Monday, May 4, 2015

Trip to Italy - Tours

Initially, I didn't plan on booking tours but the more I researched the more I realized that we’d miss too much without guides and this trip was important to me. So, I broke down and arranged for guides for a few key points. In taking the tours then comparing the price to the value, I learned a lot.

I booked the tours based on price, reviews, etc. and tried to keep the costs down as much as possible. Accordingly, I made some less than perfect decisions but now I know better for next time. I booked different types of tours using 4 different agencies providing 3 different types of tours and I will tell you about type of tour.

First, in Florence… the city has free tours available. This seemed like a really good deal to me and to about 1000 other people (exaggerating a little – but you get the idea). In the end, our free tour group was huge. We could hardly hear the tour guide and since the tour was free there were no headsets or any means of staying “connected” to the guide if you got separated from the guide by even just a few steps. Even though this was a free tour, it wasn't worth the time we dedicated to it. 

In Rome, we took 2 tours - one of the Vatican, one was the Forum/Coliseum.  These were booked through typical travel/tour companies that I found online. The tour guides had a microphone and we tourists were directly connected to her by ear buds. This was nice because we could hear everything. The guides were good and very knowledgeable though somewhat mechanical in their presentation – as if they gave the same speech 20 times per day (which I think they do). 
The great Mt. Vesuvius

For these tours we were in groups of approximately 30-50 people (though large, much more manageable than the free tour I described in Florence). These tours cost in the $300 range for my group of 4 people and included “skip the line” access to major sites. For this type of tour, “skip the line” is important because the lines are unlike anything I have ever seen before – hours and hours of waiting! Still, don’t be sold on this type of tour yet. There are some better alternatives and other ways to skip the line.

Overall, while this type of paid group tour is better than a free tour, it still wasn't perfect. First, these tours are mechanically delivered and since you are in such a large group your access to the guide is limited. If you can corner the guide long enough for a question, 2 dozen other people are also trying to do the same thing at the same time. So there is absolutely no personalization, no feeling of connection with the guide or the site – very mechanical.

Our final tour (the completely awesome one) was a private full day (booked 8 hours and he spent 10 hours with us at no additional cost) tour that included Pompeii, the city of Naples, and the Archaeology Museum in Naples. I booked this tour through Tours by Locals and it was AMAZING! 

Since we had a guide only dedicated to us for the full day, there was nothing mechanical about the tour. The guide was at our disposal to answer any question, he changed the tour agenda on-the-fly-based on our areas of interest and the whole day was like hanging out with a friend who knows everything!  He took us to a local restaurant that had great food, brought us to the best place to get gelato. Since these places were local haunts rather than tourist traps, the menus were in Italian and the waiters spoke no English. Our guide read the menu to us, explained everything, recommended the best dishes, and did all the talking for us in Italian. Since he was a regular at the restaurant, we got VIP treatment!

The whole concept of Tours by Locals is a little different from other tours. With Tours by Locals your guides are licensed tour guides but the live in the place where they tour – and many of the guides have lived there for their entire lives. Our guide for example, was born in Naples and lived there his entire 40+ years. They know the local customs, they know the best restaurants, they know the people, they know the areas to avoid and what is a must see, they know the best transportation (subway in Naples) – they know everything a tour guide knows plus all the tricks and tips that only a local knows. It was PERFECT! This is touring the way it should be!

The best part…. ready for this…. It was equally priced and for some tours I looked into less expensive than the impersonal group tours I booked in Rome. Moving forward, I will be using Tours by Locals exclusively. It is important to know, however, that some of the tours with Tours by Locals don’t offer skip the line access… so read...

Florence and Rome have a lot of tourists. If you want to see the major attractions, just assume that everyone else does too. For example, lines to get into the Basilica at the Vatican were over 4 hours long. If you choose to use a group tour, make sure it includes “skip the line” accesses. If you choose a private guide (I recommend Tours by Locals) or go alone, reserve a date/time and buy tickets in advance online. The downside to this is that you are stuck to a set agenda and timing. The upside is that you don’t waste your time in line. I got tickets through If you choose Tours by Locals or other private guides coordinate it with the guide before paying anything. A local guide may have other recommendations on how to secure tickets from the local perspective. 


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