We had nicknames for some of the people on the bus. There was Charlie Sheen and Mr. Magoo, the dad from “The Goldbergs,” the Vegas Ladies, the Park Ranger from Portland and The Millennials.
I’m not sure what they called us.
On our bus tour of Eastern Europe, my mom, two aunts and I were a family pack on a girls’ trip. Our acquaintances probably called me “the blogger” and my mom “the retired English teacher.” One of my aunts picked up the handle “Delta” (where she worked before she retired). We had to call my other aunt “Mary” in public, instead of her nickname since childhood, “Beaner.” It wasn’t until later in life that she and the rest of my family realized some people took offense to her name as derogatory slang, and it wouldn’t be cool to yell, “Hey, Beaner!” across a crowded airport. Now, only her closest friends are allowed to call her that.
If it hadn’t been for my mom and aunts, I probably wouldn’t have considered taking a bus tour through Croatia and Slovenia with stops along the way in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. I’ve always been more of a do-it-yourself kind of traveler who prefers taking in the sights with a group of four rather than 40.
But it came down to price. For less than $150 per day (not much more than airfare alone would have cost my family to come and see me in Croatia), they got a package deal from Gate 1 Travel that included airfare from New York, nine nights of accommodations at nice hotels, more than a dozen meals and breakfasts, an English-speaking tour manager and local guides.
What I learned on my first bus tour is that it’s an efficient way to explore foreign cities. You don’t have to do all of the research yourself, and you can’t beat the hotel buying power of a tour company.
We started off in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week visiting with my family. Then in Croatia, we spent two nights in Opatija, one night in Split, three nights in Dubrovnik and one night in Zagreb. In Slovenia, we spent two nights in Bled. We also took some side trips to places such as Rovinj, Pula and Montenegro. It would have been tough to cover that much territory and stay in resorts for that price on our own.
The cons of bus tours? Sitting next to Mr. Magoo at dinner, getting trapped in a couple of authentic tourist traps, being rushed through some cities and not being able to shake the feeling of being on a school field trip.
We traveled with a group of mainly retired Americans. That changed the experience from the rest of my stay here – full of months when I barely heard any other American voices. On weekend trips with my husband and kids, we have been able to see a little more of the charm of small towns here and the way people live. We’ve also tried to communicate with the locals in at least a little bit of their own language. You lose that traveling with a big group that already speaks your language.
For much of the trip, my mom was disappointed with the food. For months, I’d been talking up the seafood of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean and Italian dishes and the fruit stands and vegetable markets. I’m not sure a bus tour makes for the best dining experiences. Judging a country’s food by bus tour buffets is kind of like judging American cuisine by only the restaurants that can handle being bombarded by a bus crowd.
Overall, Gate 1 delivered on its tagline to show us “more of the world for less.” We saw the highlights of multiple cities without having to worry about the details.
Even though I had been to some of the cities before, local guides stood out in places like Pula, which has one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world, and in Split, where a guide took us underground to see the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace. We also walked the ancient city walls above Dubrovnik on a fall day when most of the tourists had already left, and the rooftop views were fantastic.
We made memories we’ll talk about for years to come.
I woke up this morning to see a Facebook message from my Aunt Beaner with a mesmerizing little video about ways to fold napkins. I had to laugh because it made me think of the fancy folded napkin she wore like a paper cap when we were joking around during one of our dinner outings.
Maybe at some holiday gathering years from now, there will be napkin caps all around and we’ll play that hat game we learned at a bus tour dinner. Just like that time in Slovenia.