To Tour or Not to Tour: Part One

We’re going to take a step back here to explain why we didn’t just sign up with a tour company and let them do all the driving. Early on in the decision-making process, I compared what tour companies could offer the traveler to what we could do on our own. A wide variety of tours were available from the different companies, but they all had one thing in common, for some or all of the tour, the traveler would be locked into the tour company’s schedule. Now, I’m not saying tours are bad, they may be the ideal thing for you, but we knew we wanted more flexibility. I may need to break this into several posts to explain it fully. This post is about an eight-day tour of London.

One of the tour companies advertised a London eight-day tour for $990 (or about £650), not counting your air travel. Tour members would stay at one of London’s name-brand hotels, be given theater tickets, a sightseeing tour, and free bus and underground travel. Their brochure stated that tour members start with a half-day sightseeing tour, and then would be on their own in London for the rest of the day. In addition, each tour member would be given a 3-day Travelcard pass for free bus and subway (BrE – tube) travel (which would normally cost £45 per person) Tour members would need to provide transportation for the other three days themselves (notice I said three days, instead of five – explanation below). For an extra fee, day tours could be booked to places like Windsor Castle (just west of the city), Oxford (about sixty miles to the northwest), or Stratford-Upon-Avon (another forty miles past Oxford). Note about the extra excursions:  You would already have paid them for your time in London.  If you take them  up on one of these day tours, you would be paying them to take you there on one of the London days that you’ve already paid for.

Now, here’s the trick. The Eight Day tour counts traveling from your home city as Day One. For us that would be leaving Houston midday, and arriving at Heathrow Airport the next morning.  Your Day Eight would consist of eating breakfast at the London hotel then traveling back to the US, so the Eight Day Tour is really a Six-Days-in-London Tour plus two travel days.  Your travel schedule would be different, unless you were coming from Houston too, but the number of days in London would still only be six (seven nights in a hotel).

The traveler would pay their own airfare from wherever to London, and buy their own lunch and dinner each day (a buffet breakfast in the hotel would be included every morning).  So, here’s what you would get for nearly $1,000. A half-day tour of London (which means driving by a bunch of stuff and getting dropped back at your hotel), tickets to a play, seven nights in a hotel, and a three-day bus and Tube pass (for a six-day stay).

What does that add up to?

Tickets to a West End show can be £30 to £60 per person (or more), but discounts can often be had by going to the box office the day of the show or to the half-price booth in Leicester Square.  Let’s give the tour company the benefit of the doubt and say they had to pay £40 apiece for your tickets (so £80 for two).

The tour is likely held in one of their own buses, and with their own operators.  The all-day, hop-on hop-off bus tours popular in London cost about £25 per person.  Let’s say it costs the tour company a little less, £20 each, or £40 for two.

London Travelcard – £45 for 3-day travel tickets in London = £90 for two people. Note: As far as I can tell, it’s no longer possible to get a 3-day Travelcard. You can get a 7-day card, or a single-day card, or buy an Oyster card (it’s like a credit card), and fill it up when it gets low. I’ll cover Travelcards and Oystercards in another post.

Seven nights in a hotel – The hotel used by the tour group will rent you a twin room and give you a buffet breakfast for about £159 per night (according to a search at their website).  The tour company undoubtedly gets a discount for using the hotel often and bringing them lots of customers.  Let’s say it costs them £120 per night x 7 = £840 for two people. Let me be very clear at this point, I’m just making these numbers up. I have no idea what their profit margin is, or what kind of deal they have with the hotels. They do have some discount with them, though, or it would cost them more for the hotel than it would be worth.

What will they be charging you?  First $990 USD = £650 GBR. Double that and you have £1,300 per couple.  Out of that, we take £80, £40, £46, £90, and £840 = £1096 (for a show, a bus tour, a Travelcard, and hotel), leaving them £204 per couple profit ($310).  This is just a wildly loose estimate, of course.

In addition to the £1,300 ($1,976), what else would you be spending (as a couple) on average? Two more meals per day, and three more days of travel in London, assuming you don’t visit anything else which charges admission (unlikely, of course).  Our lunch and dinner meals while we were in London averaged about £32 per day for both of us.  To be fair, we didn’t eat extravagantly, often having a very light lunch.  If you allow £40 x 6 days, plus £90 for another three-day Travelcard = £330 (or $502) more.  Your cost to do their tour (minus any shopping or other paid sightseeing) would be roughly £1,680 ($2,554) for two people (not counting airfare). This would average to £280 (or $426) per day for the six days you spend in London.

Our airfare from Houston was £1,118 ($1,700). If we had done this London tour, and only spent the eight days, it would have cost us £2,798 ($4,253). We only spent about $3,000 more than that for the whole twenty-two day trip.

I guess the big question is, did we do better than £280 (or $426) per day for our time in London? We will cover that in the travel diary section, so you’ll just have to wait, but I think we did okay, better than average. We’ll do a full breakdown of expenses for each day, and then a summary at the end.

Next up, To Tour or Not to Tour: Part Two (we take a look at a more extensive tour, what to expect out in the countryside, and I break down the tour brochure language).

Have you done tours like the one described above? What did you think of it?

Michael

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