Coach touring through Europe with Cosmos

by Sue Beechey

 

Our 17-hour flight on Emirates’ A380 from Auckland went very smoothly. I was impressed with the plane, seat, generous legroom and staff. The food was typical airplane food but ok. We were served dinner and breakfast with a small snack in between. The arrival at Dubai was very easy having been met by an Arabian Adventures representative and efficiently moved through the shortcut immigration process.  This is one big advantage of booking with the Emirates Stopover Program!

Our Dubai stopover hotel, the Arabian Court, rated 4-star but is more a 3.5 star. 24 hour check-in was great, meaning we could go straight to our room to shower. We managed to swap our breakfast to have on the day of arrival, rather than the following day, due to a very early departure the next day. The location was very good for those wanting the Dubai Creek area and also the Dubai Museum just across the road. The breakfast was good. The rooms dark, but comfortable enough. There is a pool, but it was tiny and uninviting. Ask for a room on one of the non smoking floors.

The big question is though, what to do with a 24 hour stopover?

If you’re a first timer to Dubai, I recommend the hop-on / hop-off bus, making sure you stop off at a mall and include a visit to the Dubai Museum (AED 3 entry fee). At night take part in a Dune Dinner Safari. (For those who suffer with car sickness, you can travel by private transfer to avoid the Dune Bashing.)

Second time around, the hop-on / hop-off bus could still be beneficial, plus either a trip to the Burj Kalifa observation deck or a ride on the equivalent of the London Eye (still being built during our visit) maybe at night to see the amazing lights on all the architecture. There is also the metro, but the metro stop was a 10-minute walk from our hotel and in 40+ degrees this would have been very uncomfortable. The heat is very debilitating and hanging around in the sun for your transport without overhead shelter was no fun. It has to be said taxi’s still have their place in Dubai and if there are a few of you, the cost is very reasonable. A few of us caught a taxi to the Dubai Mall (open from 10 am to late evening) where we walked around for a couple of hours (enjoying the air-conditioning!). The aquarium inside the mall was amazing. You can view from the mall or pay the entrance fee to go inside to see more. There was also an ice skating rink, the Dubai Dino (a real dinosaur skeleton), and the fountains, which start up from 6pm. Get there early to grab a good viewing spot.

Take the lift to the Burj Khalifa “at the top” observation deck 555m high. You usually have to pre-book to view, especially during the peak time at dusk. The best time to go is between 6.00pm and 6.30pm for both a day and night view. The price is cheaper for an advance booking. Otherwise go early in the day to avoid the queues. There is often a heat haze in the daytime which doesn`t make for good viewing.

After a nap in the afternoon some of the people I was travelling with did the Dune Dinner Safari. Having been before, I did the Dhow dinner cruise on the Marina. The modern architecture was amazing with the lights reflecting into the water. The Dhow was comfortable, food ‘ok’ but the service was very average. An ‘ok’ excursion but had much room for improvement. It took an hour to get there from our hotel and we all struggled with tiredness and jet lag.

Early the next morning it was time to fly to Munich. Even though the flight was quite short, we received breakfast and lunch onboard. We took a sneak peak at business class upstairs on the A380 which was pretty full. Seating for couples is best with the 2 seats in the middle. The immigration at Munich was extremely slow due to the lack of staff on duty and the queues were long.

In Munich we stayed at NH Muenchen Neue Messe Hotel which was great and only a 30 minute transfer from the airport. The hotel had very comfortable rooms, a beautiful breakfast and yummy dinner. Despite being very busy with conference clients, the staff and the service was very efficient.

We caught a taxi to the old part of the city, which was the easiest way to get there and cost €25 + tip and took 20 minutes. It poured with rain, we stopped at the Hofbrauhaus for a real German experience to taste the beers – it’s well worth a visit. We taxied back in time for our Cosmos introductory meeting. We are a group of 45, but everyone seems very nice and initial impressions were good. We ate at the hotel. A delicious chicken dinner was €15 + a beer at €4.

The next day we departed at 8.30am on the dot (with everyone turning up on time!) and started our journey to Prague with an early lunch stop in the town of Nuremburg. It had a very quaint town square with a charming produce market. At 12 noon the ornate church clock in the square did a performance. Worth doing is the walk up to the castle to view the roof tops of the old town.

We arrived in Prague about 4.45 pm. The Czech Republic was not as pretty as the Bavarian countryside and the people a little dour.

Our accommodation was at The International Hotel, Prague – a huge hotel with a grand entrance and it looked like a grand relic of the past. The rooms were a little tired but clean and comfortable with a good bathroom.

We learnt 2 things:

  • There is no border crossing between Germany and the Czech Republic, nor between any country which signed the Schengan Agreement
  • Most places in the Czech Republic and Hungary will accept Euros, apart from the smaller businesses, some will even give out change in Euros.

In the evening I did the optional Czech Dinner and Music at a local restaurant with singing and dancing. It was a great night to gel with the other tour passengers and was value for money when you consider it included transfers, wine or beer, food and entertainment, all for only €48 – so well worth doing.

The next day was a big day with a Cosmos and included a tour of the old town of Prague. We happened to have the Cosmos videographer filming and he was a mine of information. He arranged lunch at a local restaurant in the square “Restaurce Mincovna” which is frequented by the local business people. It was wonderful and well priced (€10 for Beef Goulash and a beer) unlike the over priced tourist restaurants. He took us to the John Lennon wall. Since the 1980`s it has been filled with John Lennon inspired graffiti, painted by the young generation of Czechs. He was adopted as a symbol of peace against the communist regime. They liked his “V” sign for peace and his long hair. This was in an era when the secret police would force someone to have a haircut if their hair was considered too long. The secret police would come along and white wash the graffiti each day only to find it had been replaced overnight. Eventually the people won and the graffiti wall remains. He also took us to the hilltop where we had the most amazing view of the river and city. We met the group for an optional excursion of medieval Prague. Personally I would not recommend this tour and instead would get an entrance ticket to the castle and self-tour. My legs and feet were pretty tired. Dinner was included tonight at the hotel as part of the tour. It was very average.

We were told the Czechs are unfriendly, but do no harm and we found this to be very true. We had many examples of bad customer interaction from the local tour guide and the hotel staff.

The next day saw us endure a 5.5-hour drive to Vienna due to a long hold up in the traffic (it is normally shorter). Austria is 3/4 mountains and I was immediately struck by how much more beautiful it was than the Czech Republic. I LOVE Vienna! There were beautiful buildings everywhere. We were blessed with a sunny day and clear blue skies. We had a tour around the old city with an interesting guide. Sadly we only had one night in Vienna. The tour I think would benefit for an extra night in Vienna to be 2 nights as there was so much to see. 1 night just wasn`t long enough.

We had 30 minutes to check in to our rooms and get ready for our Typical Viennese Evening – an optional extra tour that was most enjoyable and highly recommended. The performance was at the Palais Auersper and was a good mix of waltz music, ballet and opera including a small glass of bubbles at the intermission. Cost: €50

We dined in local restaurant close to the hotel and enjoyed a Wienerschnitzal, originally a veal dish, but now chicken or pork meat is used.

Our overnight stay was at Hotel FourSide Vienna – although the corridors were a little worn the rooms were great. A very comfortable hotel in a good location. It was close to restaurants and a small supermarket. A mere 5-minute walk to the nearest tram station to get into the central city. They served a really nice breakfast!

The next morning I went to a training session for the Lipizzaner Stallions at the Spanish Riding School. The evening performance tickets are sold out months in advance. It only costs €15 to view with some commentary and Viennese music playing while the horses are put through their paces. It’s open from 10am to 12noon Tuesday to Friday and closed for the month of July to give the horses a break. We left Vienna at 1.00pm to drive on to Budapest.

Upon arrival into Budapest and checking into our hotel I took the evening optional excursion the “Hungarian Night”. It was good fun with Hungarian Gypsy music and dancing. Cost: €51

We had a late start meeting the next day at 7.45 am, followed by a morning tour of Budapest. Firstly going across the bridge to Buda and visiting the Castle and looking at the view point over the Danube. Then viewing the historical points of interest of Pest. The prices were much more expensive in Budapest compared to anywhere else we had visited. The market was especially expensive, we noticed the same products in the market were cheaper in the nearby shops. In the afternoon we were lucky enough to enjoy a tour onboard an Avalon Waterways’ ship “Avalon Passion” which was a great opportunity as she was docked in Budapest. I was impressed with the ship. The ship had 110 out of a possible 168 passengers cruising onboard.

Some interesting insights I learnt about the competing cruise lines navigating these legendary waterways:

  • Scenic are considered the most directly comparable product to Avalon Waterways. Scenic include all excursions, which is great for first timers, but may not be so good for second time travellers, as it does add to the up-front cost.
  • Viking has the same size ship, but 30 additional passengers.
  • APT’s lifts do not go down to the bottom deck.

That evening, all but 4 of the tour passengers went on the optional excursion; the Budapest River Boat Dinner Cruise. Good food and wine (a bottle of both red and white wine between 4 people) and the backdrop of the illuminated sights on the river was impressive. Cost: €60

In Budapest we stayed at the Ibis Styles Central Center, which is very modern, with many quirky touches, interesting signage and logos everywhere. Despite it being in an old building, the interior was completely modernised. Comfortable rooms, although they lacked bathroom hooks and there were no sockets next to any mirror if you wanted to use a hair straightener. The breakfast was very good!

In the morning we set out for our longest day on the road, with a 580 km drive from Budapest to Salzburg. To break the journey we had a long lunch stop for 2 hours at Melk in a beautiful Abbey. Sited on a hilltop looking over the village I found it to be charming and they had a lovely restaurant area with good toilets – even better, they were free! We drove past more pretty villages as we followed the Danube River, arriving in Salzburg at 6.00pm.

The hotel, Austria Trend Salzburg West, is a large, but very basic airport hotel with little character. Besides the airport, it’s adjacent to an outlet shopping mall (but as with most shops in Austria it’s closed on a Sunday). I think the itinerary would be much better to have a city hotel. The accommodation was the worst on our trip. The bags were extremely late coming up to the rooms and some were left in the street unattended, not good.

The service in the local restaurant was extremely bad, but the food was good. In general the hotel staff have plenty of room for improvement.

The next day I took the optional Sound of Music tour. Excellent! It told the real von Trapp story, as well as the Hollywood Sound of Music story. Our guide Monica was very good and took us around some of the film locations as well as the Abbey where Maria was a novice nun. I highly recommend this tour. Cost: €27

We had free time to wander around the beautiful city of Salzburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It rains 50 % of the time, which makes for lush green scenery around the city. Although rain was forecast we had a beautiful blue-sky day.

Our 2-hour trip to Munich took 3 hours as we were stopped at the border and everyone’s passport was checked. We passed some very pretty scenery on our drive.

Tonight we had our second included dinner, which was in a typical German restaurant in the city. A wine, beer or juice was included as well as a 3-course meal of potato soup, German sausages on a stick, mashed potato and sauerkraut followed by apricot dumpling and ice cream. It was a lovely evening and a nice way to finish our tour. There were some tears at the end as the group said their goodbyes. Even our wonderful tour director Tina had some tears. We have been very lucky with our group of 45 passengers as everyone got on really well.

That night we stayed at the Ibis Muenchen Parkstadt – a typical Ibis hotel with compact rooms and a capsule bathroom. It was very clean. This hotel did not have a porter service so we carried our bags to our rooms. Also no room service was available.   Although located out of the city, it was close to a tram station. You needed to travel a few stops then change to the train to get to the city or taxi. Free fruit was available at reception.

The next day was ours to do as we wished, as our flight from Munch left at 11.35pm that night. A few of us took the tram and train into the city and then did a hop-on / hop-off bus tour – really good. The cost was €17 for the express tour. We bought a pass for up 5 passengers to use for the day to travel on the public transport for €12.60. We followed the instructions from the hotel reception to get to the tram station. Others caught a train to Dachau to the concentration camp.

My thoughts about touring with Cosmos have changed since travelling with them. We had quite a mix of passengers on our trip including business class travellers, Celebrity Cruise clients, highly paid professionals including Bank and Mortgage Managers and a few couples travelling with adult children. Cosmos market their product as one where you may be able to afford 2 or 3 holidays a year travelling with them as opposed to the first class tour products on offer. A few of our passengers were combining this tour with other tours, one lady was going on to do an Avalon cruise followed by a Cosmos tour of Ireland and another lady had just finished a Cosmos rail tour of Switzerland which she loved and was going onto join a second tour of Italy. Another couple were joining a Cosmos tour of Italy and Greece including a Greek Island Cruise.

The coach is the same use for both Cosmos and Globus with 49 seats. The Globus tour just takes less passenger numbers (maximum 36 passengers). We had 45 passengers on our tour. It never felt like a huge group and with the 2 doors it did not take too much time to get everyone on and off the coach. There was free WiFi on board, but the signal was not very good. There was also a toilet onboard which was very convenient.

The hotels were all good 3.5 to 4-star, which served good breakfasts and were located outside the city center. They were usually close to some form of public transport.

Helpful hints for coach touring:

        • Consider adding pre and post-tour accommodation
  • Attend the 1st night optional dinner to meet and gel with your fellow guests
  • Always carry your passport on the coach, in case you get stopped at a border
  • Carry a copy of the hotels on your tour – handy to show the taxi driver
  • If you have an included tour in the morning, keep the afternoon free, as back-to-back tours are hard work
  • Consider the optional dinners, although they appear to be more expensive than dining yourself, the cost includes your transport, food, drink (sometimes unlimited) and your tip
  • Porter service is usually included for one suitcase per person, if you have an additional bag, you will need to deliver and collect it from the coach yourself. Carry an extra bag at your own risk, as it could be refused if the coach is full
  • Try to sit towards the front of the coach at the beginning of your tour so that you get to experience the front for some of the time if you are on a shorter tour. The tour will operate a rotation system to make it fair to everyone. In our case we rotated 2 rows at a time in an anti clockwise direction so it was good to sit in a forward seat on the right hand side
  • Prepay your tipping when you book the tour
  • Carry coins to tip any local guides + the driver if the company arrange a private transfer. Usually €2 per person
  • Carry 50 cent coins for toilet stops. Even McDonalds which used to have free loos now charge
  • Take photos of the tour notice board in reception each night so that you know the time of your wake up call, the time to have your bags out of the room and the time of departure. Although you will be informed by the Tour director, each day merges into another and it is easy to get confused
  • Take a photo of your room number for each hotel
  • Take photos of the name of the local transportation system station so that you know which one to look for on your return journey
  • Take a multi point socket board to recharge several things at once as sockets can be limited. In some hotels the electricity in your room will cut off once you take the room key out
  • Take a power pack to charge up your phones whilst on the move

Sue travelled to Europe in May 2017 courtesy of Emirates and Cosmos (part of the Globus family of brands)