What's the difference? Which should you choose?
A variety of factors affect the quality and price of tours. Here are some of them:
I believe the most-fun tours are small-group, usually defined as 10 to 12 travelers maximum. Optimal group size allows for pleasant interaction, conversation, fun and sharing, and doesn't require the heavier logistics of organizing 40 or 50 people into and out of hotels and sights, and onto and off of a bus.
Supply and demand: if lots of travelers want to go where you want to go at the same time, prices will be higher. The busiest months for independent cultural travel (ie, not just a beach vacation) are April, May and early June, September and October. (For beaches, it's June through September).
More comfortable, well-located hotels cost more than basic hotels away from the action. You may save money on a tour that stays at a simple, modern high-rise hotel on the outskirts. If you prefer an atmospheric boutique hotel in the city center near museums, shops, restaurants and public transport, the tour may cost more because these hotels are more expensive.
Some companies include most meals, some include only a few, giving you freedom to explore Turkish cuisine as you like. You may prefer meals included, or you may prefer to find restaurants for some meals on your own—or have just a snack or a picnic.
And what about the meals that are included? Can you choose whatever you want from the menu in a good-quality restaurant, or will you be offered a single plate, "the chicken or the pasta," in a group dining room? Are beverages included (often, they're not). What other "extras" will you have to buy on your own? Before you look at a tour price, decide what's important to you.
The better tour companies don't fill the vehicle. For a small group tour of 10 travelers, the company may provide a 14-seat midi-bus so there's room to change seats, stretch out, pile day-packs, etc. This costs more, but is more enjoyable for the participants. A cheaper tour may use the same size vehicle, but with 16 seats, all filled.
Organizing a tour is risky: a company makes all the hotel, meal, guide and transport commitments, but will enough travelers take the tour to make it profitable?
A guaranteed departure means the tour will go even if the tour company will lose money on it. If the company needs eight participants to earn a profit, but only two people take the tour, a guaranteed-departure tour will still go. Those two people will get a private tour at the lower cost of a group tour, the company will lose money (this time), but will not disappoint the travelers.
So a guaranteed departure is worth more than a tour that advertises a minimum number of participants needed for it to operate.
The travel agencies we recommend are very sensitive and respectful to those who don't care to shop. However, many tours in Turkey include a "shopping component," a stop at one or more shops selling carpets, ceramics, leather apparel, souvenirs, etc. Often the shop is called a "Cultural Center," "Traditional Crafts Center," "Art Exhibit," etc. to obscure its function as a retail store.
But time spent in a shop is time not spent sightseeing or relaxing at your hotel. If you're not interested in shopping, you may be bored as tour shops tend to be in isolated locations, away from other attractions.
I've seen low-priced 5-day tour itineraries that feature one full day of frenetic sightseeing (with lots of drive-bys), two days of free time, and two full days of shopping in "captive" shops. Is that what you want? The price is certainly low. Or would you rather have four days of balanced, guided sightseeing, one shopping stop of an hour or so, and two afternoons free?
Your Decision Checklist:
1. How large will the group be? Is that size guaranteed?
2. If you must travel in high season, expect to pay more.
3. Determine if the tour is a guaranteed departure.
4. Get information on the tour hotels, including the size (number of rooms), character, services, room rates, and location. (Hint: use Google maps and, for Istanbul, review my descriptions of hotel districts. More...)
5. Count the number of meals included, and read the fine print about dining facilities and policies: can you order à la carte, from the menu? Or is it a table d'hôteset-menu? What drinks are included, if any?
6. Ask about transport policies: how big is the vehicle? Will every seat be filled? (Having free seats for day-packs, and moving around, is a big advantage.)
7. Ask how much time is spent shopping at "Cultural Centers" (shopping stops), on how many days, and can you opt out (if that's what you want)?
8. No matter which company you use, be *certain* to read the company's Terms & Conditions carefully!They may seem like "the small print," "boilerplate," and "legalese," but the T&C are even more important than the tour itinerary. They define the legal contractbetween you and the tour company. If you do not know what you're agreeing to, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
Certainly, most travelers to Turkey who take tours come away happy and satisfied. Careful comparison of the best tours can help you get the one you want.
If you have bad luck with a tour, here's how to file a complaint.
—by Tom Brosnahan
|Best Guided Tours of Turkey