While we were looking for a European tour, we entertained several tours such as the Rick Steves, student-budget, Trafalgar, Glo Bus, and several other lower-end tours. This would have been perfectly fine for my sister and I (21 year olds). Even better, I probably would have planned the trip myself with stays at hostel.
However, traveling with my mom who recently had knee-replacement surgery made us much more cautious. We were looking for a tour that was more dedicated to the elderly (not ELDERLY, elderly. just elderly compared to us youngin's), had a slower-pace feel, higher end accommodations with elevators and bell-service so my mom didn't have to carry up the suitcases). This brought us to Insight.
Insight is a "luxury" tour.
It caters to the older crowd (most people on our tour were probably 60+ years old). The price reflects this. Frankly speaking, its FREAKIN' EXPENSIVE MAN!! But we thought it would be nice for our mama. Here's what stood out to us after the tour:
1. Leg Room : They basically take the same charter bus, rip out all the seats, and stagger in 40 seats (as opposed to 50). This creates much more leg room, but it also means that the windows aren't perfectly aligned with the seats. The whole group rotate's everyday so everyone gets a chance to sit in every seat. This also means smaller group sizes.
2. Premium & Luxury Central Hotels : The hotels are "handpicked in the best locations". We took this to be pretty true. 1-2 of our hotels were simply stunning and were very central. This meant more time for us to explore the city on our own since they were also convenient to local train stops. Please note that all hotel and restaurant tips are included with your tour price. You only need to pay tips to your driver and your tour guide at the end of the tour.
Some Notable Hotels:
- Brussels Marriott was a short walk from the Grand Place.
- Kolbe Hotel was a former 15C convent, steps away from the Roman Forum
- Corinthia Hotel in Budapest -- stunning! The Royal Spa doesn't hurt either :)
3. Tour Directors: Our tour director, Bradley W Dick was awesome! Feel free to check out his website as he has a lot of different optionals listed with descriptions. He was extremely knowledgeable about all the areas and we learned a lot just from listening to him. He does the Romantic European tour a couple of times a year so he knows the locations very well. He was also able to give us recommendations on bars to go to that were popular with the college kids ^_^' keke.. Tour directiors are also the ones who short-list which "Optionals" you get to choose from.
*Tour directors also get a budget for the tour so he can treat us to little presents such as gelato in Rome, or wine at a restaurant.
4. Great Sightseeing and Priority Entry: Take note! the priority entry was particularly helpful. We never had to wait in line to go into crowded areas and even got special privileges to go to the Bramante Staircase in the Vatican City which is usually closed to the general public. There will be local tour guides throughout the tour in order to give even more details to the places you're visiting. All the tour guides were incredibly informative and we were thoroughly happy with them. Insight uses personal radio headsets which lets you wander off the group and look around while still listening to local tour guides through your headset.
The best part about Insight is that a lot of Optionals from other tour companies are actually included in our itinerary. For example, a canal ride was included in our Venice portion. I know for a fact that most tours charge extra for this. Some other experiences that were included:
- Guided tour of Prague Castle
- Visit a monastery brewery in Prague
- Cog-wheel rail journey to Mount Pilatus in Lucerne (Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!)
- Visit the Matthias Church in Budapest as well as entrance to Fisherman's Bastion
- Private guide to Schonbrunn Palace
- Visit the Vatican Museum with VIP entrance to Bramante staircase and Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel
- Eiffel Tower ( no need to wait in line either)
- Pantheon, Rome
- St Peter's Basillica (Rome, 1506-1626)
5. Our Group : Everyone was super friendly, albeit a bit older. The next youngest couple was probably mid 30s-40 years old. The next after that was like 50's..(?). About four of were from America, the rest were from Australia (they call themselves kiwis I think) or New Zealand. Quite a number of couples, and only 1 or 2 single travelers. For those who were interested: no other Asians. Sad!! Its sort of hard to factually describe the group since we were so young. But from my perspective, everyone was educated and friendly towards each other. I don't think anyone felt un-included. It was overall a great group. We really enjoyed everyone's company.
6. Food: The food!! Delicious!! They did a really great job in selecting places that had history and really represented the area's regional flavors. Many of the meals were included (translation: much alcohol was had since they were also included). To be more specific, we had breakfast provided everyday, 5 three-course dinners, 1 celebration dinner, 1 welcome dinner, and 1 dine-around.
The Dine around option was pretty nifty. You basically get to choose between a couple of restaurants and they drop you off on the night of.
6. Optionals: The optionals were very well picked. There was no pressure for everyone to have to do every single optional (although many in the group did). The optionals take place during our 'free' time in cities and usually included dinner. This was the part that I worried about the most before our trip, but it all ended up being quite nice. Most of them ranged from 40-60$. Our favorites:
- Colosseum: This pretty much made me re-watch Gladiator so I could see what it looked like before the wear and tear of time. It is also a great piece of architecture.
- Louvre: Couldn't explore the courtyard since we entered through the tour entrance. We also went with a private tour guide so she moved us swiftly along the museum to look at the most historically important pieces. The only negative was that I wish I had way more time to explore the museum.
- Moulin Rouge (Paris): a MUST. The last optional of our tour, and one of the best. Everyone will like it. Girls, for the show. Boys, for the extremely scantily dressed women performing the burlesque show, haha. We got seats very close to the front (dinner included) and I got to be called onto stage! How exciting!
- Wurzburg Residence Built 1720-1744 by Balthassar Neumann.
- interesting fact, it was designed to let air into the solid structures. Main feature is the procession of the imperial staircase (dual) and holds the largest ceiling fresco in the world. If you look closely, you can see the actual sculptors of the artist and the family on the ceiling. (Yeap, this is the stuff I learn in architecture history class). Photos weren't allowed in this building though.
- San Gimignano: This is a beautiful city in Tuscany. The town itself is made up of 14 towers (there was close to 70 towers at a time). The streets were cobbled and narrow and just great. Definitely go to experience the magic of Tuscany :) We also had an optional excursion to have dinner in a Tuscan vineyard - think of a long outdoor table surrounded by great company, lots of wine, and delicious Italian food.
- Vienna Orchestra: We got to attend an orchestra concert. Nice. But not as nice as attending the Vienesse Philharmonic.
PS: the price to do these optionals on your own usually cost way more than doing it with the tour.
PPS: I imagine most of these tours might be boring for some people. I chose a lot of these because of its architectural significance. I also had to take a year-long class on architecture so seeing it in real life was a dream come true. While going to the 8th church on the tour, I heard some people on the tour go "great, another church". My reaction on the other hand was extreme giddiness :P I'm sad we didn't have time to go to the Palace of Versailles though.
The tour, albeit expensive, was a good value for the price if you can afford it. It was nice to pay a fee and rest assured knowing that everything had already been planned out for you. We had a fabulous time and got to see a broad spectrum of Europe in a short time frame. I look forward to returning to Europe and exploring more in-depth. (This was a graduation present from our mom. I probably won't be able to afford this sort of trip on my own for a very long while!)
Tip: Try not to go in July - August. It gets pretty hot!
Some people asked what it was like travelling with an older crowd: We weren't bothered by it. Everyone was super friendly and nice to us. It was sort of like having a ton of extra parents/ grandparents, haha! We enjoyed the conversations and some of them shared life experiences with us. It was great, really! It was also nice travelling with a group who wasn't all obsessed with shopping & partying all night long (EEK college kids, am I right?!)
Plus, it left me a lot more time to walk around and take pictures since it was much slower pace. Surprisingly, most of them walked faster than us. Point taken: Frankie and I are out of shape :(