All Day Tours Are Not Created Equally- Beware

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.

P1900036 (2)
taken through the bus window on an overcast and rainy day – still awesome to behold!

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.

  1. What exactly does the tour entail; itinerary, physical exertion, additional fees, etc.
  2. 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.)
  3. What language(s) will the tour be conducted in (if it’s more than English + one, run).
  4. What type of transportation should I expect
  5. What is the maximum number of participants on the tour
  6. Is the tour highly structured or will there be time for exploring on my own
  7. Is there an emergency contact – someone got left behind at the Palace on our tour
  8. Will your tour provider guarantee a return to the ship on time (very important for cruise ship passengers)
  9. Is this a reputable tour company – check reviews (Trip Advisor is a great source)
  10. 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.


27 thoughts on “All Day Tours Are Not Created Equally- Beware

    1. Hi Alice, welcome to Picture-Retirement. You are right, with so many options it’s easy to get confused. Better to take your time and research thoroughly than to be sorry. Regarding the photo, not my usual standard but at least I captured the moment. It was the first beach we had seen in Portugal with sand dunes; most are rocky.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Suzanne, it is hard getting reliable information from tour companies. I have found that large group tours are often disappointing, particularly when you also throw multiple languages into the mix. Brian and I loved Sintra, but we thought Pena Palace was just too busy. Our favourite there was Quinta da Regalera, the gardens are just magical. Most people visit Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon, but to do it justice I think staying overnight there is best, but off course not always possible.Great post highlighting that it is important to ask the right questions before booking a tour. Thank you for sharing your experience 😄


    1. Gilda, you are right about staying overnight in Sintra. The gardens were not even a possibility for this trip. The Palace was way too touristy for me, but something you almost have to see. I did enjoy stopping at the Roca Cape Cliffs and the Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) in Cascais. Unfortunately, the lovely moments were dwarfed in comparison to the overall experience.


    1. Dan, even with the internet it is not always a sure thing. We have walked away wanting a ‘do over’ many times even though we generally know what we are looking for. This was just an out right mistake on our part.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely check out Viatour and their small group excursions. They are affiliated with Trip Advisor. We have used them to explore many European cities and have never had a bad experience.


  2. Thanks for the insights. I am a planner and usually book things in advance, but as trying to be more spontaneous on trips. Good things to keep in mind, even if being spontaneous!


    1. Pat, we like to keep parts of the plan flexible, but a bad decision can make you stop to question why sometimes. Our other alternative for that day was to take a train South to the Algarve. I will always second-guess why we did not choose to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. In general, neither am I. This experience was a surprise. After having such a wonderful time on a small group tour for the same price in Porto, we assumed it would be similar. Never assume anything!!


  3. Lessons learned the hard way tend to stick a long time. Too bad this part was not a great experience for you.

    We’ve been on only one bus tour, many years ago, and quickly decided it wasn’t ‘our thing’. We disliked being herded around in a large group with no control over the agenda – ie spending too much time on stuff we would have given only a cursory look to and vice versa.
    The size of the group is now the first thing I question when we are looking at a possible tour.

    When we were in Saint-Malo, we took a tour that was conducted in French. I was the only English-speaking person in the group and the guide offered to translate into English for me, but I declined so the others wouldn’t be inconvenienced. I was surprised by how much I actually understood – which I’m going to credit to our guide who spoke very well and clearly. When my husband would translate something particularly interesting, I found I had already understood it correctly 🙂
    This worked only because we were in a small group and it was quiet without any competing voices and noise.


  4. Joanne, it was a hard lesson and we won’t make that mistake again. When you only have one day to devote to a destination and you muck it up like that it stings for awhile. We have done very successful big bus tours in the past, but from now on, it will be semi-private/small group tours for us.


  5. Suzanne,thanks for such an interesting read. I feel sorry that you both had to endure listening to the tour guide relating everything 4 times, with the English version likely last. And what a great reminder to not assume all tours are the same. Your list of questions covers every question to ensure we book on a tour that will suit our needs.


  6. I wrote a comment to this post, but I must have messed up somewhere, not sure why it didn’t post. Anyway, there are times when I have to really reach deep to find my Pollyanna moment when travel plans/days/tours don’t work. Some days just suck. No getting around it. it’s unfortunate but it sounds as if you found the silver lining of the experience.

    After walking our Camino Portuguese we spent 3 nights in Sintra and really enjoyed our visit. We were there May 1, 2, 3 and it was very crowded, and oh boy the buses! But, we did visit 4 sites with a little strategic timing on our part. After our Camino series, I’ll be writing a tale or two about our visit to Sintra.

    Good of the Intercontinental to reimburse some of the cost.


  7. Lessons learnt I guess. Translation into four languages would push anyone’s patience! This is exactly why we avoid large group tours. That cost of renting a car sounds exorbitant, or is that with a driver? I wonder how much renting a car and driving yourselves would have cost? I do recall when we were in Lisbon and looking for day trips we opted out of Sintra due to the high cost and instead took the train up the coast which was lovely. I love your photo out the window…it looks like a painting.



    1. Hi Peta, we were told by many folks, much more savvy than us, to NOT rent a car in Portugal, so we did not even consider it. The 290 Euro for the car was with a driver, but it did not include entrance admissions. A train up the coast would have been a better option.Live and learn. Wishing you well on your new adventure!


  8. Wow! I would have also been disappointed, especially since by the time you heard what the guide was saying in English, you were long gone. I like small group tours only. How nice of the hotel to reimburse you half of the cost. We had a disappointing day in Sintra and l don’t know if l would ever attempt going again, unless we went in winter maybe 🙂


  9. Hi, Suzanne – Your advice here is very wise. Take time to plan, and to ask questions. We loved our recent trip to Rome, but would also done two of our tours differently if we had asked better questions!


  10. Hi Donna, A few simple questions can be the difference between a quality experience and a so-so one, that’s for sure. I enjoyed following your Camino walk. Thanks for stopping by.


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