17 August 2011

Are excursions worth it?

Some friends of mine were visiting Europe for the first time, and they chose to take a guided tour that zoomed through four countries in 10 days. You know the sort: if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium. I'm not necessarily criticising this kind of tour, as many tourists find that it's their best economical option. What does annoy me, however, is the excursions offered by the tour companies. They argue that it's the way they make money out of these cut-price tours, as the travel costs are kept to a minimum. That might be true, but it's unfair on the customer.

The tour operators rely on the fact that many of their clients are first-time visitors and don't know what they want to see, or that they don't feel confident enough to strike out on their own. Or even that they can't be bothered and prefer to be led. But do the companies really need to charge up to four times what a tour is worth – or, worse still, charge for attractions that are free to begin with?

To take some examples: an excursion in Paris takes in the Louvre and Notre-Dame, charging 45 for the privilege. A full ticket at the Louvre is €14 and Notre-Dame is free. If this hugely overpriced excursion includes jumping the horrendous queues at the Louvre, then people who are pressed for time might consider it money well spent. But it's free to visit Notre-Dame, and the cathedral even organises its own free tours. Similarly, a "special" night-time trip on a bateau mouche (excluding dinner) on the Seine costs €32, when a trip usually costs only €11.

The Rome excursions are just as daft. You can pay €69 to visit the Vatican and Colosseum with the tour company, or pay €30.30 for both on your own. There's even an excursion to Piazza Navona and the Pantheon (pictured) for the ludicrous sum of €32. Both places are free, so why not just buy a map?

It doesn't take much effort to do a bit of research on your own before you set off and make some decisions about what you want to visit. If you have only one day in Paris or Rome, you might just want to take in one major attraction and leave the rest of the time to explore and have a delicious lunch. You might enjoy getting a feel for the place rather than just ticking off a list of places you feel you have to see.