Italy with GCT

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A coincidence — as the July 2007 edition of ITN arrived, I was completing a survey of comments on Grand Circle Travel’s (Boston, MA; 800/248-3737, www.gct.com) “Heart of Italy” trip, which we took May 20-July 7, 2007. I was, therefore, interested to read the reader’s letter “Add in Tour’s Extra Costs” (page 28) about virtually the same trip taken the year before. Both were Extended Vacations, the only differences being a few tweaks in schedule and visits.

On this particular trip we spent one night in Florence, five nights in Chianciano, two in San Marino, five in Abano and one night in Como. We added the post-trip extension for three more nights in Como.

My wife and I have on several occasions chosen GCT’s Extended Vacations because they give us unbeatable prices for airfares and good hotels but allow us to plan and execute our own side trips and to eat when and where we please.

On this trip we used none of the “optional excursions,” which would have totaled a further $500 each. Public transport in Italy is very good, and many of the employees speak more English than my rudimentary Italian. As an example, instead of taking the optional $99 trip to Pienza and Siena (all in one day), we took the bus to each place on separate days at a total cost of €15 ($20) each and stayed as long as we liked. I would agree with the reader’s comment that the GCT guide was very helpful in these endeavors.

For our meals “on our own,” we have long since perfected the art of the picnic. Italian stores are great for these, and one can never sample all the cheeses, breads, meats and baked goods. Our only other expenses were for wine and espresso. On our post-trip extension in Como, the only provision was the hotel and breakfast.

It was interesting to note that, of our group of 42 people, nobody wanted any of the optional excursions, as the trains and lake boats were so easy to use.

Our total cost for 18 days was $3,111 per person, including airfare Daytona Beach-Rome-Florence and return from Milan. This price reflected allowances for credits from a previous trip and for paying early, but the cost did not include GCT’s travel insurance, as we have found we can get approximately the same coverage (except for cancellation insurance) from Travelguard.com for $44 each. Our additional costs totaled just over $350 each.

It was a good trip! One downside was that we flew from Daytona Beach via Atlanta and Rome to Florence, and for the last leg from Rome we had an hour to change terminals and get from one end of the airport to the other. I called GCT about this and was told this was the only flight to Florence and could not be changed.

By running the last half mile we made the flight, but, inevitably, our luggage did not. We arrived in Florence at 10:45 a.m. and had to waste an hour reporting the missing bags. These reappeared at 6:30 p.m. on the same evening off another flight from Rome, and for the third consecutive trip (the previous two were to Nairobi and Delhi with OAT) I had to waste the first evening of the trip rummaging around an airport to reclaim bags.

The return, direct from Malpensa to Atlanta and on to Daytona Beach, was very easy!

Secondly, we felt that the choice of Chianciano and Abano as bases for the major elements of the trip was slanted toward the sale of optional excursions. While both are charming villages, in Chianciano one needs a bus to get from the spa end to the historic center, and Abano has little to offer except 85 hotels and a spa; it, too, requires use of public transport to get to other venues.

We thought that Montepulciano and Padova would have been much more interesting in themselves and much better transport hubs.

In conclusion, we knew what we were buying and got good value for the money, especially the hotels, which were top-notch. Overall, this has been our consistent experience with GCT and even more so with its sister company, Overseas Adventure Travel (Cambridge, MA; 800/2210814, www.oattravel.com).

A final tip — I used to have the impression that GCT booked blocks of seats for tours and that that was it. As a result, we suffered some unpleasant trips, as these blocks tended to be at the rear of the aircraft, which we do not like.

As an experiment for one trip on which we were assigned row 48, I checked with www.seatguru.com to see if other areas were available and then called the airline direct. They found our reservation under the identifier on the e-ticket and were very happy to move us forward.

On this last trip, Delta moved us from row 43 to 22, and then the check-in people at the gate moved us up to 19. On our return last leg, we were moved from row 35 to 22.

Also, with the exception of trips using British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, on which the fare class did not allow for our receiving frequent-flyer miles, we have always received frequent-flyer miles for GCT and OAT trips (for this Italy trip we each got about 12,000 miles). Delta, Alitalia, Northwest and KLM have been very good about this, but it appears the deciding “kicker” on this is the class of fare.

CHRISTOPHER HARTLEY

Ormond Beach, FL

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

A coincidence — as the July 2007 edition of ITN arrived, I was completing a survey of comments on Grand Circle Travel’s (Boston, MA; 800/248-3737, www.gct.com) “Heart of Italy” trip, which we took May 20-July 7, 2007. I was, therefore, interested to read the reader’s letter “Add in Tour’s Extra Costs” (page 28) about virtually the same trip taken the year before. Both were Extended Vacations, the only differences being a few tweaks in schedule and visits.

On this particular trip we spent one night in Florence, five nights in Chianciano, two in San Marino, five in Abano and one night in Como. We added the post-trip extension for three more nights in Como.

My wife and I have on several occasions chosen GCT’s Extended Vacations because they give us unbeatable prices for airfares and good hotels but allow us to plan and execute our own side trips and to eat when and where we please.

On this trip we used none of the “optional excursions,” which would have totaled a further $500 each. Public transport in Italy is very good, and many of the employees speak more English than my rudimentary Italian. As an example, instead of taking the optional $99 trip to Pienza and Siena (all in one day), we took the bus to each place on separate days at a total cost of €15 ($20) each and stayed as long as we liked. I would agree with the reader’s comment that the GCT guide was very helpful in these endeavors.

For our meals “on our own,” we have long since perfected the art of the picnic. Italian stores are great for these, and one can never sample all the cheeses, breads, meats and baked goods. Our only other expenses were for wine and espresso. On our post-trip extension in Como, the only provision was the hotel and breakfast.

It was interesting to note that, of our group of 42 people, nobody wanted any of the optional excursions, as the trains and lake boats were so easy to use.

Our total cost for 18 days was $3,111 per person, including airfare Daytona Beach-Rome-Florence and return from Milan. This price reflected allowances for credits from a previous trip and for paying early, but the cost did not include GCT’s travel insurance, as we have found we can get approximately the same coverage (except for cancellation insurance) from Travelguard.com for $44 each. Our additional costs totaled just over $350 each.

It was a good trip! One downside was that we flew from Daytona Beach via Atlanta and Rome to Florence, and for the last leg from Rome we had an hour to change terminals and get from one end of the airport to the other. I called GCT about this and was told this was the only flight to Florence and could not be changed.

By running the last half mile we made the flight, but, inevitably, our luggage did not. We arrived in Florence at 10:45 a.m. and had to waste an hour reporting the missing bags. These reappeared at 6:30 p.m. on the same evening off another flight from Rome, and for the third consecutive trip (the previous two were to Nairobi and Delhi with OAT) I had to waste the first evening of the trip rummaging around an airport to reclaim bags.

The return, direct from Malpensa to Atlanta and on to Daytona Beach, was very easy!

Secondly, we felt that the choice of Chianciano and Abano as bases for the major elements of the trip was slanted toward the sale of optional excursions. While both are charming villages, in Chianciano one needs a bus to get from the spa end to the historic center, and Abano has little to offer except 85 hotels and a spa; it, too, requires use of public transport to get to other venues.

We thought that Montepulciano and Padova would have been much more interesting in themselves and much better transport hubs.

In conclusion, we knew what we were buying and got good value for the money, especially the hotels, which were top-notch. Overall, this has been our consistent experience with GCT and even more so with its sister company, Overseas Adventure Travel (Cambridge, MA; 800/2210814, www.oattravel.com).

A final tip — I used to have the impression that GCT booked blocks of seats for tours and that that was it. As a result, we suffered some unpleasant trips, as these blocks tended to be at the rear of the aircraft, which we do not like.

As an experiment for one trip on which we were assigned row 48, I checked with www.seatguru.com to see if other areas were available and then called the airline direct. They found our reservation under the identifier on the e-ticket and were very happy to move us forward.

On this last trip, Delta moved us from row 43 to 22, and then the check-in people at the gate moved us up to 19. On our return last leg, we were moved from row 35 to 22.

Also, with the exception of trips using British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, on which the fare class did not allow for our receiving frequent-flyer miles, we have always received frequent-flyer miles for GCT and OAT trips (for this Italy trip we each got about 12,000 miles). Delta, Alitalia, Northwest and KLM have been very good about this, but it appears the deciding “kicker” on this is the class of fare.

CHRISTOPHER HARTLEY

Ormond Beach, FL