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A continent at your feet
Cities such as Paris, Rome or Barcelona are places we all need to go to at least once in our lives, to see sights such as the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, or to shop and eat along the Ramblas.
But there is a long list of other great cities. Some are familiar, such as Prague or Berlin, and some less so, such as Tallin or Geneva.
You might want to walk the city walls of Dubrovnik or Londonderry, wander the art galleries of Florence or Bruges, or explore the restaurants of Copenhagen or Seville.
How do you choose between sailing the fjords of Norway, or walking the Camino de Santiago? Between lying on a beach on the Algarve or cycling through the Alps? Between the museums of Amsterdam and those of the Vatican?
Well, you can’t. All you can do is make a list and tick off as many as time allows.
Feel a little special
Choosing a special interest is perhaps a better way to pick a tour than navigating your way around such a bewildering choice of destinations. Whether it’s hiking, yoga, military history, art or cookery classes, there is a tour for you.
You can pursue an existing hobby or try out a new one. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to paint Italian landscapes in watercolours or sail a yacht around the Med, why not find out?
I’ve joined a spa tour of the Czech Republic, learning about its long history of health tourism and enjoying some remarkable wines as well.
I’ve sampled motor sports in Germany, home to some amazing circuits. And I’ve hiked through many parts of the British Isles, discovering the treasure we have much nearer to hand.
Whatever you interest, there is probably a tour for you – or a tour company that can put together.
Take a scenic train journey through France, Switzerland and Italy to stay on the western shore of Lake Garda… Find out more here.
Trains, planes, and automobiles and ships
Tours might be by coach, by car or by ship, including river cruises or cruise ships through the Mediterranean. You can even find tours where you sail your own yacht in a flotilla with an experienced skipper if you need one.
With destinations further afield, you will probably fly, with a pick-up from your front door if needed.
But tours of places like the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District, or London are also a chance to travel less but go deeper into somewhere you can visit time and again.
Most touring involves at least some time in a coach, whether it’s for exploring a city, or travelling between sites. Modern coaches offer facilities such as on-board toilets and refreshments to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
Speaking in tongues
Most tours are led by an escort, often supplemented by specialist guides for particular parts: a new city or museum, for example.
However, your tour escort is not there just to make sure everyone is on board the bus (although that’s important). He or she can often fill you in on local culture or history in response to any questions you have.
Their language skills and local knowledge can also be very helpful in foreign countries for shopping or other needs.
Still, while there are more than 100 languages in Europe (40 with more than a million speakers), it’s rare to go somewhere where many people don’t speak at least some English.
Some 40 per cent of EU citizens say they can hold a conversation in English, for example.
By the way, the days when guides made their money by taking their clients to shops for the commissions are long gone. While such guides may still exist, no reputable tour company would allow it, if only because it annoys their customer base.
Pay and go
A touring holiday takes almost all the hassle out of seeing the sights. You may have to get yourself out of bed in the morning, but a coach and a guide will take care of things from then on.
With everything included in the price, a tour is a great way to budget for a holiday. Even meals and drinks can be paid for upfront, leaving you to fully enjoy the experience without worrying about a thing.
The itinerary has been carefully worked out and tweaked with every group of customers, making sure it balances the needs of seeing the sights, while giving you time to relax in between.
Regular time off is built into the schedule, which you can use to see even more, revisit places you take a liking to, or just relax.
You may stay in the same hotel for a few nights, or a week, or move every night. It’s up to you to choose a holiday that suits your needs, whether it’s to see as much as possible in many places, or to just see a much as possible of one place.
Pack and go
While jet lag is not a problem for the shorter flights of Europe, I still find what I call “clothing lag” is.
Packing in a cold, damp British spring, it’s hard to visualise how hot a Spanish resort might be. After two weeks of baking in the sun, you wonder why exactly you packed that wool sweater.
Equally, when the autumn weather in UK is balmy, it’s hard to imagine how cold you are going to be on a dog sled in Finland. That’s when you wonder why you didn’t pack several extra woollen sweaters.
Always check the weather, not forgetting things like humidity or wind chill that can make a real difference to your comfort.
When packing, layers are key as adding or subtracting thinner clothing can more easily adjust for temperature than heavier ones.
If you do get it wrong, don’t panic. Sometimes it’s better to just find a local shop so you end up wearing what the locals are wearing.
As well as being exactly suited to the climate, you’ll blend in much better. Of course, that’s an easier proposition in a cheap Greek supermarket than in a posh Swiss health resort.
Call a friend
In a tour group you will meet lots of like-minded people, especially if you pick a special interest holiday.
For solo travellers, even those who leave their partners at home (not everyone enjoys Italian vineyard tours, remarkably), and for couples as well, it’s a great way to meet new friends.
Having chosen a particular place to visit, or a particular interest, you already have something in common.
Like anyone else, I always have a nagging fear in a group I will not get on with everybody else but my experience is that I usually do. Everyone - including myself - is in their best behaviour and out to have a good time and that always a good base to build on.
And if you do find that one awkward individual you can’t stand it is easy to avoid them by hanging out with those you do like (which might well be everyone else).
The group is also great when you need a partner for sports, dancing or other joint activities. It always takes the pressure off to find somewhere else is worse than you at activities such as cooking or tennis.
Of course, most of us also need some private time on holiday and it’s always understood if you take yourself away with a good book or wander away to enjoy a view, whether alone or with a partner.