Rating foreign tour companies that customize tours

This item appears on page 36 of the January 2019 issue.
The Laxey Wheel, once used to pump water from mines on the Isle of Man. Photos by Norman Dailey

In past issues, we've printed letters from subscribers who took customized private tours (outside of the US) that were arranged by tour companies and guides that are local to the destinations.

How to write a good tour review:

Anyone writing in should include the name and contact information of the foreign tour company or private guide (location, phone, email and/or website); an idea of the itinerary; the length of the tour (number of days/nights); when the tour took place (month/year), and the approximate cost of the tour and what was included. Relate your experiences of the trip, both positive and negative, and observations. Lastly, include a rating from [1] (poor) to [10] (great).

Here are a few collected reviews from our readers:

As part of a whirlwind trip to pick up additional countries on my Travelers' Century Club (travelerscenturyclub.org) list, my wife, Susan, and I scheduled a private day tour on the Isle of Man for July 3, 2018.

Our starting point was Liverpool, where at 9:20 a.m. we caught a Flybe (www.flybe.com) flight to Castletown, Isle of Man. Booked online from the US, round-trip air for two cost $170.

We were met by the guide Jane Hodson, owner of Guided Tours of Mann (46 Alexander Dr., Douglas, Isle of Man; phone +44 7624 433957, www.guidedtoursofmann.com).

Peel Castle on the Isle of Man.

For £150 (near $193), Jane gave us a fantastic tour of the southern half of the island. Highlights included Castletown, Balladoole, the village of Cregneash and the Sound, the town of Peel, the village of St. John's and the Laxey Wheel. Jane's love for the island came across very clearly as she showed us many unique sights.

Having spent many years abroad, Jane now sees the island from a different perspective than someone who has never lived elsewhere.

We were sorry to say good-bye but needed to catch a 4:15 p.m. flight back to Liverpool. In hindsight, we should have booked at least two days with Jane. [10]

Norman Dailey
Alexandria, VA

My friend Carolyn and I took a fabulous trip through the Balkans in September and October 2018. Carolyn prepared a list of things we wanted to do and things we didn't (since we had both already "dipped our toes" in the area). She also contacted several companies who advertised an interest in that part of the world.

We selected Rad-Festa (35 Hristo Belchev St., Sofia, Bulgaria, p.c. 1000; phone +359 2 986 3927, www.rad-festa.com/en). We had Radoslav's compete attention from the beginning.

Our trip lasted 18 days and took us from Croatia to Bulgaria via Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. Radoslav arranged our cars (a Citroën and a Volkswagen, both new, clean and comfortable) and driver-guides as well as several local guides, hotels (each with breakfast) and airport pickup and delivery. The tour cost each of us just under $4,000, including entry fees.

We had two "teams" to share our travel. Kenan, a young "Bosniak," as he characterized himself, was our companion/guide for 10 days in the countries from Croatia through Macedonia. And near the Bulgarian/Macedonian border, we were met by driver Emil and guide Danny, who were with us during our five days in Bulgaria. We became fond of all of them!

Communication was very easy during both the planning and the trip, itself. Radoslav checked frequently to see that things were going as planned.

One thing that really set this trip apart was the selected hotels. Most of the time, we were at "boutique" hotels, each of which was either inside or adjacent to the city's historic center. Several, such as the Kriva Cuprija Hotel in Mostar and Sleep Split in Split, were in historic buildings.

Our guides, as well as hotel desk personnel, had great suggestions for restaurants, where we truly enjoyed the local cuisine and wines.

I really enjoyed our trip in that part of the world and sincerely recommend Radoslav and his team. [10]

Sara Anne Gardner
Portland, OR

Water taxis in Dhaka Harbor — Bangladesh. Photos by Deborah Blenkarn

Why do we leave the comforts of our home and friends to travel to unfamiliar surroundings? Is it the lure of adventure, to learn the history or culture of another country?

In the case of our visiting Bangladesh, it was a simple photograph of the traffic in Dhaka that led my husband, Doug, and our friend Dennis Shigematsu to decide that we had to check this place out. As intrepid travelers, we love the sense of adventure, but after studying the history of Bangladesh, we found it would offer so much more.

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is a low-lying, densely populated country in South Asia. It has a rich cultural history, with human habitation dating back 20,000 years. Dhaka, the capital, has a population of over 15 million.

Having limited time, we decided to visit the tribal areas of Chittagong; the capital city; the biodiverse Sundarbans; Rajshahi, and, in the north, Rangpur. We also would sail on a Rocket paddle steamer.

After contacting a couple of agencies in Vancouver and finding them ill-equipped to deal with travel in Bangladesh, we searched the Web and found Nijhoom Tours (House #06 [ground floor], Road 17, Nikunja 02, Khilkhet, Dhaka 1229, Bangladesh; phone +880 1799 002244, nijhoom.com). Mr. Hasan was immediately responsive and helpful in planning our trip.

Kantaji Temple in Dinajpur, Bangladesh.

We arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, and were met at the airport by Hasan, who took us to a comfortable hotel. Early the following morning, accompanied by our guide, Niaz, we boarded a train to Chittagong.

The trip was long, and rice fields and intermittent villages dominated the scenery, but the coaches had TV, air-conditioning and comfortable seats. In Chittagong, we had an interesting ride in a motorized rickshaw through the city congestion to the Grand Park Hotel.

In the morning, we visited the controversial ship-breaking yards and markets selling marine paraphernalia as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. We were forbidden to take photos of the yards.

In the afternoon, we boarded a bus to Bandarban and the Hillside Resort, the next day driving in a 4x4 to the starting point for our trek. It was very hot and humid for the steep, 2-hour walk to a remote village at Boga Lake. (Our village was Christian; a neighboring village was Buddhist.)

All materials had to be carried in and out of the village. Our simple hut was constructed entirely of bamboo, and we ate our meals in a small restaurant. We hiked around the lake as the sun set.

The Sundarbans tour boat — Bangladesh.

The next day, after visiting other tribal villages, we retraced our scenic journey, stopping to see the Supreme Bliss Buddhist Pagoda and Monastery, then returned via Chittagong to Dhaka.

The following morning, Hasan led us on a tour of Dhaka. By car, rickshaw and foot, we visited the parliament buildings, the Dhakeshwari National Temple, the Armenian Church, the Star Mosque and Ahsan Manzil (a former Nawab residence that has been restored).

"Wow!" moments included observing the worship of different faiths, riding rickshaws through crowded markets, being rowed through Dhaka's harbor and seeing life at the Sadarghat river station.

At dusk, we sailed from Dhaka on a Rocket paddle steamer. We had a first-class cabin with twin beds and meals, while second-class passengers spread their blankets on a lower deck and supplied their own food. Our cabin had no washroom, but it was comfortable, and the meals were quite acceptable.

On disembarking the Rocket, we drove to the 15th-century Mosque City of Bagerhat to visit several ancient mosques, including the Sixty Dome Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Early the next morning, we left our hotel to board a boat for a 3-day tour of the Sundarbans. We were accompanied by Hasan, the captain, a guide, three cooks and three boatmen. Our meals, mainly vegetarian, were tasty and plentiful. The accommodation was sparse but clean, and we had our own bathroom!

The Sundarbans, another must-see UNESCO Site, is a huge delta containing the largest mangrove forest in the world. It drains the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers into the Bay of Bengal.

At dawn and dusk, we boarded smaller boats to explore canals, where we spotted deer and enough birds to make any ornithologist happy. We didn't see any tigers, however.

Traveling by train in Bangladesh without a reservation!

On Saturday, Oct. 25, we said good-bye to Hasan, and Niaz joined us for our trip north. We traveled by train to the city of Rajshahi and the next day by boat to an island char in the Ganges. Chars are flood-prone, self-reliant islands.

On this particular char, half the population (around 100 people living in thatched huts) were citizens of Bangladesh; the other half were citizens of India. There was a guard hut at the border but no interaction between the two sides.

We were certainly an anomaly, as the younger children had never seen white, middle-aged people.

Traveling north by car the next day, we visited Puthia Estate, with its palace and beautiful Hindu temple, Govinda. The surface of the temple was covered with carved terra-cotta plaques and ornamental towers.

Nearby, we toured several buildings representing the British-colonial period. Unfortunately, they were in stages of deterioration, but they did give us a glimpse of their one-time splendor. Govinda was a bustling place with many local tourists.

The following day took us to the outstanding Kantaji Temple, an 18th-century Hindu temple in northwestern Bangladesh. It is one of the best-preserved historical sites in the country. Dedicated to Krishna, each surface of the temple is covered with delicately carved terra-cotta friezes depicting flora, love, travel and contemporary life of the time.

We returned to Dhaka on Oct. 29 and early the next morning were taken to the airport to catch our flight.

Sixty Dome Mosque, built in 1449 — Bagerhat district, southwestern Bangladesh.

Travel in Bangladesh can be challenging, but Hasan and his team took great care of us. We never once felt compromised or fearful. The people were curious but courteous.

The cost of our 17-day tour was about $2,000 per person, which included all transportation, guides, reasonably priced hotels, breakfasts and site entry fees. We were responsible for dinners and lunches except on the Rocket and in the Sundarbans.

We highly recommend this trip. [10]

Deborah Blenkarn
Nanaimo, BC, Canada

I had saved a copy of Julie Cassen's letter (July '16, pg. 27) about the excellent experience she and her husband had while traveling in Myanmar with Santa Maria Travels & Tours (90 Kan-Road Condo, Rm. 1-C, Kan Road, Quarter 10, Hlaing Township, Yangon 11051, Myanmar; phone +951 537191, www.santamariatours.com).

In December 2016, I sent my first inquiry to Zaw (whom Julie had mentioned) regarding a trip to Myanmar. The next day I received a suggested itinerary and preliminary pricing. I was amazed that all of my many subsequent inquiries were handled overnight, with replies from Zaw and Wah Wah (sales department).

Over much of the next year, I sent out many questions plus amendments to the deluxe, standard 12-day itinerary. I added one day to make sure my sister, Yarka Cleary, and I would have enough time if our flight from Taipei was delayed and we missed our connection to Yangon.

I also chose to forgo Santa Maria's choice of hotels for the two nights at the beginning and on the last night at the end, as I wanted to stay at the Strand Hotel (92 Strand Road; www.hotelthestrand.com), the oldest hotel in Yangon — a holdover from British-colonial times. (It's a great place to stay if you like historic hotels.)

Originally, I had reserved only the last night at the Strand, but about two weeks before our departure, Zaw informed us that the hotel we were supposed to stay at the first two nights (Kandawgyi Palace) had had a fire. They offered a different hotel, but I was able to book the last available room at the Strand for those dates. Wah Wah immediately adjusted the cost of our trip to reflect the change.

After our hot-air balloon flight over Bagan was canceled due to rain, Santa Maria's driver handed me cash in dollars (I had paid cash for those flights) when he picked us up at the airport for the last night in Yangon. I can't say enough about Santa Maria's services all along the way.

Aside from Yangon, we visited Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake. We were always met at airports and boat landings, and the guides were exceedingly friendly and eager to show us everything we asked to see. Our days were filled with hours of sightseeing but also many opportunities to shop. We had chosen to have a lot of activities.

Despite alarming reports about ethnic violence in Myanmar's northwestern region of Rakhine State, we were safe along our standard tourist route and never saw even one soldier or police officer.

During our early-December 2017 trip, there were no tourist crowds, and the weather was ideal for sightseeing except for a couple of drizzly days in Kalaw and Bagan, where temperatures hovered in the low 60s in the early mornings. In Yangon, it reached the low 80s by mid-afternoon.

For the two of us, and after the refunded balloon flight, which had cost $580 for two, the price of our trip was $3,630 (including 12 hotel nights, breakfasts, guides, boat tickets and all entrance fees) plus $1,080 for the three nights I booked at the Strand.

Additionally, we paid for lunches and dinners and tips for guides. We also paid $45 for a private car from the Strand to the airport.

All of the hotels and souvenir shops we visited accepted US dollars. Some actually preferred them (new bills only). Yes, we exchanged dollars for the local kyat, but, except at small eateries, we paid with dollars.

Credit cards were accepted in all hotels and in larger shops that catered to Western tourists (selling woodcarvings, gold plating, silk and lotus weaving and lacquerware).

I paid Santa Maria in three installments: two wires and then the cash delivery on arrival in Yangon (my preference). I could have paid with a credit card, but I would have had to pay the credit card surcharge of 3%. (I wasn't willing to wire all of the money at once, as I booked the trip early in 2017.)

I've traveled with both small and large organized tours, but I feel Myanmar is best seen independently, and I would encourage utilizing Santa Maria's excellent services. It is a screaming bargain. [9]

I will answer any questions readers may have (allgoode@msn.com).

Emmy Allgood
Fremont, CA

My wife and I spent the month of January 2018 visiting five Southeast Asia countries — LAOS, CAMBODIA, MYANMAR, VIETNAM and THAILAND — on a private tour arranged through Indochina Tour (No. D21-23, Borey Angkor Palace, Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia; phone +855 63966516, www.indochinatour.com).

The entire experience was outstanding, from the planning, with Tan and Jen, to the execution.

We opted for their "Top 5 Star Hotel" level. The hotels lived up to their ratings, and we always had, we thought, one of the nicest rooms in each hotel.

The handoffs from city to city were seamless. Each guide walked us through the airport to make sure we got through security and Customs. At one airport, the guide who picked us up had a cold, and when we requested a different guide, one was provided within an hour.

Our guides were extremely knowledgeable and personable and enjoyable to be with. They also were very flexible when we wanted to make changes to the itinerary.

Our drivers were excellent, and we rode in clean, comfortable SUVs.

For both of us, our cost was $17,600, which covered hotels (Jan. 4-30), travel within the region, drivers, guides, breakfasts and a few lunches. We were on our own for dinners, which we preferred.

Our flights from the US to Southeast Asia and back were not included, nor were tips to the guides and drivers.

We felt the cost was extremely reasonable for the quality of the hotels and guides. We found it to be about three-quarters the cost of high-end package tours that we considered but which did not have the customization of our trip.

In summary, we could not have been more satisfied with both the planning and the implementation that Indochina Tour provided for our trip. [10]

Charles W. Schelke
Philadelphia, PA