Tour experience in Iberia

This item appears on page 28 of the June 2011 issue.

My wife and I took the tour “Highlights of Spain and Portugal,” Sept. 18-Oct. 1, 2010, with Trafalgar Tours, having booked it through our AAA agent. Including our round-trip airfare, Cleveland-Atlanta-Madrid, the 14-day/13-night tour cost $6,000 for two plus another $1,300 for the optional tours.

Our group numbered 48 people on one bus. The main destinations were Madrid, Cordoba, Grenada, the Costa del Sol, Torremolinos, Seville, Lisbon and Porto, with the tour ending back in Madrid. The distance covered was some 2,000 miles.

The company’s brochure lists this trip as “leisurely.” In my book, it was a lot of riding the bus followed by hurried and sometimes difficult walks on cobblestones to get to a tourist site. Visits to most sites involved walking uphill.

I have a lot of amazing pictures, but the tour was so hurried that I can’t remember where most of them were taken.

A negative was the number of tour buses that pulled into sites at the same time — usually one or two, but at one rest stop there were four and at one hotel there were 10. For the most part, people were courteous and tried to help each other, even though they were on different tours. The cathedral at Seville was so crowded that we could hardly move around.

My wife and I took all of the optional tours, but, in hindsight, I would have not taken the tours to Morocco and, in Portugal, the Gypsy cave visit and, especially, the tour to hear fado singers.

The fado excursion, in Lisbon, cost $120 for two. I do not know the name of the venue*, but I did not find it the “hauntingly beautiful” performance our guide said it would be, and the food was about the worst that I have ever had. (I don’t take my experience as being indicative of fado singing as a whole.)

At cafeterias along the route, lunch could be expensive, about €30-€40 (near $44-$59) for two people. The tour guide recommended going to the bar and getting a sandwich and drinks, so my wife and I would do that, which cost about €9 for two.

We toured a winery, and I noticed that the very same wine that cost €7-€9 per bottle was selling for about €5 at the grocery store across from our hotel. If you are going to buy and drink wine, consider packing a good-quality corkscrew in your checked baggage.

I bought a large bottle of water at the grocery store and two smaller bottles to carry with me, refilling the smaller bottles when they became empty.

The airport at Madrid can be hectic. For our flight home at 11:30 a.m. we arrived at 6:45, but it wasn’t until 7 that the workers at the checkpoints wandered in and started to set up. I had thought I would be able to walk in, scan my ticket, get my boarding pass and sit in the restaurant until flight time. Not so. There was no food and drink at the entrance area of the checkpoint, and it was about 9:30 before we were finally allowed through.

If one of your bags is overweight, you will be required to pay an additional fee or leave the line, rearrange the bag and go to the end of the line again. One woman burst into tears after doing this three times.

On this tour, the guide and the driver were excellent, and I praised hotel staff and restaurant help when they went out of their way to assist us. This was my sixth guided tour, and I rate it a C-. The whole trip was not leisurely, and it did not live up to my expectations, although my being older and grouchier might have something to do with it.

I did send an e-mail to the CEO of Trafalgar Tours indicating my dissatisfaction with the tour as well as with the fado-singing excursion in Lisbon. I also wrote to AAA, who forwarded my letter to Trafalgar. Neither of us received a reply.

If you don’t complain to tour companies, they will never change things.

I love Portugal. The people are friendly, the food and drink are (usually) great and the country has a lovely atmosphere of hospitality.

Apple Creek, OH

*It is not known whether or not Trafalgar continues to take tour members to this venue.

ITN mailed a copy of Mr. AbHugh’s e-mail to Trafalgar Tours (801 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, CA 92805) and later exchanged e-mails with the company, but the following comments were among those in the only response provided that addressed Mr. AbHugh’s comments.

With our customer service department, I am going to research the issues Dean Ab-Hugh raised in his letter and then reply to you. I will also provide you with our guests’ tour ratings for that specific departure (taken from surveys returned after the tour).

A number of the “complaints” Mr. AbHugh registers seem rather generic: he did not like walking on cobblestone streets in Europe, did not like the fact that there were other companies’ tour buses around at the same time ours was, did not like the fact that wine is more expensive at a winery than at a grocery store, did not like the Madrid airport, which we certainly have no control over, etc.

ADAM LEAVITT, Vice President, Marketing, Trafalgar Tours