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Charge of the Bus Brigade
Rita Banning is a professional tour guide. To see what it takes to command the coach, the author signed on to help her lead a 14-day European bus trip.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; P01

There are two words that we tour guides hate to hear when checking into Budapest hotels with 30 road-whipped passengers waiting in the bus, all limp from their third change of cities in six days and footsore from hours of sightseeing in 93-degree heat in a country without air conditioning amid a group-dynamic that is just barely propped up by the prospect of a much-anticipated "Hungarian feast" in the hotel dining room an hour from now.

Those words are: "What dinner?"

But that's exactly what the smoothly dismissive desk clerk says to me and my tour guide boss, Rita Banning. "Dinner for 33?" he purrs, as we gape at him in the lobby of the Mercure Korona hotel. "I'm sorry, we have no record of that."

Gulp. I have been Banning's faithful sidekick for a week by this time. She usually works alone, but she and her superiors at Collette Vacations agreed to let me sign on as an assistant tour guide for the 14-day "Magnificent Cities of Central and Eastern Europe" tour last month. I hoped to see how these package tour sherpas negotiate the perils of mass travel. It's hard enough for most of us to get the family over the river and through the woods each November. Imagine taking on a family of 30 that you can't even yell at.

I admit I was fairly dubious about big-bus travel when I reported for duty in Berlin. I've spent most of my traveling life trying to blend in to local scenes and negotiating the world on my own. Those massive coaches, I always assumed, were a less-pure travel experience, rolling bubbles designed to insulate timorous flocks from the same rigors of the road that I embraced.

Still, I did relish the idea of doing battle, as a professional mercenary this time, with all the dragons of foreign travel.

And so far, through Berlin, Prague and Vienna, we have easily batted away every snafu, from missing passports to busted cameras. I have hauled baggage, fixed broken watchbands and waited -- sometimes for hours -- for some truly dedicated souvenir shoppers. And I have marveled at the unflappable Banning, a brash, short-haired grandmother, as she sways at the front of the coach with a cellphone in one hand and the bus microphone in the other, tracking down missing luggage and riffing on the Czech monarchy, respectively.

But even her seen-it-all-before eyes grow wide at the news that we have no Hungarian feast for our edgy wards. The sheaf of tour documents that she's waving in the face of the desk clerk clearly shows that dinner has been prearranged. But he remains unmoved, in that way that only a post-Soviet apparatchik can.

Banning has been hoping to spend the hour doing paperwork, and I have dreamed of a shower. Now we go into full crisis mode, scrambling to scare up dinner for 30 on a Sunday night in Budapest.

'Where's My Room?'

Being a professional tour guide may be the most schizophrenic job in all of travel, equal parts master and servant, lecturer and concierge, scold and nurse. Banning, 62, has been at it for almost 20 years, leading nearly back-to-back tours through Australia, Canada and Europe. She's a former special education teacher, which she describes as near-perfect training for herding vacationing Americans around the globe. On the road for 250 days a year, she's most at home where the rest of us are most at sea, in the out-of-a-suitcase transience of vacation time. She pays her bills electronically and has standing arrangements with her Florida neighbors to collect the mail and mow the grass.

"It can be a lonely lifestyle," she says. "A lot of guides get into trouble with alcohol."

We had met in Berlin one day before our guests were due to arrive. She always shows up early at the starting point so she can meet the first incoming flights and to get a jump on the jet-lag crankiness that often colors the gathering of the group. Sure enough, we're in far better shape than the two couples from Texas who reach the hotel after a two-mile Berlin traffic jam.

"Where's my room?" is all one white-haired man can manage when I meet them in the lobby, brief them on the dinner schedule and take charge of their bags.

"Don't pay attention to anything anyone says on the first day," Banning says. "People haven't slept. They have eaten every single thing offered them and watched every movie. The first day is always the worst."

I'm looking for someone to emerge as the group pill, but Banning tells me not to count on it.

"They say there's one in every group, but it's not true," she says. Only rarely does a serious carper sign up, someone who complains as a way of life or as a strategy for bagging refunds or discounts. "People pay a lot of money for these trips. They want to have a good time."

That they do is crucial to Banning, who depends on tips for about half of her income. She doesn't bring it up to guests (and is contemptuous of guides who let it be known that they'll gladly accept major credit cards), but the tour materials suggest $3 to $5 per day for both her and the driver. She is hardly ever stiffed, she said, although her gratuity envelopes often are the dumping ground for peoples' leftover forints, korunas and zlotys.

On this trip, she is a bit nervous that people won't like the location of the hotel, a leafy lakeside conference center far from the city center. This is one of Collette's midrange tours, running monthly through October and starting at $1,999 per person double occupancy. It features four-star hotels (in the European scale), sometimes more notable for their location than their plush appointments. Usually the groups start in downtown Berlin, but Germany is saturated with World Cup fans, and this is the only hotel available. A few people grumble that we're too far from "everything," but most seem happy enough to walk the trails and nap in the hours before our opening dinner.

The group, when it assembles in the dining room, is largely a clutch of hearty retirees. One extended family includes a twentysomething niece, but otherwise it's the heavily AARP crowd typical of international group travel. And they do seem like a bunch of bright-siders.

"Well, it's certainly beautifully striped," says an 81-year-old matron from Peoria, Ill., of an otherwise unexceptional hunk of grilled pork. Our food throughout Eastern Europe will consist largely of hearty and starchy hotel buffets and meals at high-volume "traditional" restaurants that cater to bus tours. People seem to approve, by and large, but I don't see anyone buying any local cookbooks.

The next morning they board the bus for the first time. Banning and I have placed name placards on the seats, assigning everyone a place that we will rotate daily. It's a strict Collette policy based on years of hassles with front-row hogs. "If you don't assign them, people will break their legs getting to the front seats," Banning says.

The driver, a mustachioed Austrian named Christian Stamfl, is Banning's favorite in Europe. She calls him "my Austrian son." A good driver, she says -- one who knows shortcuts and local customs -- is crucial. Guides still talk of the novice wheelman who made a wrong turn in Innsbruck and lodged his bus full of tourists in a narrow alley. But Stamfl whips the huge Volvo coach through our Berlin day tour like a moped. And as we race down the autobahn toward Potsdam, Banning stands at the front without fear. I surf the aisle selling water and Cokes for a euro each out of the bus cooler.

At Sans Souci, the rococo pleasure palace of Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV ("He could have done 'La Cage aux Folles' all by himself," Banning whispers in one of the more overwrought chambers), she is delighted to see how mobile our group is. Three women are already lagging badly, but Banning considers any group needing fewer than four wheelchairs a veritable track team. In fact, while I settle into the hotel bar to watch the United States get creamed in the World Cup, the two eldest women take an optional mile walk to a biergarten for dinner. Any ungenerous thoughts I've had about the softness of bus tourists fades when I see how these folks -- with numerous artificial knees and hips among them -- log the miles afoot.

Nap, Then Prague

We leave for the Czech Republic the next morning, and our days fall into a tolerably frantic routine: A travel day is followed by a full day in a city, including a driving tour narrated by a local guide, three or four stops at billboard palaces and cathedrals, and several hours of free time in the main shopping district. That's a fast pace by modern tour standards, which have mellowed considerably since the "If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium" days. Our own itinerary amounts to two nights each in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow and Warsaw.

"Americans have become better travelers," Banning says. "They watch travel shows now and realize how much there is to see in a place, and they want to stay three or four days."

She's off the mic now, giving folks a break to nap off their lunch. She spends a lot of time "reading the coach," trying to decide how much history and chatter a particular group wants. Now it's quiet, except for Banning's frequent calls on her cellphone, lining up opera tickets in Vienna for one couple, organizing a day trip from Warsaw for a family that wants to visit their ancestral village.

Prague is sweltering when we pull up to the cavernous Diplomat Hotel, an austere but friendly four-star on a busy avenue. It's a new hotel for Banning, so while the guests bolt for their rooms, she and I walk to the local subway station. We're going to make a dry run down to the old city, where we'll be leading the group after dinner. We find the station, hunt around for an elevator and decipher the route map.

"You don't ever want to do something like this for the first time with the group behind you," she says.

Tour guides work to preserve a certain in-the-know mystique. Banning even makes a point of eating apart from her guests so no one can accuse her of captain's table favoritism. Later, at a Czech folklore and dinner show that is one of our optional Prague events, Banning, Stamfl and I sit with the other guides and drivers far from the stage.

Jeff Scott is another veteran Collette guide, crossing our path here with a Mozart tour. Like Banning, he delights in the floating lifestyle of the work, in spite of having 11-year-old twin daughters at home in Rhode Island.

"I'm a total Gemini," Scott says while Banning is off organizing a sugar-free dessert for a diabetic guest. "I basically need to be with people all the time or I'm lost."

Banning, too, thrives on the bustle. When we have a free afternoon following visits to Prague's Hradcany Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, I look forward to a little cafe time. But Banning fills every minute with optional side trips for anyone interested: crossing the Charles Bridge, shopping for amber jewelry, seeing the Infant Jesus of Prague (for some of those who had been hearing about this small altar icon since catechism class, seeing it in person meant quiet tears). I am her sweep, bringing up the rear and counting heads. Most of these people are my parents' age, and I am exhausted.

So are the two eldest ladies, who ask Banning if they can return to the hotel. She goes all tough-love on them.

"No," she says. "Why do you want to go back?"

"We're tired."

"You don't need to go back. You need a rest. Find a cafe, have lunch and a nice long sit-down. If you're still tired then, we'll get you back. But you're only going to be in Prague once."

When I see them tottering along the sidewalk later, they give me happy waves, their arms full of shopping bags. I wave guiltily; they've caught me in a cafe, recovering with a cappuccino and pondering how much more I've learned on this trip than in my usual solo wandering. Being on the bus with Banning and the local "step-on" guides narrating the city sights is like springing for the audio tour at a good museum: I actually know what I'm looking at. My sense of Prague is already much richer than of, say, Istanbul, where I once spent a pleasant but ignorant three days on my own. (Still, there are tradeoffs. In Turkey I managed to get myself invited to a killer cocktail party, which I don't see happening as a member of the bus brigade.)

33 Chicken Breasts

By Vienna, the pace and the high-80s heat have begun to tell on a few people. At our long morning tour of the Schoenbrunn Summer Palace, I end up pushing one woman around the gravel gardens in a wheelchair. Banning tells me to muscle the chair right through the crowd so the woman can hear better. She particularly wants me to get ahead of some outsiders who are mooching off our private guide. "We pay a lot of money for these local guides," Banning says. "If there are too many people around, my people can't hear."

This may be the most pronounced characteristic of a successful tour guide, an utter lack of self-consciousness. Banning doesn't have a moment's hesitation plowing the mob into a crowded museum, green umbrella held high. Or having her hollered reminder about tomorrow's breakfast echo through the nave of St. Stephen's Cathedral.

"In this job, if you're shy you're in trouble," she says.

At first glance, Banning, a bustling fireplug given to wearing bright prints and dangling earrings, seems to cut a classic Loud American figure. But that begins to fade when you see how the Europeans love her. Time after time, I see stuffy bellmen and waiters drop their stern miens and beam as she hectors them about room keys and luggage delivery, always followed by "You're so nice to help us" or "You're doing an excellent job."

And that's how she salvages our dinner in Budapest.

"I'm sorry, I have no record of dinner for your group," the frosty desk clerk repeats for the third time, turning away. Banning switches tones.

"I'm so sorry we have made this mistake," she says. "It's clearly our fault."

He turns back. Glances at his watch.

"The executive chef will be here in 20 minutes. Let me see what we can do."

We race upstairs, split the guest list and phone every room, telling our charges that dinner will be delayed an hour because of "a backup in the dining room."

Banning works on the desk clerk and the chef. She suggests a choice of lamb, beef or goulash, sauteed vegetables and ice cream. Finally, they agree to rush out 33 chicken breasts, a yet-to-be determined vegetable and a dessert of the chef's choice (which turned out to be an unpeeled apple on a saucer).

It's fine. Most people enjoy the extra hour of rest, and the dining room is filled with excited chatter about the next evening's cruise on the Danube, the days to follow in Krakow and Warsaw and the emotional climax at Auschwitz.

"And hasn't the food been good," says our eldest, chipperest lady, polishing off her austere chicken.

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat.

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