Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Independent Travel vs. Tour Travel

On Tuesday, Jesse and I returned from a two-week trip to Spain and Ireland.  We first planned the trip back in August when my aunt and uncle showed up at the family reunion with information about a week-long tour of Ireland.  They had been trying to organize a family trip to Ireland - we have Irish roots - for several years, but although people expressed interest, it never quite seemed to happen.  So, they said, "Hey, we're going.  If you want to go, too, then here's the information."  Jesse and I decided to go along, mostly to make the memories with my aunt and uncle.

Jesse wanted to add on to the trip and go somewhere else.  His philosophy - and it's a good one - is that if you are going to spend all that money to fly over the ocean, you might as well make it worth your while.  Flying internally in Europe is a heck of a lot cheaper than flying to Europe from the United States, so it makes sense to capture a couple of different sights while you're there.

In March, he settled on Spain, which was somewhere that I always wanted to go.  Of course, a large part of why I wanted to go was for the wine, but being nearly 7 months pregnant, I had to settle for churros and palmeritas.  I got by.

Our time in Spain was our own.  We spent four days there before flying to Ireland and three more days there after flying back from Ireland.  We did not have a tour guide or any set schedule.  We planned a two-day trip to Salamanca and spent the rest of our time in Madrid.

With the exception of two days during our week-long visit to India in 2010, we had never done a guided tour before.  Our first day on the tour, we took a ride around Dublin and saw some of the major sights, which would have pretty cool except that we happened to be seated across the aisle from one of the more annoying people the world has to offer and directly behind a couple from Canada who talked so slowly and deliberately it made us want to leap over the seat and throttle the words out of them.  (Part of this was due to excessive drinking later that evening - on their part, not ours - which exaggerated the slow talker effect.)

Fortunately, the tour company rotated our seats during the trip, so we were never forced to deal with these particular people for very long after that first day.  The rest of our seatmates were delightful.

However, it did not take long for us to both decide that tour travel is not for us.  When you travel with a tour, you have to conform to their schedule.  For us, that meant waking up every morning by 6:30 and having our bags all packed and waiting outside the door by 7:30 at the latest so that the hotel porters could pick them up and stow them on the bus for our departure.  We would then all be herded into the breakfast room at a designated time, usually between 7 and 7:30, where we would spend the entire breakfast checking and rechecking our watches to make sure we had time to go back up to our rooms to grab our hand bags and get back down to the bus before its scheduled departure.

Wherever we stopped, we were on a schedule.  It makes it difficult to relax when you are constantly watching the time to see if you need to be headed back to the bus.  And while I enjoyed our time in Dublin, I could have spent another full day there seeing the sights that I did not get to see.

On the other hand, when we went to Salamanca, there were a few sights that we wanted to check out while we were there.  One was the famed Salamanca frog, which is carved into the side of a University of Salamanca building and promises good luck to all who find it.  Another was the beautiful Puente Romano, which offers a beautiful view of Salamanca, as well as a pathway to a much less touristy part of town.  We also climbed the 198 stairs to the top of another university building, which seemed like quite a feat for my pregnant self until a week later when I climbed to the top of Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone.

In Madrid, we traveled all over the city, usually via the Madrid Metro system, which is amazingly fast.  We got to see many different neighborhoods.  Just like New York City, different areas of Madrid have very different feels to them.  We visited Sol, a very touristy area near Palacio Real, as well as Bilbao, where there are some fabulous restaurants, and the area around the gorgeous Parque Retiro.  We also happened across my husband's firm's Madrid office near one of the city's train station, which is always fun.  (We have now seen PWC Zurich, PWC Madrid, and PWC Dublin.  We know how to party when we're on vacay.)

All in all, we were certainly glad we took the trip, but when it came down to it, what we enjoyed most was the time with my aunt and uncle and the opportunity to share the experience with them.  Had we not gone with them, the tour concept would have been wasted on us.  We do plan to work on getting the two of them to do some non-tour travel with us in the near future because they were a lot of fun.

To sum up the debate on independent travel versus tour travel, I will say that if you are the kind of person who needs someone to tell you when to get up and go, as well as someone to take you there in a sheltered environment, then by all means, do the tour.  It will be much less stressful for you, and after all, you are on vacation.  If that is what you need to feel relaxed, then go for it because the extra money you spend to have all the details taken care of for you will pay off.  However, if you want to be in control of your time and get a bigger bang for your buck, then I highly suggest you forego the tour travel and plan the whole thing yourself.  You will save money, and you will be the one who decides when it's time to leave.  Be smart about it and book hotels that will allow you to cancel on short notice.  Then, if you decide Dublin needs one more day, you can take it.


  1. Great blog! I always like reading about travel experiences. . .but I felt wheezy after reading about those 198 steps -- and you are pregnant doing that, whew!

    I'm definitely in the no-tour group boat, at least for the western hemisphere. It usually is pretty doable to get around Europe, with great transportation systems and many English-speaking people. Your blog made me want so much to return!

  2. The 198 steps were accomplished with quite a few rest breaks, but they turned out to be pretty easy compared to the winding, narrow stairs of Blarney Castle.

    You really should make a trip. Perhaps your kiddos could stay with us.