Is EF Tours right for you?
So your kid just came home from school with a gorgeous full color brochure about an upcoming trip to Europe with EF Tours that one of their teachers is leading. He or she is super excited about all the cool things they get to do and is just begging you to let them go.
It sounds great, but as a responsible parent, you want to know exactly what you’d be sending your child off to do, and how things would actually work on this trip.
Well, lucky for you we took a 12 day visit to Europe with EF Tours, and have all the details to decide if taking an international trip with this company is right for you or your teenager.
We’re going to start with the breakdown of how things work with EF and what to expect as a participant or a parent, and then move on to our specific experience with our tour.
I always like to start my reviews by reminding you that I was not compensated in any way to write this post. All opinions are my own, and all costs were paid out of our pocket for this experience.
What is EF Tours?
EF Tours is a travel company that specializes in international tours for students.
According to their website, EF Tours has been in operation since 1965 and offers trips for students and teachers designed to “provide immersive, life-changing education.”
Basically, EF Tours organizes international trips for students to a wide variety of destinations, promising “compelling itineraries” full of “experiential learning.”
They also promise to have the “lowest price on the market” for this type of travel.
EF, as a company, offers may types of tours ranging from group trips for adults to organized gap years for high school graduates. While these options are available, the bread and butter of the company is the basic high school student tour which is what we took.
How do EF Tours work?
EF Tours have a pretty straightforward process during the sign up period, prior to departure and during your trip.
Before we get into that, it must be said that EF Tours operate fully independently of the local school district, and are not endorsed or supported by them whatsoever.
While this may seem like a school trip, it is not. It is a trip run by a business who just happens to recruit participants through the school system. Your local principals, school boards, etc. have zero control or influence on these trips. The school is only involved in the process as far as whether they allow teachers to hand out information in schools or not.
The EF in EF Tours stands for Education First. According to their website, EF claims to “design tours to help educators teach, and so students can learn more—about tolerance, other perspectives, and themselves.”
The Sign Up Process
EF Tours are set up to be “hosted” by a local teacher who is then designated as the “group leader.” Teachers are incentivized with free and reduced price travel to recruit students to join their tours.
Tours are advertised by the group leader/teacher to students at their school and to their local community. Interested students and parents are invited to attend informational meetings either in person or virtually where the group leader/teacher goes over the itinerary and any questions potential participants may have.
Students and parents can then sign up directly through the EF Tours website, and submit all payments directly to the company.
Trips are usually initially introduced about two years before the travel date so that participants can make smaller monthly payments to cover the cost of the trip. Costs for these trips can range widely, depending on the destinations and length of the trip.
EF has the group leader/teacher set up deadlines for signing up to go on the trip, sometimes including small discounts to encourage enrollment. This tends to give a false sense of urgency to the sign up process.
We found that participants can sign up just about any time before the trip departs. We signed up about a year out from the trip, while another student who traveled with us signed up just a month or two before we left.
Anyone was allowed to sign up for the trip. We were encouraged to invite friends and family to join us on the tour, whether or not they were associated with our school or even local to our area.
Adults did need to pass a background check in order to participate in the trip, since adult tour participants are traveling with minors.
We were not given specific dates for our trip, but instead we were given a window of time during which the trip would occur. Our dates were finally confirmed about two months before our departure.
There are usually two or three optional excursions that can be added to any tour. These usually include some special activity or visit to an additional landmark.
Tour participants may also choose to upgrade the insurance for the tour.
Before Your EF Tour
Once you’ve signed up for your EF Tour, you’ll be given access to a tour portal on the EF website where you can track your payments and what steps you need take next to participate in the trip. They also provide a fundraising page, where friends and family can pay EF directly to offset the cost of your trip.
Our group had a few in person meetings at a local restaurant prior to our trip where we discussed issues ranging from passports to packing for our trip to Europe, and got a chance to meet our fellow travelers. This may or may not be true or all groups that are traveling with EF.
Each participant in our tour was required to submit a copy of our passport to EF to insure that we had the proper documentation to travel.
Information about our flights was not available until about a month before our departure, and information about our hotels was not available until we were about three weeks out from leaving.
EF Tours uses a wide range of airlines, and travelers do not get to indicate a preference. EF books all travelers in economy class seats for all transportation methods. EF will book with whatever airline has space available for the lowest price for the group.
As for hotels, travelers know very little about where they are staying ahead of time. Per the website, tour participants are assured that “travelers can count on safe, clean and comfortable hotels with private bathrooms” but much beyond that the info is sparse.
Students can expect to room with one to three other students, and possibly have to share beds. Adults can expect to share a room with one other person. For a fee, a single room can be requested for the tour.
EF does indicate up front that hotels may have small rooms without air conditioning, television, or elevators, and that WiFi may not always be available.
During an EF Tour
All transportation arrangements are made by EF Tours, including flights, buses, trains, etc. They book all accommodations and attraction admissions for tour participants.
Two meals a day are included in the cost of a trip with EF Tours. Breakfast is provided each day at the hotel, usually continental style, but sometimes with hot offerings just depending on your hotel. Dinners are are pre-arranged with a preset menu by EF at local restaurants. EF will make accomodations for those with specific dietary needs, such as gluten free or dairy free meals.
While the teacher recruiting students is designated as your group leader, they don’t actually lead the tour once you start traveling. EF provides a Tour Director to accompany your group through the entire trip.
This Tour Director is supposed to handle just about everything on your tour, including all your pre-booked accommodations, meals, excursions, tickets, and transfers. This person is there to direct the group and handle any problems with logistics you may encounter along the way.
During the tour, your group will meet up with various local guides who will give you some sort of tour of the city or historic site that you’re visiting. These tours are usually walking tours, but sometimes are bus tours, depending on the location.
Tour participants are also given access to an EF Tours App, that just lists your daily itinerary for your trip.
Our EF Tour Review
Our specific tour featured quite a daunting itinerary. We toured Europe for 12 days, visiting sites in London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Pompeii and Capri, with no more than two nights in any destination.
Our tour consisted of 26 travelers from our high school: three teachers, seven adults and 16 students. We were combined with a group from upstate New York consisting of 14 travelers: one teacher, one adult, one child and 11 students. There were a total of 40 people on our tour.
What EF Tours Promised
Before our tour, the group leaded made sure every person who showed an interest in going on the trip got the glossy, full color brochure that outlined our itinerary and told us what to expect on the tour.
The brochure promised that participants would be “surrounded by the people, the language, the food, and the way of life” of the destinations on our itinerary. We were assured that our tour director would be “with us around the clock, handling local transportation, hotels, and meals while also providing their own insight into the local history and culture.”
We would be spending time in three different countries, seeing some of the most beautiful and historic cities in Europe.
The brochure also claimed that students could earn educational credit while on tour, and that all tours feature “experiential learning activities.”
Our tour left some of these promises unfulfilled, but did give us a glimpse at some fantastic destinations in Europe and some amazing memories.
Our hotels along the trip started out stellar but seemed to go downhill from there, unfortunately ending in truly unacceptable accommodations.
Even though this wasn’t guaranteed, all of our accommodations had some sort of air conditioning, with some that functioned better than others, and all of them had WiFi.
For the first four nights during our stays in London and Paris, we were sent to Hilton Hotels. They both were on the higher end of what I expected based on the descriptions provided by EF Tours of what our hotels would be like.
The rooms at these Hiltons were very new, immaculately clean and extremely comfortable. They were both located about an hour outside of the city center, but that wasn’t too much of a problem.
When we reached Italy, things changed a bit.
For a quick overnight in Milan on our way to Florence, we stayed at and AS Hotel in Limbiate. This hotel was a bit older than the Hiltons we’d stayed in, but it was clean, spacious, and comfortable.
Between Florence and Rome, we spent the night at the Hotel Villa Ricci (not pictured). This hotel was significantly older than the other three we had stayed at, but it was still clean and comfortable. While the room wasn’t much to write home about, some members of our group lucked out and got spectacular balconies.
Once we arrived in Rome, the Villa Aurelia was our home base for two nights. We learned that this hotel had once housed men studying to join a monastery, which explained the doritory feel of the place. Again, we found these rooms to be clean and pretty comfortable.
On our way to Southern Italy, we spent the night in Sorrento at Sisters Hostel. This was the only true hostel on our trip. While they still stuck with four students to a room, several of the student rooms had enough beds to sleep up to 12 people.
Though not quite as refined as the Hiltons, and a little slap-shot with the furniture, we found this place to be clean and welcoming. While it wasn’t quite as comfortable as some of the other places we’d stayed, it was completely acceptable and had a spectacular view of the Gulf of Naples from the rooftop terrace.
Things took a turn for the worse on our last night of the tour, when we stayed at Hotel La Pergola in Rome. This place was truly one of the worst hotels I’ve ever had the misfortune to stay at (and as a travel blogger, I’ve stayed at a LOT of hotels).
Things started off badly when we discovered that the lights in all the hallways were not on, and that we had to hunt around with our cell phone flashlights to find our way to our rooms. I asked the front desk to remedy this, but it was never addressed, and we had to repeat the blind search for our rooms every time we went up.
Upon arrival in my room, I found it to be extremely dirty. There was a layer of dusty film all over my bathroom and my pillow had an unidentified crusty stain on it. My daughter’s room had the same layer of dirt in the bathroom, plus a shoe print from where someone killed a bug on the wall. I checked our beds for bedbugs and thankfully did not find any.
The front desk did not seem to care and we were told no one was available to come clean the bathrooms.
But the worst experience in this hotel went to a dad on our trip, who’s single room contained only a sofa. Not a sleeper sofa, but just a hard couch. There were no linens or towels available to him whatsoever.
When he asked for these items at the front desk, he was told that we should have called earlier to request them since they were all locked up in a cabinet by the time we arrived at the hotel. He ended up sleeping on a towel laid out on the sofa with a travel neck pillow, that had been provided to him by his daughter from her room.
The front desk attendant seemed more than annoyed anytime someone from our group would approach them, and insisted that we all leave our keys at the front desk when leaving the hotel for dinner that night.
We weren’t left with much recourse, since this was a group trip and we were on our last night, so we decided to just grin and bear it, and did our best to get some sleep.
Overall, I’d say that the hotels provided were quite good, with the exception of Hotel La Pergola. For ten of the eleven nights of our trip, we were provided with clean, safe accommodations that lived up to what the EF Tours website told us to expect.
At the time of this publication, EF Tours has been notified of this unacceptable hotel and has yet to respond.
Meals on the tour ran the gamut from weird to stellar, but overall were not to bad. Breakfast and dinner every day were included in what we paid for our tour.
All breakfasts were served at our hotels. Sometimes they were just continental breakfasts with cold offerings, and sometimes we were given hot breakfasts with eggs, bacon, and such. Sometimes it was quite obvious where our group was supposed to go, and sometimes it wasn’t.
Overall, breakfasts were adequate throughout the trip.
Lunches were not included in the initial price of our trip and were paid out of pocket each day.
Lunches were always a gamble. It all depended on where we were and what was going on whether or not we’d get to select a restaurant on our own or if the group would be directed to eat at somewhere specific, and if we’d have lots of great choices or really limited options.
For example, on our first full day of the trip, we visited the Tower of London. We told to make sure we ate lunch after our tour, before rejoining the group to get on the bus. The only options available to us were food trucks along the river right next to the Tower complex.
It was the worst during our travel days. We were frequently told we could just grab a bite to eat at the train station or the airport, only to be left with minimal time and very limited options.
But some days lunch was great. During our time in Rome, lunch came with some free time to wander, so we were able to go out and select the restaurant of our choice.
Some days our tour guide would set up a lunch option for us, having arranged a preset menu and price with a local restaurant. Those options were usually something like a burger, pizza or a cold sandwich.
I’m not sure if the lunch situations were like this because of our tour guide or because of EF itself. Sometimes it seemed inevitable, like when we were stuck in an airport or train station. Other times it seemed like our guide might be creating these situations by not fully informing us what was available near by.
All dinners were set up at local restaurants before our arrival. We did not get to select from a menu and were all served the same thing each night, with the exception of those who had special dietary needs. Each meal came with water, but we were allowed to order additional drinks at our own expense if we choose to do so.
The worst dinners EF provided happened during the first few days of our trip. During our entire time in London, we were not once served any traditional English food. Our Tour Director said it was because “London is a melting pot of cultures,” but our group didn’t buy that.
Our first group dinner in London was at a Korean restaurant where the group was served a hot stone bibimbap with chicken. I’m normally a big fan of Korean food, but this wasn’t great.
The next group dinner was at a Polish restaurant where the group was served a fried chicken patty and french fries.
When it became apparent on the second night that we weren’t going to be getting any traditional English food, my daughter and I made arrangements to go get dinner on our own, and pay for it out of pocket. Four other members of our group chose to join us.
We simply got information from our Tour Guide when and where to meet up with the group after dinner and selected a nearby local pub so we could have a traditional English dining experience.
Dinners seemed to improve when we got to France. During our first night there we had a lovely traditional French meal of chicken with mushroom sauce in the back room of a small picturesque cafe with a ton of ambiance. On the second night we had a traditional Alsatian dish called Flammekueche, which was sort of like a pizza with a creamy sauce.
In Italy, the dinners were quite good. Of course we were served a lot of pasta, but we also had braised beef in tomato sauce, gnocchi, and pizza.
According to the folks on our trip who had special dietary needs, the dinners were pretty good for the most part. Although it did seem that everywhere we went in Italy, anyone who was gluten free or dairy free was served watermelon for dessert.
Before we left on our trip, we were told by our group leader that we shouldn’t need more that $25 US dollars per person per day for lunches and snacks. We found that that number was not quite accurate for us, especially if we ever wanted to stray from the planned meals that EF Tours had set up for us.
We also found that we frequently needed to buy water to stay hydrated in the high temperatures of Italy during the summer, and at most of the locations we visited, water was marked up quite a bit.
Overall, the meals on our trip were pretty good, but could definitely have been better.
We knew going into this tour that our itinerary would be extremely hectic. With no more than 48 hours in any location, we expected it to be jam packed. It was kind of like a tasting menu, where you got a little bit of each destination.
What we didn’t expect was the significant amount of wasted time and changes to our itinerary that happened on our tour.
Things started off poorly when our tour guide was an hour late to meet us at baggage claim and then our bus was over another hour late to pick us up at the airport.
While our tour guide was a very sweet, personable woman, she didn’t seem to understand how to manage the timing logistics for a group of 40 travelers.
Our group was quite good about being on time to meet up locations with a couple of small exceptions that could not be helped. No one wanted to be the person that made us late.
Our tour guide didn’t seem to have this mentality. She was frequently the last person downstairs at our hotels to meet our bus 15 to 20 minutes after the time she told us to meet her, and did not budget in adequate travel time to most of our destinations.
For example, while we were driving across Italy, she had our driver stop at a large gas station for a bathroom stop. She told us we only had five minutes to use the restroom and get back on the bus. It’s completely impossible for 40 people to make use of just a handful of bathroom stalls in five minutes.
We were late to our tours in London, Florence, and the Vatican. We were late to our tour of the Colosseum in Rome. We were late to our appointment at the Louvre. We were so late to our tour of Pompeii. This significantly hindered what we were able to see at our destinations, and made the whole tour seemed very rushed every day.
Things like this happened over and over again throughout the trip. This resulted in our group being habitually late to most of the tours we went on, and significantly cut into our time at some really important places.
The only times it seemed like we weren’t late was when we had to catch a flight, a train, or a ferry.
There were also some pretty significant changes to our itinerary.
Several items listed on our initial brochure were changed before the trip due to pandemic restrictions and travel challenges, which was fine. We had ample notice and knew what to expect.
But there were several instances where visits to certain locations were dropped off our itinerary completely, and visits to other non-advertised locations were added.
Sometimes this was a good thing, but sometimes it was incredibly frustrating.
In London, a walking tour of Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden and Leicester Square was replaced with “free time” at the British Museum, which we really didn’t mind.
But in Florence, visits to San Miniato al Monte and Piazzale Michelangelo were dropped off the itinerary with no explanation.
On our way to Rome, our guide added a stop in Ovierto, a beautiful small town with picturesque views, wonderful dining and great little shops which we enjoyed immensely.
But in Paris, a visit to Montmartre was abandoned, even though our dinner restaurant was within a mile of the historic location.
The best unexpected addition to our trip in my opinion was the opportunity to see a musical in the West End of London. Our guide was able to secure tickets (for an extra fee) for those who wanted them to a performance of Wicked during our free evening. It was absolutely fantastic.
But in the most frustrating example, during our time in Paris a visit to the Frogonard Perfume Museum was added to our itinerary. No one asked to go there, and most of us seemed annoyed that we were stopping. We were assured that the stop there would only last 30 minutes, but it ended up taking three times that, leaving us only an hour and a half to visit the Louvre before we had to be back on the bus to catch a flight to Italy.
These added stops almost always involved additional costs as well, which we were not informed of before leaving for our trip. This caused problems for a few kids on our trip who weren’t expecting these costs, and they unfortunately had to miss out on some of the better additions.
There also seemed to be major sites in some of these cities that were not ever even an option to visit or see, due to our limited time in each city. We didn’t go to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral while we were in London, and there were too many things to count in Paris that we didn’t even glimpse. While we were aware of this upfront before the tour, it really did feel like they didn’t allow enough time in any location to really see the cities we were in.
Despite these frustrations, the itinerary did take us to some fantastic places and we had some absolutely unforgettable experiences. We had a fantastic time seeing the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. We enjoyed a truly magical and unexpected sunset under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We got to listen to an orchestra perform in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. We were able to marvel at the unparalleled artwork inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. We saw the stunningly beautiful sites of Capri from a private boat tour. Those memories are truly priceless.
During our trip there were extra excursions offered in any city we stayed in more than one night.
In London, the excursion was a visit to the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel type ride that gives riders a birds eye view of the city. In Paris, it was a trip to Versaille to tour the palace and the gardens. In Rome, it was a tiramisu cooking class.
We choose not to participate in the excursion in London because I’m not the biggest fan of heights, and in Paris because my daughter wanted the opportunity to spend some extra free time in the city.
I’m extremely glad we made those decisions.
While the London Eye excursion seemed to go well for those who went on it, it was over priced. EF Tours charged each participant $60. Tickets can be purchased individually at the ticket booth for just $42 USD or for groups ahead of time for just $24 USD. I’m not sure what EF added to the experience to warrant that upcharge.
By skipping the London Eye, we were able to have a bit more time to explore and plenty of time to enjoy our pub dinner that we mentioned earlier since the London Eye excursion was timed to happen right before dinner.
In Paris, those who went to Versaille told us the experience was underwhelming because of the limited time available inside the palace, and the lack of lunch options available to those who went.
The Versailles excursion seemed overpriced as well. EF Tours charged $114 USD to each participant. Tickets to the entire estate are free for those under 18 years old and cost under $30 USD for anyone else, and that’s without a group discount. Even if every single person had to buy a ticket, I can’t imagine that the cost for a group tour and the transportation to get the group there cost an additional $84 USD per person.
The tiramisu cooking class in Rome was not optional for our group for some reason. I think our group leader made that choice when she set up our trip. We paid an extra $85 USD above and beyond the base tour price to experience it. While I could not find information about individual class pricing, I highly doubt that EF paid that much per person for us to spend an hour making tiramisu.
I will say that the class was a fun experience at a great location, and we all enjoyed the desserts we made together.
Overall, unless an excursion is of special interest to you, I wouldn’t recommend participating in them, simply because they seem overpriced. Having extra free time to see the sites of your choice seemed to be the best option during our tour.
Education on an EF Tour
EF Tours makes a big deal out of their tours being focused on education. We were promised “experiential learning activities” during the trip. They even claim you can earn credit for going on these tour.
We found that there wasn’t that much education attached to our tour.
The local tour guides who showed us the sights of each city were the most informative folks on this trip, with extensive knowledge of the history and culture at each stop, but we were forced to use amplifying devices called Whispers in order to hear the guides. These Whispers often had glitches or were garbled, making it very hard to understand our guides.
Other than the local tour guides and maybe the tiramisu class, I wouldn’t call just visiting these historic places an “experiential learning activity.”
We also learned that our high school would not give any credit to students who participated in these trips, even though much was made of the educational credit during the pitch to get us to join the tour.
This isn’t to say that we didn’t learn anything on our trip. We did have some great cultural experiences while we traveled. But learning seemed to take a back seat to just being in another country in most circumstances.
Safety with EF Tours
As a parent considering an EF Tour for my teenager, I know safety was a big concern for me.
When my husband and I decided to send our daughter, we felt like one of us should go with her since she was only 15 at the time we went on the trip, and had not traveled internationally like this before.
For the most part, I felt quite safe during our trip.
Before our trip, our group leader did make sure to advise us about pickpocketing and theft at major tourist sites in Europe, and advised us to be prepared. She did make sure we were always wary of our passports and where we were keeping them during our travels.
While on tour, there was only one time that I felt like our group was taken to an unsafe area. That was during our terrible last night in Rome when we had to walk from our hotel to our dinner restaurant through some pretty sketchy areas of the city.
Although student were allowed to go out on their own during our free time, they were asked to go in groups of three or four and were left in pretty safe areas to spend their free time.
The biggest problem I saw with safety was when our Tour Guide would take off walking at a breakneck speed, frequently leaving half our group stuck at crosswalks or a few turns behind. She usually did a count to make sure everyone was there when we were ready to leave, but she did leave people behind at least twice during our trip and have to go back and get them.
Most of the time we had no idea where we were headed when we were walking to different locations. We were never given the names of the restaurants or addresses of where they would be unless we specifically asked for them. I think communicating with the group more about where we’re going could have avoided some sticky situations that a few of our travelers found themselves in when they were left behind.
We also didn’t have a way to contact our Tour Guide directly. Only a couple of people were given her contact information, which made communication confusing and difficult during our free time, especially when she got delayed during our free evening in Paris and our meeting time had to be pushed back significantly.
Curfews and group rules were left up to our group leader, who didn’t set many boundaries for our students.
Since the legal drinking age in the areas we visited was 18, student who met this requirement were allowed to drink alcohol on our trip, but were asked to limit it to one drink with dinner. By and large, our students respected this request and did not take advantage of the lowered drinking age to go and party it up.
Trips like this EF Tour require students to be pretty mature when it comes to safety. We had a wonderful group of kids who took their personal safety pretty seriously, and didn’t take unnecessary risks that would put them in jeopardy. Had it been a different group of personalities, I’m not sure how it would have gone.
EF Tours: Our Final Verdict
Would I travel with EF Tours again? That seems to be the question at hand here.
My EF Tours experience definitely taught me a lot about group travel. As someone who travels pretty frequently, I usually make most of my own travel arrangements, from flights to hotel reservations to activities. It was quite nice not to have to worry about any of that. It really did take a lot of pressure off to just let someone else do all that work.
But relinquishing that control does require a certain amount of trust. There were some areas that I would definitely trust EF to arrange again, and other areas where I really think they could do better.
For this trip it really came down to adjusting expectations once we were traveling. I really did expect there to be more education involved in what we did while on our tour. I really did expect to spend some quality time at these major historic sites.
Once I realized that time would be much more limited at every destination than I expected it to be, the trip went much more smoothly.
I think our experience would have been better with a more seasoned Tour Guide. Ours just didn’t seem quite ready to handle all the pressures and logistics that are required for managing a group of 40 people for 12 days.
EF Tours is definitely a budget tour company, and for the price, you do get a good experience.
Did EF Tours create the trip of my dreams? Not by a long shot.
Did they create a good experience for students who haven’t done a lot of international traveling? I’d say yes.
Do I regret going on an EF Tour? Absolutely not. I had some incredible experiences in some amazing locations with my only daughter, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
Would I go on another EF Tour? I think I would, but I would definitely choose a slower paced itinerary with more time in each destination.
Do you have any questions about EF Tours that I didn’t answer? Feel free to ask me in the comments!!