Tour good for first time in Europe

BUS tour. There, I've said it – and I know what you are thinking. It was the reaction I received from more than just a few friends when I told them my better half, Donna, and I had booked ourselves on Trafalgar's 24-day European Heritage Tour.

After the initial expression of envy, the comments were fairly consistent.

Buses are uncomfortable. You don't get to choose where and when to stop, or how long you stay there. Many of the sights you want to visit are not standard. Generally, they thought we would be trapped in a bus for 24 days with a bunch of strangers.

Guess what? In a way, we were!

But by the time we completed our trip, the others were hardly strangers and, while we had to stick to the tour's timetable, we were hardly trapped.

Look at it from our point of view.

As much as we love travelling, neither of us had been north of the Equator.

All our holidays had been in our own corner of the world – Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, Bali and, in my case, a working trip to Vanuatu. All beautiful, but then consider this ...

The poster in the travel agency window offered 10 European countries in 24 days, with stops including Venice, Rome and, of course, Paris. It was like an engraved invitation and, even though we had just agreed over lunch to use the extended leave owed to us doing the great Aussie road trip, this was just too tempting.

Further investigation discovered we could include the Vatican City – diplomatically a separate country in its own right – and that the countries promised did not include England, despite the tour beginning and ending in London. Throw in a stopover at Inchon, South Korea, on the way and we faced visiting 13 countries in five weeks.

Who would turn that down?

We couldn't, so it was off to England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy, Monaco, Spain and France.

OK, some of the cons were only too true. We barely saw Belgium – simply a motorway and a toilet stop on the way from Calais to Amsterdam – and I would only recommend Lourdes to friends with greater religious fervour than we have.

Yes, some days on the bus seemed incredibly long and it was true the better-known attractions were on the extras list.

But most of the major stops were for two nights, so you usually had a full day in each, including a few hours each day in which to do your own thing – even longer if you chose to sightsee on your own and go without the extras.

As we were unsure if we would ever make it to that part of the world again, Donna and I went for the whole package. Not only did it increase the number of wonderful sights, it came with a few unexpected bonuses.

In Rome, Barcelona and Paris, local guides were employed to ensure we received the maximum holiday in the short time available. They knew where to go, how to get there and, in the case of the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum, that tour groups jumped the queue!

If the local guides were handy, the word hardly covered the value of our tour director. It's more than handy to have someone who not only knows something about everything you're going to see but, when visiting so many countries, it helps if they can speak the local lingo.

To fit in with the name of the tour, we saw some castles, palaces, more than a few cathedrals, basilicas, chapels and churches in general, while the cultural entertainment ranged from piano accordion sing-a-longs in the hills above Innsbruck to chamber music in Vienna, opera in Rome, flamenco in Barcelona, a mix of comedy and traditional music in Madrid and last, but certainly not least, a visit to La Nouvelle Eve: home of the can can and just down the road from the famous Moulin Rouge.

The final pluses were: you didn't have to seek accommodation and the tour price included all breakfasts and half the evening meals. OK, tours are not cheap. By the time we paid for the tour, airfares, extras and spending money, we had little change from $20,000.

The dollar was not as strong last winter so we lost a little in the exchange rate but, at the same time, the cost of fuel alone was about $A1.85 per litre so I'm not sure we would have saved much travelling on our own.

In the final analysis, yes, there were times when we might have wanted to go our own way. In fact, should we re-visit Europe in the future, we probably will do just that.

But, for first-timers, I would recommend a tour as your best chance to see as much as you can with plenty of friendly assistance.

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