic Inns of the Quiet Corner, have teamed with the Harvest Restaurant in Pomfret to offer winter/spring packages for food and wine lovers. One of them is the two-night Wine Pairings Dinner & Romantic Getaway, starting at $425 a couple and including lodging, a three-course dinner with wine pairings, afternoon tea at Mrs. Bridge's Pantry in Putnam, an herbal cookbook, and all taxes and tips. Lodging is at Celebrations Inn in Pomfret (www.celebrationsinn.com, 877-928-5492), Daniel Trowbridge House in Pomfret (www.danieltrowbridgehouse.com, 860-974-3622), Friendship Valley Inn in Brooklyn (www.friendshipvalleyinn.com, 860-779-9696), and Mansion at Bald Hill in Woodstock (www.mansionatbaldhill.com, 860-974-3456). Available through April 15.

When not included, hotel taxes, airport fees, and port charges can add significantly to the price of a trip. Most prices quoted are for double occupancy; solo travelers will usually pay more. Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at carpenter@globe.com.

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