Trying out large-group tours

This item appears on page 25 of the November 2009 issue.

My husband, Rodney, and I took the “Imperial Russian Waterways” tour with Vantage Deluxe World Travel, Aug. 5-26, 2008, which included a 3-night Kiev pretrip and a 3-night Stockholm post-trip extension for a total of 22 days.

This was not only our first riverboat trip, it was our first experience in being with a group larger than 20 people. We approached it as an experiment, to see whether our avoidance of large groups was really justified.

We met some lovely people on the trip and, on the whole, enjoyed ourselves. However, it is hard to get away from the fact that it takes twice as long to get 40 people on and off buses and in and out of sites as it does 20. And getting 200-plus people on and off ships and in and out of dining rooms takes even longer.

More disturbing, however, decisions and changes were made by the group managers with no explanation or forewarning for the group.

For example, in Moscow, for those not signed up for the optional tour to Star City, Vantage promised a shuttle in the afternoon to a lecture and then on to Red Square. This shuttle was canceled around noon. Fortunately, we had decided to take the subway and ventured forth ourselves.

In St. Petersburg, after the included morning tour of the city, we were told that one of the buses would take those not signed up for the optional tours to town and later back to the ship. We were given box lunches while we waited for the bus. Half an hour later we were told that the bus would not be available and that we could just walk to town and be picked up later. Had we known this in a more timely manner, we could have skipped the box lunch and bought ourselves a good lunch in town.

The directions were pretty cursory also, as were the instructions of where to meet the bus later. In fact, three people waited for the bus in the wrong place and had to find their own way back. I suggested that the bus drive around the block before leaving for the ship, but the tour manager in charge refused. Had we done so, we would have found them. There were no apologies or any acknowledgment that people had been inconvenienced.

On this tour, I felt herded from site to site. While you would think that the sightseeing tours would run overtime, given a larger group, every one of our tours ran under-time. It was rare that we would get any free time to just wander through the sites again at our own pace after the guided part, to just take things in slowly. Promised shopping time simply did not materialize.

At the very crowded Hermitage, for example, we had to choose between using our 15 minutes to stand in line at the restroom or visit the gift shop.

Perhaps the most important deterrent for us in regards to future large-group tours, especially on a ship, is the health factor. An alarming number of people were coughing and congested toward the end of the trip, and several were sent to the hospital. On any future river cruises, we’ll arm ourselves with lots of antibiotics.

Another point — the whole time we dealt with Vantage Travel, we felt “sold to” in multiple ways. Before the trip, some of the sales agents used pretty high-pressure sales tactics over the phone. After the ship’s arrival in Kiev, we met for over an hour to discuss the optional tours, which already were described in detail in the brochures. Before the trip was over, there was a meeting about future trips with Vantage.

Obviously, their sales method works for them and is not a problem for others. It just wasn’t the right note for us.

Despite all that, we enjoyed the trip as a whole. The ship’s crew couldn’t have tried harder, and their enthusiasm and desire to please was touching. The food was phenomenal throughout the tour.

There were so many people that it was easy to be lost in the shuffle, so we actually had quite a bit of privacy. Sitting on deck and passing through the lovely scenery was wonderfully relaxing, and we loved unpacking only once in 10 days.

Would we travel with a large group again? We decided to give Vantage another try, this time a land tour of Croatia. We’ll see what happens.*

Fresno, CA

*The following is Nancy’s latest report.

Rodney and I took Vantage Travel’s tour “Croatia & Montenegro: Hidden Treasures of the Adriatic” plus the pretrip extension to Slovenia, May 15-June 3, 2009. Our total cost for the two of us was $10,528, which included international airfare, a $150-per-person air supplement for flying out of our hometown, and the 3-night pretrip extension. Not included in this were optional tours.

I am happy to report that this was one of my most enjoyable travel experiences in over 25 years of traveling. The tour went without a hitch. This tour usually accommodates around 40 travelers, but there were only 34 of us. The pacing was leisurely. Seldom did we begin before 9 a.m., and we had lots of free time in the afternoons and evenings.

We stayed mostly in well-situated, luxurious hotels with spectacular water views. The hotel in Montenegro and the one in Sibenik, Croatia, were out of the way, but the facilities were acceptable.

Paolo Posedel, our tour manager, was one of the best managers I’ve traveled with, and I’ve traveled with many. Not only was he articulate, handsome, charming, friendly and considerate, he was totally organized, with awesome attention to detail.

Paolo gave each of us a printed itinerary for each day, listing the times for breakfast, luggage out, departure, etc. This was far more convenient for us than having to remember to get the times from a board in the hotel lobby every evening, as we did in Russia. On the sheets were also his recommendations for activities and restaurants.

Most amazing of all and unique in my tour experiences, Paolo attached to the schedule a map of each city we stayed in, with our hotel location circled along with the more important sites. Also, on our drives he gave excellent and knowledgeable lectures on Balkan history and culture.

Also, he faxed our passport information ahead to each hotel, so our room keys were ready by the time we arrived. Never once did we have to identify our luggage, which magically arrived in our rooms in a timely manner.

Since nothing is perfect, there is still no getting away from the fact that it took twice as long to get 34 people off and onto buses and in and out of sites as it does 17. The bathroom lines, especially for the women, got pretty long at rest stops.

On the plus side of being on tour in a larger group, we enjoyed a greater degree of freedom to socialize or not during our free time. We also appreciated the concept of optional tours, freeing us from activities we were not interested in.

We enjoyed two of the three optional tours we took. We thought the $79 per person for dinner and folk entertainment in Montenegro was way overpriced. The setting could have been spectacular except that we were on the upper terrace of Budva Castle, which did not offer a water view. The food was below average and the entertainment mediocre, in our opinion.

Vantage’s marketing efforts that I mentioned for the Russia trip were toned down and more tastefully presented on this trip.

I believe that the difference in our two experiences with Vantage had much to do with the differences in the infrastructure and organization in the two countries. We were with a group of 34 in Croatia, while on the Russian waterways trip there were over 200 people, divided into five subgroups.

Paolo worked directly for Vantage and operated with more autonomy than the managers in Russia, who, it seemed, worked for some contracted company.

In conclusion, I will no longer avoid larger group tours based solely on the size of the group. I think the destination, itinerary, travel company and tour manager each make a big difference.

We have signed up for another cruise with Vantage, this time to Eastern Europe in 2010.


ITN sent copies of the above letters to Vantage Deluxe World Travel (90 Canal St., Boston, MA 02114-2018) and received no reply.