This will sound like a commercial but too bad. For those of you in the coach industry it may be of interest to hear a passenger’s point of view (albeit a rather more informed passenger than might be typical) and for those who have never tried a coach tour, it may offer some valuable insights (pardon the pun).
Insight Vacations has been around for some 35 years and is part of The Travel Corporation which includes several well- known brands of which Trafalgar Tours will perhaps be the most familiar to many readers. They are certainly not the cheapest around, however Insight offers several distinct points of difference, not only to its companion Trafalgar brand but also to the more youth oriented brands like Top Deck or Contiki. These in my mind makes them good value for money. Let’s start with the aspect most likely to be of interest to ABP readers.
The first difference, and a major selling point for them, is that they use full size touring coaches (49-57 seaters) but fitted with only 40 seats. Not only does this max out the size of the tour group at 40 (much quicker to get on or off a two door coach than 57), it also means that everyone has plenty of leg room to stretch out. Most coaches also have aisle seats than can be moved slightly sideways into the aisle thus allowing more comfort to those of a fuller form. There is even on board wi fi (though why one would spend too much time staring at a small screen when you could be looking out the window is a mystery). Passengers rotate through the coach throughout the duration of the tour.
The coaches are not owned by Insight but are supplied through arrangements with coach companies in each country. Our travels with them to date have included coaches from operators in Italy, France, Austria and Germany using coaches built on Iveco, Mercedes and Volvo chassis, all of which have been very comfortable and well maintained. The coaches are all late model, the one we had for Austria this year was on just its second trip. The coaches are also dedicated to Insight Work in a livery of white with multi coloured Insight decals.
There is occasional use of other vehicles for specific purposes. For example midibuses were used for a trip along the Amalfi coastline (one of those roads where you get to the blind bends, honk and hope!) and special shuttle buses provided at some locations as part of the visitor’s package. Airport transfers may also use a different coach.
The Insight coach drivers are also of a high standard, as you would want given some of the roads and traffic conditions they have to navigate. I have certainly been impressed with some of the manoeuvring required to get into tight parking spots, pass through archways, or to negotiate mountain passes and other narrow and winding roads along lakesides and coastlines.
One memorable example was on the road by Lake Como when our coach came face to face with a fuel tanker on a curved two lane road which had a cliff with protruding rocks on one side and a six inch gap between road and lake on the other. As neither vehicle was in any position to back up, the two professionals lined themselves up and came slowly forward to the point at which their respective front mirrors could have kissed, then inched past each other until clear. No steering wheel attendants here!
There have also been several occasions when our coach driver’s skills have avoided serious accidents caused by other unthinking road users.
The coach driver’s day can be a long one, prepping the coach before breakfast, followed by several stints of driving (with either more or less dead time according to the day’s itinerary) and on several evenings of a typical tour it will also include taking the group to an evening dinner location away from where they are staying, sometimes out into the nearby countryside. A 7.00am to 10.00pm day was not unknown but was balanced by other shorter days with no evening duty and, on some tours, even a day off from driving somewhere in the middle. Most of the coach drivers also do other work for their firms so in between tours there would be days off and/ or some local charter.
I have made a point of chatting a little with each of the coach drivers, hopefully without becoming overly intrusive, and explaining the hobby. A couple of times this has proved useful in being given useful information or even in just having our coach driver explaining to other perplexed drivers about the guy who is trotting around the coach park photographing coaches whilst the rest of the tour group loads or unloads.
Each tour also comes with a guide (rather more grandly styled by Insight as Tour Directors) and they are the ones who run the show. All Insight Tours are aimed at English Speakers so the Tour Directors tend to be either English people who have lived for some years in the country being toured or are locals with a good command of English. Either way they tend to be multi lingual enabling them to also communicate with the local officials, gate attendants, hotel staff etc.
Again their day is a long one, often first down to breakfast, then helping the coach driver load the suitcases (which are tagged and numbered so none are left behind) and rounding up any stray or late passengers. Once on board they are constantly employed, either providing insightful (there’s that word again) commentary, phoning arrival times to the people at the next stop, resolving any issues with head office by phone or email and generally attending to passenger needs. The range of knowledge and research required is extensive. A typical tour will include information on the general history, economy and government of the country concerned, some tips on useful phrases in the local language, how to avoid being ripped off by scammers or gypsies and, of course, detailed information on each place to be visited. Not to mention answering all the passengers questions, some intelligent others less so.
On arrival at an attraction the Tour Director will scoot ahead to arrange for whatever tickets or passes may be required for entry. Then at the end of the day’s trip, they hurry to the hotel reception, hand out the room keys and then help unload the cases (sometimes they even have to help deliver them). They may also be involved in the evening entertainment getting the group “involved” in the festivities. All this in between phone calls, emails, passing out treats etc etc. Sometimes they also have to help out passengers in distress.
Local experts are also used in some places. Sometimes this is just because they have a greater or more specialised knowledge of the subject. Other times it because of local regulations as in some places it can be illegal for Tour Directors to do commentary whilst on walking tours (as this would deprive the local guides of their living). Most of the local guides are very good, one old fellow on the Isle of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore was hilarious. Occasionally there is a less interesting or enthused one, usually reflected in rather less tips being dispensed by the group.
Insight also arrange for “front of line” or special area access at some of the more popular locations. It’s really much better than lining up for an hour or more and the time saved in my view more than outweighs the small extra expenditure. In other places optional excursions are offered (at extra cost). These are usually part day excursions to special places of interest or optional special evening dinners or outings such as to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Naturally the TDs have a role to play in “upselling” participation in these, but generally manage to do so without being pushy about it. We have pretty much always gone to the dinners and for the daytime ones we usually go or, sometimes, Jeanette will go while I gunzel the town.
Overwhelmingly, the TDs keep things running efficiently, entertainingly and, to the best of their ability, on time. But sometimes you can just have one of those days…
On the day we were leaving Rome for Florence, there was a morning tour of the Vatican, deferred from the previous day due to a religious holiday. But one couple realised they had left their passports behind in their hotel room safe so the TD had to nip back to the hotel and recover them whilst we all did our tour through the Vatican in the hands of the local guide.
However, miscounting by the local guide, when retrieving commentary headsets, resulted in all bar two of us arriving at the meeting point. They were back at the previous meeting point inside St Peters Basilica. The TD could not immediately help as he was still busy retrieving their passports (Yes it was the same couple!). Once he got back he was able to get back through security and locate them while the rest of us took an early lunch. Well except for me who grabbed a roll and then went to the nearby corner where several bus routes ran.
After getting away an hour late we were motoring north on the Autostrada when some fool tried to overtake the coach while we were overtaking a broken down car in the right lane – no emergency lanes here! The resulting sideswipe occurred directly below my window so I had an excellent view. Fortunately (and due in no small part to the coach driver’s skill) no one was hurt and the coach received only a minor scratch from the 4WDs mirror. But in Italy the law requires that the cops are called in such circumstances so we had to sit there in situ till they arrived then everyone adjourned to a nearby service centre for more interrogations.
You also have to have the right kind of cop (Italy has 17 different ones including one lot who just do tax evasion).
Given the speed at which the Italian court system works, I may well be called as a witness sometime around 2035. The dramas of the day and consequent late finish were more than made up for at a splendid evening meal outside Florence which even included blue sparkling wine!
The other major point of difference between Insight and some cheaper brands has been of considerable benefit to me. Travelling with some brands you tend to find yourself in a chain hotel, often a bit out of town, either on a ring road or on the highway towards the airport. Insight, however, mostly uses centrally located hotels (often 4-5 star) which offers many opportunities to the visiting transport enthusiast with an hour or so to spare before breakfast or dinner.
One example was in Dijon, France, where the hotel was located at the convergence of several tram, bus and trolleybus routes at one end of the CBD providing photo opportunities as soon as you were out of the hotel door. In one side street was a quite full coach park where our guy was busy cleaning his coach. At the end of another street was the railway station, which was also the terminus of a tram route and for the out of town bus routes offering more photography opportunities. To get there one even had to pass the office of the town services provider (Keolis) allowing timetables and maps to be procured. A free afternoon on the second day allowed a sampling of some tram and bus routes as well.
Another bonus was in Venice. Insight are one of the few groups who actually stay on the “islands” as opposed to on the mainland. This location, right on the Grand Canal, enabled me a good hour at the bus station at one end of the road causeway which brings suburban and long distance buses from the suburbs and towns on the mainland.
In Vienna, we were right on the ring road around the old city with multiple tram routes out front, a bus terminus on two of the side streets and just a two block walk to the metro.
Similar opportunities will frequently present themselves at lunchtimes. Whilst others, including Jeanette, seek out the local brasserie, trattoria or whatever for a sit down meal, I tend to just grab a roll from the local bakery and head for the nearest railway station, tram line or bus interchange to occupy myself for the hour.
Enough of the commercial for Insight. But after seven, soon to be nine tours, I can say they are really good.