We took this tour May-June 2013 with both the Berlin and Vienna extensions with a really nice group of fellow travelers. Had a lot of rain but were still able to do and see a great deal in each city just by making being wet a non issue. Luckily, we were moving just ahead of the floods which did so much damage to many of the cities we visited.
We found the Berlin extension was essential. The day and a half allowed on the base tour is simply not enough time. The Vienna extension was OK but the hotel is a bit out of the areas where you probably want to spend a lot of time. However, it is on a very convenient train line and is just two stops from the Prater amusement park where you can ride the Wiener Riesenrad (the ferris wheel in The Third Man” movie - so not all bad!! That and the 24 hour ticket for use of Vienna’s excellent public transportation also minimized issues with location of the hotel.
The itinerary for this tour provides an excellent overview of very interesting countries (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary plus Austria with the post-trip extension) which have very complex and often tragic histories. Between the videos we watched on the fairly long bus rides (there were three, four with the post-trip extension), the outstanding lectures in Warsaw, Krakow, Prague and Budapest, the included tours and activities, and the ongoing narrations from our Program Director, Marta (outstanding!!), and all we saw and did on our own at each location, we expanded and deepened our knowledge and understanding of this part of Europe.
Yes, the bus rides were long. But, our program Director played two or three videos relevant to the trip on each of them. Helped the time pass quickly. All these videos really prepred us for the next stop or helped us reflect on where whe had been. Highlights were the cartoons of Krtek, a documentart ofnPope John Paul II (backdrop was WW 2 and the Nazi and the Soviet occupation of Warsaw) and a movie on the Hapsburg's. Since I did not know a lot of the story it really helped me full appreciate all we saw at their palaces in Vienna.
The included lectures are not to be missed. It is a good idea to arrive early and be ready to stay a few minutes after each of them. The lectures often took those times to more informally talk about their lives and their countries. That was when, in Warsaw, we heard the story of the father of the presenter experience as a student in Pittsburg while Poland was still in soviet control, when, in Prague, we heard about Krtek (Czech cartoon character) and his trip on the Space Shuttle and, when, in Budapest, after the talk comments addressed the reasons why Hungary has not yet adopted the Euro.
Each of these cities is fascinating and our days were full. We took the “free time to explore on your own” comments in the brochure very seriously and designed our own plans for the, afternoons, evenings and full days with no scheduled activities. There is no question this resulted in our doing and seeing more. However, the Program Director Marta (did I say she was outstanding??!!!) was very helpful and had lots of options for those wanting more guidance.
There was only one significant negative to the tour – the city tour the day after arrival in each location. The local guides were OK but because of normal traffic congestion (we were in big, vibrant, cities with lots of cars, tour buses and roads not designed for modern traffic) we often spent an excessive amount of time on a bus stuck in traffic. Would have been better to just use each city’s outstanding public transportation system to speed us to each location. The traffic issue resulted in long rides to spend a few minutes at key locations like the Berlina Mauer East Side Gallery on a stretch of remaining Berlin Wall. We luckily declined that city tour, took a train to this extraordinary structure and spent an hour walking alone to view the paintings on the wall. Our fellow travelers came by bus and spent less than 15 minutes at a section congested with hundreds of other tourists. On another city tour there was a very frustrating hour in traffic to get to see a building no one had every heard of which was followed by a 45 minute opportunity to shop at that location. We bailed out at that point and walked the short distance to locations and neighborhoods which were actually interesting.
Suggestion: if being bussed to a dinner ask how far away the restaurant is. We walked to the farewell dinner on our way back from our free time activities in Budapest and waited almost 45 minutes for the rest of the group to travel the .8 of the mile from the hotel by bus.
Another thing to consider is inherent to any trip to Eastern Europe (really most of the world). These are OLD cities filled with steps, cobblestones and bicyclists. Some degree of true physical fitness and an ability to navigate sets of stairs (most all bathrooms and many restaurants are downstairs), good quality walking shoes as well as an ability to keep out of the bike lanes to avoid what were called (correctly) lethal bicyclists are all essential abilities. In addition the hotels are modern with features like bathtubs with very (and I mean VERY) high sides. Not easy to get in or out of!
We know our travels brought us to only a small fraction of each location but the travel experience was rich.