Luggage drop was at 3:50 am. Most everyone seemed to get their bags outside on time but our bus was nowhere to be found. Seth didn't feel comfortable leaving all of the suitcases outside while everyone else was inside having breakfast so he stayed outside with the bags.
Our bus finally showed up – I guess he had gone to the other hotel to pick up our other blue bus students before coming to pick us up. We loaded the bus up and headed off just a bit after 4:30 am. It was a 2.5 hour drive to the Frankfurt airport. Just as we had flown into London, there were groups scheduled to fly via Atlanta to OKC and other groups that were scheduled to fly to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City and then to OKC.
It was a 31- hour day and it took us nearly 27 hours to get home. We finally made it home at around midnight.
Final thoughts and observations
The tour was definitely well organized and many details were covered well and it was obvious that there had been lessons learned in the past (don't stand on the plastic chairs at the farewell event, fondue is constipating, don't move the furniture/beds in the hotel rooms, quiet time is every evening at 10 pm, etc) and those were applied to our tour. I really appreciated how OCD the bus coordinators were with checking and then double checking that all bus passengers were accounted for and that nobody left their passport behind. In retrospect, we decided to accompany Amina on this tour rather than letting her go by herself because I didn't know how comfortable I would have been doing that but I realize now that she would have been in very good hands. A lot of information, though, was scripted (pre-written) and was outdated. Nobody uses phone cards anymore. Even post cards have gone by the wayside. More effort needs to be directed at keeping families in contact with one another via better Wifi opportunities. I can only imagine how agonizing it was for family that had to stay home - wondering what their child was up to, if everything was going ok, and what new experiences they were having. The tour participants would benefit from a more detailed review of the difference between 110 voltage and 220 voltage and a heads up on the additional, unavoidable extra costs (eg even to use the bathrooms or the crazy munchies you get sitting on a bus all day). In addition, restrictions placed on staff to interact with us on our Facebook group is also a bit antiquated.
There are pros and cons to traveling in a large group like this. One of the definite cons is the fact that you have to compromise some quality for quantity. I really disliked the mass production “restaurant” in Paris – Le Saulnier. I hated the hotel in Seefeld. At these facilities that tend to cater to large tour groups – there's really no incentive for them to provide customer service. I'm not used to being a patron in an establishment (hotel or restaurant) and being treated as a nuisance rather than a customer. It just seems like that was the prevailing attitude in some of the places that we patronized – but that's the nature of the beast (group travel), I suppose.
We totally lucked out with the weather. No rain in London and very little rain towards the end of the tour. One significant problem that could have been much worse was the lack of working A/C on a bus with almost 50 people on it (at least it was a problem on the Blue Bus – not sure about the rest of them). The trip from Paris to Crans-Montana was pretty miserably hot. I really wish our bus driver had been a little more friendly. Getting on the bus nearly every day to his grumpy face and demeanor just detracted from the experience.
I think there was too much selling going on during the tour. I felt that we had already compromised a great deal by staying in what I would describe more as a pension or hostal rather than a hotel and dining in cafeterias rather than restaurants. I really wonder what type of (financial) arrangements there were with the various businesses that we were directed to – the “tourist traps” - ranging from the staged pictures in Sunnegga in front of the (invisible) Matterhorn to the Swarovski store to the Venetian glass blowers. Maybe it's just me – we're really not into buying a bunch of souvenirs to take home. Perhaps the idea was to make the trip more memorable by giving students the opportunity to pose with a St Bernard or make souvenir purchases more easily, etc, but it struck me as being too touristy.
We've traveled the world pretty extensively and our preference is to stay in more upscale hotels and patronize nice restaurants and take private tours (fewer than 6-8 people). Even though our tastes run at a different level and standard, we did enjoy this tour overall and I would recommend it. For a lot of students and adults this trip was viewed as the trip of a lifetime and for many, it was, and that was a lot of fun to watch. We had the opportunity to visit some places that we would never have chosen to visit out of the blue and are glad that we did it. Prior to taking this trip, I had read some basic reviews about it and have to admit that the reviews were correct in that this was just a sampling of many places – that there really wasn't enough time at many of our destinations to truly tour it well. We would someday like to return to our favorite which was Rothenburg and we joked about how we should take a “burg” tour someday…..Rothenburg, Heidelburg, Brandenburg, Hamburg, etc.
Lastly, this tour is not a vacation. With only a handful of mornings where we got to “sleep in” - meaning breakfast was at 8 am instead of 6 or 7 am, the pace is pretty frenetic. It's less of a problem with the teens but it definitely is a difficult itinerary the older you are especially with limited access at times to elevators and a lot of walking/climbing on cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks.
We won't have a chance to do this tour again - our younger child is not musically inclined - but I can see why others would choose to go on this trip either as a student after high school graduation, as a repeat with another child, or as a chaperone/staff after having attended in the past. I have to give big kudos to the Johnsons and the Shimps on the blue bus - they had a great attitude during the entire trip and were so patient with the silly little quirky things that were bound to happen along the way. They are, after all, middle school and high school teachers. Bless their hearts! I know we couldn't do it! So for anyone who wandered on to this blog looking for information before committing to sending their child/ren on an Ambassadors of Music tour, I would say....do it. A trip of a lifetime for Seth and I? Nope. For Amina? Sort of. The time together and the experience? Definitely worthwhile.