Dispatch, Europe 6: Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride

Europe Dispatch series

MBEurope200x150Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran has sampled two motorcoach tours in Europe: one a highlights tour of several destinations, and the other a regional tour of Milan. This is her final dispatch.

Dispatch, New York -- Arriving back in New York after 16 days on the road in Europe, I am a bit overwhelmed trying to catalogue my travel experiences of the past two weeks.

Being on a bus daily, traveling hundreds, if not thousands, of miles with a group of 40-odd people across Europe gave me a lot of thinking time and material.

I traveled with the two Trafalgar motorcoach tours to observe what has and has not evolved about motorcoach touring in recent years. What I found was that so much, and yet so little, has changed.

First off, no matter how globalized this world has become -- no matter how much more connected through 24-hour news networks, the Internet and email we are -- so many people are surprisingly still isolated from the rest of the world, either physically or culturally.

And while today's first-time international travelers may know more about the countries they are visiting than their predecessors 10, 20 or 30 years ago, they still have a lot of the same needs and apprehensions about exploring those places for the first time.

For instance, many people still like to be hand-held as much as possible while touring Europe. They like to walk with a guide through a foreign city that is new to them and not have to worry about navigating strange streets or learning someone else's history on their own. The guide knows his/her way around, knows the backstory and all you have to do is follow and listen. These are the people that get panicky when they have some free time in an unknown place. They have always been in the tour group since time immemorial.

But more independent types -- those who wander off as soon as they know when and where they need to return -- also always have been a part of the group. And though one would think that this constituency has been growing over time, I found the European Horizons group, with only a handful of exceptions, to be a united front of discipline.

The Milan and Italian Treasures group, however, had more rebellious tendencies.

While certain characteristics of the Europe traveler haven't changed, neither have some of the places. Some itineraries across Europe haven't been altered in decades, and that's because travelers to Europe today want to see many of the same things that travelers to Europe wanted to see years ago. London, Paris and Rome are musts. Italy and the Alps are perennially popular. Brussels and Amsterdam are sought-after second cities. The French Riviera? Spain and Portugal? Ireland and Scotland? Those are more individual choices, less universal.

But the itineraries and the way they are presented are changing as the needs and desires of today's traveler changes. People on the Milan and Italian Treasures itinerary absolutely loved that the tour had one base, Lake Garda, for six nights, from which we set out on daily trips. We weren't in a new hotel every night.

I wouldn't be surprised if we start to see more motorcoach tours attempting to build in longer stays in each city for added comfort and a less hectic pace of travel. It also lets people take a day off if they need it.

Other aspects of motorcoach touring are fundamentally different today than 10 or 20 years ago. Not only have motorcoaches steadily improved over time (better seats, restrooms, temperature control) but the roads also have improved, combining to make an infinitely smoother ride than some time ago.

Motorcoach touring is also highly regulated today. You might think tour operators have been doubling as drug traffickers the way European authorities police their movement. Motorcoach drivers' hours are strictly regulated and a chronograph records their every move to make sure they are stopping the bus at appropriate intervals to rest.

But one of the biggest changes for motorcoach touring, from what I can tell, is cell phones. I kept thinking over and over, "How on earth did tour directors do their jobs before cell phones?" All along the trip, tour directors would call ahead to various suppliers, ships, hotels and restaurants to let them know we were running a bit behind schedule or to ask about the menu or other issues.

When the highway exit for one of our hotels was closed, our tour director called the hotel to navigate an alternate route. When I asked Dario, the tour director on Trafalgar's Milan and Italian Treasures tour, how they did it in the old days, he rolled his eyes and told of horror stories of having to stop in small villages to call someone in the next village for help with a broken down motorcoach, or to get directions.

I was terrified at the very thought of it.

It made me realize that while motorcoach touring can at times seem like a rugged way to travel, complete with early morning wake-up calls, highly ambitious itineraries and a rotating roster of hotel beds, it is downright luxurious compared to what it was.

With that in mind, it is easy to look back on my days on the road with a certain degree of romantic nostalgia. Because whether this is a traveler's preferred form of travel -- sitting back in a chair comfortable enough for napping while watching German castles, the snow-capped Alps and Italian vineyards whiz by -- one can understand why the motorcoach model has lasted as long as it has and why no form of travel can completely replace it.

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