Sure – I can provide info.
The first thing to understand about Smartours is that they run a very lean staff and do essentially no advertising. They are completely dependent upon word-of-mouth. Your travel dollars are put into the trip rather than paying for a huge staff overhead, marketing gimmicks, sales commissions, etc.
Smartours is located in NYC. Sometimes people outside of NYC confuse a NY accent for rudeness. Also, since smartours runs on a lean staff they don’t spend any time on the phone hand-holding the traveler. My experience with OAT/Grand Circle, for comparison, is that they have 500 people at their main office who will spend all day talking to you but in the end you get no more info from them than smartours offers on their website. And your travel dollars go to pay the salaries for those staffers.
Smartours documentation for the trip is a few sheets of paper. Other companies send out big booklets….but when you examine them you discover they have no more info than is given in the standard Fodor’s travel guide; the big booklets are just another way they waste your travel dollars.
Smartours partners with local companies to run the trips. For the Eastern European trip it is Kuoni Travel, a huge European travel company. Their tour managers are very experienced with every traveler problem. The local city guides used are the same for every tour company – freelancers. My experience is that tour managers make sure the local guides are the best. And the one we had in Vienna was the best I’d had anywhere in the world. (She had lots of interesting tidbits, the kind of things you remember long after you’ve forgotten about the trip.)
Their group size ranges from 20 to 40. (I personally prefer larger groups. I was just with 16 on an OAT trip and talking to so few people day after day got very old very fast. At least with a large group there is a greater chance you can find more than one kindred spirit – people who want to do what you want to do when there is free time to fill.) Larger tour groups use the headsets so hearing the guides isn’t an issue in a big group.
The tour managers say the smartours owner selects the hotels himself to make sure that every traveler can get an identical room. This differs from tour companies who stay in cutsy local places that sound great until you understand that some travelers are going to end up in the basement by the boilers and there is no alternative because your group took every room in the place. Thus with smartours you will stay in a lot of places like Crowne Plazas and Sheraton. The hotels are listed on the website; you can check them out. Some of the cities they go to are so large and dispersed that there is no ‘best’ location.
Every smartours traveler is treated equally, which is very different from many of their competitors. I was just in SE Asia on an OAT trip and several times during the trip the guide had to follow the protocol to make a big scene about who were the most important customers or who were not (me and one other). Everyone is equal in a smartours group.
We flew Finn Air with a change of planes in Helsinki. On the way back you actually spend the night at a very nice hotel downtown Helsinki. (It is my guess that the Finnish gov’t subsidizes the air costs to get people to stop in Helsinki to see how beautiful it is. The downside for them is I am pretty sure for everyone on my trip that completed our Helsinki experience!)
Smartours is not the type of trip where you go into people’s homes or walk down back alleys to see ‘the real deal.’ They offer a highlights trip of the designated cities.
I only travel with other companies because smartours doesn’t go everywhere –or when- I want to travel.