This time around, when it was time again to pack up my bags and satiate my travel bug, I decided to try a combination of both! I had the two most important women in my life as my travel companions – my mom & my wife. Quite frankly, I anticipated the trouble of taking both together I had to plan our trip diplomatically. However, to my pleasant surprise (and should I say relief?!) both got along well all throughout.
Having covered the West, Central & the Northern part of Europe, it was time for me to explore the erstwhile Yugoslavia – the countries of Slovenia, Croatia & Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the ladies were keen on doing Paris as well. No matter how exotic the destinations you choose, ultimately the ladies will have their say and Paris was also included.
So, we decided to take an Escorted Tour of Cosmos to cover the other countries which we zeroed in. For Paris, we decided to go on our own (independently).
TRAVEL PLANNING & BOOKING
To begin with the planning, we did a lot of research on Paris as we were doing it independently. We had to cover aspects of stay in Paris, places to visit, how to travel within Paris, airport transfers. And ofcourse, what to eat as well.
For Croatia, we planned to take an escorted tour as these were countries which were less explored and more difficult to get around. We found the perfect tour in Cosmos’ Scenic Slovenia & Croatia. It was ideal for our requirements and easiest to say the least!!
ARRIVING AT THE DESTINATION
We were very excited about our trip and were quite confident that all would go well. Upon our arrival in Paris’ Charles De Gualle airport, which in itself is an attraction, our hassles began. We had booked a shuttle service from Airport to the hotel. The challenge was to figure out where do we catch this bus. The terminal was huge and we followed signs for the transfers and ended up on the side where the transfers were by cabs. This is where we got our first taste of people of Paris – not at all friendly. No one wanted to help us and finally we figured out that the Bus Shuttle service was at the other end of the terminal. We finally got the correct bus and arrived at the hotel.
However, on the Cosmos Tour, we faced no hassles at all. As soon as we arrived at Ljubljana airport, we had our Tour Director waiting for us at the arrivals with a placard. The transfer did not cost us much either!!
We had booked online for our hotel at Paris. Since we went with the reviews, we were fairly confident in what we would be getting. However, the room was so small that we could hardly keep our luggage in the room and stand at the same time. It turned to be a bit of a disaster with only our good humor salvaging it!
We had booked a city centre hotel hoping it would be easier to access the main attractions from there. Staying in the city center does cost a lot. But to be honest, apart from the location, there was nothing much to boast about this hotel. Moreover, we had to manage our luggage on our own as there were no porters to help us as well.
With Cosmos, the experience was totally different. Upon our arrival at the hotel rooms, our luggage was taken care by the porters and we did not even had to tip them, as these were included. The room in all the cities, we traveled to, were quite spacious & conveniently located. In fact, at Plitvice National Park, our hotel was inside the park. We could go out anytime to explore the park on our own too! What a great location that was!
In Paris, we had booked the main sightseeing tours online. To begin with, one has to exchange the vouchers for tickets in some office located in the city. Once you arrive there, you are greeted with a huge line and utter chaos. After spending 30 mins in the queue, when your turn comes, you are welcomed by a rather angry lady, who just does not want to converse in English. Finally, after all this you get an entry ticket to the place you wish to go. Great, but it’s not yet over here. We had to walk a couple of kilometres to arrive at the entry point and again stand up in a queue. Finally, after spending two hours, we entered the place.
This was the modus operandi for us to see the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and cruise the Seine, and see all this without any proper guide to tell you what these sights are. You can only enjoy the beauty, click some pics and tick them off your bucket list.
While we were on Cosmos, the sightseeing tours were organized differently. Being a package tour, the must-dos were included. We also had a Local Guide at each city. It is one thing seeing the places and not understanding their significance and when some one tells you the story/history behind it, these places come alive. In all our sightseeing we had VIP access to entry which saved us a lot of time and we could actually spend more time doing other things – we shopped, ate leisurely at restaurants and had time to take plenty of pics as well.
Doing things on our own could be adventurous, but it comes at a cost – not just money but also, more importantly, time. At Paris, we took the Hop-on-Hop-off tour. We had to figure out the closest stop to our hotel, it took us 30 mins to figure the bus-stops and timings. Again, after our evening tour of Eiffel Tower, we took a cab. Unfortunately, the driver could not understand where we stayed. He dropped us at a different area altogether. It was quite unnerving as we had to figure out where we were and how to reach our hotel safely. Thankfully, we got a good driver who understood English and dropped us safely. Not only did we spend on cab fare, we also lost couple of hours. Really not worth the adventure!!!
Off course, on Cosmos it was much easier as we traveled throughout the tour on a coach. They had WIFI and an Emergency Toilet as well inside the coach. The seats were comfortable with panoramic windows to see the scenic Dalmatian coast in its full glory. We got to see the beautiful alpine trees of Slovenia region in their autumn splendor whilst getting ready for the winter. Our driver was excellent and such an expert at driving through the winding scenery! We had a stop at regular intervals to refresh and stretch our legs.
THE EXPERT GUIDES
I guess this is the main difference and defining factor between doing things on our own and doing it with a professional Tour Director. These experts know their game, are very knowledgeable and resourceful. Ivan Tesla, our Tour Director, greeted us on the very first day of the tour and gave us a short brief on what we would be doing over the next one week. He regaled us with interesting anecdotes about each and every place that we visited. He took care of all logistics very efficiently – from check-in to porterage at each hotel without hassles for us. This was a welcome change from the issues we had at Paris, where we carried our luggage all on our own.
FOOD AND MORE…
They say if you do not try the local food of any place you travel, the experience is not complete. It is so very true. While we were on Cosmos, every meal that was included was delectable and authentically local. In Dubrovnik, we had the special privilege of being hosted by a local family for dinner. It was a special experience and we got to learn a lot from the extremely gracious hosts. They kept us entertained with fascinating details about their culture and traditions. The home-cooked food itself was such a delight and satisfied all our cravings! Though my wife & mom were vegetarians, Ivan made sure they had their choice of food at each place.
It was much more challenging at Paris. We had to do our own research on where to eat and what to eat. After much researching , we decided to stick to Italian food as a safe choice. After all, I had to keep in mind my two vegetarian companions as well! Such a pity since I was really looking forward to the famous flavors of France! Having an expert guide us at Paris would have enhanced our food journey at Paris, I am sure.
AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS!
I agree it is easy and convenient to book the elements of travel online! However, if what you really want is seeing and doing as much as possible; having local and authentic experiences; and combining guided and free time, there really is no substitute for an escorted tour. While I enjoyed my trip to Paris as well, having an expert tour operator take care of my travel to Slovenia and Croatia was god-send. Next time you travel, try a group tour. I am sure you will love the experience!
By Kunal Shah