Thoughts on choosing a tour group, airline or place to stay

Multi-day Tours

Europeds

As I wrote in my Flying solo post,  the best tour I ever took was my first ever bike trip in Provence through Europeds. I stumbled on this company in the ads of my National Geographic Traveler Magazine. By sheer luck it was not only a great group of people but our guide was the owner of the company. He was from the U.S. but owned a home in the Dordogne and was a self professed Francophile. He knew every corner of Provence and took us places I never would have found on my own such as Les Baux and the Carrieres des Luminieres, Ile sur la Sorgue, and Gordes–places I loved so  much I returned with my sister in 2015, (see Provence, Provence, wherefore art thou Provence? )

A picnic near the Sorgue River

Unfortunately when I chose Europeds for my 2nd bike trip to Italy I didn’t know that the company had been sold to some conglomerate. As I’ve written previously in my Flying solo post, a weirder group (with the exception of one couple) would be hard to imagine and our guides were off the charts odd–two French guys, one of whom didn’t speak English.

That said we had some phenomenal meals and the trip made me fall in love with southern Tuscany–Montalcino, Pienza, Bagno Vignoni, San’Antimo, Monte Olivetto, Banfi and all the wonderful vistas of the Val d’Orcia.  (see Montalcino and Southern Tuscany  post)

Backroads

www.backroads.com

I chose Backroads for my first bike trip in Italy after doing a lot more research than I did for my trip to Provence. That was in the day when Backroads would send you a huge catalogue of trips in every country imaginable. I chose a trip that started near Florence, then took the Chianti highway to Greve.

Arriving in Greve

We then stayed in the countryside between Greve and Siena for several nights doing loops to Radda and Castellina. (see The Towns of Chianti and Sempre Chianti) Our last leg was from Siena to Monteriggioni to San Gimignano and back to Florence.

The group in San Gimignano

With the exception of a rather funky B&B in Greve, our hotels were lovely and the food and wine were generous and good. Our guides were friendly and helpful, even giving us some assistance after we returned to Florence.

Next to the Provence tour, I enjoyed this group the most.  It was a mix of singles and couples from all over the U.S.  Almost everyone had a great sense of humor and we laughed our way through the constant rain. One of my favorite memories was doing Sambuca in the hotel bar one evening while hearing a hilarious story about a woman’s blind date where he tried to put out a flaming Sambuca with his hands and set her dress on fire.

Today Backroads trips are far more expensive as well as shorter.  I would love to do their Amalfi Walking tour but it’s $4,000 for 5 days.  Yikes! But I think you can still count on them to have good hotels and service. (Plus they have added other activities beyond biking and hiking.) When my sister and I stopped at Ceramiche Rampini in September 2018, there was a Backroads group visiting just as our group did many years ago. However, it was a far different group, mainly middle aged couples and I wrote in my Chianti post that I felt bad for the lone single woman.

GoAhead

https://www.goaheadtours.com

In 2016 my sister and I were hoping to do a walking tour of Umbria but the tours were either super expensive or independent ‘tours’ where you were dropped off at one spot and picked up at another. So I suggested GoAhead’s Tuscany Walking tour because it included some places we hadn’t been to before–Montecatini Terme, Cortona, Montepulciano, Chianciano Terme and Rome–plus three nights in Siena and brief stops at Montalcino, Sant’Antimo and Pienza. (see Montalcino and Southern Tuscany)

The group was fairly odd and definitely unfriendly–4 women traveling together, a woman traveling alone, a man traveling alone and then 6-7 couples. I could have handled that but the hotels, with the exception of Ercolini and Savi in Montecatini Terme, were mediocre at best and the group meals were terrible. The coups d’grace was our unpleasant guide who lied to another couple and told them my sister and I had not returned our headsets.

The only thing GoAhead did right on this trip was the extra excursions–two dinners and wine tastings at Villa Geggiano and Agriturismo Nebbiano. Plus the lunch at Tenuta del Palagio was lovely. (see Vineyards, wineries and enotecas.)

Their tours are not inexpensive. So I sent them a very strong letter concerning their hotels, meals and guide but received no response. I would never use them again.

Gate 1

https://www.gate1travel.com/

A friend of mine has used Gate 1 for several trips, from Ireland to Vietnam so when my sister wanted to see the Greek Islands, we chose Gate 1 for a cruise from Venice to the islands and back to Venice. We didn’t realize initially that this was an ‘independent’ tour and basically all Gate 1 did was book us into the less than pleasant Carlton Grand Canal for two nights, then provide a transfer from the hotel to the ship.

As I wrote in my The Greek Islands and the Dalmatian Coast post, I was not enamored with Norwegian Cruise Lines and would not use them again–outrageous charges for everything, attempting to force us to pay $30/day in tips to their surly staff, and absolutely no help on the excursions.

Still we loved the islands (with the possible exception of Santorini) and our stop at Dubrovnik.

Plus we enjoyed sitting by the pool in the afternoons listening to the band and people watching which was definitely interesting.

So this fall (2019) we booked Gate 1 again for a tour of Croatia, leaving from Venice. Pre-trip I was not happy with them. First we found we had to pay extra for the transfer from Venice to Opatija because we purchased a land only package and second they jerked me around from May to September, telling me I would receive information on where and when to meet the group at the Venice airport for our transfer to Opatija.

I wrote a very strong email the night before I left for Italy and 2 or 3 days after I arrived in Florence I received an email telling me to be at the Venice airport at 11:30am for a noon transfer.  Luckily my sister and I arrived at 9:45am and found two Gate 1 tour leaders (for separate trips to Croatia) in the arrival hall, allowing us to take the 10:00am transfer and arrive in Opatija by 1:30pm.

I have published a post  on Croatia and Slovenia simultaneously with  this post and as you can see, we visited some beautiful places.  But as I  told Gate 1, this was a poorly planned and executed trip.  We had to spend way, way too much time on the bus going from one end of Croatia to the other on what I dubbed the tour de toilette, stopping constantly at truck stops. Plus we lost several hours at border crossings. The tour should have skipped Zagreb and started in Bled/Ljuljbana then worked its way down the coast with fewer stops; e.g. staying several nights near Split or Sibenik, then doing day trips from there.

That said, all but one of our hotels were very nice and the company decided to provide an extra dinner (Epetium near Split) which was super fun.

And our Home Hosted Dinner near Dubrovnik was excellent. My sister said our host’s name is Kameni Dvori and I found this web site that seems to be the agritourismo home we went to: https://www.holiday-village-konavle.com/kameni-dvori-tavern-inn/ It was a good 50 minute bus drive to the location and then we had to walk up a very steep road in the pitch black to the inn. So I couldn’t tell from the pictures on this web site if it’s the right place.

Our hosts (a large family of 3 brothers, their wives and children) greeted us with a chocolate brandy.      Home hosted dinner  Kameni did all the talking, describing the family and how the farm had been in the family since the 15th century. There was another Gate 1 group there so the inn was packed but service was seamless and generous. We had a wonderful meal of homemade bread, meats and cheeses, fresh tomatoes and peppers, pasta with meat sauce, salad, cake and wine.

Here’s one of my favorite galleries from the trip, Preseren Square Ljubljana:

And this group was far more fun than the GoAhead group.  It may have helped that there was more of a mix, two sets of sisters, two women who were solo, a guy who was solo, two women friends, a man and his granddaughter plus some of the funniest couples I’ve ever met.   Unfortunately we were given assigned seats on the bus and my sister and I were always stuck with the boring people, not the fun ones. On our last night, at the end of our cocktail party, Jamie (the granddaughter) collected all of our email addresses and announced that she would set up a share site which she did at: https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipP2D8EAdz_e4LecVE6PP6HGAWjXYHSbk6V4FwpIIOkeSslojrNY5zNK7vgOMjWdYg?key=T1FWNURCLXoyVXRyYXpYVkoyQm81Nk41RVVSWHlR.  Several people have posted pictures and comments.

Despite the positives, I give Gate 1 a C- on responsiveness.  I wrote a detailed letter critiquing both the format of the trip and the lack of communications.  More than two months after I sent the letter, I received an email saying: When we discussed with you to arrange the service, our local office advised 12:00, which is what we advised you. They were able to add an additional time, 10am, but failed to advise Gate 1.   I responded, ‘Seriously?  It took you two months to come up with that story?’

Day (and Night)  Trips

Istanbul by Night Tour

I wrote an entire post on this tour (see Sixteen Hours in Istanbul ) which was the best tour I’ve ever taken.  And I found it more or less by accident, just googling layover tours of Istanbul before we booked our flight on Turkish Airlines.  You can find Latif at http://www.istanbullayovertours.com/    I can’t recommend him highly enough.  To give a quick summary, he took us to the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Golden Horn, the Asian side where we had dinner at a restaurant written up in Food in Wine and to Sultanahmet Square.  Here’s just one of the galleries from my post, showing how fantastic it was.

City Wonders

Rome

In 2016 we booked a  Rome by Night tour with City Wonders/Dark Rome, (See Rome post) which was phenomenal. We took a bus from near our hotel and  found our way to the Spanish Steps which are gorgeous at night, and then hooked up with a group of about 12 people. Our guide was fantastic and we strolled from the Steps to the Trevi Fountain stopping at iconic sites including several of the obelisks as well as places where movies were filmed.

After walking from the Trevi to the Pantheon we stopped at this great little restaurant (Ristorante di Rienzo I think)  where we each had a drink of our choice plus sandwiches, slices of pizza, fried cheese that was divine, various other munchies, while chatting and resting our feet.  We were there for almost an hour then walked to Piazza Navonna where our guide took us around the Fountain of the Four Rivers, describing each of the ‘scenes’.

Venice

Since we liked our Rome by Night tour so much, in 2017 we booked two tours in Venice through City Wonders (see Venice post) the far better one being the Wine and Cicchetti Tasting Tour  through Venice’s Jewish Ghetto. https://citywonders.com/venice-tours/venice-jewish-ghetto-tour.    The tour was both an introduction to the Venetian tradition of bacari (standing bars) and cicchetti (appetizers) and to the history of the Jewish ghetto;  a rather odd combination.  But interspersing the more somber information about the ghetto with the fun bacari, actually worked.

Florence

Vineyard tour with wine tasting and dinner

https://citywonders.com/florence-tours/florence-wine-tours

Villa le Piazzole

In October 2019 my sister and I ended our trip with 5 days in Florence.  We were originally planning to do a day trip with Tuscan Wine Time but ended up doing an evening dinner and wine tasting through City Wonders.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal:  We met the City Wonders staff person at the Obelisk across from Santa Maria Novella.  There were five people in our group –three younger women from Nashville and my sister and I.  We had a somewhat terrifying drive through the centro and then the Oltrarno, passing through Porta Romana and up via Senese where it dead ends near one of the former Medici villas which is now a private school.  From there we took some narrow streets in the hills, coming to a locked gate.  After entering the gates we drove up a narrow dirt road through a park like setting to the villa itself where our guide, Annamaria met us.

Annamaria gave us a tour of the grounds and vineyards while providing a history of the villa which once belonged to wealthy friends of  the Medicis.  She pointed out a monastery across the valley that had been funded by this same family.

view from Ville le Piazzole

I believe she said the current owners were from Milan and they must have spent an incredible amount of money to restore the villa and vineyards, plus turn it into a hotel with a beautiful pool overlooking the valley.

We had a lovely dinner starting with a meat and cheese tray, paired with a white wine, a penne pasta with pesto, and a Chianti-style red, roast pork and potatoes with a Supertuscan, and a dessert wine with biscotti.  All the wines were excellent and given our small group we had an interesting conversation with our guide who was pleasant and knowledgeable.

She even gave my sister and me a ride to our hotel since we were staying in the Oltrarno where she lived.

 

Come and See Italy

Chianti Wine and Vinci half day Tour from Montecatini Terme

My sister and I took this tour from Montecatini Terme and had a wonderful time. The group was not only pleasant but the perfect size for this type of tour. We enjoyed both the visit to Vinci and the wine tasting at Sommavilla. At the wine tasting we were given four very generous glasses of wine, plus bruschetta, meats and cheeses finishing with a taste of vin santo and biscotti. On the way back our guide led us in singing Volare and other songs which I thought was very fun. The only negative was that extremely strong winds came up as we arrived in Vinci making both the tour of the town and the tasting difficult since for the latter we were sitting outside. I would recommend that the tour company have an inside option for days like that. I regret I didn’t use Come and See for our wine tour from Florence and will definitely use them in the future.

Get Your Guide

I also want to add a shout out here to Get Your Guide. In 2019 we had to meet our group traveling to Croatia at the Venice airport.  So we purchased tickets for the express bus from Piazzale Roma to the airport  on their web site before leaving the U.S.  Their web site provided detailed directions on where to meet the bus which only took 20 minutes and was much easier than taking one of the lagoon boats.

The not so Great

City Wonders

https://citywonders.com/venice-tours/venice-gondola-night-tour

In addition to the Cannareggio tour we signed up for the Venice by Night tour.  Here’s what I wrote: We got to the meeting point by the Accademia for our walking tour way early but the City Wonders person was already there. She immediately told us the gondola ride would be first due to it becoming dark and foggy fairly early. That was a piece of luck ‘cause the ride was lovely but by the time we finished it was cold and foggy.

The tour/walk was so awful—huge group that required microphones and radios, a terrible guide who didn’t speak very good English and kept stopping in the fog to point out things we couldn’t see or tell us things we already knew—that we bailed early. 

But the gondola ride almost made it worth the price.

Viator

Florence

http://www.ilmolinodigrace.it/

https://www.santamargherita.com/en/

I booked this tour through Viator finding out later that it’s just a ‘re-booker’ associated with TripAdvisor. I wrote an extremely negative review—-huge group in a large bus, late start, most of the time spent in the bus, wasted time in Greve, rushed tastings especially at Il Molino where we had to do our tiny tastings standing up. Plus our appetizers were bowls of cubed cheese and salami that everyone dipped their hands into.

That said Il Molino di Grace (The Windmill of Grace) has some of the most beautiful grounds I’ve ever seen. If I get back to Chianti, it will be at the top of my ‘to do’ list.

Santa Margherita is a much bigger winery and as we pulled up, it looked rather industrial. But they gave us a generous glass of prosecco first, then two tastings of red wines, that were slightly more generous than Il Molino. Plus we were able to take our second pour into their tasting room or terrace, both of which are lovely, and sit for a while.

Hotels and apartments

TripAdvisor or Booking.com

TripAdvisor is my go to source for hotels.  I’ve found the reviews generally accurate and typically they show the best rates.  The summer of 2019 I found what I thought was a better rate for Hotel Villa Cheli near Lucca, Italy, on Booking.com.  Since I tend to book fairly early I keep checking sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com as well as the hotel sites, themselves.  And some time in August I found an even better rate for Villa Cheli on the hotel’s web site.  Booking.com has a ‘best price’ guarantee but when I contacted them and showed them the better price, they said I had to submit a request for a refund after I stayed there.  I knew that would takes months, assuming I even received the refund so I canceled the Booking.com reservation and rebooked through the hotel.  (As an aside, then Villa Cheli threw me up against the wall for rebooking, so I probably won’t stay there again.)

Air BnB, VRBO or HomeAway?

My first attempt to rent an apartment in Florence was through Air BnB and I won’t use them again for foreign rentals.  The owner refused to let us check in before 3:00pm and when I tried to cancel, their ‘customer service’ was awful to deal with–some call center overseas –, something I don’t have the patience for.  I finally managed to cancel the apartment and get our refund but it was a struggle I don’t care to repeat.

I’ve had better success with VRBO/HomeAway (who are owned by the same company, Expedia Group) at least in terms of customer service.  They do have excellent English speaking service reps who are very helpful.  That said, as you can read in my  Where to stay  post, I’ve had mixed results with the apartments which may be due to my research skills.  Our apartment in Verona was great but the two we rented in Florence, definitely had some issues including one that was 8 flights up.  Still it had beautiful views.

In 2019, while attending Istituto Michelangelo  for two weeks in Florence,  I rented an apartment  through HomeAway and here’s the link to the apartment: https://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p1899101?noDates=true   It’s listed as ‘Santo Spirito Apartment’ but unlike our 2016 apartment it’s nowhere near Santo Spirito and while it saved me money and was somewhat quieter than the school apartment, it definitely had some issues.  Here’s my review ‘I chose this apartment for my two week stay in Florence while I attended Istituto di Michelangelo because I thought it would be much quieter than the apartment I rented through the school in 2017 which was extremely noisy and full of mosquitoes. I’m not sure where to begin. I knew it would be small but it was tiny. And despite my contacting the owner multiple times regarding how far it was from the school and the centro, she did not give me correct information. She kept saying it was 17 minutes but it was a solid 25-30 depending on the route. That may not seem like much of a difference but when you’re walking back and forth 2-3 times a day or at night it makes a huge difference. I missed out on what people said was an excellent concert because I didn’t want to walk back from the Santo Spirito area late at night. And I skipped the Bologna excursion because it was too far to walk to the station and the information she gave me on buses was incorrect. I tried to take the bus home one night, using the one she said stopped in Piazza Ferucci and it took me out into the western suburbs for more than an hour, scaring the hell out of me.

And that was the biggest issue, communications. La signora spoke no English and even though I was studying Italian I could not make her understand me. So I had to send her questions via Whatsapp, which she then ran through some translation app that clearly was not good because the responses made no sense half the time.

Plus the neighbor had very loud parties at least three nights and I had to suffer through a bad, loud concert along the Arno one night.

Still I would probably use HomeAway or VRBO again for rentals in Italy or France.  You just have to sift through a lot of listings and reviews, which is also true for hotels on TripAdvisor.

Airlines and the websites that promise better rates

I’ve flown British Airways, Alitalia, Emirates, Turkish Airlines, and Delta/Air France (and possibly United or American in the early days) since I started traveling to Europe and all I can say is that if you’re in steerage all you can hope for is a lot of wine and an on time flight.  My first experience with Emirates was good–lots of wine and excellent food– even though I had the last seat in the last row but my second experience in 2018 was awful.  They were an hour late because they couldn’t get something out of the hold (scary) and passed through the aisles once with food and wine then closed the curtain to the galley, and never appeared again.

And Turkish Airlines, which advertises that it’s been voted number 1 in Europe, was the scariest flight ever; rocking and rolling for 10 hours.  Plus Istanbul is the craziest airport I’ve ever been in and even if you’re just doing a layover, as we were, you need a visa that costs $30.  But it was worth it to have one of the most fabulous tours ever.  (See my comments above.)

And I’m still so mad at the way Air France handled a strike in Italy in October 2019 that I sent them a letter saying I’d never fly with them again.  (And here’s a portion of what I wrote: The Air France check in desk was complete chaos with only one person working. After we stood in line for almost an hour that person stood up and shouted at us to move to a different window–where there was no one working. We stood in line for another hour until a staff person walked through the long line of passengers handing out a voucher for what turned out to be a bottle of water and a stale sandwich. He told us they were working first with people whose flights had been rescheduled and to come back in an hour and Air France would re-book the rest of us.

Not long after we returned, the one person working left, providing no information before she walked out. Nearly 3 hours later a staff person again started yelling at us, saying no one would be working until 5:00pm at the earliest and our only recourse was to find ourselves a hotel and call to rebook. She handed out a form for reimbursement and then left.)  So we were stuck for 36 hours in a horrible hotel in the middle of nowhere then had to fly from Florence to Rome on a 7:30 am flight, then had a 10 hour flight to Atlanta, a 5 hour layover and then a long flight from Atlanta to Omaha.

I want to end this post with probably the most important information (and hopefully someone has slogged their way to the end.)  I’ve occasionally used Expedia and Kayak to find better rates on flights.  But this spring I mistakenly used Expedia for a very reasonable flight with SAS.  But the purchase went through a company called CheapoAir.  UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU EVER USE THIS COMPANY.

As I was booking my SAS flights on CheapoAir’s website,  I clicked on a box to pay extra for free cancellation or flight changes.  Then my sister decided she wanted to meet me in Italy and when I tried to change my flights to match the date she wanted to return, CheapoAir said it would cost a minimum of $800 (on flights that had only been $1,000 to begin with.)

So I filed a challenge with American Express who took the charges off my credit card.  Then the fun began.  For nearly 6 weeks I received one threatening email after another from CheapoAir and their parent company Fareportal.  I finally sent a complaint to my state Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Office.  I’m not sure what the AG’s office said but CheapoAir stopped sending threats and dropped their claims.

As with my driving posts, I’ve probably just given people ideas of what not to do but hopefully they will be helpful.

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