Getting the Best Value from European Tour Packages

Girl taking picture of windmills with smartphone

 Oscar Wong/Getty Images

For many budget travelers, independent travel is the way to go.

They like making their own arrangements, and saving money on those purchases. They enjoy the freedom of making discoveries that have eluded the guidebook writers.

But some budget travelers must find value in coach bus tours and packaged vacation offers. Perhaps they lack the physical ability to manage a budget trip. For some, it makes sense to travel in a group that is interested in the same things or shares similar beliefs. And there are times when group tours can result in lower prices when visiting expensive destinations.

So let's consider how to get the best value from European tour packages.

It pays to price some of the major components of the trip independently. Check out the airfare, the cost of moderate-to-luxury hotels, meals, ground transportation and guide services. Armed with this knowledge, you can make better choices on the packages available for a given trip.

Groups get price breaks on hotel rooms and meals. In many parts of Europe, that can be a big budget assist.

Read on, and consider other benefits coach bus tours provide.

01 of 07

Look for Trips Built Around a Theme

The Eagle and Child, part of a C.S. Lewis tour in the United Kingdom.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Group tours can be even more valuable with a well-defined focus. The 28-day grand tour of Europe generally isn't going to be as memorable as a shorter trip that shows off unique attractions.

The picture here was taken in Oxford, England at the Eagle and Child. If you're familiar with the author C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), you probably know that he convened an informal round table of writers in the 1930s and 1940s known as The Inklings. They met at this very restaurant to discuss literature, critique their writing projects and enjoy some camaraderie.

This stop was part of a 13-day tour I took that showcased the life of Lewis, starting at his birthplace in Belfast, Northern Ireland and tracing his years as a student, professor and author. The narrow focus of this trip made it more memorable than an open-ended tour of the British Isles.

Many of the sites and memories from this excursion had no relation to C.S. Lewis. But the structure of the trip added value.

Read on and discover another benefit -- shared interests with friends.

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02 of 07

Travel with People You Know

It's always best to travel with people who share common interests.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

It's not always possible to book a European tour with your closest friends. But the opportunity -- if it comes -- is well worth strong consideration because of the value that's added to your expenditures.

Many of the 18 people on my C.S. Lewis trip were already friends, and the remaining travelers quickly became new friends.

I share common values and interests with these folks. We wanted to explore the same things.

That makes a big difference on a coach bus tour.

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03 of 07

Budget for Expenses Not Included in Tour Price

Always budget for expenses not included in the tour price.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

When you've settled on the destination and travel group, it's time to dig into the details of the proposed itinerary.

This involves much more than saying "it's the 6th, so we must be in Durham." It means looking closely at what's included in your tour price, and what experiences require additional funds.

On many European tour packages, you'll find that breakfast is always included. On some days, lunch and dinner is included as well. But there will be nights when you are on your own. Want to try that wonderful steak house in London? You'll get your chance, but you'd better know how much it will cost. The same holds true for area attractions that aren't on the official itinerary, but warrant a visit during free time.

Read on -- the same holds true for admission fees.

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04 of 07

Find Out if Admission Fees are Covered

Always find out if admission fees are covered in your tour.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Good European tour packages allow for "free time." You'll have several hours in each destination to explore your own interests. Naturally, any attraction you visit apart from the group will result in additional expense.

During the tour itself, admissions generally are paid in advance as part of the overall price tag.

But if there is something on that list you are counting on visiting, find out what level of admission is included. Will you have enough time at that location to fully enjoy it? Is there a chance the attraction could be bypassed at the last minute if a majority of the group wants to go somewhere else? These are questions the tour company should be able to answer before booking.

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05 of 07

Investigate the Coach Bus Company

Take stock of the bus companies your tour will employ.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

Apart from the vendors in each city, your European tour package could involve three separate businesses: a tour company, a coach bus operation and an individual tour guide. In some cases, the bus operation hires its own guides.

On the C.S. Lewis trip, we were served by a driver who had recently been named among the best in Britain. The company assigned our 18-member group a bus with 64 seats, which resulted in plenty of space for everyone to relax between stops. The bus itself was fresh from the factory and equipped with toilet facilities. But it doesn't always work out this well.

Sometimes, tour companies will cut corners by hiring a smaller coach and unproven drivers. Ask about these matters before booking to ensure a comfortable trip. Get the name of the coach bus operation and search that name for possible reviews.

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06 of 07

Look Beyond Star Ratings - Get Hotel Names

Look beyond star ratings to get accurate reviews of the hotels on the tour.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

The room pictured here is on the top floor of the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel in Belfast. The furnishings are new and contemporary. There is ample space -- a luxury in many European hotels. There was also a sweeping view of central Belfast and the nearby hills. The hotel was within walking distance of many city attractions.

It's not exactly a budget travel accommodation, but it was included in the price of the tour. As one might expect, however, the experiences varied during our two-week, 1,300-mile trip.

One of the hotels was in the midst of a large renovation project. A few lacked air conditioning in the midst of warm summer temperatures. Wi-Fi offerings were varied.

For me, these issues were not deal-breakers. Such variations are to be expected.

But you should make certain that all of the hotels offer good dining facilities, breakfast and a central location to major attractions.

If the tour company can't furnish you with a list of hotels well in advance of the trip, ask for an explanation and prepare to look elsewhere.

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07 of 07

Find Tour Guide Credentials

Check the credentials of your tour guides.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

David is based in London but knows a great deal about attractions throughout England. The former geography and history teacher has passed a rigorous, two-year program of certification as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide. He speaks French and English.

What kind of credentials will your guide present?

It pays to find out how guides in your proposed European tour package are trained. You'll spend up to eight hours a day with these guides. A good guide is expected, but a great guide such as David will add more value to your trip.

One final point: check to see that a reasonable gratuity is included in your tour price. If not, it might be an indication the company is cutting corners on guide quality. And if a guide offers exceptional service, don't be afraid to offer an additional tip.

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