Do you prefer to take tours or plan your own travel? Generally I prefer the latter: I book my own transportation and hotels, and I do the research to figure out what I want to see.
You may have read my earlier article reviewing Audley Travel, which does bespoke tours. They design a luxury trip around what you want to see and do, booking everything for you. Besides the general level of luxury offered by Audley, I loved that I could say how much or how little I wanted them to arrange, but was freed from the work of researching and booking transportation and accommodations.
I recently traveled with a very different sort of tour company called UnTours, which encourages slow travel.
Disclosure: UnTours recently chose me as one of their first group of “Unfluencers”: travel writers interested in promoting slow travel, whether with UnTours or not. As part of that designation, UnTours offered me a sponsored week-long trip so I could get an idea of what they do.
And another disclosure: This article includes affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This won’t affect your price.
So how does a week-long trip count as slow travel? I didn’t understand this either at first. To me, slow travel means traveling for longer. So instead of flying somewhere for just a week, slow travel, I thought, meant going for a month or even longer.
What I’ve learned from UnTours is that slow travel isn’t just about the length of the trip; it’s about your frame of mind. In UnTours’ formula, their guests go to the chosen country – they operate in 12 European countries – and stay in a locally-owned self-catered apartment. There, they get to know a small area of the country well, rather than trying to see all the “bucket-list” sights that every group tour visits. Their tag line, appropriately, is “UnPack Once.”
Slow travel has certain advantages:
- Slow travel allows you to really get to know a place – to at least get a glimpse of what it’s like living there. You see the sights, but also the other places that locals may know about but tourists miss.
- In these days of climate crisis, slow travel is more environmentally sustainable than fast travel. You fly less often and you’re more likely to use local transportation systems.
- Slow travel is more likely to benefit the local economy and, in particular, small business owners. You’ll be eating and drinking locally, getting provisions from local shops, and so on.
- It’s a cheaper way to travel.
- It’s more relaxed.
It sounded great to me in theory, but I was curious to see how it would work in practice.
A bit about UnTours
Founded in the 1970s by Hal and Norma Taussig, UnTours came to the travel industry with some very disruptive ideas. It always aimed to bring people together, offering meaningful international travel before ideas of sustainability were even being discussed. The company never really aimed to make a profit, but rather to better the world through travel. Most of the profits have always gone to their UnTours Foundation, which now owns the company directly. The UnTours Foundation offers low-interest loans to entrepreneurs in poor communities whose enterprises are “leading-edge, replicable, and green.”
How Untours operates
Untours does the planning, particularly around accommodations and transportation, while still allowing you to travel independently. They also provide support as needed, day or night.
UnTours selects their accommodations carefully. All are vetted locally-owned apartments or houses, so you know it’s going to be high quality, with local hosts who buy into the UnTours philosophy. The apartments or houses are self-catering, so you can eat out every night or shop at the local market and cook for yourself. They’re located in a place where you can get around easily – but more on transportation in a minute.
“My” apartment was a one-bedroom, upstairs from my host. It was very clean, very comfortable, and very well-supplied with everything I needed to cook my meals if I wanted and to work if I wanted. It had a kitchen, a living room with a dining area at one end, a tv room, and, of course, a full bathroom. The best thing about it, though, was the balcony, and the view from there over the charming little town of Lungern.
UnTours has their own unique list of accommodations and hosts. If you aren’t traveling with UnTours, you can use the map below to find alternative places to stay. It’s centered on Lungern, where I stayed:
Untours provides guests with transportation. In Switzerland, where I went, that means a Swiss Rail Pass, which gave me free train travel – the best form of travel in terms of carbon footprint – plus free or discounted cable car and funicular rides up mountains. The pass also offers free or discounted access to museums. In countries with more limited public options, Untours may instead provide a rental car, all set for you to pick up on arrival at the airport.
If you’re going to Switzerland independently, it’s still worth considering a Swiss Rail Pass. If you’re going to travel around often, it’ll save you money. There’s no real reason to travel by car, since the train system is so good, but if you really prefer driving, here’s where you can compare rental car costs.
Ahead of arrival, UnTours provides plenty of information about the region and about whatever your mode of transport is. Most of their customers – almost all are from the US – arrive by plane, and Untours will make sure you either have a rental car waiting for you or that you know exactly what you need to do to take the train to your destination.
If you’re booking a flight, by the way, I’d recommend using Skyscanner, which searches prices across the internet. Once it gives you a list, make sure to choose the airline’s own website. It’s generally easier to deal directly with an airline if anything goes wrong than with a ticketing website.
The trips are generally Wednesday to Wednesday, which means avoiding the bigger weekend crowds on travel days. It can also mean cheaper airfares.
Orientation and support
On Thursday, the first day of your visit, the guests in each particular region are invited to an orientation morning. In my case, that involved getting to a particular train station a few towns away. There, a local guide named Doris met me and several other people staying in other nearby towns: a couple with two children, two older couples, and me.
Notice that no one was going to come fetch me in a van. It was assumed that I was perfectly capable of finding my way to the assigned train station. Of course, if I’d needed help figuring out how to get there, I would have gotten help by phone. But no one was going to coddle me: that was clear. And that was fine with me!
Doris led us immediately to a boat on Brienzersee, a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains. This boat, included on the Swiss Rail Pass, serves as a ferry, criss-crossing the lake to stop at lakeside villages.
UnTours works with knowledgeable staff like Doris: freelancers who are part of the local communities where UnTours places its clients. Because they’re local, they can give you authentic advice, not just about what to see and do but pretty much anything you might want to ask about.
On the boat, Doris gave us lots of advice about using our rail passes and about what places nearby were best to see. Then, disembarking at the other end of the lake, we took first a cable car (sometimes called a gondola, it’s a kind of box that hangs from a cable, like a ski lift, but bigger), and then an old-fashioned tram to a place called Mürren, partway up a mountain. This place has an amazing view. Despite the grey weather, we could see a section of the Alps, including Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, which are still glacier-topped.
I should add that even this orientation wasn’t required in any way, but I was glad I went. We had a very tasty lunch at this viewpoint – where Doris was happy to make recommendations about the local specialties – and then could either take off on our own or walk back to the cable car station. One of the older couples and I chose to walk back with Doris. It had started raining by then but I enjoyed walking through the forest with the smell of the pines.
In the course of the orientation morning, I got to chat with the other participants. The young family and one of the older couples were having their first UnTours experience. In both cases, they’d chosen UnTours based on wildly enthusiastic recommendations from friends and family.
Renetta and Bill, on the other hand, were on their 7th UnTours trip and their enthusiasm was clear. Bill likes the independence, and that you get to know the area well. Renatta told me about their first trip in Europe, one of these typical group tours: “It was like: see maybe six countries in fifteen days or thirteen days which isn’t possible. The bus driver dropped us off at Notre Dame Cathedral (before it burned, thank heavens) at 4:15 and said be back at the bus at 5:00!” She and Bill ended up skipping the Louvre the following day to go back and see Notre Dame properly. “With UnTours, you’re the one who picks and chooses … that’s how we like it.” She also pointed out that you only have to unpack your suitcase once, and where you stay becomes “like home – it isn’t, but it is!”
Getting the hang of slow travel with Untours
The rest of the week I could decide each day what I wanted to do. UnTour’s clients get the ease of having the basics set up for them – accommodations and transportation – but then at the same time they can enjoy the fun of independent travel.
And here’s where I began to make the connection with the slow travel idea. I had come with some pretty grand plans – I was, for example, going to take the train + cable car + train to the highest train station in Europe: Jungfraujoch. From there I could see the Swiss Alps Jungfrau Aletsch UNESCO site. I didn’t realize that I’d actually already seen it from the Mürren viewpoint.
It was my apartment’s host, Brigit, who made the whole thing click for me. Her apartment was right downstairs from mine, and when I chatted with her that evening on my return, she asked what I had planned for the week.
Her response to the Jungfraujoch idea, in what I came to know as her habitual blunt style, was to point out how contrary that outing would be to the whole idea of UnTours. “It’s what all the package tourists do, incredibly touristy. Why would you want to do that on an UnTour?”
She was right, of course. Yet I’ve become so used to ticking off as much as possible when I travel that I had trouble changing my expectations.
So I didn’t go to Jungfraujoch. I sat down with the information I’d been given – lots of advice in the form of a travel guide and many maps – and realized it would take me about 3.5 hours each way to get to Jungfraujoch, not counting whatever time I spent there.
Instead, each day I chose a few places I wanted to see that were nearer by. I’d decide where to go first, and I’d have a plan for where I’d go second, and, if I had time, where I’d go after that.
Advice for UnTours travel
But it never happened. Each day, I went to the first place on my list and inevitably it took more time than I imagined. By the end of the week, I’d learned not to overplan: choose one thing per day and see it well.
So that’s my advice if you go with UnTours:
- Take part in the orientation. You’ll learn a lot.
- Don’t overplan: choose one place each day and see it well. UnTours travel is meant to be slow, remember?
- Don’t travel too much: see the place where you’re staying, and see it well. Move outward from there, but not too far. The object is to get to know just a few places well, not to tick off lots of places superficially.
So what did I end up doing?
Day 1: Orientation
It didn’t take all day, but by the time we’d walked back to the cable car and taken it down, I was tired. I wanted to relax in my apartment and think about how I wanted to spend the week.
Day 2: Stanserhorn and a bit of Lucerne
I still wanted to go up one or more mountains, even if it wasn’t Jungfraujoch. I chose Stanserhorn at 1,898 meters high (6,227 feet) because I read that the cable lift to the top has an upper outdoor level. That appealed to me because it’s pretty much impossible to take a good picture through the glass of a cable lift.
From the top, I could see the cities of Lucerne and Stans, Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee in German) and the surrounding mountains.
Since I also had to change trains in Lucerne, I took a walk in Lucerne on the way back.
Day 3: Lungern
On my third day I decided to stay close to “home” and see the town where I was staying. Lungern sits at one end of a small, brilliantly blue lake and promotes itself as a place for snowshowing and hiking.
I walked around the town first, particularly enjoying all the wonderful old chalets in the valley. Then I walked to the local cable car and rode up Mount Turren. It’s a very steep ride, passing over rock cliffs, but at 1,562 meters (5,125 feet) it’s lower than Stanserhorn. At the top there’s pastureland and pine forest. I strolled an hour or so along a mountain road, admiring the scenery, smelling the pine air, and hearing the chiming of cow bells in the distance.
Day 4: Titlis
While I understood Brigit’s point about Jungfraujoch, I still wanted to see a glacier-topped mountain up close, so I decided on day 4 to make a trip to Titlis. It’s quite touristy, though I didn’t know that when I went. My ticket – half-priced because I had a Swiss Rail Pass – was 48 euros. But never mind, I’d traveled there, so I was going to go up. And I’m glad I did.
Going up Titlis involves three different gondolas, the third of which passes over Titlis’s glacier-covered top. The views up there are both literally and figuratively breathtaking.
- Beautiful snow-topped mountains on a crisp, clear day: that’s the figurative part.
- The literal part is that I felt light-headed and short of breath. I guess I’ve found my limit in terms of elevation.
I didn’t stay for any of the many tourist attractions available at the top, instead descending to a small blue glacial lake called Trübsee, which I enjoyed walking around, passing a herd of cows complete with cowbells.
Day 5: Ballenberg
I decided to do something different today: I visited an open-air museum called Ballenberg. Set in a beautiful forest, it contains over a hundred historical structures: houses, stables, barns, herder’s huts, mills – pretty much every kind of building ever used in rural Switzerland, covering hundreds of years. Moved here and reassembled from all over the country, they’re arranged in regional groups. Many of the houses look, inside, like the inhabitants just left a few minutes ago.
I spent the entire day at Ballenberg and still didn’t get to see all of the buildings. It was fascinating and very well-presented. I highly recommend a visit to Ballenberg if you’re ever in central Switzerland, whether with UnTours or otherwise.
Admission is free with the Swiss Rail Pass, but if you aren’t with UnTours and don’t have the pass, get your tickets here.
Day 6: Thun
Because I wanted to know more about UnTours, I requested to spend a bit of time on my last day with Urs, one of UnTours’ local guides in this part of Switzerland. I met him in Thun, a town of about 45,000 on the shore of the Thunersee, one of the chain of lakes that feeds into Lake Lucerne.
Urs is a character: packed with local knowledge and very eager to share it. After introducing ourselves on the train platform, Urs led me to the train station hall. It was a vaulted hall and rather unremarkable, but Urs led me there for a reason: the hall’s acoustics. He proceded to give me a demonstration of yodeling. Now I’m no judge of yodeling, but I think he did an excellent job.
Urs showed me the highlights of Thun. It’s a delightful town with a double-decked shopping street, a couple of castles, and the oldest panoramic painting in the world. We watched people surfing on the river where a small hydroelectric dam sent water surging. We also watched kids jump off bridges to be carried along by the river – it was quite a warm day.
The panoramic painting is something I probably would have skipped if I’d been on my own but Urs said I had to see it. He was right. Painted by Marquard Wocher in 1814, it offers a phenomenally detailed view of Thun in the form of a 38-meter-long painting displayed around a specially-built cylindrical room. It’s enchanting.
Sightseeing wasn’t really the point here, though. As we walked, Urs and I talked about UnTours – he’s a fan – and slow travel in general. He sometimes does the orientation days for UnTours, and he had already helped me a number of times by phone as my trains got delayed getting to Switzerland. (Swiss trains run beautifully on time, but German trains? Not so much.) His job, besides orientation, is being available on the other end of a phone line. He told me that some UnTours clients call a lot, while others don’t need him at all. It seems to depend on their level of comfort with the amount of independence UnTours allows.
My experience with UnTours
As you can see if you’ve read this far, the whole concept took a bit of getting used to for me, and I’m not sure I embraced it quite as wholeheartedly as many Untourists. I still set out to see particular sights and felt that familiar tug of “But I want to see everything!”
Thinking about it afterwards, I realize I really should have fully let go of that idea. It seems to me that the beauty of an UnTour – and slow travel in general – isn’t in what you see but in how you relax into a place and get to know it. Buy your bread every morning at the same bakery. Visit the same café every afternoon for a coffee. Take walks nearby where you’re staying. Start a conversation with a neighbor or with your accommodation host. Attend a local event or visit a local pub in the evening.
Would I recommend UnTours?
Absolutely. The formula of having transportation and lodging set up for you, along with a local advisor always being available, creates a feeling of safety and simplicity. Someone else takes care of the nitty-gritty details, while you have the freedom to decide your daily activities for yourself. I describe Rachel’s Ruminations as being for independent travelers interested in historical sites, and this brand of slow travel makes that easy and pleasant.
Having said that, though, I’d strongly recommend signing up for more than just one week for your European vacation, especially if you’re traveling all the way from the US. Longer trips allow you to relax into the experience, getting past jet lag and the stress of travel. Stay with UnTours for two weeks, perhaps in two different locations. Or use it for your first week, then jump into an independent trip around a nearby region. But still: don’t try to see too much! My old view of slow travel as involving a longer trip may not be correct, strictly speaking, but I think it’s safe to say that a longer trip is generally better than a shorter one.
What’s your view? Is this something you’d like to try?
My travel recommendations
- Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
- Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
- Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
- Use GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
- Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
Other travel-related items
- Get a Priority Pass if you fly a lot so that you can use airport lounges while you wait for flights. Plan your visits around meals and/or drink times and it’s definitely worth the investment!
- I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
- Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
- I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.