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Even Good Tour Companies Can Hit Bumps on the Road

Vacations: Take complaints to the top when disaster fouls your package trip. A reputable firm should refund some costs.

May 26, 1996|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

When you pay nearly $7,000 per person for an 18-day escorted tour, you expect the best.

But a group of 19 well-heeled travelers just back from India and Nepal are complaining that they were shortchanged by their prestigious tour company. Promised lodgings in two of the country's most palatial lodgings--the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur--what they say they got instead were very modest hotels that proved to be no more elegant than, as they put it, "a YWCA"--or worse.

Not only this, they discovered on arrival in India that the one-hour Air India flight between Udaipur and Jaipur on which the tour company had booked them no longer existed. As an alternative, they were subjected to an unexpected 14-hour bus trip that tour participant Marietta M. Ethier of Boston asserts was dangerous because of congested traffic conditions and the bus driver's questionable tactics at the wheel. "We collectively held our breath the whole time . . . " she says. Most of the group were in the 60-plus age category.

The travelers also are upset about the quality of some of the guides assigned to them in India and Nepal. "The young man in Katmandu surely deserves an award for speed," Ethier wrote the tour company after she returned home last month. "It was the fastest and least-informative tour I've ever taken. He also deserves something (I'm not sure what) for his air of disinterest and ennui. . . . I don't expect guides to be a fount of all knowledge, but I do demand a minimum level of expertise."

The group's experiences are a lesson in what can go wrong on a prepaid tour--even when you pay big bucks and think you have ensured yourself against unfortunate surprises.

Initially, the tour company, Abercrombie & Kent International of Oak Brook, Ill., refunded $1,845 to each participant and offered a 15% discount on any future tour with the firm. But a couple of weeks after the group threatened a lawsuit through its lawyer, Hubert M. Schlosberg of Washington, who was on the tour with his wife, Charlotte, Abercrombie & Kent coughed up another $1,500 per person for a total of $3,345 per person. The group had been seeking a 50% refund of costs, or about $4,000 per person, according to Schlosberg, but accepted the additional refund as full settlement.

"We went to Abercrombie & Kent because of their reputation," says Schlosberg, who figured that a company regarded as one of the classiest in the industry would spare him and his wife just the sort of hassles the group encountered.

The initial refund had angered tour participants, who considered it insufficient. "We understand some of the circumstances," adds Charles King, a Charlottesville, Va., investor who was on the tour with his wife. "We just can't understand why they haven't stepped up a little better. We could have gotten the trip for substantially less. We might even have stayed in the same hotels."

Before the agreement, Alistair Ballantine, president of Abercrombie & Kent, had described the complaints as "a lot of nonsense" and declined to elaborate on the advice of his lawyers because of the lawsuit. But afterward, he explained the problems his firm had encountered.

During the dates of the trip, a World Cup cricket match was being held in India, and it caused hotel overbookings in both Udaipur and Jaipur, Ballantine says. The mix-up in flight arrangements "was a clerical error by our staff. It meant they [the tour group] had to take that long and uncomfortable bus ride. It's one of the reasons we gave them the substantial refund." As for the poor quality of guides at some destinations, "In India, this is very unpredictable. Area site guides are appointed on a rotation basis." The tour company must use the guide assigned.

Schlosberg says none of the travelers--who'd paid about $6,600 per person--anticipated trouble until they arrived in New Delhi, their first stop. And when the group discovered the changes in the itinerary, they immediately complained via fax to Abercrombie & Kent's U.S. office. To its credit, the firm responded quickly to the tour group's complaint from India. Ballantine faxed them in Jaipur, promising the travelers "total reimbursement for that portion of your tour from arrival in India through Jaipur." Also, anyone who so chose was given the option of returning home immediately with a full refund for land arrangements--but not for air fare. No one dropped out of the tour.

What are the lessons to be learned from this group's experiences?

* Deal with a reputable tour company, because even the finest companies--by reputation, Abercrombie & Kent is among them--can run into problems. Lesser firms might reject any claim for compensation;

* When things go wrong, it generally is useful to complain immediately, and take your complaint to the top if necessary. And keep good records.

* If you want a tour offering in-depth cultural and historical information, ask in advance about guides. Many museum- and university-sponsored tours, as opposed to commercial tours, are led by scholars who are experts in the country to be visited.

* Note the negatives on a tour, but don't focus on them. Rather, make the most of the situation and try to get something positive from the situation, as Ethier did.

* Even painful experiences, as Ethier observes, can seem humorous in retrospect. "Many of the stories are vastly entertaining for our friends. . . ."

Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.

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