Hank, we have never traveled with or taken any kind of tour ever! I agree, this sounds good. We'll just go with the flow on this one. In fact, it took us a long while to go on our first cruise. We resisted because being confined on a ship didn't appeal to us and we compared it to staying at a resort hotel just to use the pool or restaurants, etc. And we generally don't like crowds. But I'm glad we tried it because (to our surprise) we did like it. We've had a good time on every cruise.
I checked your transatlantic itinerary on the Grand Princess. Very interesting and exotic ports. I would love to do a transatlantic, but my husband would never want to be on a ship that long--especially with so many sea days. Your driving trip in Italy sounds great. Nothing you can do about gas prices...and you have to eat (and drink!) Just enjoy the trip!!
We like to explore when we travel...and stay as long/short as we like. We had that luxury years ago when we would travel in late winter months because we were skiers. We always planned a European adventure around a ski trip. We never needed reservations and would always find nice places to stay. Also found nice apartments to rent in places when we knew we would be staying a while.
Many years ago, we had an opportunity to travel for 4 months. We did a buy-back lease deal with VW in Brussels. We had a brand new VW and it cost us $11/day!!! Those days are gone! I also remember that in 1985 the exchange rate for French francs was $1=10F.
We are also trying to plan some future trips. We're starting to think about traveling within the states. There are many places we haven't been. Until the dollar gains some strength, maybe that's what we'll do. Our European trip in May is costing a lot more than we originally planned. C'est la vie.
I'm sure there are many other rental websites, but for this trip we used www.VRBO.com
for apartment rentals in Paris and Barcelona. It worked out very well. Good descriptions, photos and contacts. They have rentals all over the world. Check it out for your Provence/Tuscany trip...which sounds like heaven!!
Good luck with your planning.