We all have our obsessions. Obviously, travel is one of ours, and along with that goes our obsession with personalizing our holidays. Gone are the days of pre-arranged group shore excursions from cruise ships, and gone are the days of European bus tours with 42 other well-intentioned travelers for us (but we did have a wonderful time all those years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with a ten-year-old – maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime!).
In our quest for personalization, we’re becoming experts on finding tour operators who specialize in bespoke experiences, and finding those tour companies online – a tricky and anxiety-inducing prospect as you lighten your wallet by a considerable sum before even setting foot in the country to which you are traveling. For what it’s worth, then, we offer you our five tips for finding that perfect (for you), private, personalized dream tour. First, the story of how we discovered these tips.
It all started a few months before when we began our search for a bespoke tour of the countryside outside Paris. That search led us to À Paris Travel and a wonderful woman named Sue Lillie. With considerable trepidation, we had started an online search for tour companies specializing in European travel, and soon found that there were too many to wade through with any degree of certainty about their quality. So we narrowed our search to specialists in visiting France and stumbled on this wonderful company. But we didn’t know that it would be wonderful at that time.
We decided that we’d focus on one of our obsessions – champagne – and more specifically in Patty’s case Veuve Clicquot champagne. This led us to create a tour of the champagne district that would include a visit to the Veuve caves and a champagne tasting or two. Before we were willing to pay the complete upfront amount, however, rather than conducting all of the transactions through email and the web site, we decided that a chat with the proprietor might put our minds at ease. And so it did. After a very pleasant conversation with US-based Lille (late of Montreal as it turned out), we felt quite comfortable paying in advance for the tour (which is required for most of these companies). Then all we had to do was hope that a car and driver showed up on the appointed day at the appointed time.
Early one gray morning in Paris we made our way to the front door of our hotel on the Champs Elysees to find Pascale leaning against his car awaiting our arrival. And so we were off.
After a few brief questions about our interests, Pascale was quite sure he know just where to take us. He’d take us to one champagne house, and then make arrangements for the other. First, we’d visit Épernay where we would take a tour and tasting at the venerable Moet & Chandon, and then we’d venture to Reims, the largest city in the Champagne district and home to the Veuve caves. Between the two, Pascale would drop us off at a favorite lunch spot where we’d join the locals for a bite to eat.
With just the three of us on board, we had all the freedom that a group tour just doesn’t offer. The itinerary was ours alone and if we decided to veer off course at any point during the day, we could. It was another of those days that you mark down in your memory as ‘perfect.’ In fact, it was so perfect that we relaxed a bit about the second tour we had booked during that trip (yes, we took a chance and booked two). When tiny Caroline picked us up in her massive Mercedes in Villefranche on the French Riviera two weeks later, we knew that we were in for the time of our lives thanks to À Paris Travel and our willingness to take a risk.
Tip # 1: Be specific about exactly where you want the tour to take you.
We were quite clear that we wanted to visit Champagne, rather than simply saying that we’d like to take a day trip out of Paris which is the thought we had initially.
Tip #2: Decide what kind of experiences you’d like (follow your obsessions for example), and then keep an open mind.
We had other ideas when Pascale picked us up that morning, but other than the visit to Veuve, we were open-minded and let him guide us. These kinds of open-minded approaches have led us to many wonderful experiences over the years. And these guides are truly wonderful resources. Use them!
Tip #3: Do your online research carefully and consider it to be part of the experience.
This is so important. You need to do a lot of research, and you should consider not thinking of it as work; rather you might see it as part of the learning experience that travel ought to be. We actually consider research prior to a trip a part of the trip resulting in a much longer experience than the week or three that are actually away.
Tip #4: Do your due diligence.
For us that means that as often as possible, getting these tour operators on the telephone. Even if it’s as simple as booking a limo drive from a cruise terminal, try to speak to someone in person once you’ve gathered all the information you can from the web. You can learn a lot by that more personal contact. If you have a gut feeling that this isn’t for you, you are very likely right. Sue Lillie put us very much at ease as she told us about how her company had developed and her own passion for French travel.
You can also use online travel forums such as TripAdvisor (we’re contributors to this one), but remember that everyone is different. Read the contributors’ pieces carefully and note the outliers – in other words, is it the only one that had a problem with the tour operator, or the only one that didn’t. In either case, that one might not provide you with as helpful information as you might think. Also, read reviews to see if they are specific, or if they are just subjective assessments (e.g. It was wonderful! Terrible! etc. without concrete descriptions of exactly what made it so wonderful or terrible letting the reader then decide.). In the end, a traveler review on a site such as TripAdvisor is based largely on the contributor’s expectations going in. If we were to review some of the hotels that others find wonderful, we’d find them barely acceptable for a variety of reasons all based on what we’re looking for.
Tip #5: Make your decision, pay your money, and don’t look back.
Don’t second guess yourself. After you make a decision, go with it. File away other interesting information about other tour companies for the future, but don’t keep comparing what one might have offered. You’ve made a decision, and it is very likely that if you did your homework, it will be the right one for you.
If you’ve hit on a truly terrific one, perhaps you’ll do what we did and book again with that tour operator. We’d love to know how people make out with personalized tours. If you have five minutes, come along with us as we follow our obsession with Veuve Clicquot from the caves in France to the Veuve bar aboard the Queen Mary 2.