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Europe on your own

Europe group tours travel bus escorted package Rick Steves interview solo tourists

ABOVE: Most European tour buses are more comfortable than the "Granny Bus" in Cancun, but why be crammed into a coach with other foreigners when you can mingle with locals on the train?

If you've never traveled to Europe, the idea of coping with unfamiliar customs and foreign languages can seem overwhelming. It's easy to throw in the towel and book an escorted tour package, or to tour the Continent with half a dozen friends.

But before you surrender to the "safety in numbers" myth, ask yourself a few questions:

When you travel in a group, much of your time is spent in social interaction--sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not. The bickering couple in row 12 of the tour bus, the hosteler who always whines about getting the upper bunk, and the old friends who constantly discuss life back home can't help distracting you from the purpose of your trip: seeing Europe.

Europe may sound exotic if you've never been there, but millions of travelers arrive on the Continent with nothing more than a suitcase and an Arthur Frommer guidebook every year. If you can find your way to Chicago on a Greyhound bus, you can handle London, Paris, or Amsterdam by yourself or with a companion.

If you're traveling completely on your own and are worried about being lonely, ask the tourist office of the country or city you're visiting if it offers a "Meet the locals" program. (It's best to check before you leave home, since it may take a few days to set up a visit.) Local churches, synagogues, and mosques are great meeting places for religious visitors. And if you belong to a service or fraternal organization--Rotary, for example--you can count on a friendly welcome from your colleagues overseas.

When you travel in a group, you give up much of your individual freedom. You want to visit the Cabinet War Rooms in London; the tour leader has you booked for Westminster Abbey. You'd like to spend a day in the Louvre; your van companions would rather hang out on the Left Bank. You hate shopping; the couple you're sharing a car with insist on visiting every clothing store between Milan and Rome. Is this your idea of the ideal vacation?

Granted, some tourists do have good reasons for traveling in groups. High-school students need chaperones, the elderly and infirm may enjoy the convenience of luggage transfers, and travelers with special interests (such as archaeology or animal husbandry) may find it worthwhile to enroll in programs geared to their tastes. But most first-time visitors to Europe will be just as safe, comfortable, and happy traveling as they would at home.


For a different point of view on solo vs. independent travel, read:

Rick Steves on Group Travel (Interview)
The guidebook author and TV travel host talks about escorted tours. Also see our related review of his book, Postcards from Europe.