Tuesday, June 30, 2015

8 Countries 16 Days - Europe in June (with Chan Brothers)

It's been a blessed 2015, with more than one opportunity to travel and see more of the world. 
Seoul in March I will never forget, and this time, it's Europe in June with the mother. 
I've been wanting to take mom to Europe before she gets any older, and this year presented itself as the best time ever (the schedule doesn't get any free-er than when you're freelancing and without work :P). 

When the mother travels, it's with a tour (free & easy with the kanchiong mother would be torture).

So, after doing some quick research online (not that there's a whole lot of information to begin with) and finding out which local tour agency's the best to travel to Europe with, hello Chan Brothers!

16 days and 8 countries later, a quick review of the trip and the tour provider.
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Nothing like a majestic church to start off the holiday. 
That long snaking line of people in the distance in the picture of the square in Vatican City?
That's the queue to enter St. Peter's Basilica. 
We arrived early and queued for about 30 minutes or so to enter.
We would soon get used to this - queuing to enter places of interest (and also crazy hordes of tourists everywhere we went).
The good thing about the queues in Europe: they move fast.

When travelling with a tour group, be prepared to make quick stops at places of interest but not have enough time to actually see the places of interest. 
We were given a 15-20 minute photo opportunity outside the Colosseum (because "the queue to go in will take another 1-2 hours and we don't have time."). 
Can't blame Chan Brothers though. The 16-day itinerary is crazy packed.

Want to see every place of interest properly and not have to rush from point A to point B?
Don't travel with a tour group (duh).

First provided meal of the trip: Chinese restaurant in Rome.
We would soon get sick of used to this.

Europe in June (not that I would know how it's like any other time of the year): Crowded.

When travelling with a tour, be prepared to make lots of pit stops at highway refuel/rest places.
We had plenty of at-your-own-expense lunches (meals not included in the tour package) at these pit stops, which mostly served reheated sandwiches or cold dishes.

I got sick of sandwiches (and bread) really fast.

Of course, no one wants to spend most of their time on the bus or at highway rest stops when travelling.

But if your priority is to see most of Western Europe (or any big country for that matter) in a short amount of time, I guess there really isn't any other more cost-efficient way.

For mom, travelling means seeing lots of places at one time. 
I went on the tour knowing I'd spend lots of time on the bus; I'd get quick glimpses of different places and decide where I'd want to return on my own in future. 

So, might as well make the most of it, enjoy the sights at each country's highway rest stop, and take lots of pictures on/from the bus!

Seeing dogs when travelling always makes my day.

Our itinerary covered plenty of churches, which was fine by me because Europe has gorgeous architecture.

Travelling with a tour group also means lots of the usual touristy destinations.

When travelling in Europe in June, expect lots of tourists. 

Also, lots of beyond beautiful buildings. 

And rain. 

Random, inconsistent rain.

Bring your umbrella everywhere. 
Better still, bring a raincoat (try framing your shots while juggling an umbrella and trying not to get the phone/camera wet; yeah... no).

Random question: Why is it so hard to find a decent-looking and not bank-breaking raincoat in Singapore? You'd think there'd be more of a market for raincoats, given our climate.

Unfortunately, after fruitlessly searching for raincoats that I wouldn't mind wearing all day (if it rained all day) but only finding incredibly ugly ponchos in Singapore, I gave up.
My umbrella had to do.

Not after this trip to Europe!
Hello, gorgeous raincoat ♥ ♥ 

Also if you're afraid of the cold, bring a jacket. 
Temperatures drop in the blink of an eye once the rain (and wind) hits.

What to do when travelling with a tour group but want pictures without an entire group of humans in them: Walk fast, position yourself well ahead of the group and take quick pictures.

Savour the gorgeous street life, because that's one of the few memories you'll be able to take home with you when travelling with a tour group.

When travelling with a tour group, every chance we get to eat a somewhat authentic local meal is cherished. Because authentic meals were rare. 

Most of the time, we had Chinese.
We had so many Chinese meals, I started wondering if I signed up for the wrong country.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But seriously, we didn't travel halfway around the world from Asia to eat Asian food. The last place I'd have Asian is in Europe. 

Most of the people in my tour group agreed that they'd rather pay slightly less for the tour package and have more at-your-own-expense meals instead. 
Of course, that's not good for the bottomline up to us to choose.

So we cherished every moment we had to get our own not-Chinese food.

But the sights make everything okay.

More or less.

 Because there were just too many tourists to even bother waiting for people to clear a spot before snapping my picture, I started taking pictures of tourists taking pictures.

I think I might have accidentally stumbled on something good.

The not-so-great part about travelling Europe with a tour group: Branded goods.
There will invariably be so many superficial brand-loving ladies in your group whose hearts will do a little dance every time the tour guide says, "There'll be a chance for you to visit the branded shops." 

You might even be stuck with a tour group that is so materialistic loves branded so much, they'd voluntarily sign up with the tour guide for another money-scamming opportunity an optional that's not printed in the brochure. 

But yay for me I guess, because at this optional, I chanced upon Superga. 
The cheapskate indie brand-lover in me rejoices.

On a slightly-more-serious note, because of the usual demography of tour group travellers (sorry, stereotyping does help make navigating this world a little easier) and the business strategy of most tour providers, the tour guide will make lots of stops at Big Brand shops (e.g. Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, blahblahblah). 
These stops will likely be the longest stops you'll ever get on the whole trip (30 minutes to explore an entire village vs 2 hours to shop branded; you get the idea).

Yay for those who love buying branded.

If you're a hipster commoner like me and care more about how a thing looks than its brand (is it just me, or are most branded bags and clothes really just... not that good-looking?), you will die a little inside every. single. time the tour group stops at a branded shopping area.

On the bright side, 2 hours for the group to stock up on branded means 2 hours for the hipster non-branded-loving traveller to venture further, explore the area and find hidden gems.

Like this amazing fresh chocolate store.

Fresh. Chocolate.

Need I say more.

Ugh, heaven is a place on earth.


Travelling with a tour group also means making stops at so many souvenir shops, you start realising these guys all have the same supplier.

But never mind. While the tour group is busy buying their 2085436th keychain, you get time to explore the areas round the corner.

And find beautiful little market stalls with fresh produce.


Travelling in Europe with a tour group also means lots of optionals that aren't included in the tour package. Pay extra and sign up for these activities to enhance your trip.

Our Chan Brothers tour had quite a few optionals (but that's common practice for most tour providers for Europe), and most were pretty worth it. 

Optionals

The trip up Mt. Jungfrau. 

Top of Europe. Snow-capped mountains in Summer. 

Worth every penny.

The optional trip to Volendam, a little old fishing town in Holland, was also worth it.

The river cruise in Paris was pretty amazing, taking travellers past most of the major sights in Paris.

How else would you get to take in the entire Eiffel Tower (and get lots of pretty pictures of it against the insanely blue sky)?

Think visiting Eiffel Tower is a must for any trip to Paris?
Think again. 

Unless it's on your bucket list to scale the tower and see Paris from the top, there really isn't much need to visit the Eiffel Tower if what you want are pictures of the tower itself. 

Because up close, this is all you're gonna see.

The canal cruise in Amsterdam? Not so much.

Apart from seeing the quaint little boat houses (owned by people rich enough to travel the world by boat) along the canal, there really wasn't much else on this canal cruise. 

The city of Amsterdam is much better explored on foot.

The trip to Versailles Palace. 

Incredibly lavish design, and lots of tourists. 

Seriously, a whole lot of people. 

But still, worth it.

Note: The optional trip to Versailles Palace does not include the ticket entrance into the Palace's gardens, which has free entrance only from November to March, and select days from April to October. 

Pay for the optional, and you're given a ticket and only allowed just enough time to explore the Palace building. 

Reason: There isn't enough time to see everything and if Gardens entrance is included, there'll be less profit. "You've already seen Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg. It's the same lah. Don't think you'll want to keep seeing gardens."

Left: Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg.
Right: Versailles Gardens in France (it spans beyond the clouds in the picture).

Same?
Yeah... no.


Travelling with a tour group also means lots of mandatory stops (and time wasting) at tour-provider-profiteering tourist-traps certain shops.

Some of our stops were bearable, even enjoyable.

Like this visit to the cuckoo clock maker in Black Forest, Germany.

And the visit to the clog maker in Holland.

But most times, the stops were painful.

Like the very expensive glass maker in Venice, and the diamond manufacturer in Amsterdam.

But there's really nothing much you can do about that if you travel with tour providers based in Asia (I make this generalisation because the only tourists I ever see at these tour-provider-profiteering tourist-traps shops are Asian).

Another not-so-great thing about travelling in Europe: Lack of kettles in the hotel rooms.

It's one thing to have to buy bottled water all the time (technically, you don't have to because tap water is potable in Western Europe. However, it tastes funny, and sometimes powdery, because of the high calcium content). You can get used to drinking the somewhat powdery tap water. 

But to not have hot water when you really need that cup of instant noodles after the endless amounts of sandwiches/western/lousy Chinese food?

Bring cup noodles and a portable kettle, 
or suck it up and deal with the sandwiches/western/lousy Chinese food until you get back to Singapore.

But hands down the worst part about travelling with a tour group: Whisking past spots that you'd love to have just 5 more minutes/1 more day at. 

We did much of our city tours on foot (except for Paris and London), but the walking tours were really just continuous walking from point to point, with insane quick 5-minute photo stops at the usual touristy spots.

If you're the sort of traveller who loves to venture off, explore little nooks and pop into quirky shops, this tour will eat you up inside a little everyday.

And to make matters worse, there will always be stops at places that you really don't need to see when on such a tight schedule. 

Our whirlwind 1 day tour of London started off with a Chinese meal in Chinatown and ended off with a drop-off at Chinatown for 45 minutes before heading back to the hotel. 

By this point, I'm just like,


Sigh, alright then.


Still, there's always a bright side to anything (if you look hard enough). 
In the case of travelling with a tour group, I'd say it's the chance to see lots of places at one go before deciding where you'd like to return on your own for a proper experience.

Dear Europe, 
I will miss your gorgeous architecture, quaint markets and beautiful street life.  
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Because I'm too lazy it'll be insane to recap the entire trip in chronological order, go here for Chan Brothers' Europe Discovery itinerary. 

Things to note:
1. Quite a few places listed on the itinerary are quick photo opportunities from a distance and not actual visits into the attraction.
2. Unless stated otherwise, provided meals are Chinese -_-

Hotels we stayed in (with free WiFi in rooms unless stated otherwise)...
Rome: Ardeatina Park Hotel (1 night)
Florence: Hotel West Florence (1 night; no free WiFi)
Venice: Holiday Inn Venice Mestre Marghera (1 night)
Salzburg: Mercure Salzburg Central (1 night)
Lucerne: Ameron Flora (1 night)
Interlaken: Metropole Hotel (2 nights; no free WiFi)
Germany: NH Weinheim (1 night)
Amsterdam: Van Der Valk Schiphol A4 (2 nights)
Paris: Moevenpick Paris Neuilly (2 nights)
London: Novotel London West (1 night) 

Interesting note: A few people in my tour group were Primark fanatics and cabbed down to Oxford Street to do a quick round of shopping before the shops closed on the last night in London. I chanced upon a Primark outlet in the morning, within walking distance from the hotel (Novotel London West), just behind King's Mall. 
Primark fans thinking of going on this tour, no need to cab down to Oxford Street and rush your shopping after all!

Optionals (with Chan Brothers' pricing)...
Venice: Gondola Ride (30/person) did not do (bad weather).
Switzerland, Interlaken: Mt. Jungfrau (SFR195/adult, SFR135/child) did!
Netherlands: Volendam (25/adult, 15/child) did!
Netherlands: Keukenhof Tulip Festival (45/adult, 30/child; only available from March-May during season) did not do (not the season).
Paris: Seine River Cruise (30/adult, 15/child) did!
Paris: Versailles Palace (60/adult, 40/child) did!

Optionals (not listed in Chan Brothers' brochure but provided by tour guide during trip)...
Florence: Barberino Designer Outlet (20/person) did not do (but had to go along with coach).
Germany: Rhine River drive (15/person) did!
Paris: French 5-course dinner (75/person) did not do because scam.
Paris: Moulin Rouge show + champagne (150/person) did not do.

Tipping...
Tour Manager: 45/person
Coach Captain: 30/person
City Guides: 12/person
Total: 87/person

Till the next review,
XOXO

14 comments:

  1. Loved your review. I have booked the same tour and hope I don't eat as much chinese food...

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  2. Is there an option to not have chinese food there?

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    1. Hi Deb! I'm afraid not. It's part of the package.

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    2. Hi Deb! I'm afraid not. It's part of the package.

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    3. Hi Deb! I'm afraid not. It's part of the package.

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    4. Thank you for the reply! I'm starting to regret booking the tour.. I hope they do allow us to have more free & easy and go back to the hotel on our own..

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  3. Hi Ann! Great review! Very informative. I'm booked for the November tour :) there seems to be quite a number of optional tour. Other then Barberino Designer Outlet, were there any optional tour where you have to tag along because the tour will not return to pick you up; as in they will depart from where the optional tour end?

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    1. Hello Heather!

      So sorry for the late reply, and you're probably on your tour right now, or back from it. Hope you enjoyed it! :)

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  4. Hi ann thanks for the awesome review! Wanted to enquire how much did u pay to chan brothers in total? And did that include the entrance fees to the sightseeing places? Thanks!

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    1. Hi Dianah!

      The package was about 5k per person and did not include some optionals which I mentioned in my blog entry. Otherwise, all entrance fees included :)

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  5. Apakah blog ini terdaftar di Google Adsense , jika anda tidak butuh uang, Bisakah anda memberikan akun adsense kepada saya ? ( Indonesian Language ) Please Translate

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  6. Hi Ann! Nice review. Very useful. Have booked for June this year. Crowded Europe huh? Anyways... Are the breakfast non Chinese? I presume it's a buffet arranged by the hotel for all the guests? I pray so.. wish I had checked out your article before booking

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  7. Update: this year's itenary, they have dropped Salzburg and added 1 more day for London... Sensible move I think?

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  8. This is so amazing. Great Tips !! Keep publishing the great content for your blog. Keep writing and sharing your thoughts with us. Hotel Frankfurt-Oder

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