What really happens on European bus tours

By the time you’ve seen almost 100 Amsterdam sex shows, they start to get a little repetitive. Michele Thompson has seen that many, not because she has a particular passion for Amsterdam sex shows, but because she spent 10 seasons as a guide on European coach tours, and every single journey included a trip for the passengers to the Dutch city’s famed Red Light District. 

“I reckon I went to about 85 in total,” Thompson muses, speaking on Traveller’s podcast, Flight of Fancy. “I could probably close my eyes and still see that really terrible couple having sex over and over again. Because it really was like, ‘One, two, three, flip. One, two, three, on your back…’ You could tell their routine. And when it was a new couple, all the crew would be so excited, because we were seeing something new. Quite often you would be disappointed, but at least it was new.” 

This is the truth about European bus tours, the likes of Contiki and TopDeck and their ilk: not everything you see is real. Or at least, it’s not what you think it is. These tours really are rites of passage for young Australian travellers, they’re the makers and breakers of a million relationships, brief windows into cultures foreign and amazing, the chance to let loose and have the absolute time of your life in foreign climes. But still, not everything is as it seems. 

For the crew taking you around Europe, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes, a lot the passengers never know about. They might act amazed and scandalised by the sex show taking place in front of them in Amsterdam, but really, they might as well be watching someone paint a wall. And those crew members, the driver and the tour leader and maybe the cook as well, who seem like such fun, who appear to be best friends just doing what they love? They don’t always get along. 

“I didn’t like them all,” Thompson smiles, speaking over Skype from her home in Salford, in the UK, where she now works as a far more dignified “Blue Badge” tour guide. “I was always shocked when the passengers didn’t get that I did not like that other person I was working with. Because my face shows everything, and I despised some of the crew. I couldn’t even look at them. They were so useless. But you had to keep smiling and saying it was wonderful.

“It was like being divorced parents that were putting on a show for the kids, and as soon as the kids are gone it’s like, ‘I hate you!’ ‘I hate you too!'”

There are, in fact, several ways in which your tour crew are like your parents. To begin with, the crew are charged with keeping you safe, despite the fact you will obviously act in ways that will make that very difficult. There’s also an expectation from you that, like parents, those crew members will be competent and professional and know exactly what they’re doing – but again, that’s not always the case. 

“When you first start the job, you don’t have the skills to know everything about everywhere,” Thompson admits. “We didn’t have a phone with every fact in our hand at all times. I had a massive box of books that I lugged from one coach to the other. My third trip ever was a 49-day trip around Europe, and I could get as far as Italy, and then it was two-and-a-half weeks of places I had just never been. 

“There must have been an element of lying to passengers on that trip, but I was trying not to. We were getting into campsites there, I was making sure that the cook tent was up, and then I was in that coach, with the driver, driving into the city centre to look around, because after dinner I had to give them a driving tour and I’d never been there before. 

“I remember being mortified at how terrible that tour was. I tried so, so hard. But they didn’t get their money’s worth.” 

Tour leaders all make mistakes, and most of the passengers will be far too hungover to take much notice of what is happening, and never even realise a mistake has been made. Some mistakes, however, are a little too big to cover up.

Author Brian Thacker used to work for TopDeck back in the 1990s, when the tour company still used old London double-decker buses, which had regular seats on the bottom deck, and bunk beds on the top. That meant Thacker could drive the bus while the passengers were still sleeping up above. Or at least, he thought they were still sleeping.

“My first-ever trip was a short one from London to Le Mans,” Thacker recalls. “We stopped in Paris overnight, and then left really early. We stopped a few hours down the road to get some fuel, all the passengers still asleep, so I just let them sleep. We only had about 10 passengers or something. They’re all in bed. So we head back onto the road. Two hours later this guy comes down and says, ‘Um, where’s my brother?’ 

“‘What do you mean,’ I said, ‘he’s upstairs in bed.’

“‘No, he’s not.’

“We searched the bus. I thought, what happened to him? Then I realised he must have snuck out the back door to go to the toilet when we stopped. So we had to go back and get him – we’d been gone about four hours. And we got back to the petrol station and there’s the guy, standing in his underwear, clutching a purple toothbrush. He’d got out to go clean his teeth and he’d been standing there four hours to wait for us.” 

This, of course, was the old days of European bus tours, and things have changed markedly since then. Rules have changed, expectations have changed, itineraries have changed, passengers have changed. Everyone has a mobile phone now, to look things up, to record their experiences. It means the crew can’t get away with things they once did.  

“If I was doing history spiels and I didn’t know something, I would just make it up,” Thacker admits. “But now the passengers can check everything on their phones.  

“People expect a lot more now. Contiki has a wellness tour, and a vegan tour. Back in our day, I remember running out of money with the food kitty, and making spaghetti Bolognese with horse meat because it was cheaper.

“Obviously I didn’t tell the passengers.”

See also: Twenty-one things you’ll only understand if you travelled before 2005

See also: Fifteen things travellers who grew up in the ’90s have all done

What really goes on on these things? Are they… what you think they are? Listen below to find out.

This Flight of Fancy episode is hosted and produced by Ben Groundwater and mixed by Tim Mummery.

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.

For more Flight of Fancy episodes, visit our podcasts page.

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