We took a Trafalgar tour with my parents to the UK and Ireland. This post will describe how a Trafalgar tour works and what I thought they did well, and what could be improved.
First off, I am not really their target audience. Trafalgar sets up their tours so that you do/see as much as possible, while not requiring anyone to do anything strenuous. Luggage is delivered to the hotel room each night, and the amount of walking and stairs is small and well described before each stop. This attracts an older clientele, and Trafalgar caters to their tastes in some ways.
That being said, there was a lot of flexibility to make the trip what I wanted it to be. There are a lot of optional activities (at an extra cost) and free time. At most of the tour stops there are multiple types of activities: museums, shopping, cafes, etc.
There were fifty people on our tour bus. Fifty people is a lot. Even if everyone was fully mobile (they weren’t), it takes a while to get fifty people off a bus and to a site. Having fifty people trying to do the same thing at the same time was the cause of nearly every problem on the tour:
- Fifty people is too many for a restaurant to serve at once and do a good job.
- Fifty people don’t fit into a room at a museum.
- With fifty people, there is a good chance that one of them is going to be late, or drunk, or sick, or upset.
- I’m not going to like all fifty people.
We really had quite good luck in terms of lateness. The bus was never delayed more than ten minutes by someone sleeping in or getting lost.
The cost of the tour itself was $225 per person per day. That included the hotel, transportation and any sights the tour covered. It always included a full breakfast, 1/3 of the dinners and never included lunch.
The hotels were always nice and centrally located.
We got onto the tour bus at 8am most every day and we ended around 6pm. If there was a dinner, that lasted till 8 or 9. Occasionally we would get an afternoon off. The tour was setup so that you never had to take transportation besides the bus, so the bus always started and ended at the hotels.
To get the luggage onto the bus, we had to set our bags outside our room at 7am. To avoid oversleeping, they scheduled a wake-up call for all the rooms at 6am. Two hours is a lot of time to get ready and eat in the morning. If you didn’t like their schedule, you could change the wake-up call, and even carry your own bags down. We usually just followed their schedule, but we’d probably have been better off getting an extra hour of sleep and then rushing a bit.
Most days on the tour, you could add an ‘optional’ excursion to the plan. This was at extra cost and often included dinner. I did about 1/2 of the optionals, but skipped most of the optional meals. This is one of the ways that the tour is customizable. This let people decided which activities were worth the cost, and when it would be better to have free time. Unfortunately, there were a few of the optional excursions where there wasn’t really anything for the other people to do.
One problem with the optionals was it was hard to know what would happen if you didn’t go on the optional. Another problem was that you had to decide which optionals you were going on near the start of the trip. For example: one of the optionals was a carriage ride through a park. I skipped it thinking that I could rent a bike or walk through the park instead. As it turned out, the bus dropped us a couple miles from the park into a dull city.
I was generally happy with the choices that I made for the optionals and it is a great way to allow people to customize their vacation. In fact, it would probably improve the trip to make a few more included things optional and to add more optional museum tours.
The breakfasts were generally very good. The buffets had good variety and quality. The only problems with breakfast were not related to the food: Some hotels had a wait-to-be-seated system that was overwhelmed by the size of our group. Other hotels would block off a set of tables that technically had enough seats, but often required sitting with other people on the tour and occasionally split up travelling companions.
Lunch was never included, but there was always at least an hour provided in an area with restaurants. Sometimes the guide would suggest a particular restaurant, but the best bet was to pick something far enough away from the bus stop so that our fellow travelers wouldn’t show up.
When dinner was included, it was always a three course meal from a limited menu: typically three to five choices per course. There were one or two drinks plus coffee/tea included. The food was always fine, but never great.
Unfortunately, serving 50 people requires some compromises. One was the limited menus. Another was that we usually had to pre-order. The food would then come out by type, and people had to remember what they had ordered. This worked when we ordered at the restaurant, but a couple times we had to call in the order, and in both cases people couldn’t remember what they had ordered and took the wrong items.
The included drink was also from a limited selection: house white/red wine, a couple of the tap beers and soft drinks. When two drinks were included, the restaurant didn’t make the effort to keep track of the drinks per person and instead kept a total for our group. As you would expect, that caused issues.
My main complaint about the included meal was the timing. We finished eating at 8 or 9 and needed to go to bed at least by 10 to get enough sleep before the 6am wake-up call. That meant that I went to bed full anytime dinner was included.
The bus was very comfortable. The temperature was fine, the driver kept the floors and seats cleaned and the windows washed. They had a great system of rotating the seating (move clockwise 3 rows per day) so that you didn’t always sit in the same place on the bus. The bus had a bathroom that was ‘for emergencies’ as there were plenty of stops.
There were a couple of problems with the bus. One is that you were in-front or behind the same people everyday. If those people were loud, you were stuck with them. We were lucky to be seated around quiet people. The other problem was that they played one movie and one TV episode on the bus entertainment system. These were both awful (‘The Quite Man’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’) and since it was on all the TVs and the PA, I couldn’t ignore them. There was also supposed to be on-bus WiFi, but that worked for the first 10 minutes and never again on the trip.
Some of the time we would do sightseeing from the bus. In these cases, we would have a guide who would point out the sites. This was the least satisfying, especially when trying to get a photo.
Other times we would all get off the bus and all go to a site. Usually we would be on our own to explore the site, but occasionally there would be a guided tour. The guided tours were generally good. We had little radio boxes so that you could always hear the guide.
The third option would be to get dropped off in a city and have some amount of free time before getting back on the bus.
There were a few ‘sightseeing’ stops that were pretty lack-luster. We stopped at a couple of grave-sites where there wasn’t much else to do, and there were a couple stops where the only thing to do was shop. Part of the problem was just having to come up with something to do on days where we needed to cover a lot of distance. When I am on my own, I know that some days are just going to be travel days. But Trafalgar had to make everyday sound interesting.
We were supposed to tip each special guide, the overall tour guide and the bus driver. I didn’t really see this as an optional thing, but there wasn’t much pressure. There was actually less tipping than I expected, but I’d still prefer it be included in the price. I’d say that the ‘expected’ tip added $9 per day to the price of the trip. This is pretty insignificant but meant extra effort to get local currency sooner and keep small change handy.
Being happy on the Trafalgar tour required a certain mindset that took me a couple days to attain. Part of it is an acceptance of certain, unavoidable, delays: It is going to take a few minutes to get off the bus and a few more minutes to gather everyone so that the tour can start. There are going to be some stops that are just filler so that people can go to the bathroom and get lunch. People are going to have dumb questions, problems, and need things repeated. And with 50 people, it’s going to happen all the time.
The other thing that really helped was to not plan too far ahead. There wasn’t enough information about the exact time we would be arriving, how long we would be staying, and where the bus would park, to accurately plan what I wanted to do at a site/city before getting there. If I planned too much, I’d just be disappointed.
When I compare this Trafalgar trip with a similar trip to Belgium that we did without a tour, there are advantages and disadvantages. We definitely saw more things on the Belgium tour. And the things that we saw were more aligned with our interests. We also ate better. On the other hand, this trip was a lot easier to plan and was more relaxing. It is hard to overstate how much planning and decision making have to be done for a group of four or six to travel to a foreign country for two weeks. Trafalgar made the big decisions about which cities to see and how long to spend in each one. They picked all the hotels and arranged almost all the transportation.
- Would I take another tour? If we are traveling alone, then no, certainly not. But I would not rule it out for traveling with my family.
- Would I take another Trafalgar tour? No. I’d pay more money to travel with a smaller group next time.
- Would I recommend Trafalgar? Depends. I know people who would love it. Trafalgar works very hard to create a good experience under very tough circumstances. If I were in their position, there are very few changes that I would make. All the Trafalgar employees that I dealt with were good and seemed to care.