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Old Jul 5, 14, 6:14 am
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Rick Steves Tours to Italy

I'm guessing this post is a long shot- asking if anyone has done a Rick Steves tour to Italy. My assumption is most of us on this forum are more do it yourselfers vs. group tour people.
The misses and I are considering a 9 day Rick Steves tour that goes to Rome, Volterra, Cinque Terre and Florence. We've never done a group tour. However when we travel to Europe, we typically will find day tours with guides to specific sites which we almost always love. You seem to get more out of an excursion with a guide than just going on your own. We're thinking if we like the day tours so much, maybe we'd like the whole trip to be with a guide. They do all the planning and booking (which otherwise is me).
Does anyone have experience with one of his tours? I'm concerned about the hotels, the food (half your dinners are included), the guides themselves etc. It's not a cheap vacation so I'd love to get feedback from someone with experience.
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Old Jul 5, 14, 9:34 am
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I have a lot of respect for what he's done. My wife, 3 young children and I bought his 21 day self tour book of Europe and did it about 23 years or so ago. It really was back door, with mostly out of the way places that tourists would be unlikely to find. It was fantastic.

Rick Steve places are now packed with tourists, cater to tourists, make their living off of Rick Steve, and for the most part you no longer see Europe through the Back Door. You see tourist sites that cater to Rick Steve's tours.

I was in Lago di Como a few years ago. There's a restaurant in a converted monastery that you have to take a beautiful tram ride up to. Since I had last Ben there it had been added to Rick Steve's tour, and there wasn't an Italian in the place. Everyone was carrying their Rick Steve handbook, and people were saying from table to table, "Are you from Seattle too?" The menu was like, "Do you want the chicken or the fish?"

I walked into an old favorite place in Venice last fall. I noticed that it had a new "Rick Steve" endorsed sticker on the window. The place was packed with Americans carrying Rick Steve tour books. The waiters spoke to me in English, and when I asked for a menu in Italian It took a while for them to find one.

About 20 years ago I recommended a Rick Steve tour to a female friend. The tour guide happened to be an American Professor teaching at a university in the USA, working as a Rick Steve tour guide during his summer vacation. They've been married since.

Overall, Rick Steve has done some fantastic things for travelers, and for some small towns and businesses in Europe. But after all this time, now that he is a big industry, Europe through the Back Door is not seeing Europe that way. It's a huge, commercial, American package deal.

Probably still a good choice for some, but by now, if you want an authentic tour of Italy you won't get it there. Most hidden place he has recommended are now overrun with tourists. Even ghost towns he used to recommend just for a walk through now have multiple real estate offices and B&B's.

It's no longer seeing Europe through the back door. It's how to see Europe with a huge group of American tourists, mainly from the northwest.

Last edited by Perche; Jul 5, 14 at 2:44 pm
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Old Jul 5, 14, 12:27 pm
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how much is cost, for what transport included, and what is max number of people?
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Old Jul 7, 14, 11:09 am
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Originally Posted by slawecki View Post
how much is cost, for what transport included, and what is max number of people?
Cost for a tour in March (I'm sure it goes up for the spring and fall. Prices not yet announced) is $2395 per person plus buy your own airfare. Group size is about 24 people. Price includes lodging, bfasts, half your dinners, tranportation from city to city, entrance to all the attractions on the itinerary (museums etc) and your guide. It also includes all tips which is nice. I was hoping to get a sense of the hotels he uses, the restaurants etc. I know he's into bargain hotels so I'm sure there's no fancy hotels on the agenda.

I do agree with Perche that Rick has probably single handidly changed how Americans travel to Europe. I rely on his guide books when I go. What you say is true if you want to find less explored areas. Is harder to do now. However, if you're going to the main cities for your first time and possible your only time, and you want to see the highlights, what are your other options? He does a good job pointing those out.
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Old Jul 7, 14, 1:50 pm
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Originally Posted by BMWMOT View Post
I do agree with Perche that Rick has probably single handidly changed how Americans travel to Europe. I rely on his guide books when I go. What you say is true if you want to find less explored areas. Is harder to do now. However, if you're going to the main cities for your first time and possible your only time, and you want to see the highlights, what are your other options? He does a good job pointing those out.
Consider whether the highlights for you are the same as his, or anyone else's. I haven't taken a RS tour, but do step back and think about how you like to travel. There's something about us Americans that makes us, or at least many of us, love to "vacation" by blitzing a country and trying check the boxes out of a tourbook in 2 weeks. Maybe to some that's a vacation, but to me, that's the opposite.

You won't see all of Italy (or anywhere else), or even all of the good stuff in a single city, in two weeks. Admit defeat on that front and consider slowing it down. Think about what you like and prioritize, then pick a couple of locations and plan for those. Here's what I mean:

I'm primarily a food tourist. I like to eat. I also like to walk with no real goal in mind, see some museums (natural history and local/national history primarily). So I might go to Florence and Venice - maybe I'd consider Rome but for the whole 2 weeks. I'd find a place to stay within my budget that fell within walking distance of the historic center. Then I'd get into finding my attractions - maybe a food tour, something that includes the markets and such. I'd spend some time on restaurants, noting what to avoid as much as what to visit. Then I'd figure out the museums I want to visit.

You might think a professional tour like RS would have done all of that for you, and they have, but you can only cram so many people through the same destination and call it authentic. At some point, there will be more tour groups and tourists than there are locals, at which time it's probably better to just go to Chicago and hang out with the same people. I'm sure these kinds of tours started off great, but popularity will kill the experience, at least for places marketed to you as "hidden gems". If you have to book a tour, consider a local travel agent or tour guide that does a lower volume to the places that aren't in the guide books.

This is obviously 100% my opinion, and if you disagree and like the idea of a tour group, please do go for it have fun and write about it. My way isn't the only way and I'm not trying to convince you otherwise, but in the event that what I'm telling you hasn't crossed your mind, maybe it's helpful.
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Old Jul 8, 14, 11:31 am
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Personally, I don't think that I would be interested in a guided tour, but if it is something that you want to try, who are we to say otherwise. As a larger comment on Rick Steves in general -- I was very impressed with his book as my wife and I vacationed in Italy in May. I will say that we used it exclusively for sites -- not his restaurant or hotel recommendations -- and that it was spot on with its tips and descriptions. Furthermore, he has made available audio tours in podcast format through a free iPhone app (I don't know if there is an Android version). We found these to quite informative at the sites where there is not much signage to go by, where private guides are expensive, or art museums where you can get lost looking at all the art -- i.e. The Forum and Colosseum in Rome, in Pompeii, at the Uffizi, and the Accademia in Venice. Some other installments included short 20-minute primers on sites or cities -- interesting little bits to listen to.

Last edited by dkelly1110; Jul 8, 14 at 12:07 pm
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Old Jul 8, 14, 12:15 pm
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Thanks all for the feedback. As I suspected so far no response from anyone that has actually taken a recent tour. We are more do yourselfers aren't we?

I too have used his podcasts during this year's trip to London and Paris. It is a good way to get free information on a site.
If we wanted to mimic his tour on our own, how difficult is it to get from Rome to Volterra to Cinque Terre, to Florence to Venice on your own? I suspect the train system in Italy will get you to all those places but at what cost and how much research and booking time? We could probably hire a tour guide for a day in each city but is that more cost effective than RS?
Anyway some more thinking and planning to do.....
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Old Jul 11, 14, 11:07 am
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The last thing I want to do in Europe is hang around with lots of Americans. I can do that here. It sounds like you don't want the hassle of making your own hotel reservations and planning how to get between cities. Since you have to make your flight reservations on your own, even if you book the RS tour, you have to use your time for that anyway. How about a travel agent to do the rest? There are plenty of tour guides (e.g. Tours by Locals,) that you can make arrangements with before you go.

TripAdvisor is also a good source for private guide information:
http://tripadvisor.com/Attractio...e_Tuscany.html

I make mistakes in arrangements sometimes, but I still love the feeling of accomplishment when things go as I planned.

Have a great trip, no matter how you get there.
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Old Jul 11, 14, 2:55 pm
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The Italian train system is pretty efficient overall. Can't speak for Volterra, but Cinque Terra to Florence is easy (around 3 hours, one change), Florence to Venice has direct trains) Trenitalia's website is pretty easy to use, and the American credit card issue has been addressed, I had no issues buying tickets in advance from the states.

The only notes I would give are:

Cinque Terre to Florence will involve regional trains, and hence can't be booked by web more than a week out. You can buy them from ticket machines at most train stations with a debit card that has a PIN number. If you do, ignore the "helpful" people who hover over the machine, looking for tips. Or if arriving at FCO and taking the train into the city, you can buy the cinque terre tickets at the airport train station. (They are origin-destination, and not limited to a specific date, but you do have to stick to trains that price the same) Lines to buy tickets at the major train stations can be brutal.

Florence to Venice, the higher-speed train (Frecciargento) has reserved seating. If you choose this train, and have luggage that won't fit in a smallish airplane overhead, pick seats in the CENTER of the car, the overhead storage in the middle 8 or so rows is tall enough for a mid-size suitcase - a lesson I learned - the hard way by schlepping my stuff from our end of the car seats to overhead space that didn't "belong" to me.

Last edited by LowlyDLsilver; Jul 11, 14 at 3:08 pm Reason: Corrections
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Old Jul 11, 14, 5:00 pm
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Don't forget there's a European Rail Travel forum, with lots of great information, links to resources, etc.

One of those excellent resources is The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

For different and highly personalized guided tours, Tours by Locals gets good reviews.

Last edited by JDiver; Jul 11, 14 at 5:09 pm
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Old Jul 13, 14, 7:41 am
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Thanks all for the information. The decision has been made, plane tix booked. We are going back to the way we normally travel (making our own reservations, booking day tours etc).
Old habits die hard I guess. We'll do a few days in Venice then a few more in Florence seeing the sights there then using it as home base to do day trips to Cinque Terre, Pisa etc. I will check out the links you provided. I am most interested in local tour guides and day tour companies.
Ciao!
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Old Jul 13, 14, 2:49 pm
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I did C T as a day trip from Florence. I wouldn't do it again.

It's 3 hours each way by train. Throw in time for lunch and getting between towns and what it devolves into is a scurrying, tick the box experience where you barely see two or three of the towns.

Explore the other C T related threads to see if you want to invest an overnight, but I would not recommend it as a day trip because it doesn't do the area justice, IMO.
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Old Jul 14, 14, 1:49 pm
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Originally Posted by LowlyDLsilver View Post
I did C T as a day trip from Florence. I wouldn't do it again.

It's 3 hours each way by train. Throw in time for lunch and getting between towns and what it devolves into is a scurrying, tick the box experience where you barely see two or three of the towns.

Explore the other C T related threads to see if you want to invest an overnight, but I would not recommend it as a day trip because it doesn't do the area justice, IMO.
100% agree with LowlyDLsilver. How can you see five towns, each separated by a train ride or a long hike by trail, on a day trip? CT is a destination to savor, not to rush through.

If you want to do day trips from Firenze perhaps a train trip to Siena, as that is at least a discrete area to visit (even though the train leaves you a bit away from the city center), or, a bus trip to San Gimignano? Or, rent a car for a Tuscan country side trip. Cinque Terre as a day trip from Firenze doesn't do justice to a great area, wastes time, and in my opinion is a bad idea.

Last edited by Perche; Jul 15, 14 at 9:29 am
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Old Jul 14, 14, 2:11 pm
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Originally Posted by Nanook View Post
The last thing I want to do in Europe is hang around with lots of Americans.
I see a business opportunity for a series of guidebooks focusing on how to avoid lots of Americans.

Of course, the series wouldn't be useful for long...
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Old Jul 14, 14, 6:27 pm
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If you do decide to do C T, if the sea conditions permit, I would recommend using the ferry between towns for at least some of the trips. The view from the water is stunning, and includes a couple pillboxes left behind by the Germans from WW2 as well as some very visible landslides from the flood a few years back. Just don't do the ferry for Corniglia - unless climbing a ton of stairs is your idea of a good time

You mentioned Pisa, which is an easy day trip that can be done without changing trains. If you book the tower climb, go the extra level up from the main observation deck to the level where the bells are while everyone else is taking pictures on the observation deck. We lingered a bit too long on the main deck,and were a bit rushed taking pictures on the bell level as the climb is time-limited. I booked the tower climb mid-day, which was a bad idea if you're just going to see Tower/Field of Miracles - shot the whole day, unless you discover other things about Pisa you want to see. If just going to see the above, look for a train to Pisa san Rossore, Centrale is a longer walk to the tower, but not all trains stop at s. Rossore

Last edited by LowlyDLsilver; Jul 14, 14 at 6:46 pm Reason: Spelling/add info
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