SHOULD YOU TAKE A BUS TOUR? THE POSITIVES AND THE NEGATIVES
Since my parents met on a Topdeck tour in the late eighties, I’d always felt a lot of curiosity about bus tours as a form of travel (mostly because I wouldn’t exist otherwise!) In 2014 I took the Iberian Coast tour with Topdeck; a 2 week trip through Spain, Portugal and Morocco, which was a fantastic experience.
Since then I have had many people ask me for the low-down on bus tours, and the truth is that like any form of travel, bus tours have quite a list of pros and cons. As strange as it sounds, it’s a situation where the positives can also be negatives depending on your travel preferences. It really comes down to what you want from a trip, and this of course can change over time and with each travel destination.
Since I have only travelled with the one company I am aware that my experience might not be a reflection of everyone’s, but here are a few pointers which might help you decide whether a bus tour is right for you.
IT’S A GREAT WAY TO SEE A LOT IN A SHORT SPACE OF TIME – IF WHAT YOU WANT IS A WHISTLE-STOP TOUR
Traditionally, although it does depend on the individual trip, bus tours aim to take you to lots of different countries or cities for the duration, rather than staying in one area. This means it’s unusual to spend more than 2-3 days in any particular location.
If you’re someone who is completely new to a region or country, this is one of the best ways to get a taste of what it has to offer. I loved having the opportunity to mentally bookmark cities I wanted to visit again for longer (Lisbon, I’m talking to you!) with the foresight of knowing I would enjoy the destination and had a good idea of it had to offer.
At the same time, if you’re someone who likes to really immerse yourself in one city or country, or simply wants a slower-paced trip this time around, then a bus tour might not be the best bet; with group excursions and travel time, it’s very difficult to fit in any in-depth exploration.
BE MINDFUL OF WHAT IS INCLUDED AND WHAT ARE ‘OPTIONAL EXTRAS’
Bus tours seem like incredible value and they can be – sometimes. This comes down to a variety of factors: the time of year, the length of the trip, the kind of accommodation, the countries visited etc. It’s important to read each itinerary carefully to make sure you know what is covered and what isn’t. Some might have many of the meals included for example, whilst others don’t.
Some of the planned activities also might not be included in the final trip price; my entry into the Alhambra Palace in Granada was covered, whilst surfing lessons in Portugal cost 60 euros on top, which was paid on the day. There is often a subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to take part with group activities and FOMO kicks in, so it’s easy to end up spending WAY more than you planned.
It’s important to budget for these extras, even if you aren’t sure if you want to do them at the time of booking. You don’t want to change your mind and have to skip a night out to make up for it!
HAVING A PRE-DETERMINED ITINERARY
I personally think that this is the most divisive part of bus tours – people either love the idea of not having to plan out a trip, or hate it because it’s one of their favourite parts of the travel experience. That being said, during long-term travel it can be really nice to hand the reins to someone else for a bit; we all know planning can be time-consuming and stressful! Bus tours really allow you to relax and go with the flow because your attention isn’t focused on day-to-day planning.
Of course, this doesn’t always leave you with much room for manoeuvre in terms of pursuing your own bucket list – although there are free half-days here and there, they might not be in the locations you would like them. Also, if you want to spend your free-time with a group of people, this can mean compromising on how you want to spend it!
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Remember that the duration of the trip and the places it covers have advantages and disadvantages in themselves!
I would argue that Europe is the best place to do a bus trip, with low visa restrictions and a lot of diversity with short travelling distances. Southeast Asia is a place which on the whole is better suited to the traditional backpacking style, especially as infrastructure is a lot weaker.
If you are a fledgling solo traveller in any particular region however, a bus tour is a great way to dip your toe in the water. In my case, Morocco was perfect to explore on a group tour with a leader who knew the cities we visited and could give advice on customs and safety. As a result, it’s a country which I definitely plan to go back to for a longer period!
BIGGER (OR LONGER) DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN BETTER
It’s very tempting to go all-out and book a 2 month adventure, but hold fire: the trip style can change drastically depending on the duration. Long trips are typically structured by stitching together the company’s smaller trips into one, meaning that they take on a much more ‘hop on, hop off’ vibe where people might only book on for a week or two weeks of a larger tour. There is a constantly changing group of travellers, rather than everyone being together from beginning to end as is the case on shorter trips.
Again, whether this is good or bad comes down to personal preference – the constant opportunity to meet new people might be exactly what you are looking for, but if you are hoping to form stronger friendships (or more!) on your trip then this may be more difficult on a longer duration.
Have any of you ever been on a bus tour? If so, where did you go and what advice would you give someone? Please comment below!