One of the really sad things in this world would be to die a virgin and precisely that was going to happen to my passport. With the world against us spending a bomb on a ‘vides trip’, we totally had to rebel and initiate an independence movement. Yup! I do take wicked pleasure in exaggerating and glorifying! And as a very dear friend puts it, “First ‘Thappa’ on passport toh Europe ka hona chahiye!”. A lot of well wishers suggested going to Singapore since they felt traversing Europe with young kids would be difficult and Europe is best explored either solo or with a partner. (Both true btw!) There are a lot of fun things to do in Singapore for kids, plus, the trip would be half the cost of a Euro-trip! But being stupid has its own perks. So, the destination was decided and the era of research begun.
First question was which tour operator do we pick! Just like most Indian families we decided to go with a package tour and after a lot of research we went ahead and gave the booking amount to Cox and Kings. The package cost was 1.18L for an adult and 1.10L for a kid, so total 4.6L for a family of four. 4 countries in 7 days in which practically two days would be spent on flying to and from the destination. But itinerary sounded great! Action packed plan covering a lot of places in minimum time! Isn’t that exactly what we want? To see it all? To cross it off the bucket list? To naive-me it sounded just perfect!
The process with cox and kings was going pretty smooth when one day they sent a indemnity letter for us to sign. The letter was an eye-opener! It absolutely felt like the folks at Cox and Kings were poking fun at us! The indemnity letter basically told us that four of us would have to share a room and in Europe they are generally smaller in size so if it causes any discomfort, we won’t hold the company responsible. Also, if due to fire regulations the hotel does not allow four people in one room, the company will not be accountable and we will have to pay extra money to get a room there. Well, I am sure with their vast experience, they were just covering their bases and this is all “just in case” scenario but when they are charging almost equal amount for adults and kids, why were we expected to be okay with the discomfort and share a room which mostly is going to be tiny! This is where we snapped and opted for Independent Travel or DIY Travel and thank God (and Cox & Kings) we did!
We booked all our stays with AirBNB (except for the one in Germany, where we stayed in a resort). Every house we stayed in had a hall/living room, a bedroom and fully equipped kitchen. Our AirBnB in Paris even had toys, books and Xbox which kids totally enjoyed and the one in Switzerland had a wood fired stove! It was so much fun learning how to use it, plus the food tasted divine, “Pizza se leke maggie tak”! All this at 7k or less per night!
We had read reviews where people complained that package tours are time bound and it leaves one really unsatisfied! For example, people said they were given just 40 minutes to visit Eiffel Tower where you spend almost 20 minutes or more just in an elevator or in the lines to get into the elevator for going to the top and coming back! When you go to the summit, you would want to take in the view or may be have a glass of champagne along with the view too! With the tickets to the summit you are also allowed to visit first and second levels of the tower and they are amazing in their own ways! During our trip we just loved the freedom we had. Waking up at our own time, travelling at our own pace, stopping over to smell the roses at countrysides (literally!), driving through the sleepy towns, eating at local food joints….Bliss!
Choice of places
While researching for our DIY Travel and comparing different package tour itineraries, I realized that what travel companies do is a bit unfair! They take you to the places which are convenient to them, like places which are close by but in different countries or they take you to places with lesser value of tickets! Cox and Kings folks would take you to Mount Titlis while Jungfrau would be optional! Jungfrau being more beautiful but more expensive too! Here, we got to pick our places! Like instead of “The lion monument” or “Lake Lucerne” in Switzerland which was not so much of interest to us, we went to this absolute piece of paradise called Oeschinensee in Kandersteg, which you would never find in any package tour itineraries.
The day we visited Mt. Titlis, we met the hordes of people coming in with the tour operators. Travelling with a big groups sure would have its own advantages but God! The cacophony! Lines and queues of tourists wherever you go, including the restrooms! Wherever you try to click a picture, there is definitely someone unknowingly or knowingly photo-bombing! There are people who enjoy being in a big group and then there are who don’t. We realized we belong to the second category. We absolutely loved the serenity and privacy we got during our stay. Plus, the pictures came out awesome! 😉
Here is the deal-breaker: If you could survive on Pizza, Pasta and sandwiches, you are good to go but if you really need Indian food almost everyday then it would be a bit difficult for you. Going with the tour operator will makes it easy. They make sure you get Indian meals throughout the trip, either in Indian restaurants or in packed boxes.
Unlike what people believe, food in Europe is not really expensive, provided you eat at right places. At touristy places even a water bottle will cost you as much as Mac Maharaja back home and with tour operators you obviously go to only the touristy places! So you will definitely find food and water expensive. In stark contrast to that, we actually picked a large pizza (pack of 3) for 2 Euros from a store called Lidl in Germany! Don’t we pay ten times more for a pizza here? Key is to shop where locals do.
At all our AirBnBs, we had full fledged kitchen with all the basic stuff you need for cooking. So, if you like cooking quick and simple Indian meals even then DIY trips would work for you.
When you go for a package tour, they pick you up right from the doorstep of the hotel, drop you to the parking spot of the place you are visiting and drop you back to the doorstep of the hotel! But when you do it yourself, you will have to use public transport a lot for going around. You will walk from your accommodation to the nearest metro/bus station and then after reaching the nearest station to the place you are visiting, you again will have to walk to the tourist spot and then do the same till you reach all the way back home! So basically you end up walking A LOT! There is always an Uber available but it turns out to be very expensive. Hence, your fitness level is a crucial factor for the decision making.
Renting out a car is a great option for DIY tours. We rented out an AUDI A6 Series for a week when we were visiting Germany and Switzerland. (Not showing off. Umm. Okay. Maybe a tiny bit.) And it was so awesome! It made things super convenient! While in Paris and Rome, we were totally dependent on public transport. With crazy luggage and two crazy kids, we had one hell of an adventure using local bus, train, metro, cruises and cabs!
With package tour, you mostly are with people of your own country, eating your own food, guarded and guided, and then of course you visit the tourist spots and monuments.
With DIY tour you get to have an immersive experience. You get more in contact with their people, eat their food, travel like locals, experience the culture plus visit the touristy places. The most exciting part is that you are absolutely on your own in an unfamiliar land with just Google by your side, as your guide.
Verdict: Package tours are absolutely perfect for people who want to check things off their list in lesser time, people who don’t enjoy doing research, people who cannot live without Indian food and most importantly they are perfect for senior citizens. (My cousin’s in laws cannot stop raving about the 20 days UK-Europe trip they did in 7 L! They are extremely happy and satisfied with the tour operator’s services. And as they put it with a grin, “Life me sab dekh liya, Paris ka lido show bhi!” *Wink, wink*)
For the rest of us DIY tour is THE answer.
When you pick DIY tour, one thing you need to pack along with the essentials, is flexibility. When you are in a country which is extremely different from yours and things are new, you will take time to figure out things and you are most likely to goof up! Which is absolutely okay! Consider it as a part of the whole deal, the adventure that you asked for when you picked a DIY travel and go with the flow! (We goofed up BIGTIME! Will blog about that super soon!)
To conclude, A major revelation was that it was not really about ticking things off our bucket list. It never is. My favorite memories of the trip were not really visiting the Colosseum or the top of the Eiffel tower but it was that afternoon when we walked a mile to reach the surreal Oeschinensee lake in Kandersteg with absolutely no one around, eating a burger sitting under a huge rock looking at the majestic view! Or that evening in Switzerland when we left kids in the house with their tablets and went out for a stroll on the immensely picturesque idyllic green hills. No human around for miles. Just us. These are the moments you truly live for.