Malcolm and I recently relied on the advice of a hotel concierge in Lisbon for the best way to visit Sintra and Cascais. Both destinations are not far from the city and can be visited in one day. The two options presented to us were to hire a private car at 290 euro or join a tour bus group for 79 euro each. The private car was cost prohibitive without another couple to share the ride and it did not include tickets to view the Pena Palace in Sintra. We chose the bus tour – no questions asked.
Not asking questions is a rookie mistake and one that we quickly regretted. We were picked up at our hotel and driven to what looked like a staging area where we were off-loaded to a much larger bus. Passengers already on the bus (close to 40) were Portuguese and Spanish, while the remainder (about 6 of us) were from the US. The tour guide greeted us and handed us handsets with earbuds that would allow us to hear her commentary during the tour. What we did not know at that moment was that she would translate the tour in four languages; Portuguese, Spanish, French and English.
Had we know that bit of important information, we would have asked to be transferred to an English speaking tour since we were clearly in the minority. In fact, we were sure that a mistake had been made in placing us on that particular bus in the first place. We found out later that it was common practice for this company to conduct their tours in multiple languages. Our past experience with languages on a large group tour (in this price range) has been no more than two; the local language and English. Call me a spoiled American if you want to, but this was highly detrimental to the enjoyment of the tour and could have been avoided.
The tour guide pointed out significant sights and shared historic information all along the route to Sintra. Unfortunately, we were well past the point of interest when she got around to English.
The tour of the Pena Palace was equally frustrating. With a large group and four languages being spoken, it was impossible to pinpoint a frame of reference. We spent the entire time trying to make sure we were as close to the guide as possible. At least in that position, we might understand what we were seeing.
Adding insult to injury, I (the photographer) sat on the wrong side of the bus and missed out on capturing some very pretty landscapes through the window. Again, shame on me for not asking if there was an optimal viewing side for a camera happy tourist. I did happen to get this picture of a beautiful beach along the way and I longed to stop for a minute, but alas, it was not on the schedule. With a small group tour I could have asked the driver to pull over for a minute.
If you are thinking that this is a case of “you get what you pay for”, you’d be wrong. We paid the same price (79 euro per person for a full day tour of the Douro Valley (leaving from Porto) and had an amazing experience with just eight people and a guide. That tour included lunch, a boat ride and port tastings at two estates. We also road the HOHO bus for less than 20 euro in Lisbon and had a fine time hopping off where ever we chose. Both tours were exactly the value and experience we expected for the price we paid.
Bottom line: It does not matter how experienced you are when it comes to travel. You will make mistakes, but you can minimize the risk by asking questions.
- What exactly does the tour entail; itinerary, physical exertion, additional fees, etc.
- Will I be picked up and left off at the same location. (we were dropped off a few blocks from our hotel, not AT the hotel where we had been picked up.)
- What language(s) will the tour be conducted in (if it’s more than English + one, run).
- What type of transportation should I expect
- What is the maximum number of participants on the tour
- Is the tour highly structured or will there be time for exploring on my own
- Is there an emergency contact – someone got left behind at the Palace on our tour
- Will your tour provider guarantee a return to the ship on time (very important for cruise ship passengers)
- Is this a reputable tour company – check reviews (Trip Advisor is a great source)
- Is the tour handicap accessible
Malcolm and I very rarely leave our travel plans to someone else and prefer to do the research and bookings ourselves. Lisbon was a city we had visited before so we decided to leave this part of our trip unscripted. In retrospect, with two full days there we should have planned at least one of them instead of leaving it to chance.
We have successfully used ViaTour in other European cities and after this experience with Cityrama/Gray Line Tours I decided to take a look at what could have been had we NOT visited the concierge at the Intercontinental hotel and relied solely on our own past experience. Viatour had a small group tour with almost the same itinerary as the tour we took. It cost 85 euro per person. Insert sad face here.
We also had a wonderful experience with CM Tour in Porto and you can read my Trip Advisor review of this company here.
We got lazy and paid the price, literally, but at least we saw this beautiful region of Portugal and have no regrets about that. Next time we will be smarter and I hope you will be also. Trust yourself and do the work!
Note: after hearing of our unsatisfactory experience, the Intercontinental hotel graciously reimbursed us for half the cost of the tour.