I thought I’d finish off with some observations about EF Tours (Education First – http://www.eftours.ca)
I know a couple of teachers who have run trips with EF in the past and they mostly loved their experiences. I’ve also read a wide variety of reviews of EF trips on the internet and they’ve varied from “best thing I’ve ever done” to “avoid at all costs” so I wasn’t completely sure what to expect… In the end, it turned out to be an amazing experience for me and my students.
Behind the scenes support was excellent. EF opened an office in Vancouver in the summer of 2014 and our Tour Manager – Matthew Bellomo – couldn’t have been more helpful. He was literally just a phone call or email away and there wasn’t a question he couldn’t answer. He did a great job of giving me the information I needed to make sure my students were well prepared in terms of what to expect for food, hotels, daily schedules, etc. Although I have a lot of prior experience leading kids on wilderness backpacking trips and teaching them how to scuba dive, etc, this was my first trip overseas with students and the learning curve felt pretty steep at times. EF did a great job of making sure that I was well prepared to take kids to Europe and that there were no surprises along the way.
Logistics: Everything was taken care of and worked just the way it was planned. We had plenty of time to make our connections. Our flights weren’t great but they weren’t the worse I’ve ever had. Everybody was seated more or less together on the planes. The buses we used were in good condition and met us where we were told they’d be. The drivers were professional and competent (albeit just a little bit crazy to be driving one of those massive buses in the crowded streets of Rome and Nice…). In all, everything just worked.
The tour experience: I admit I was worried about our itinerary. It was by far the most popular one with the kids (I think the French Riviera was the big draw – and it turned out to be most kids’ favourite part of the trip) but I thought it was going to be too much time on the bus traveling between cities and not enough time on the ground seeing the sights. I was wrong. We did spend a lot of time on buses but I don’t think the kids could have kept up the pace of the trip if they didn’t have the time on the buses to catch up on a bit of sleep… and the bus is a nice way to see the country side.
I was also concerned that the kids would be so busy doing structured tours that they wouldn’t have time to just explore and experience the places we were visiting. Again, I was wrong. We had a fair amount of free time in all the major cities we visited and the kids were able to head off on their own (in groups of three of course!) to explore, shop, buy food and get ripped off by the watch salesmen!
I also wasn’t sure what to expect with respect to food. I’d heard from colleagues who’d run trips in the past that the food sucked. EF has obviously heard the concerns of previous travellers and made some changes because I though the food was consistently very good and occasionally excellent. It wasn’t always traditional (although it was more often than not) but it was always good quality and tasty and, unlike the “it’s all chicken and fries” experience of my colleagues, there were lots of salads and vegetables. The breakfasts were a bit repetitive (sliced meats, cheeses, bread and pastries, cereal, yogurt, etc) but that’s because the European continental breakfast is pretty much the standard wherever you travel (except Britain where you get beans and bacon with your breakfasts!). There was enough variety to keep it interesting and more than enough food to get the day started off well (and to occasionally pilfer a couple of extra rolls to make sandwiches for lunch if you’re cheap like me).
Similarly, the hotels were all very good. Yes, they’re located anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes (depending on traffic) from the city centres but that’s a good thing when you’re traveling with kids. Staying in Trastevere in Rome would be amazing… but there’s a pub or restaurant on every corner and the drinking age is 16… Much better to be a bit away from the temptations of the cities. And sometimes, the location was an asset. In Lucerne, we stayed aways out of the city in the mountains – it was gorgeous! In Nice, we stayed right in the city a two minute’s walk from the train station (we were taking the train the next morning). In terms of quality, the hotels were much nicer than I’m used to in Europe (we stay in mostly one star hotels when we travel and they do just fine for us) with mostly 2 and 3 star accommodations everywhere we went. Whatever the star rating, all of the hotels were clean and accommodating and, most importantly, felt (and were) safe.
Finally, EF’s Tour Director (Frank Sahl) who accompanied us from the time we landed in Europe until we cleared security in Paris, was superlative. With 18 years of experience leading trips for EF, 8 languages and the patience of a saint, he made the whole trip. I’m not kidding when I say that he has a standing invitation to visit from everyone of us who travelled with him. Everything was so well organized and planned that we probably could have managed the trip without a tour director so having someone this experienced and competent along for the ride every day was a huge bonus.
The only critique we had of the trip was really the Whisper headsets. They suck. I think for some of the tours, you need a tour guide (the Vatican Museum for instance would be a nightmare without someone to lead the way) or they add a whole lot to the experience (our tour guide in Paris was hysterical – a winning combination of British sass and French suave that won over everybody – and we could hear her because we were on the bus!). The rest of the time, though, because of the combination of outside noise, accents and the terrible sound of the Whispers, we really didn’t get much out of the tours. In some places (Florence) it was pretty harmless as you could hear most of what she was saying and it was a nice walking tour in any case. But in the Roman Forum or Venice or the Colosseum, it would have been better just to explore on our own with an audioguide or a written brochure…
So that’s it… awesome before trip support… amazing on tour experiences… great people in Europe and back home in Canada…
I think all of my students had an amazing, maybe even life-changing experience (a couple are talking about studying in Europe, one wants to know how she can become a Tour Director, and at least one is thinking of moving to Paris). The food was good, the beds were comfortable, the bus drivers were excellent, etc. etc. etc. In all, I had a great time traveling with my students, they had a great time traveling with each other and we all felt safe and sound the entire time we were away from home. You can’t really ask for much more in educational travel. I will definitely be doing future trips with EF and will recommending them to my colleagues.