Sometimes it seems like the worst thing about travelling is…the travel part. Trains, planes, buses, connections, transfers, taxis — whatever the mode of transportation, it requires a lot of organization and on-the-fly navigation. Trying to get yourself oriented in an unfamiliar place is a headache, made even worse by the luggage in tow. And if you don’t speak the language…well, you can pretty much guarantee that it won’t exactly be stress-free.
The last time I went to Italy, I was looking for a holiday without hassle — one that would actually feel like a holiday. And so, I hired a concierge service. For those unfamiliar with how these kinds of services work, they can be a fantastic way to make the most of your time in a new city. Everything was planned out for me; I had access to a personal guide who showed me around and helped me to orient myself. I didn’t have to think about transfers or the itinerary, instead relying on my guide to customize the whole experience to my needs and preferences. Everything was arranged for me, right up to when it was time to leave.
The only downside: concierge services tend to be expensive.
I recently returned from a trip to Europe with my two adult children. Readers will know that design is extremely important to me, and that includes experiential design. This time around, I wanted an experience that was still curated and seamless, but also a little more accessible.
I ended up hiring two companies: Tours by Locals and Daytrip. The first is a company designed to pair travellers with local guides, while the latter is meant to provide bespoke transportation services for those travelling between cities.
The first stop on our journey was Budapest. We arrived in the morning, and I knew that I wanted to get the most out of the day ahead. I had communicated with a Tours by Locals guide in advance, which allowed me to articulate my objectives exactly: I wanted to know what to see, what to do, where to eat. Essentially, I wanted an overview of Budapest that would allow us to strategically pick and choose what to do with our time there. When you only have 3-4 days to immerse yourself in a new place, you must be selective, and we didn’t want to waste precious hours on landmarks that didn’t interest us or food that wasn’t to our liking.
I had booked our first tour for early afternoon, shortly after our morning arrival. We made it to our hotel with enough time to check in, drop off our bags, and have an early lunch, after which our guide arrived (punctually!) at the pre-determined time.
There are regulations in Europe for tour guides, and each guide employed through Tours by Locals is certified. The biggest challenge with any private tour is that so much of the experience depends on how your individual personalities mesh. On the Tours by Locals website, you’re able to eliminate the variables a little by browsing bios and videos, which can be helpful when it comes to gauging a guide’s personality, interests, English proficiency, sense of humour, etc. For instance, I like history; whenever I travel to a new place, I want to learn about its past. I want to see the parts of that city that are steeped in antiquity, but I don’t want a dry spiel that makes me feel like I’m reading a dense history book.
Budapest is essentially two cities, and so I booked two separate half-day tours. Our guide met us with a car and we opted for a tour that would be a mix of driving and walking; we wanted to experience certain things on foot, but we didn’t want to waste precious time trekking across the city when points of interest were far apart. Our crash courses in Buda and Pest were excellent. When we saw something we liked, we made a note to return to it later to experience it more in-depth.
Our next destinations were Vienna and Prague. Again, these day tours served as a kind of helpful introduction, whetting our palates for the main course. The beautiful thing about experiencing a place through the eyes of a local is that they can help introduce you to the parts of a city that a tourist doesn’t often see. The insider knowledge lends a whole new layer to the experience. For instance, while on a recent trip to Cuba, I struggled with planning an itinerary. The language barrier made it hard to communicate with the locals there, and I always had the sneaking suspicion that when I did ask for advice or recommendations, I was being taken advantage of. When I returned home, friends would ask if I’d seen certain things during my trip, and I had to keep admitting that I hadn’t — because I hadn’t known about those things.
Tours by Locals, on the other hand, was a fantastic way to witness a city’s true character through the lens of people who live and work there. We saw breathtaking UNESCO sites, historic areas, residential neighbourhoods, and we were offered advice as to which restaurants cater to authentic cuisine and which are overpriced tourist traps.
In Vienna, after the tour helped us to orient ourselves, we decided to forgo driving in taxis in favour of the city’s electric scooters, which can be easily activated through an app and picked up and dropped off in different locations. It was a fantastic way to explore — and by the time we started zipping through the streets, the tour had taught us exactly where we wanted to go.
Our guide in Prague was an absolute standout; Eva took us to places that we would never have otherwise seen. And she didn’t just know where to go — she knew when to go. For instance, when she took us to the Prague Castle, there were only about a handful of other visitors around, which made for a completely different experience than if we had visited during peak hours. She then led us to the historic Klementinum library, where tourists generally just peer through the doors. Eva, however, gave us a complete private tour, offering entertaining bits of history and context as we perused the shelves of books and private spaces. An absolute highlight was her tip of the “English guided” underground tour at city hall, which we would never have known about otherwise. There, the first settlements of Prague are preserved as subterranean dwellings, stone rooms which the city would later be built upon. Eva was all-around kind, generous, knowledgeable, and fun from start to finish.
When it came to travel between cities, I chose Daytrip’s sightseeing transfers. This company operates similarly to Uber in that a local driver will pick you up in his or her own vehicle at an agreed-upon time. That driver will then take you to your destination in another city.
Daytrip drivers have all been vetted by the company, apparently quite thoroughly when it comes to driving records and security checks. One challenge, however, is that unlike Tours by Locals, you can’t actually vet your driver. This is admittedly a bit of a downside as it helps if you mesh with your driver, considering all those hours spent in close quarters. Our driver from Budapest to Vienna, for instance, tended to overshare her personal life. You can, however, specify your driving preferences in advance, indicating whether you’d like a silent ride or if you’d be interested in chatting or receiving recommendations. You can also upgrade to a luxury vehicle (the vehicle is otherwise assigned based on the amount of luggage you have) for a premium fare.
What makes this service so much different — and so much better — than trains, buses, or even regular taxis is that it specifically allows you to stray from the beaten path. There’s so much beauty to be found in continental Europe beyond its major centres, and Daytrip allowed us to explore some of its hidden gems.
The Daytrip website is pretty comprehensive when it comes to customizing your journey. Plug in your starting point and destination online and the company will recommend various stopping points along the way, including information on how much time and money this will add to the total trip. From Budapest to Vienna, for instance, you can stop in Gyor, a scenic town filled with historical architecture. This stop will add 60 minutes to your journey and cost an extra 23€. A brief adventure in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, will mean an extra two hours and 39€.
Our driver from Vienna to Prague was fantastic. We decided to stop at Lednice Chateau and Park, an extravagant UNESCO-listed site that was once the holiday home of the House of Lichtenstein. We also chose to stop at a medieval town called Kutna Hora, a quintessential hidden gem if there ever was one. Here we visited the Sedlec Ossuary, a church decorated with the skeletons of around 60,000 people whose bones have, in many cases, been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings in the chapel. It was the sort of place that would be overrun with tourists if it were in a major centre, but given its countryside location, few even know it exists.
Now that I’ve experienced Europe with these two services, I wouldn’t travel without them again. They require a little more work than an ordinary concierge service, but the value and quality added to the trip was astronomical. They were worth every penny.