It would be great to have a friend in every part of a country so that you could travel around in a car, to the best areas, during low tourist time, stopping at the hidden gems for refreshment, seeing things only locals know about, all while being economical, informative and fun. But for the rest of us a bus tour is about the closest we’re going to get. Sure, I don’t particularly enjoy looking like a tourist, rolling up to a crowded parking lot, getting off the bus with sixty other foreigners and trying to take pictures with hundreds of tourists crowded around. I often feel bad for the locals and the bus driver.
I try not to look at tours in such a dim light. If you only have a few days in one area, consider a bus tour for at least one of those days. The bus driver is informative, knowledgable if you have extra questions, they’re usually quite entertaining and you get to see a lot for your moment. You can also enjoy the scenery much better and drivers know about roads, traffic and parking. It’s a stress-free way to travel. Some of you don’t need convincing on this front, but if you’ve had a so-so experience try another bus tour and see if that was just a one off.
When I’m somewhere new, I like to take a bus tour to get an overview of the area and hear the stories and history that has made it what it is today. Then I know where I was to revisit and spend more time. My first time to Scotland I took a bus tour to the Highlands from Edinburgh. There was no way I would ever, either then or now, be able to see that much on my own. The driver took us on a loop from the West Highlands to the East and back down. When I looked on a map that night I was so surprised. I learned from that trip where I like to be the most and have always thought that tour worth every penny.
Tours are especially wonderful if you have no idea about the culture, history or important sites of a country. It can be helpful to study up a little beforehand so you can have a general idea, but sometimes it’s best to just let the scenery overwhelm you when you see it for the very first time. You can always look up information afterwards. I find that later on I’ll see something on a place or part of history I learned about from a bus tour and it seems so very real.
You don’t have to follow the crowd on the bus. If you stop at a site in a town, you can always walk around town. Try eating somewhere other than suggested and shop down the street, you might discover more interesting things and get a perspective of how locals live.
Although you might prefer being around people from the place you are visiting, chances are you’ll find people from all over the world on your tour. If you go during off peak times you’ll have a better chance of being with people from that country or a nearby country, because, after all, it’s their heritage and they like to see it as well. Say you are in Cornwall in March and you do a local tour, you might discover that there are some travels from Scotland or Northern England on board. If you really would like to tour with people from the country you’re in, you can dig a little deeper and find tours geared towards locals. You’ll likely have to meet up at a smaller town or even village.
You may be touring with a bunch of strangers from different cultures who travel in a different way than you do. Some, who I think are very brave, do not know a language that can be understood by others. For example, I was on a tour buy in Northern Ireland where about 80% of the group was from China and only one man, who was at a conference and had brought his whole family along, sweet, spoke English. There is a universal understanding of a smile and a wave, so put it to use, and be helpful when you can. Imagine being in a foreign country yourself and not knowing even a shred of the language. Generally everyone is polite and the short distances on the bus are filled with local music or the bus driver’s informative banter so don’t be deterred. The best advice is to take everything in your stride. Enjoy the scenery and stories, and don’t get upset about anything else. You don’t want to ruin your tour because of something exterior. When you get back you’ll have lovely pictures and you won’t remember the little annoyances of bus tours.
Before you book a tour read about what others have had to say. There are usually several companies who do the same or similar tours and you might find that one is rated higher than another. Or one might have smaller groups.
The other thing about buses worth mentioning is that tour buses have the capacity to store your luggage for the day. So if you are thinking about a tour, but you need to check out of your hotel or make a tight connection, having all your luggage right there will make all the difference.
Tours have rules about being on time to the bus at stops along the way. Some drivers even pick up stranded tourist who’ve lost track of time and got left behind. Make sure you stick together if you are in a group and that enough people keep track of the time. A few minutes late and the driver is likely to wait, ten or more and you are in the danger zone. On occasion you’ll find a wonderful driver who will look hither and yon for you and get you back on the bus, even if it’s half an hour, or sometimes mores. But that makes the driver late and he or she will have to shorter up their tour somewhere to get everyone back on time. Some of the people on your tour might have to make a connection and can’t be late.