The Insights Experience; Traveling with guided tours

by

When I look back to the countries that Mohamed and I have traveled to, our discussions always take us back to one of our first trips abroad together 11 years ago. We wanted to travel to Europe and visit as many places that we were able to yet also experience the highlights of the countries that were on our wishlist. Our needs also had to include good hotels, convenient travel methods between countries and minimal fuss checking in to and out of hotels.

I contacted Flight Center and put forward my requests to them. The agent suggested a possible itinerary with escorted tour group ‘Trafalgar Tours’. I had never heard of them or their services prior to the suggestion and we booked based on the travel agent’s recommendation at the time.

We opted for the 12 day coach tour of Europe called the European Whirl visiting England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Holland and Belgium as the highlighted countries.

traf2

Looking back through my travel box (I’m rather sentimental and try to keep a few reminders of my trips as reference for when I need to look back at them), I came across our itinerary, listings of the hotels that we stayed at and a group photo of the other travelers that were with us.

traf1

We planned around being out of South Africa for 5 weeks at that time. We began our trip in London a few days earlier than we were scheduled to meet with the tour group. Trafalgar had a list of recommended hotels that would be convenient for the coach to collect passengers so we had stayed with their suggested hotel at the time.

We traveled from London via ferry to Paris where we spent two nights. During this time, the included activities were a sightseeing tour of the major attractions with a local guide and ascending the Eiffel Tower. There were a range of optional tours that we were offered and we had selected the Seine River Cruise and Paris Illuminations tour (to this day, we’ve been on this exact tour every time we’ve returned to Paris!). We also opted to do the guided tour of the Louvre and visit Montmartre.

The day after that, we departed via luxury, air-conditioned coach to Lucerne. We passed through Burgundy to Beaune. We entered Switzerland at Basel and stayed over in Lucerne for the evening. The Hotel in Lucerne was the Grande Hotel Europe which at the time was a 4 star hotel directly across Lake Lucerne. We were offered optional tours of a scenic cruise on Lake Lucerne and a Swiss experience of a folklore show, mountain railway and cable car trip with lunch and drinks.

The next day, we departed for Milan, passing through Alpine scenery and the Italian lake district. We stayed over at The Crowne Plaza in Milan.

We then proceeded to drive through Emilia Romagna to Bolgna and spent the night in Rome at the Gran Hotel Palzzo Carpegna. The included sightseeing took us to St Peter’s Basilica, views of the Colosseum, a stop at the Forum, Circus Maximum with free time in the afternoon. Our optional tours included visiting the Trevi fountain, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Vatican and Sistine Chapel.

From Rome we traveled through Tuscany to Florence. Upon arrival, we visited the Cathedral, Baptistry, Signoria Square and the Santa Croce Basilica.

Day 8 through to Day 10 saw us travel from Florence to Innsbruck through Venice and Verona. During this time, we visited the St. Marks Square, the Roman arena and Juliet’s Balcony, climbed the Brenner Pass into Austria where we began our descent into Innsbruck.

During Days 10 to Day 12, we traveled through Munich to Mannhein and finally arrived in Amsterdam.

The final day, we drove through Belgium, en route to Calais for the ferry crossing back into England.

In each city, we were offered a choice of 3-5 optional tours for our own expense. This meant that we were still able to utilise the coach, but pay for the entrance fee and/or meal or commentary.

The hotels were all classified and advertised as 4 star. Many of them were new and we were provided with larger rooms. The location of most were located in the main attraction areas.

Whilst we did this exact tour 11 years ago, Trafalgar still offers it to its travelers in 2016 (with a different departure routing) https://www.trafalgar.com/sa/tours/european-whirl

traf1

Since we were much younger, and traveling without children we wanted a fast-paced tour where we could see as much as we were able to for the very short duration of the trip. Our reasons for choosing Trafalgar at the time were the luxury air-conditioned coach with an expert Travel Director and separate driver, better-end hotels with porterage, local charges, hotel tips, charges and levies all included, specific insider experiences with VIP entry to many sights, complimentary pick-up and drop-off if staying with a Trafalgar recommended London hotel and included daily breakfast with at least 50% of the evening meals included in the rate.

Since then, our travel needs have changed somewhat. We were looking for a more easy-paced way to travel through France on our last trip. Insight prides itself in being ‘in a class of its own’. They provide premium escorted journeys with their tagline being; ‘The Art of Touring in Style’.

If you browse through their website, you will find a trip that is suited to your travel style:

If you would like to focus your vacation on one specific country the ‘Regional Experiences’ are a perfect choice. These are best suited to those wishing to embark on those ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ kind of holidays!

If your focus is on epicurean dining, 5-star and boutique hotels, and VIP experiences on a luxury itineraries the ‘Luxury Gold’ itinerary will be best suited. I recommend looking into this for luxury travel to India.

‘Country Roads’ itineraries are designed to help travelers explore off the beaten track destination and discover unique places. The tour helps you discover the lesser-known aspects of a destination or region, including hidden gems, unique sites and charming towns you might not otherwise get to see. Accommodation is as unique as their surroundings; you might find yourself sleeping in an 18th century chateau or a country manor house. Leisurely travel is guaranteed with extended stays, in-depth exploration and plenty of free time explore in your own time.

The ‘Easy Pace’ itinerary means that you are given leisurely travel with extended stays. The idea is to spend more time getting to know a place that intrigues you. With a minimum of three nights in each destination, the tours allow for plenty of exploration and free time to do things your own way – best suited to older travelers, and couples who need the time out!

‘Discovery Journeys’ are the ideal way for first-time visitors to see the best that Europe has to offer, exploring multiple countries and discover the highlights of each country you visit, which are best suited to younger travelers – newly married – or couples wanting to get a feel for a country and then returning to those that appealed to them the most.

We decided to do the Easy Pace tour through France which was a 10 day tour departing from Paris and reaching the Côte d’Azur.

traf3

Why we chose this particular tour:

  1. We needed to find a tour that was departing from Paris without incurring any additional travel time.
  2. We wanted to stay for a minimum of 2 to 3 nights in one place, so that we were able to explore it without having felt rushed to leave. We also didn’t want the inconvenience of having to pack up after a day of arriving.
  3. We wanted to stay in nicer hotels with better locations – many of the Insights recommended hotels are labeled as ‘Signature’ and ‘First Class’ hotels.
  4. We wanted to travel in a smaller tour group, with a larger coach – on this tour, we were 18 travelers seated on a 48 seater bus with Wifi and air-conditioning.
  5. We prefer the value-added service of not having to check-in when arriving at a hotel or even taking your luggage to your room. The Tour Director arranges all of this for you, even the collection of the luggage upon departure.
  6. Because August is one of the busiest times to travel to the Côte d’Azur, we didn’t want to hire a car and drive there ourselves. We preferred the option of being driven there, without having to worry about parking or getting lost or even paying toll fees. The plus point is also that you are dropped off at your desired location and picked up again at the specified time – so there’s no need to waste time looking for somewhere to park and getting lost getting back to your vehicle.
  7. When we looked online, we needed to leave around a specific date. Because the Easy Pace France was listed as a definite departure tour, this made our decision much more easier.

How did the booking process work:

  1. Identify the destination that you would like to visit
  2. Select the style of travel that suit your travel needs
  3. Browse through the online itineraries or arrange a consultation with a member of the Insights staff
  4. Register online to view countdown timers, information about the destination that you are traveling to, information on additional tours and anything else relevant to your trip

I went online to look through the regions and the tours that were on offer. I looked specifically at those tours with definite departures so it was easier to narrow down the tours and month that we wanted to travel in. When I refer to ‘definite departures’, I refer to the tours that already have confirmed and paid travelers. The ones that are still waiting on numbers to fill up might mean that the tour might be cancelled. If you are flexible with your travel time and have not yet purchased your air-tickets, then select the tour and month that you’re keen on.

Once you have decided, you can send a request through to the South African agent and she will respond with a booking sheet and confirm details of payment. Usually, your seat is reserved only once you have paid – but not confirmed (again, once a tour is half-full only then will the tour count as being confirmed).

We used the services of Faith Dube who is the Direct Reservations Consultant in Johannesburg. There was no need to have any face-to-face contact with Faith as she sent through all the details electronically. We mostly dealt over email and I called her at the initial stage to chat through the tour and the booking process. Faith was extremely helpful and has a very pleasant telephone manner.

Her details: Faith Dube | Direct Reservations Consultant  | Insight Vacations Ltd | The Travel House | 6 Hood Ave, 3rd Floor | Rosebank | South Africa | +27 (0) 11 280 8400 | | faith.dube@ttc.com

Once we made a payment, Faith sent through all of the electronic documents that were needed for the trip. This included accommodation and meal vouchers, itineraries and optional tour information with costing.

We didn’t make any further contact after that.

I used our reference number to log onto our profile on the website which gave us access to our tour and any additional details pertaining to the tour.

What did I think about the hotels that we stayed at:

Location: Paris, France

Hotel: The Pullman Bercy

Rated: 4 and a half star

Duration of stay: 3 nights with tour group, 5 days ahead of tour group

In Paris, we stayed at The Pullman Bercy, located about 20 minutes from the center of Paris. We opted to stay at the Insights recommended hotel as the tour departed from this location. In hindsight we could have easily traveled there on the morning of the departure but we didn’t think about that when we made our booking. If you are a first-time traveler to Paris, and wanting to visit many of the city’s attractions within a few days, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the hotel BUT with that said, it is a fantastic hotel to stay at in terms of neatness, cleanliness and modern rooms. The only thing that put me off slightly was the location and it wasn’t a properly Parisian-styled hotel. If you’re older and not familiar with the transportation system, the location can be a bit cumbersome. Aside from Bercy Village located across the road, there isn’t anything else to walk to and see in the area. Many of the older travelers in the group were highly disappointed at the location.

The lobby and reception area are large and spacious. There was always something special to drink on the reception table every morning before leaving, and upon arrival again. These were complimentary to hotel guests.

We were offered a room on the 10th floor. It was very comfortable with all the necessary amenities. There was a small work table with a couch and a large king-sized bed. The bathroom was clean with nice finishes. Water, tea and coffee were complimentary. There was also a small coffee machine with pods. There was sufficient place to store your luggage in the cupboards.

The breakfast is basic; a nice selection of bread and pastry, warm foods (which weren’t permissible for us to eat) and fruit and cereals. If it is included in your room rate, then it’s fine – if not, I would rather go across the road to Bercy and have a pastry and coffee at a fraction of the price.

There aren’t a shortage of places to eat at if staying at The Pullman Bercy. Across the road is Bercy Village which has a large selection of restaurants, clothing and home stores and an FNAC store which stocks tech-related products.

We particularly enjoyed the Pasta and Risotto at Vapiano which is located all the way down to the right of the center. The pasta is made in front of you with clean utensils and pans, making this suitable to eat if you have dietary restrictions. I wouldn’t recommend eating the Pizza as it is baked in the same oven as the meat products. Request that they omit the Parmesan as they were not fully certain whether or not it was vegetarian. The staff speak English so it was easy to communicate regarding the contamination. We recommend ordering the Arribiata and request extra green chili. Drizzle the red chili oil over it at the table – it’s so flavoursome!

Address: Vapiano Bercy Village, 60-62 Cour Saint-Emilion, 75012, Paris.

Location: Avignon, France

Hotel: Cloitre Saint Louis

Rated: 4 star

Duration of stay: 3 nights with tour group

The street leading up to this hotel from the main roadside already delivers that Provencal charm. The main attraction as you enter through the large doors is the courtyard with its garden which turn into one of the city’s most beautiful terraces.

I especially loved the sound of the trees whispering through the shutters in the evening. There’s something very charming about being in a hotel that helps you discover the Provencal art of living.

A bit of history on the hotel: “Cloitre Saint Louis is located in a 16th century building and combines historic and modern structures in the heart of Avignon. Initially a monastery, the hotel became a military hospital in addition to an annexe of the Hotel des Invalides in Paris over the course of several centuries.”

The rooms were spacious with the most important feature being the views over the courtyard. The tour allocates the standard rooms as part of the package but you may request an upgrade if they are not full in occupancy or even pay for an upgrade at a minimal fee. There is ample seating in the room, with a comfortable king-sized bed and the bathroom is neat and comes with basic amenities. The lifts are quick with very little walking distance to your room.

The breakfast buffet offered a limited selection of breads and pastry, fruit, yoghurt and cereals and hot meals for guests who have no dietary restrictions. The breakfast is included in the tour package, and whilst there was nothing special about it, it was sufficient enough to start the day. The best part was the spacious seating and the view of the courtyard alongside.

The location of this hotel was superb. It was on a side street to the main road and everything, including laundry were a few meters away. There are lots of stores on the main road with international brands like Zara and Mango and the most fantastic little creperie located on the street-side. In fact, with everything within walking distance, we walked through the town in the evening for dinner and even found a theatre and movie house!

Location: Nice, France

Hotel: Aston La Scala Nice

Rated: 4 star

Duration of stay: 3 nights with tour group

The drive in to Nice was alongside the beach. It’s just as you would picture it from postcards and movies (and to toss in the authenticity, a few topless sunbathers along the way too!). To the left, the upscale hotels line the promenade. Ideally, we would have loved to have stayed in a beachfront hotel, but Aston La Scala was just a street behind and only a 5-7 minute walk to the beach. I was very pleased with the hotel that Insights selected and I would be very likely to return if I visited Nice again.

In terms of position, the Masséna tram stop is just a 4 minute walk away. Finding a hotel as close to public transportation in Europe has to factor as an important pre-requisite when booking your holiday. It cuts down the travel time, and hassle of looking to find a tram. With that said, you could easily get around by foot in Nice – the streets are so pretty to stroll around in – especially at 8am while the stores are closed!

The staff at reception aren’t very fluent in English, so you do need to have some patience when requesting anything. However, we returned late back one evening and Alex who was on night duty were so helpful in assisting us with a query.

The standard rooms are comfortable, but if the hotel is not filled to capacity, inquire about an upgrade. We were very happy with our luxury room, which had splendid views over the park across and slight views of the ocean in the distance.

I found the noise levels at the park very disturbing if I was in my room during the day. If this bothers you, request a room on the other side of the hotel.

The Luxury Room was spacious and airy. I particularly loved that it opened into a balcony. There is a separate lounge area with a small work table, and a coffee machine. I really appreciated being able to make myself a cup of coffee as I was hugely disappointed with the portion sizes of the coffee in France.

If there was anything that I simply loved about the room, it would be the bathroom! The shower and bath tub were located through a walk-in section of the bathroom. Having come from 2 other hotel prior to this, we were very excited to see a well laid-out bathroom that was spacious and modern.

Having breakfast at a European hotel is usually a challenge if you have dietary restrictions. Even the basic menu items like scrambled eggs might be prepared where there is a chance of cross-contamination. So to limit what we ate, we usually stuck to boiling our own eggs, toast and pastry and fruit. The breakfast is sufficient, however there is a fantastic selection of yogurt.

What disappointed me about the tour; issues that I’d like to raise based on MY personal experience:

  1. The first and last days of the tour shouldn’t be counted as the tour length. This is hugely misleading as you only meet with your tour director late into the evening, and you leave as early as 6am on the day of your departure. The only positive is the complimentary transfer to the airport in most instances, which in itself is a few hundred Rand. I understand that the tour needs to be labeled as 10 days or 16 days, in order to ensure that guests arrive on the specified day and they are paying from the night that they first sleep over – yet I still feel like the first and last day should not be counted as actual tour days.
  2. I was not happy with the location of the hotel in Paris BUT i understand from a logistics perspective why it was necessary to stay away from the center of Paris. I would have liked to have stayed closer to the more tourist areas, where bus access was easy but this wasn’t the case.
  3. I found that the optional tours are sometimes largely overpriced. When pricing it online either by direct purchase or even via Viator, the Insights cost for the exact tour was far higher. I know that the tour price included the coach transportation to and from the destination and the convenience of having a guide plus transportation, I still felt that some optional experiences were not appropriately priced.
  4. Water was charged for on the coach, whereas for the price that’s paid, each guest should receive one as a gesture daily – again, this is my personal viewpoint, and although water is not expensive, it’s a nice-to-offer if possible. The flipside is that there is Wifi on the coach (which many other operators don’t have, so I’m overlooking the water, for the sake of medium-speed Wifi.
  5. Some of the stops were too short – I’d prefer at least 2 to 3 hours at a stop, even though we were getting back in rather good time to the hotel. It wasn’t enough to factor in having a cup of coffee or a meal, shopping and/or sightseeing. These stops were minimal, but I would have preferred the location if the stop was longer.
  6. Our Hotel in Monaco was replaced with one in Nice. Although it wasn’t a bad option after seeing the location, I would have preferred some sort of correspondence ahead of time instead of reading it on my tour documentation. The location in Nice was fantastic with far more to see and do. If you’re more cultural, then the swop might have not been a problem. If you were interested in the nightlife and experiencing the luxe life in Monaco, I’d be left hugely disappointed. Unfortunately the agent nor the tour director has any say in the change. They promised though that the change in location and hotel would be on par with the initial one offered, and it was.
  7. The included visit to Fragonard Perfumery was an absolute waste of time and a tourist trap. I was bored and sneezed through the entire experience. I found the products to be overpriced and I detested the sales pitch by the consultants. I felt forced to smell fragrances that i wouldn’t ever usually bring to my nose and after some time, I casually strolled away without being noticed. The only good thing that came out of it was the 1 Euro coffee vending machine at the exit.
  8. I feel that alot of the optional tours should be included in the tour price and a substantial portion was missed out on based on some of the major highlights being made optional. The company should also look into offering cooking classes, or pastry workshops as part of their optional extras, and perhaps the boat ride to St Tropez/Cannes. (We booked privately and it was the highlight of our trip in the Côte d’Azur.

What I liked about booking an Insights Tour:

  1. It’s a safe (especially if traveling alone, as a student, as an older person, or as a woman) and convenient way to travel. All the ground work is done for you – no need to check-in, carry luggage or remove luggage. Most tickets are pre-purchased and there’s no need to wait in lines at many attractions.
  2. The tour director is usually well informed and pleasant. We were very fortunate that our tour director Elisabeth was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She ensured that she spoke to kitchen staff about our dietary restrictions ahead of time and ensured that we were always comfortable.
  3. There is seat rotation on the coach, which means that everyone gets a good view through the trip and even land up getting the seats upfront and because you have different people seated next to, or in front of you, you get a chance to meet new people.
  4. A lot of history is shared on the coach as we travel. Often the tour director shares interesting stories which aren’t in the guides or heard of. I particularly enjoyed listening about Elisabeth telling us about the history of Van Gogh and THEN actually see’ing the bridge in his paintings! Guide books don’t provide that enough of insight the way a real-life conversation does.
  5. We visited places that we wouldn’t ordinarily travel to – places off the beaten path. I wouldn’t necessarily have booked to stay in a little town like Avignon, but what a missed opportunity that would have been! Traveling with tour groups really expose you to so much more than what you read online from other travelers.
  6. The fuss of directions, travel time, distances and toll fees are all taken care of for you – this is especially great if you don’t like navigating or have a stubborn husband!
  7. Whether or not the distance between places are long, they make a few stops along the way to get coffee, use the restrooms or walk around a small town. You are never left feeling completely exhausted with the need to stretch your legs.
  8. There are a few dinners that are included in the tour rate, especially the ones on the first night of your stay at the hotel.
  9. Overall I like the convenience and would likely book a similar style tour again soon. If I’m on holiday, I prefer looking for a seamless way of traveling.

How do we communicate with the Tour Director? How do we know where we’re going and what we’re up to for the day?

Every evening, a notice board is put up in the lobby of the hotel. It has times and additional notes listed of what the plan is for the next day.

The director usually communicates everything with you on the bus and makes certain that everyone is aware of the time that we’re meeting and where we are meeting.

You will never be left behind! Most people were on time, and usually everyone gets their sense of bearing where to meet.

I highly recommend that you book at least one guided tour at some stage of your life, regardless of how frequent a traveler you are or aren’t. My main motivation would be to visit the places that aren’t familiar to us, or hear about from friends or family who have traveled.

Decide on the type of tour that you’re interested in, and the budget that you are comfortable spending, but remember to take extra for optional tours and lunch/dinner. Have a look for the early-bird discounts online (that’s how we booked ours, and saved R7k in total) plus if you are a returning traveler, you receive an additional 5% when you book and pay.

insta-insighs

If you are keen on reading through the options visit either:

Trafalgar Tours

Insight Vacations

You may also chat to Faith so she can advise you on the tour suited to your travel style.

Her details: Faith Dube | Direct Reservations Consultant  | Insight Vacations Ltd | The Travel House | 6 Hood Ave, 3rd Floor | Rosebank | South Africa | +27 (0) 11 280 8400 | | faith.dube@ttc.com

Look out for my upcoming posts on Paris and Traveling through France over the next few weeks where I write in more detail about the optional excursions on Insights, the food and activities that were included on the tour and more detail about the places that we visited.