We’ve always been a little hesitant about booking tours during our travels… and by “hesitant” I mean we’ve never actually been on one. Our concern was threefold:
- Tours would probably be prohibitively expensive, and at the very least wouldn’t be cost-effective
- Tour companies would cut costs to increase their profit margins, so we’d end up with poor quality and/or service
- We’d be herded around like sheep with no flexibility to deviate from the official itinerary
Our concerns were admittedly based on assumption, though, so when we were offered complimentary tickets for a two-day tour of the English countryside with International Friends we jumped at the chance to prove ourselves wrong.
International Friends is a U.K.-based tour company that specializes in smaller tours for overseas visitors to Britain. They organize a number of day-trips, a handful of weekend excursions, and a few more extensive trips to places like Amsterdam and Paris.
After a month housesitting in London we were eager to explore England’s famous pastoral countryside, so we chose a two-day tour that promised to take us through Oxford, Bath, Stonehenge, and the Cotswolds. We really had no idea what to expect, what with this being our first tour and all, but by the end of the weekend we were convinced. Even for full-time budget travelers, tours can be a cost-effective and enjoyable way to explore new locales.
Here are some of the highlights of our trip:
Most of the tours run by International Friends have a maximum group size of sixteen. SIXTEEN! I’m so used to seeing those behemoth spaceship-sized tour buses driving around London that I couldn’t believe our tour would be so small.
The group size turned out to be a huge advantage, though. We were, indeed, at full capacity with sixteen people (plus a cheeky little toddler), but over the course of the two days we had the chance to chat with everyone at some point… and we even made a new friend!
The most important thing about having such a small group, though, is that means you can take an equally small vehicle. It was really more a large van than a bus, and its nimble size provided access to areas that are off-limits for traditional tour groups. In Stonehenge and Oxford it didn’t make much of a difference… but in the Cotswolds it was a revelation. Small tours are where it’s at, people!
The Cotswolds refers to an area of the English countryside renowned for its historical beauty and preservation. Since it’s a whole region comprised of numerous small towns and villages, it’s difficult to just “see the Cotswolds” – you kind of have to explore the entire area. And, as we discovered, most of that area is only accessible via small roads that are explicitly closed to tour buses… but not to our little van!
It turns out that most tour buses take a main thoroughfare skirting one edge of the Cotswolds and just stop at a few of the more popular towns along that route. I suppose some Cotswolds is better than none, but our guide was able to take us through those winding roads and into the heart of the region… which was beautiful.
Seriously. We’re living here some day.
We saw tons of little villages surrounded by beautiful farmland and grazing sheep. We visited big-name towns like Lacock (where part of Harry Potter was filmed!) and Stow-on-the Wold (which, surprisingly, is a Stow conveniently located on a Wold), then rambled through quiet little villages that were more community than tourist trap.
Our little vehicle afforded us the opportunity to see a side of the Cotswolds we wouldn’t have otherwise, and I seriously can’t exaggerate the importance of this. If you’re taking a tour through the Cotswolds, it is not in your best interests to go with a big group!
AMAZING TOUR GUIDE
Our tour guide, David, was wonderful, which was great because the energy and engagement of a guide can make or break a tour (I know, I know, as budget travelers previously avoiding tours we don’t have any personal experience to back this up, but after hearing horror stories from tourmates over dinner it seems the guide can make quite a difference).
Anyway, we hit the jackpot with David, who was like a freaking encyclopedia of knowledge, had a witty sense of humor, and seemed to truly enjoy the area and his work.
Because the group was so small, we had a number of opportunities to chat with him one-on-one about the most random things… like traveling to Israel and his web business ideas. We also peppered him with questions about everything we saw on the trip, and he seemed to know the Cotswolds like the back of his hand.
At one point David pulled over and cheerfully told us to hop out, then pointed down a beautiful and remote country road. He explained that it was well worth the 20-minute walk, and that he’d meet us at the top with the bus when we were done! We strolled by the most beautifully quaint private homes, a quiet church and cemetery, and two kids playing with their puppy in a stream… and didn’t see another tourist the whole time.
For the most part I was pleased with the pace of the tour. We had just the right amount of time at Oxford, Bath, and Stonehenge, and I appreciated the mix of structured time (a guided tour in Oxford and a visit to the Roman Baths in Bath) coupled with free time to explore on our own.
Not once did I feel like we were being herded about. There were a few instances when I wished we had more time to explore an area… but then again if it’d been up to me we would have stayed in the Costwolds for weeks! I felt this most acutely in Lacock, where I wanted nothing more than to sit down and have a picnic in the fields and spend the entire afternoon leisurely strolling through the abbey grounds amongst the (actual) sheep.
If we thought this was going to be our only chance to see the area, we probably would’ve panicked. But it’s not; we knew from the beginning we would likely return to explore the Cotswolds on our own if we ended up enjoying them, and I think that’s one of the best parts of a tour like this — not only do we know we like the region now, but we have specific villages in mind to explore further and a few places we know aren’t worth any more of our time.
ACCOMMODATIONS / QUALITY
I wasn’t really expecting anything less, but it’s worth mentioning that the quality of almost all the physical bits of the tour was superb as well. The bus was clean and tidy, with lots of room for our luggage… but the seats were fracking uncomfortable by the end of the day!
The hotel hit just the right note, though – it was spacious and modern (to be honest, it was nicer than where we’d have stayed on our own), but not over-the-top. They didn’t shove us into some less-than-ideal budget option, but they also didn’t choose such a ritzy hotel I felt it was a waste of money.
As full-time budget travelers, affordability is a huge concern for us, but to be honest I was surprised by how cheap the tour ended up being. Our particular trip cost £169 ($267) per person and included everything (transportation, hotel, entrance fees) aside from meals for our two-day adventure.
If we were to organize a similar trip on our own (which we looked into before this opportunity emerged), we would have had to pay for a rental vehicle (and drive on the other side of the road!), gas (which is outrageously expensive in the U.K.), car insurance, entrance fees in Bath and Stonehenge, and accommodations for the night.
All of that adds up quickly, and we still wouldn’t have had the expert knowledge or guide. And, quite frankly, we would have immediately gotten so lost on the one-lane roads of the Cotswolds countryside that we’d probably have never been heard from again. With everything taken into account, the price is eminently reasonable.
Would we take a tour again?
Unequivocally yes. In fact, we’re excited that we’ve discovered this new form of travel! It’s obviously not something we’ll book every month (goodbye, reasonable travel budget) but for some situations I definitely believe it’s the best way to go.
For instance, while the transportation to Stonehenge was useful, we didn’t necessarily need a tour to get the most out of that attraction. But for exploring a region where we could make good use of the experience and local knowledge of a guide we’d consider a tour again in a heartbeat.
We certainly haven’t become all-around tour advocates, though. I’m still not convinced I’d enjoy one of the massive bus tours, or a lengthy tour through an entire country (in that case I’d prefer to explore on my own). There are obviously some tours out there that we’d hate for a variety of reasons… but the type of smaller and more intimate tour that International Friends specializes in?
It was exactly what we didn’t even know we wanted.