A Defense of Free and Easy Holidays

Or Why I Hate Tour Packages

Disclaimer: I do not think that all tour packages are bad. I am not out to bash tour packages. Some tour packages give good value for money. In any marketing and advertising campaign, companies will always show their products in the best way possible without misrepresenting their products. My purposes here is to show what you really get out of a standard tour package, and to help travellers to discern whether a tour package is really for them or not.

Let us look at a standard tour package. I have gone for a reputable and well-known travel agency, Chan Brothers. The following is their 10 Day Europe Fantasy package, costing SGD 2,449 per person on twin sharing basis flying by Qatar Airways, leaving on Friday 15 Sep 2006.

10D Europe Fantasy (E10F)

Stay overnight in Interlaken and Zermatt, the village resort of the Matterhorn. Stay 2 Nights in Paris.

Itinerary

Day(s) Activities
Day 1 SINGAPORE - ZURICH (Meals on Board)
Assemble at Singapore Changi Airport for your flight to Zurich.
Day 2 ZURICH - TITISEE - RHINEFALLS - LUCERNE (Meals on Board/Original Black Forest Lunch/Dinner)
Upon arrival, proceed to Black Forest, the largest forest in Germany. Arrive at the tourist resort township of Titisee, home to Germany's largest Cuckoo Clock Centre. After lunch, you can shop for cuckoo clocks before you cross the border into Switzerland and travel to Schaffhausen to view the Rhinefalls, the largest waterfall in Western Europe. Next, enjoy the scenic views of mountains and serene countryside on the way to the picturesque township of Lucerne.

Note Accommodations may not be in Lucerne Area

Day 3 LUCERNE (Breakfast)
Wake up to Lucerne's breathtaking views. After breakfast, take a walking tour to Chapel Bridge and Lion Monument. You have the rest of the day at leisure to relax or shop for brand-name watches, famous Swiss chocolates and music boxes. Or choose to take an optional excursion to the top of Mt Titlis at your own expense.
Day 4 LUCERNE - BERNE - INTERLAKEN (Breakfast/Dinner)
Embark on a scenic drive to Berne, the capital of Switzerland. Upon arrival at the Bahnhofplatz, take a walking tour of the old town to view beautiful fountains decorated with statues and the 16th-century Clock Tower with its many painted figures. On the same street stands house No. 49, once Albert Einstein's home where he wrote the Theory of Relativity in 1905. Not to be missed is Berne's icon at the popular Bear Pit of Berne. Since end-15th Century, the bears of Berne have been favourites with both tourists and Berne residents. Continue to Interlaken, where you can view the mighty Jungfrau Mountain in the Bernese Oberland. Stroll through the township and enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the many sidewalk cafes.
Day 5 INTERLAKEN - ZERMATT (Breakfast/Dinner)
Continue your scenic journey to Tasch and board the rack rail to Zermatt, the famous resort town at the base of the Matterhorn, Switzerland's icon and one of the most distinctive mountains in the world. This beautiful town is car-free and is served only by carriages and electric taxis. Upon arrival, spend the day at leisure to explore the village. As you walk along Hinterdorf Street, the town's most picturesque street, past the many old houses that date back centuries, imagine how old Zermatt must have been.
Day 6 ZERMATT - MONTREUX - GENEVA (Breakfast/Dinner)
After breakfast, travel to Montreux, Switzerland's most modern resort city on Lake Geneva, frequented by both the Swiss and tourists alike. Often referred to as Switzerland's cultural city, it hosts a great number of festivals and major world events, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival. Make a stop for photos at Chillion Castle, before arriving in Geneva, a great city blessed with a spectacular lake with shimmering shores set against a backdrop of wooded mountains and vegetation. Geneva is not only the second seat of the United Nations after New York, but also houses many international bodies such as World Health Organization, International Labour Organization and the World Committee of the International Red Cross. Your tour today will include its most famous landmarks, such as the harbour, the magnificent Jet d'au, the highest fountain in the world, the Flora Clock and the Reformation Monument. End the day with a short drive to view the United Nations Building and the International Red Cross Building.
Day 7 GENEVA - PARIS (Breakfast/Dinner)
Departing from Switzerland, you will head north, passing through Burgundy vineyards and vast farmlands on the way to Paris. The city has over 90 museums of all sizes, such as the great Louvre Museum, famous for its art collection, including the Venus of Milo and Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa.
Day 8 PARIS (Breakfast/Lunch)
Your city tour sights include Arc De Triomphe, Champs Elysees Boulevard and Place de la Concorde. View Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral, a most magnificent Gothic architectural achievement. After lunch, spend the day at leisure to shop, visit museums or take an optional cruise on Seine River at your own expense.
Day 9 PARIS - SINGAPORE (Breakfast/Meals on Board)
If time permits, you can do some last-minute shopping before you transfer to the airport for your flight home.
Day 10 ARRIVE IN SINGAPORE

Counting The Cost

Firstly, let us see how many days you will actually spend there. How many nights of accommodation will you get? If you actually counted, you will get only seven nights of accommodation. That means you will stay overnight only from Days 2 to 8. Assuming you get full days from Days 2 to 8, and half a day on Day 9, you will be there for only seven-and-a-half to eight days. So a ten-day tour is actually eight full days at the most with seven nights accommodation. Bummer.

How many meals do you get? Add them all up. Seven breakfasts. No big deal, because accommodation almost always comes with breakfast anyway. Two lunches. The original Black Forest lunch is no big deal and is not going to cost more than a normal lunch. It is just a lunch in the Black Forest area. Five dinners, nothing special. Since the breakfasts come with the accommodation, the travel agency has to fork out money only for seven meals, i.e. two lunches and five dinners. Keep this in mind when we work out the costs later.

Let us now work out the cost of the accommodation (with breakfasts). Zurich is probably the most expensive city. They will probably put you up in Novotel Zurich City-West, a four-star hotel located near an industrial area in Zurich. The cost for a standard room with breakfast for two people is CHF 200. They cut costs by arranging the Zurich hotel stay on a weekend, which is cheaper than a weekday say. Assuming CHF 1 = SGD 1.28, CHF 200 = SGD 256, or SGD 128 per person. Let us assuming that the total cost of accommodation and breakfasts is SGD 128 per night for seven nights, or SGD 896 in total.

The cost of the air fare is SGD 925 on Qatar Airways to Zurich, without airport taxes and fuel surcharges. Travel agencies always ask the customer to bear the airport taxes and fuel surcharges anyway, so for comparison's sake this is fine.

Let us assume that each meal costs SGD 40 per person inclusive of taxes. Again, this is a very high estimate. They provide seven meals, so the cost is SGD 280 in total.

Transportation is a little harder to work out, so I will go by comparison. In our trip to France in May 2005, we (four of us) rented a car for 14 days. Our total cost inclusive of petrol was SGD 1,684.19, or SGD 421.05 per person. Let's say that if it was a seven day trip, it would be SGD 250 per person.

So our total cost is SGD (896 + 925 + 280 + 250) = SGD 2,351. The travel agency charges you SGD 2,449, making a profit of at least SGD 98. Notice that I have given ridiculous amounts to the cost of the hotel (it is probably closer to SGD 750), and the travel agency certainly gets bulk discounts on accommodation and food, bringing down their total costs. My guess is that they make at least SGD 200 per person, and if ten persons travel, they make SGD 2,000 which is more than enough to cover pay their tour guide (say SGD 1,000), and the rest of the SGD 1,000 goes to the travel agency. This is an approximation, but I am sure that the travel agency surely earns more than SGD 1,000 per trip to Europe.

Of course the travel agency has to make a profit. So you are basically paying them about SGD 200 per person to service you. If you went on your own, it would save you SGD 200. Is it worth it saving the money? I say a resounding YES. Sure, it is more hassle, but a lot more fun, and more flexible too. You may see less sights, but I am sure that you will actually see more of what Europe has to offer. It is perfectly safe, feasible, and cheaper to go on your own, and you can easily plan your own free and easy self-drive tour to France.

Let us now look in more detail at the itinerary planned by the travel agency.

Every Day Rush Rush

The itinerary is crazy, typical of the kiasu Singaporean who wishes to cover as many places in as little time as possible. Is it really worth it? What do you see? When the itinerary says "Your tour today will include its most famous landmarks", do you actually have time to enter the landmarks, or it is a touch-and-go, or is it a drive-by-and-see-from the-tour-bus sort of thing? Any delays by any member of your tour group increases the possibility of a touch-and-go.

Spending one day in a town or city is just crazy. Don't forget that you need time to travel. By the time you reach Paris on Day 7, the earliest is lunch time. So you have maybe one-and-a-half to two days to visit Paris. That is absolute madness. The Louvre itself needs at least two days to visit. Chateau Versailles, one day. Notre Dame Cathedral, half day. Eiffel Tower, half day. Arc De Triomphe and Champs Elysees Boulevard, half day. And I haven't even talked about a cruise on the River Seine (half day), Montmartre and La Basilique Du Sacre-Coeur (half day), and many other museums and landmarks that are waiting to be discovered. How about time for shopping as well? Only "if time permits", as the itinerary says.

Notice that the itinerary does not mention that you will ascend the Eiffel Tower. It just says "view Eiffel Towel and Notre Dame Cathedral". What is the meaning of that? Does it mean you will just drive by and view it from the tour bus? Or that you can stop to take pictures from the outside? Or that you are allowed to enter, but any admission charges must be born by you? Keep asking those questions.

The rushed schedule means that you have to wake up early everyday, typically at seven in the morning. You are on holiday, why should you wake up the same time as a normal working day? It's just not my idea of a holiday. If you are late, the whole group stares at you.

Another consequence of the packed schedule is that a disproportionate amount of time is spent travelling. Almost every day requires at least one to two hours on the road, and everyone knows that just sitting in a tour bus can be very tiring and uneventful.

Of course there is absolutely no flexibility in the itinerary. You liked Paris and want to stay another day? Too bad. Fancied Lucerne? Come again next time. Found a particular place boring? Live with it. Don't like the hotel and meals? Stop complaining. Hate crowds? You will always be visiting crowded areas because your itinerary covers only the touristy spots. No quiet places and undiscovered gems. And the danger of tourist traps is everywhere.

Come Join Me Leh!

While some tours have guaranteed departure dates, many departure dates are conditional upon at least ten or 15 persons joining the tour. So if the tour does not attract enough people, be prepared to be given two weeks notice that your tour has been cancelled. Oh the frustration and hassle! Hope you will be able to get back your deposit quickly.

No Privacy

If you are a honeymooner, forget it. There is just no privacy. Screaming kids running up and down the bus, crying babies, Singaporeans who talk too loud and complain too much. There is a chance your trip will be spoiled by any of the above. Romantic? Hah.

Hidden Costs

Be prepared to pay more than the price advertised by the travel agency. Airport taxes, fuel surcharges (which can work out to a few hundred SGD per person), meals that are not covered by the itinerary, optional tours and entrance fees to attractions (it just means that you have to bear the cost yourself), be prepared to fork out extra cash for all these hidden costs. Don't forget that red packet for the tour guide.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Certainly, tour packages aren't all that bad. Good companies like Chan Brothers generally give you decent food and accommodation. They are reputable. Everything is planned for you, there is almost no need to do anything except to pay up and pack.

Organizing your own Free and Easy trip has its potential drawbacks. Everything has to be planned before going, especially if you are going during the peak season where finding accommodation may be a problem. Lots of independent research and enquiring needs to be done. Arguments can occur if navigation is poor and you are lost. But if everything is planned and executed properly, a Free and Easy trip is always better than a tour package.

So How?

Decide for yourself. If after reading this you decide that tour packages are the way to go, go for it. But do graduate to doing your own Free and Easy trip one day. For those of us who have been enlightened, spread the word. Go independent.

I have also written brief guides of France (with nice photos) and Paris, a guide on how to plan your own Free and Easy holiday to France, and an article on buying cheap train tickets in France.

How to Stay Safe in Paris?

Here is another useful guide written by David Choo.

Last updated: Friday 16 March 2007, 23:40:09 hrs