Europe Vacations: Guided Tours versus Self-Driving Tours

Sometimes, the toughest decision about your Europe vacation is if you should go the guided tour route or the self-driving route. If you’re visiting a place with limited rail options, or want to experience landmarks outside of major cities, traveling by car or bus is often your best option. So how do you choose: guided tours versus self-driving tours?

Lonely roads and mountains along the Ring of Kerry.
The winding roads of the Ring of Kerry make keeping your eyes on the road a frustrating challenge!

Here’s what I learned about what guided tours can offer while I was on a self-guided Ireland road trip.

Country roads, take me home. Please. Immediately.

Here’s what they don’t tell you in the brochures: driving country routes in Ireland is scary. It’s not just that you’re driving on the left-hand side in Ireland. That’s fine. The motorways are fine. Irish drivers seem very polite and capable. It’s the rural roads that you have to watch out for.

These can be extraordinarily small, twisty roads. Often hedgerows or stone walls or even houses are right up against the pavement, with no shoulders to speak of. Passing through towns offers a whole new challenge because cars can park half on sidewalks, half on the street, narrowing busy thoroughfares to one lane. And street signs can be non-existent. The situation is similar in England and Scotland.

During our Ireland road trip we quickly learned the difference between N and R roads, and took our navigation suggestions accordingly. R roads can literally be farm tracks through forests, or take winding climbs up mountainsides with a deep stream along one side of the road. Please don’t ask me how I know this; I really don’t feel up to sharing that story yet!

The person driving the car misses the show

You can see so much scenery when you’re not driving… and almost nothing when you are. A great example of this is the twisting scenic route through Killarney National Park. Everyone knows the Ring of Kerry is one of Ireland’s single-greatest must-sees, right? It’s a drive through ancient mountains, and gorgeous wilderness where only sheep live, and past deep, brooding lakes of unimaginable beauty. Many travelers consider the Ring of Kerry one of the world’s great beauty spots. And if you’re the one driving, you’re going to miss most of it.

Pulling over to the roadside for a better look in Killarney National Park, Ireland
Pulling over to the roadside for a better look in Killarney National Park, Ireland

That’s because this well-traveled road is narrow and sinuous, threading its way through valleys and up mountainsides and sometimes, memorably, through one-lane blind curves carved through a rocky archway. Tour buses take this route daily, and coming around a turn to find yourself face to face with a motor coach is… well… let’s just say I had to ride in the backseat, because my nerves couldn’t take the windshield view.

My husband, who was driving, would have enjoyed that trip a million percent more if someone else had been behind the wheel. It’s the kind of drive where you need to press your nose against the window and take it all in, gasping periodically at the wild beauty of the countryside — not be forced to concentrate on the road.

“Tourist Attraction” isn’t a bad word

Tourist attractions are usually tourist attractions for a reason: they’re places worth seeing. Especially if you’re on your first trip to a country like Ireland or the United Kingdom — you’re going to want to see Galway, or Bath, or Stirling. You wouldn’t skip them just because they’re full of tourists. So whether you’re driving or a bus driver is handling the road, you’re going to be at the same tourist attractions as the folks who took the guided tour. The only difference is how you got there, and how you’ll be leaving.

The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland
We walked The Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland alone for a few minutes, then a small tour bus pulled up. Whether you drive or take a tour, you’ll probably visit many of the same places.

Sure, there are times on a self-guided vacation when you’ll be all on your own, and have experiences you couldn’t get on your average tour. For example, we opted to visit the south side of the Cliffs of Moher, rather than the extremely busy north end where the visitor’s center is, and where the tour buses go — and it was amazing: wild and isolated, with hardly anyone around, and no sounds but the crashing of waves against the cliffs and the cries of seabirds. Afterwards, we went to a quiet restaurant in the nearby town of Liscannor and ate platters of delicious fish and chips.

But we got there via torturous one-lane roads (some lined on both sides with stone walls, so we had to pray no one else would drive down them), walking a mile up a muddy lane and climbing over stiles in fences, and at one point we found ourselves part of the local St. Patrick’s Day parade. Yes, this happened. There was a llama being led in the parade, then us. People lining the road waved to us. It was strange.

Local Color

Half the fun of traveling through new countries is meeting the locals, hearing stories, and learning about places from the people who live there. If you’re not good at striking up small talk with the bartender or the couple sitting next to you, you might never get those conversations. Ask me how I know.

One of my favorite parts of our Ireland trip was a jaunting cart ride, with a local tour guide sharing gossip and great stories.
One of my favorite parts of our Ireland trip was a jaunting cart ride, with a local tour guide sharing gossip and great stories.

Tour guides have relationships with local business owners, which turns into personalized experiences for you. So while you might think that being on a tour is impersonal, or maybe you’re an introvert and think it would be awful to be surrounded by a group — the opposite is actually true. Here’s a first-hand example:

Recently, I went on a guided tour of England’s Great West Way, and we stopped in a small town called Hungerford for Sunday lunch. The restaurant had a really strange name (“The Tutti Pole”) and old photos on the wall that had us all in stitches guessing what was going on — why were so many men in suits kissing women, and was that man getting shod like a horse?? Then the chef came around to tell us the history of The Tutti Pole, which is a flower-bedecked stick you can see in the restaurant’s front window, and Hocktide, the holiday involving the Tutti Pole, the Tutti-Men, kissing women, oranges, and shoeing the newbies. He told us how members of his family were involved in the ceremonies, and even pointed out some of them in photos.

It’s the kind of half-insane, half-wonderful ancient English tradition you want to discover during your trip… but unless you’d had a connection to the owners of the restaurant, you might never have gotten the story! Sure, you could have Googled it… but it was much more fun getting the story directly from the people who live these traditions.

Now, don’t get me wrong — there are lots of great attributes to traveling independently and I’ll some of those stories and points in articles here as well. But if you’re on the fence about a guided tour, or just have never considered them before, these are some angles you might not have considered.

The biggest takeaway we brought home from our Ireland trip was that we do not like driving vacations. Even if the roads weren’t frightening, the driver just misses too much during scenic routes. And if you plan right, all of your routes are scenic. We need to go back to Ireland, perhaps on a specialty tour itinerary, where we can just focus on the views and not the roads.

Our next vacation is to Scotland, and we are taking trains and busses, rather than driving. We are also taking a guided tour to the Isle of Skye while we’re there, because we couldn’t find a good train route that matches up with the rest of our trip. I’m looking forward to leaning my head against the window and absorbing the beauty of the Highlands while a guide tells me about the history of the land and towns we pass. And also checking out where they suggest we go for lunch! After all… the locals know best.