Did not find big-bus touring ‘leisurely’

By Susan Klapstein
This item appears on page 28 of the November 2013 issue.

I took the “Cultures & Contrasts of South America” tour offered by Grand European Travel. It was scheduled to take place Dec. 15-31, 2012, traveling for about five days each in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, with an optional day trip to Colonia, Uruguay. The land-only price, including a single supplement, was $7,805. 

However, because the Brazilian consulate was not issuing tourist visas for a period during October-November 2012, I ended up missing the Brazil portion, so my tour actually took place Dec. 19-31, and Grand European refunded me $2,136 for the missing portion.

My problem is that, contrary to the motto on Grand European’s website, it was not one of “the world’s most leisurely tours.”

Beginning in June ’12, in my first email to the company and in phone conversations with its representatives, I informed them that I walk slowly and use a cane but that I travel internationally on an annual basis. 

Over the past five years, I traveled without difficulty to Tunisia, Cuba, Guatemala, Kenya and Syria. I am familiar with the hotel amenities of developing countries and am knowledgeable about broken sidewalks and the lack of accessibility to the handicapped in many countries outside the US. 

I was told by the Grand European representative, “You will have no problems with this itinerary.”

Grand European’s “sister company,” Trafalgar Tours, ran the bus tour with 37 people. Just picture 37 people on and off various buses several times each day, 37 people in line for one or two restrooms, 37 people waiting for buffets or dinner service, 37 people’s luggage being loaded or unloaded, etc. 

While I was informed that Trafalgar would do the trip, nothing was said about a huge, nearly inaccessible bus. Many of the buses we used had a first step of 15 inches or more — very difficult to do with a cane. 

In addition, no bottled water was provided on the lengthy bus rides, and the four hotels we stayed in did not sell bottled water other than that in the mini-bars, which was costly. 

At the Sheraton in Buenos Aires, at every meal I was charged for bread which I had not ordered and did not eat. I was also charged for the silverware when I ordered soup. In my room, which had a view of the air shaft, the air-conditioning’s thermostat did not work.

By the time the tour reached Chile, I had developed a severe pain in my right hip and was so weary of the bus difficulties that I chose to miss a number of included and optional excursions and most meals. 

On my last day in Santiago, I skipped the Valparaíso outing and paid for the hop-on/hop-off city tour (yes, on a bus, but one that had an accessible first step) and had a lovely day at my own expense, much better than the company’s race-through-the-city tour we took on the previous day.

Overall, on this trip, the scenery was beautiful, the other travelers were pleasant and the tour director, Rodrigo Winterstein, was helpful, positive and knowledgeable, but this was NOT the trip that had been described to me. My experience was neither leisurely nor worth the price.


Portland, OR

ITN emailed a copy of Ms. Klapstein’s letter to Grand European Tours (6000 Meadows Rd., Ste. 520, Lake Oswego, OR 97035; info@getours.com) and received the following reply.

We are very sorry that Ms. Klapstein was disappointed with her tour. Here is our understanding of the situation.

On June 18, 2012, Ms. Klapstein booked our “Contrasts & Cultures of South America” for travel on Dec. 15, 2012. This is a 16-day tour that visits three countries in South America, with four separate flights within. 

Our website and brochure state the following regarding this particular tour: “Please note: In some locations you will be required to walk on uneven terrain and climb stairs without handrails. You should be in good health and able to walk without assistance.”

We rarely, if ever, turn anyone away because of health issues, but we do counsel our guests about the conditions in the countries visited and the need for them to consider their personal situation.

Regarding hotel quality, the hotels we use on this program are well received by our guests and other patrons as well. The Buenos Aires Sheraton Libertador was rated four out of five stars based on 400-plus reviews on TripAdvisor.com.

Regarding meals at the Buenos Aires Sheraton, traveling in foreign countries means understanding that the conventions that we enjoy at home may not apply abroad. It seems odd, but it is a fact that many restaurants in Buenos Aires charge for silverware and bread. It is simply part of the cost of the dining experience, and guests come to expect it when dining out. It is similar to how Americans expect to pay a tip at the end of a meal when dining out in the USA. 

It is worth mentioning, however, that this meal in question was one that Ms. Klapstein took at her own expense and not as part of the Trafalgar-included program.

Again, we are sorry for Ms. Klapstein’s disappointment. We don’t always get it right with our guests, and when we don’t, we try to make it right. 

Our 30 years of experience taking Americans around the world speaks to our ability to accurately describe the touring experience as well as match guests with the right vacation. Unfortunately, that appears not to have been the case here and we regret that. 

We do hope that this letter provides a balanced picture.

DEE RUSSELL, Guest Relations Manager, Grand European Tours