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Beware of holiday package perils
Sunita Abraham & Anagh Pal, Outlook Money | April 04, 2007
Sailing down the Nile on a moonlit night with the pyramids speckling the horizon or the Colosseum coming into view as you turn into the Piazza del Colosseo in Rome -- these experiences are treasures that lie not just in your photo album but also in your memory.
However, they can lose some of their perfection if the hassles involved in gathering them get too pricky. Air tickets, airport pick-ups, visa, foreign exchange, food, local commute -- the details can prove to be too much, especially for first time travellers. This is where package tour operators step in -- we can entrust the logistics to them, so that our mind is free to lap up the foreign locales.
Ideally, all you need to do is pick a tour, pay the money and see the sites. The catch, however, is that things can be different from what the advertisement says.
We will outline the aspects of the package that you need to examine before signing on. After all, it's not just a trip, it's a dream come true. And you don't want to come back from the holiday thinking more about the glitches than the sights.
It is likely, for instance, that you will spot an advertisement about a Europe tour at just the price you are looking for. You call the company, make a few enquiries and happily buy the package, dreaming of the good days ahead.
On D-day, you reach the airport in high spirits, only to find that the promised guide is nowhere to be seen. Gathering courage, you negotiate through the unfamiliar procedures of foreign travel and make it to the aircraft. There's no relief when you arrive at your destination -- you are kept waiting for hours before somebody from the travel company shows up. You are now almost beginning to prepare your mind for further fouls and ruing your choice of the tour operator.
The last decade or so has seen a steady rise in the number of Indians who go on holidays abroad. In a recent survey conducted by Thomas Cook, 77 per cent of the respondents said they were planning a foreign holiday. You will find a number of tour operators trying to attract you with a variety of schemes. While competition always brings the best for the customer, it also has its downsides.
To avoid these pitfalls and make your holiday a happy one, ask questions that will lead you to the right decision.
Half price. . . Or is it?
What's in, what's out: Travel agencies advertise low-priced holidays with bold headlines, but spring additional costs at the last moment -- airport and visa taxes and cost of meals excluded from the package to entry fees for places of interest. These could raise your expenses by as much as 25 per cent.
Take the case of Shama and Suresh Navrekar of Mumbai. They had to pay for their lunch every day during their European holiday in 2005 with Kesari Travels. Apart from that, though the Eiffel tower in Paris was included in their itinerary, they had to shell out �20 (now down to �11.5) to go up to the third level.
Lone birds have it tougher: If you are not travelling with a companion, you may have to pay as much as 30 per cent extra since all quoted prices are on twin sharing basis.
In small letters: Read the fine print. Some companies mention that hikes in tariffs and airfares before departure will be passed on to the customer. However, if you go for a refund because of the hike, you may lose a lot of what you have paid.
Raj Travels, for example, refunds only 50 per cent of the payment made if a customer cancels his trip up to 15 days prior to it. Another common gimmick is to offer important tourist destinations as options at exorbitant prices.
Cox and King's 'Singapore Sling' has trips to Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and the zoo as optional tours, at a price four times that of a park hopper package. Even if you factor in travel and food, it makes more sense to do it on your own.
Another trap is when the tour operator quotes the cost partially in dollars and gives an unrealistic exchange rate in small script. Any change in the exchange rate is passed on to the customer. Of course, this is done only when they are detrimental to him.
Ask: Will anything be added to the advertised cost? If yes, then get the details of each of these.
Lead me on
Many holidayers who opt for packaged outbound tours are first-time travellers to foreign countries. The immigration and other formalities can be intimidating for them. The Navrekars were promised that they would be called for a meeting to familiarise them with their tour details and meet their co-travellers.
They never got the invite and called the tour operator in panic as the date of departure drew close. They were told to come to the airport and nothing more. At the airport, they realised that unlike the others who were told to do so in a meeting, they were not carrying foreign exchange.
"We lost money in the exchange transaction in Rome," says an unhappy Shama. Their woes did not end there. In Rome, the couple was detained by the authorities for incorrect stamping on their passports. Again, there was nobody from the tour operator's end to sort the issue out. The problem was solved only with the intervention of others in the group.
Ask: Will a representative of the company travel with the group or be at hand for sorting out various issues that may crop up?
When the Navrekars reached Mumbai airport, they were given packets of food -- theplas, laddus and the like -- to keep body and soul together during their European holiday.
It may not be this bad in every case, but check out what 'meals' mean. Will there be sit-down meals at restaurants or snack boxes on the go? If it is specified that lunch is excluded from the package, you will have to factor in that extra cost. Would you like to savour the local cuisine or is rajma chawal on the slopes of the Alps more your kind of thing? Whether it is exotic food or familiar flavours that you savour, find out what all will be available.
For example, SOTC's 'All of Europe Cost Saver' trip does not include lunch. Also, you have to pay for your dinner in London, where even a fast food joint dinner for a family of four is likely to set you back by at least �24 (about Rs 2,000).
Bangalore-based couple Kamla Krishna and Krishna, who went on a 27-day trip to Europe with Raj Travels in 2006, were, however, happy with the vegetarian food they got in lunch boxes during their tour. "Vegetarians usually have a tough time abroad. So, the food was not an issue for us," says Krishna.
In fact, the couple is planning a holiday to Australia, and the food that Raj Travels provided during their European sojourn is the main reason they are considering the operator again.
Ask: What is the meal plan? What would you get? Is there a choice? What is the cost likely to be if meals are not included?
Visiting or seeing?
Did you go up Switzerland's Mount Titlis in the world's first revolving cable car or did you drive past it in a coach? "There is a difference between 'visiting' and 'seeing'," says N.G. Ghatak, who went on a Cox and Kings package tour to Malaysia and Singapore in 2000 with his wife Ila and son Souyma. "'Visit' means that you will actually get to see the place, 'see' means that you will get to see it from a distance while travelling. In Singapore, we could only 'see' China Town and Little India from a distance," he says.
Shama says some of their co-travellers on the Europe tour who had opted to include London in their itinerary complained that they got to see London only through the windows of a coach.
The Krishnas had paid extra to include Scotland in their package. But what they got was a full day's travel to the Edinburgh castle, only to find that the castle was closed to visitors. They ended up having lunch in its garden. In Paris, they just drove past the Louvre Museum and had a truncated ride on the high-speed TGV trains. "I missed seeing the Mona Lisa," says Kamla. "It's not as if we can go back again."
Check if the package covers all the important sites and has given sufficient time to each of them. In some cases, you will have to pay extra to fully enjoy some of the important spots featured in the itinerary. SOTC's Europe tour takes you only to the first level of the Eiffel tower. You have to pay �11.5 to go up to the third level. Also, find out if the plan is flexible.
Ask: What are the places included in the itinerary? Is the operator going for quantity over quality? Will there be visits to all the places you think important? Do not be taken in by the operator's description of the places. Research and decide yourself.
A place to rest
Get details of the hotels you will be staying in. You may want to walk around leisurely at night and soak in the atmosphere of the city you are visiting. Will the location of the hotel make that possible?
Kuoni Travels mentions the names of the hotels in its plan. Some operators describe only the quality of the hotel. "We would come to the hotel only in the night to sleep, so we did not get to see much of it. But it was comfortable," says Suresh Navrekar. If the hotel is far from the city, a lot of time is wasted getting around.
Ask: Which hotels will you be staying in? Check their rating, facilities and and accessibility from the city before deciding.
This is not a code language. It is the schedule that you might be expected to follow on your holiday -- up at six in the morning, breakfast at seven, and out of the hotel at eight. The Navrekars had it worse. They were woken up every morning at 5.30 and had to be ready to leave by 7.30.
Late night flights, jet lag and disorientation are all part of foreign travel. Most package schedules hardly give time to the body to adjust.
Take Raj Travel's four days-three nights package to Singapore. After a midnight flight from India, you reach Singapore at around five in the morning local time, with your body clock two and a half hours behind. Tourists are taken directly for sightseeing from the airport without checking into a hotel since check-in is only at 2 pm. Imagine going sightseeing tired and unwashed. This holds good for most tours to Singapore.
"More than 50 per cent of our holiday in Europe was spent on the road travelling from one place to another," says Krishna. His wife saw a silver lining in this, though. "I had never spent so much time with my husband," she says with a smile. Long hours spent on the road are something that you must prepare yourself for.
If many places are crammed into a day, you will be hustled from one place to the next without sufficient time to enjoy the sights. In addition, find out if the last day of your holiday is meant only for travelling to the airport and taking the flight back to India.
Raj Travels' four days-three nights Singapore trip is actually only for three days since the flight back to India is at 9.30 am on the fourth day and you just have enough time in the morning to wake up and leave for the airport.
Ask: How will the itinerary unfold? Visualise each day before you commit. What are the distances between sites and how long will it take travel from one to the next. How much time will each site get?
Krishna has complaints about the way shopping was conducted on their Europe trip. "In Black Forest in Germany, we were taken by the company to a shop to buy the renowned cuckoo clocks. Later, we found that it was available at half the price in the city," he says.
This is a common refrain of those who go on packaged tours. Operators invariably take the touring group to expensive places where they probably get a commission.
Since the schedule is tight, holidayers hardly get any time to shop, let alone explore for better prices.
Ask: What are shopping possibilities? How flexible is the shopping schedule? Do your research before you go.
Going on package tours is a convenient and less expensive way of satisfying the travel itch. It can be enjoyable if you know what to expect and are prepared for it.
'Caveat Emptor' or 'Buyer Beware' is a creed that will hold you in good stead. Else, all you will get is a letter apologising for the inconvenience like the one the Navrekars got in response to their complaints.