Coach trips make for unique European experience

I once took a nine-countries-in-10-days European motorcoach tour and lived to tell the tale. All I needed when I got home was a holiday. In almost every way, the trip lived up to the kind of rollicking adventure portrayed in a very funny Suzanne Pleshette movie you might remember called: If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.

The film was a clever spoof of whirlwind tours in which the passing scenery becomes one big blur as participants leapfrog across Europe, stopping only for an hour’s romp through the Louvre and an even shorter gawk at the Vatican.

For sure, when my alarm went off at 6 a.m. in some little hotel room along the route, I often had to lie there for a minute or two in order to figure out what country I was in. Sometimes I wandered over to the window to get a clue, and sometimes even that didn’t help, although the sight of a snow-capped peak might narrow it down to Austria or Switzerland.

When I finally figured it out, I would hurl things into my luggage to get it outside my door for the porter, then race down for breakfast. No time to waste — we were doing Belgium, France and Germany that day.

Also, I didn’t want to miss the latesepisode in a torrid romance that had sprung up between our tour director and a divorcee from South Africa. The tour director, sometimes called the courier in Europe, is the key to a memorable tour — not only for women from South Africa, but for all passengers.

Microphone in hand, he sits up beside the driver and gives a commentary on the passing scene. He’s part teacher, part historian, part disc jockey and part Sherlock Holmes when it comes to finding lost passengers.

Usually, he can speak two or three languages, which help him deal with hotel clerks, restaurant waiters and guides scheduled to escort us through cathedrals, museums and art galleries or give us an “in-depth” tour of a town or city.

Our tour director was constantly cheery. But he spent a disproportionate amount of time on the mike trying to sell his flock on “extras” — optional tours not included in the overall price of the package passengers had paid for back home.

By the time we reached Rome for our scheduled two-day visit, for example, he’d convinced 25 of his 40 passengers that they should spend one of those precious days on a sidetrip to the beautiful island of Capri.

An unofficial poll I took of the passengers showed only two couples had ever been to Rome before. It takes a week just to scratch the surface of that European treasure house, so to steal a day in Rome from his flock was a criminal act, committed to collect extra commissions.

Fortunately, in the last decade motorcoach tours have become much more sane. And, since the demise of the loonie, they’re a compelling choice for many people considering a holiday at the mercy of Europe’s scary high prices.

Participants can pay much of their trip up front in Canadian dollars.

Routinely, the price of a motorcoach holiday includes a comfortable reclining seat beside a big picture window in a washroom-equipped bus; hotels along the route, including taxes and tips; admission and services of guides at attractions listed on the itinerary; airport transfers; breakfasts and most dinners.

Lunch is rarely included. And, as a good rule of thumb, neither is anything else not spelled out in the motorcoach tour books you get from your travel agent.

Early bus tours became such crazy affairs because of a demand by many first-time overseas travellers to see as much of Europe as possible in one trip. Companies competed by offering more countries on a tour than their rivals.

Invariably, postage-stamp principalities became part of every itinerary. Luxembourg, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Monaco counted as a country and could be “done” in an hour or two.

After three or four days, most passengers were a bit punchy so a two-day city stay was usually thrown into most tours about that time. But two days in Rome or Paris rarely qualify as a rest cure and some passengers I talked to were hard put to tell me what they’d seen the day before.

Today, according to John Hamilton, a vice president at Trafalgar Tours, there’s a trend toward doing more regional touring at a more leisurely pace. “And when it makes more sense to do it, we include a trip on a high speed European train or boat between destinations,” he says.

Some days of leisure are now included in many itineraries.

Although Britain and Ireland are still among the most popular destinations with Canadians, motorcoach tours in Eastern Europe, Israel, Egypt and Morocco are now offered to more adventurous travellers.

Among regional trips offered for 1999 and 2000 are ones that include:

  • Fourteen days in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia;
  • A nine-day music lover’s special to Munich, Vienna and Salzburg;
  • An 18-day grand tour of France;
  • An 11-day trip in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria.
  • A 17-day Italy, Sardinia and Corsica itinerary that includes travel by ferry boats.

A European tour can start from any major city, but most Canadians fly to London and cross the English Channel to begin the main part of their trip.

Costs are usually based on two persons sharing a room and vary widely depending on the class of hotels used and the number of days. A 10-day Israel tour, for example, starts at $1,460 Cdn.; a 15-day, eight-county European tour at $2,425; and a seven-day tour of Ireland at $719.

Some tours include return air fare from Toronto, but because you can often get overseas cheaply by charter and may want to spend more time in a country, most tours include only the land portion.

One real plus of motorcoach tours is their typical conviviality. Within a few days, most people are on a first-name basis and many lasting friendships develop. But there is a constant undercurrent of controversy between those who want more time for sightseeing and those who want more time to shop.

As one crusty senior grumbled on the last tour I took: “They should have two buses – one for shoppers and one for real people.”