Smithsonian Journeys’ Travel Adventures vs. Signature Tours

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My husband, George, and I went on a 16-day Smithsonian Journeys tour, “Treasures of Angkor Wat and Vietnam,” March 19-April 3, 2007.

The cost was $1,899 each, excluding airfare. Air travel from Thailand to Cambodia; Cambodia to Vietnam; within Vietnam, and from Vietnam to Hong Kong was billed separately and totaled $850 per person. Entry and departure taxes were not included and were collected during the tour. We arranged our own international air.

We booked through Smithsonian Journeys. We had never heard of Collette Vacations, but, as it turned out, they did all of the predeparture arrangements. We were not impressed.

The material we received seemed to be computer-generated and not looked at by a human being. We kept getting requests for information we had already given them. When I called, I was told everything was okay and it was all in the computer correctly, but the requests kept coming. We told ourselves, ‘It’s a Smithsonian tour; the actual tour will be great.’ Wrong!

We’ve traveled with Smithsonian at least four times previously (Trans-Siberian Railway, Bering Sea, Baltic Sea and Peru), and all the trips were marvelous, first-class experiences. We didn’t know it, and neither did anyone else on this tour whom we talked to except for the Smithsonian representative who explained it to me, but it turns out that the company has two types of tours, and this was the other type. It was very disappointing.

We had thought when we booked the tour that it was quite inexpensive, but, as we had never been to that area before, we thought perhaps hotels and meals were not as expensive as in other places. Actually, it was inexpensive because very little was included; everything was extra.

We had to drink bottled water, of course, and this was provided on the bus and in the hotel rooms, but drinks at lunch or dinner were not included in the tour price and we couldn’t bring our own. Bottled water, beer or soda pop each cost $2 at every meal. It was a continual irritant.

On occasion, the waiter would ask if we wanted coffee after dinner. If we accepted, sometimes it was included and sometimes we were charged; there was no way to predict. On two occasions wine was served and included.

It was the same for tipping. We’ve never been on a tour before where we had to tip the hotel maid or the bus driver’s helper. We’d much rather pay more for the tour and not be nickle-and-dimed to death.

On Smithsonian’s “Signature Tours,” most but not all tips are included. On our recent Trans-Siberian Railway Signature Tour, we tipped only the sleeping car and lounge car attendants. We did not tip tour leaders, local guides, local drivers, drivers’ assistants, hotel maids (during stays at the beginning and end of the trip) or anyone else. On that particular tour, not only bottled water but also wine and beer were provided without charge, not to mention a bottle of vodka. We had similar experiences on our other Smithsonian tours.

On our Cambodia/Vietnam tour there was no study leader, no Western English-as-a-first language guide. We had a series of local guides, one in each city, who were generally knowledgeable and personable but not always geared to the way Americans think.

I have not compared the promise of what was offered to what we actually got, but I do remember that the tour description promised a local archaeologist at Angkor Wat, and if that was what our guide actually was, I certainly missed the citing of his credentials.

Apparently, the way you tell what kind of Smithsonian tour you are getting is that if it’s called Signature, it’s a good one; if it’s “with Collette Vacations,” it’s best avoided, in our opinion. It’s surprising to us that Smithsonian permits its name to be used with the second level of tour.

ANNE CUSICK

Kodiak, Alaska

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Smithsonian Journeys and Collette Vacations (162 Middle St., Pawtucket, RI 02860) and received the following reply.

Collette Vacations has sent us a copy of the letter requesting comment on Mr. and Mrs. Cusick’s letter concerning their tour with Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures. Since Mr. and Mrs. Cusick compared this tour with others (not sourced by Collette) that they have taken with Smithsonian, I feel it is appropriate for me to comment.

I have attached a copy of our letter to the Cusicks. As we explained, Smithsonian Journeys offers two product lines, each with its own inclusions and amenities that are articulated in separate catalogs.

Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures is intentionally priced lower than Smithsonian Journeys Signature Tours, to provide value-priced learning vacation options for Smithsonian members. This product line is operated in partnership with Collette Vacations, a fact which is made apparent in our marketing materials.

Among the items not included on Travel Adventures are gratuities. Also, instead of a study leader (which we include on all our Signature Tours), we schedule guest speakers on Travel Adventures.

While we were very sorry to disappoint loyal travelers like the Cusicks, I do believe our travel options are fairly presented and operated according to plan. Of course, we are always alert to ways to improve both our marketing and the tours themselves. Feedback from Mr. and Mrs. Cusick and all other Smithsonian passengers is vital to our ongoing efforts to provide our travelers with optimum experiences.

AMY KOTKIN, Director, Smithsonian Journeys, Box 23182, Washington, D.C. 20077-0843

Smithsonian’s letter to the Cusicks included the following: “Your guest speaker in Angkor Wat was a local archaeologist as advertised. We choose these speakers very carefully to insure that the educational level of the tour is what one should expect from a Smithsonian Journey, whether Signature Tour or Travel Adventure. We do feel that the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures line of tours offers great value for the money.”

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

My husband, George, and I went on a 16-day Smithsonian Journeys tour, “Treasures of Angkor Wat and Vietnam,” March 19-April 3, 2007.

The cost was $1,899 each, excluding airfare. Air travel from Thailand to Cambodia; Cambodia to Vietnam; within Vietnam, and from Vietnam to Hong Kong was billed separately and totaled $850 per person. Entry and departure taxes were not included and were collected during the tour. We arranged our own international air.

We booked through Smithsonian Journeys. We had never heard of Collette Vacations, but, as it turned out, they did all of the predeparture arrangements. We were not impressed.

The material we received seemed to be computer-generated and not looked at by a human being. We kept getting requests for information we had already given them. When I called, I was told everything was okay and it was all in the computer correctly, but the requests kept coming. We told ourselves, ‘It’s a Smithsonian tour; the actual tour will be great.’ Wrong!

We’ve traveled with Smithsonian at least four times previously (Trans-Siberian Railway, Bering Sea, Baltic Sea and Peru), and all the trips were marvelous, first-class experiences. We didn’t know it, and neither did anyone else on this tour whom we talked to except for the Smithsonian representative who explained it to me, but it turns out that the company has two types of tours, and this was the other type. It was very disappointing.

We had thought when we booked the tour that it was quite inexpensive, but, as we had never been to that area before, we thought perhaps hotels and meals were not as expensive as in other places. Actually, it was inexpensive because very little was included; everything was extra.

We had to drink bottled water, of course, and this was provided on the bus and in the hotel rooms, but drinks at lunch or dinner were not included in the tour price and we couldn’t bring our own. Bottled water, beer or soda pop each cost $2 at every meal. It was a continual irritant.

On occasion, the waiter would ask if we wanted coffee after dinner. If we accepted, sometimes it was included and sometimes we were charged; there was no way to predict. On two occasions wine was served and included.

It was the same for tipping. We’ve never been on a tour before where we had to tip the hotel maid or the bus driver’s helper. We’d much rather pay more for the tour and not be nickle-and-dimed to death.

On Smithsonian’s “Signature Tours,” most but not all tips are included. On our recent Trans-Siberian Railway Signature Tour, we tipped only the sleeping car and lounge car attendants. We did not tip tour leaders, local guides, local drivers, drivers’ assistants, hotel maids (during stays at the beginning and end of the trip) or anyone else. On that particular tour, not only bottled water but also wine and beer were provided without charge, not to mention a bottle of vodka. We had similar experiences on our other Smithsonian tours.

On our Cambodia/Vietnam tour there was no study leader, no Western English-as-a-first language guide. We had a series of local guides, one in each city, who were generally knowledgeable and personable but not always geared to the way Americans think.

I have not compared the promise of what was offered to what we actually got, but I do remember that the tour description promised a local archaeologist at Angkor Wat, and if that was what our guide actually was, I certainly missed the citing of his credentials.

Apparently, the way you tell what kind of Smithsonian tour you are getting is that if it’s called Signature, it’s a good one; if it’s “with Collette Vacations,” it’s best avoided, in our opinion. It’s surprising to us that Smithsonian permits its name to be used with the second level of tour.

ANNE CUSICK

Kodiak, Alaska

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Smithsonian Journeys and Collette Vacations (162 Middle St., Pawtucket, RI 02860) and received the following reply.

Collette Vacations has sent us a copy of the letter requesting comment on Mr. and Mrs. Cusick’s letter concerning their tour with Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures. Since Mr. and Mrs. Cusick compared this tour with others (not sourced by Collette) that they have taken with Smithsonian, I feel it is appropriate for me to comment.

I have attached a copy of our letter to the Cusicks. As we explained, Smithsonian Journeys offers two product lines, each with its own inclusions and amenities that are articulated in separate catalogs.

Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures is intentionally priced lower than Smithsonian Journeys Signature Tours, to provide value-priced learning vacation options for Smithsonian members. This product line is operated in partnership with Collette Vacations, a fact which is made apparent in our marketing materials.

Among the items not included on Travel Adventures are gratuities. Also, instead of a study leader (which we include on all our Signature Tours), we schedule guest speakers on Travel Adventures.

While we were very sorry to disappoint loyal travelers like the Cusicks, I do believe our travel options are fairly presented and operated according to plan. Of course, we are always alert to ways to improve both our marketing and the tours themselves. Feedback from Mr. and Mrs. Cusick and all other Smithsonian passengers is vital to our ongoing efforts to provide our travelers with optimum experiences.

AMY KOTKIN, Director, Smithsonian Journeys, Box 23182, Washington, D.C. 20077-0843

Smithsonian’s letter to the Cusicks included the following: “Your guest speaker in Angkor Wat was a local archaeologist as advertised. We choose these speakers very carefully to insure that the educational level of the tour is what one should expect from a Smithsonian Journey, whether Signature Tour or Travel Adventure. We do feel that the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures line of tours offers great value for the money.”