Apart from a 14 day Contiki tour on my first trip to Europe over 20 years ago, all my holidays in Europe have been of the independent variety. Hubby and I (and the kids) have always preferred to hire or lease a car or travel by train on our European adventures. We plan our itinerary so that we are based in one town for at least three or four nights, giving us reasonable time to really discover the area, see the sights and have some rest time if we feel like it. This year, however, with a week to fill on my own in Switzerland, I opted to join a Trafalgar Tour, and I'm really pleased I did.
Having booked clients on Trafalgar Tours when I worked as a travel consultant, I was quite excited to experience one for myself, although I was a little apprehensive about the loss of my independence on the holiday. I needn't have been worried, though, as the tour I travelled on offered a reasonable amount of 'free' time.
After a week in Switzerland for business, I had another week to myself before returning home and I was keen to see parts of Switzerland that I hadn't visited previously. The tour I chose was Trafalgar's 8 day "Best of Switzerland" tour, although I finished the tour at the end of day 5 in Geneva as I had to return home to Australia.
The tour started in Zurich where we were booked in to the swanky Zurich Marriott Hotel. I arrived around midday and checked in to my beautifully appointed room.
A city tour was the first inclusion of the tour, however as I had already been in Zurich for a few days and had done a city tour, I elected to skip the Trafalgar version and instead did some window shopping, before wandering alongside the lake and River Limmat on the way back to the hotel.
A notice board set up in the hotel lobby advised the departure time for our welcome dinner would be 6pm so I, along with the other Trafalgar passengers, met for our introductory dinner. Our tour leader, Monika, was full of information and made us all feel very welcome and everyone was given the chance to introduce themselves.
Of course there was the usual 'housekeeping' to sort out and reminders of the importance of being on time throughout the tour. The 'seat rotation' system was also explained to us (although some people seemed to find it difficult to get their head around!). This is a policy that Trafalgar have in place to ensure that everyone changes seats each day so that the same guests don't always sit in the front seats.
Monika told me during the tour that seat rotation is the one thing that causes the most angst among passengers - some people just don't want to be told they can't sit in the front!
Personally, I couldn't see a problem with changing seats - our Trafalgar coach had huge panoramic windows so even when I was sitting towards the back of the coach, I could still see plenty.
Lively, Comfortable or Leisurely
The "Best of Switzerland" tour is classed in Trafalgar's brochure as 'lively' and this was certainly true. For each of the five days I was on the tour, we stayed at a different town each night and travel distances usually meant a fairly early start each morning so that we would arrive at our destination by midday.
Whilst the lively pace suited my circumstances perfectly (I wanted to see a lot in a very short space of time), passengers wanting a more leisurely pace should choose their tour carefully. Trafalgar rates their tours as either Leisurely, Comfortable or Lively and it is essential that you are aware of the pace of your tour to ensure it meets your requirements.
As I mentioned, most mornings we departed our hotel around 7.30am and arrived at our destination around midday. A coffee/toilet stop was made after about two hours travelling, often at a scenic lookout or point of interest. On arrival at our destination we usually checked in to our hotel first and then, those who had elected to take the optional tour which was offered, went and did that.
On each day of the tour, optional excursions were offered. Options on our tour were quite varied, ranging from a cable car ride to the Klein Matterhorn, a ride on the Bernina Express train and a Swiss Folklore evening and dinner.
Details of the optional excursions where included with the travel documentation that I received prior to the tour, and on the first full day of the tour, our tour director passed around a list with all the optional tours listed for us to indicate which ones we would like to participate in.
In total, nine optional excursions were offered on our eight day tour and the participation rate varied from those who elected to do every single excursion, to those who just took one or two tours. Passengers electing to do all optional excursions were up for CHF633 each.
The excursions I chose were the Bernina Express train ride from St Moritz (CHF70), Isola Bella Palace Tour on Lake Maggiore (CHF44) and a cruise on Lake Geneva and visit to the town of Yvoire (CHF54).
All excursions were excellent (our guide at Isola Bella was fantastic - very passionate and knowledgable) - and the visit to Yvoire was a highlight. This village really is one of Trafalgar's 'hidden delights' and one I would not have known about had it not been for Trafalgar.
I elected not to take the cable car ride to the Klein Matterhorn as I'm not a fan of cable cars. Instead I made my own way to the Gornergratbahn station in Zermatt and caught the train up the mountain.
My tip when choosing your tour is to carefully read the itinerary and note which activities and excursions are 'visited' rather than just 'viewed'.
On our tour, the itinerary stated we would view the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, which we did. We had a a 15 minute photo stop beside the lake to take photos of the castle, but we didn't actually visit it. Knowing this in advance saves any disappointment whilst on holiday.
All hotels on the Best of Switzerland tour were classified as 'first class'. Whilst this was certainly true of the hotels in Zurich and Baveno (Lake Maggiore), I'm not sure that I would class the hotels in St Moritz and Zermatt in this category.
Yes, both these towns are alpine resorts and we were staying in more traditional Swiss alpine hotels, but both hotels could do with a bit of modernisation, mainly of the decor.
All the hotels were extremely clean with private facilities and were well located. Interestingly, the not-so-modern hotels provided free wi-fi, whereas the other two charged handsomely - CHF35 for 24 hours in Zurich!
Porterage was included in our tour price, meaning our suitcases were delivered to our rooms on arrival and collected the next morning.
Each evening our tour director advised what time our bags needed to be left outside our door the following morning, so that the porters could collect our luggage and deliver it to the coach.
The normal routine went along the lines of "wake up call at 6.30am, bags outside your room at 7am, coach departing at 8am".
Eat, drink and be merry
Buffet breakfast was provided each morning and all hotels put on a great spread. On our particular tour, dinner was included on five out of the seven nights.
The 'welcome reception' was a lovely three course meal at a popular Zurich restaurant and we enjoyed a delicious buffet in St Moritz and a traditional Swiss fondue meal at Zermatt.
The highlight for me, though, was the 'Be My Guest' dinner on a private island on Lake Maggiore. After taking a boat to the island, we were treated to a wonderful four course meal cooked by the chef/restaurant owner who is a descendant of the Borromean family.
The restaurant's location was superb and the views and the meal were wonderful.
My Trafalgar Tour Director and Coach Driver
I could not fault either our tour director, Monika, or coach driver, Michael.
Monika was a true professional with over 30 years experience as a tour director. Her knowledge of the places we visited was excellent, her organisational skills amazing and her diplomacy when dealing with passengers was a credit to her. And she spoke at least four languages!
Michael was also a real professional. Having driven tour coaches for many years he was well used to the winding alpine passes we crossed and the narrow villages that he had to squeeze the coach through.
How he didn't scrape the coach or dislodge a side mirror in some places was truly amazing.
Who do Trafalgar Tours suit best?
As the Best of Switzerland tour was one of Trafalgar's shorter regional tours, the majority of the passengers were from the United States. Most of the Americans were holidaying in Europe for about 10 days so the tour length suited them perfectly.
Also on a short break were a couple from the UAE. There were four Aussie couples on the tour, all of whom were doing the Switzerland tour as part of a longer stay in Europe. Three of the couples had either already done, or were following up with, a similar-length Trafalgar tour in Italy.
Most of the passengers had visited Europe previously and the age group was predominantly 55 and over. I was the second youngest amongst our group, which included three other single travellers, two women and one man.
The Trafalgar Best of Switzerland tour was full of unexpected surprises for me. The first was a lovely colour booklet/journal to record my thoughts and discoveries of the tour. Titled 'My Journey' the booklet also contained handy phrases in various European languages and a large map of Europe.
Another unexpected bonus was the included group photo provided by Trafalgar. Our photo was taken in Zermatt and given to all passengers the same evening and is a great memento of my tour.
Other 'surprises' were the informative tours which were included in most towns and cities we visited. I particularly enjoyed the walking tour of Zermatt and our visit to the Reformation Wall in Geneva.
For me, though, the visit to Yvoire was the best surprise of all.
My overall impression
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and the fact that everything was arranged for me. I didn't have to worry about getting from A to B or lugging my suitcase around, which I would have had to do had I travelled independently.
The tour provided me with the opportunity to visit some places I had always wanted to see and offered some excursions that I probably wouldn't have considered had I been travelling alone. It was also a great way to meet other people and make new friends.
For first time travellers to Europe or those who prefer to have everything organised for them, a Trafalgar tour is a great way to travel.
Would you consider travelling on a Trafalgar Tour?
Disclosure: I travelled on the Best of Switzerland Tour at a discounted travel industy rate.