Rating foreign tour companies that customize tours

This item appears on page 37 of the February 2017 issue.

In a few past issues, we printed letters from subscribers who responded to the information request of Yvonne Richter, who wrote, “My husband and I like to take customized private tours, and we prefer to use tour companies and guides that are local to the destinations. I would like travelers to write in about foreign tour companies and guides they’ve used for private tours, including as many of the following details as possible:

“The name and contact information of the foreign tour company or private guide (location, phone, email and/or URL).

Rating, from 1 (poor) to 10 (great). (Poor ratings are as important to know as great ones.) Plus an explanation of the rating. 

“The itinerary used. Length of the tour (number of days/nights or what fraction of a day). When the tour took place (month/year). Approximate cost of the tour, and what was included.

“Plus any special or noteworthy experiences of the trip, both positive and negative.”

Subscribers have continued to write in, and here are a few more letters, these on trips to various parts of the world. In most cases, each includes a rating from [1] (poor) to [10] (great).

If you are an ITN subscriber with info to share about a tour operator or guide based in the destination country (outside of the US) who provides customized local tours or arrangements, email editor@intltravelnews.com or write to Rating Foreign Tour Companies that Customize Tours, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. (Include the address at which you receive ITN.) Photos are welcome.

My wife and I arranged for a private guide in IRELAND, Jim Dempsey (jmdmc63@gmail.com), to take us and two friends on a one-day tour of Dublin and a two-day tour to Cork and back in April 2016. 

A pod of hippopotamuses in the Okavango Delta — Botswana. Photo by Pat Steffes (for Judith Osmer)

After a search for private guides in Ireland on Viator.com, we chose Jim because of his long experience in travel, the fact that he lived in Dublin and had lived in Cork and because he had been a pioneer in the organic food industry in Ireland. We arranged our tour 3½ months in advance.

During the two-day tour, we visited the scenic seaside town of Kinsale, the Cobh Heritage Center (with its fascinating history of emigration plus an exhibition on the ill-fated Titanic), the Kennedys’ hometown of New Ross and the beautiful lakes and monastery at Glendalough. 

Jim proved to be a master historian and storyteller, describing the neighborhoods of Dublin, the history of the Celts and the more recent history of Ireland as well as the current economic and political conditions. 

For the four of us, he charged a total of 1,460 (near $1,535), which covered his services and transportation in a minivan as well as our accommodations at Jurys Inn in Cork.  

We highly recommend Jim. [10]

San Rafael, CA



A friend and I enjoyed an incredible 13-day private tour of ROMANIA, Sept. 9-21, 2016. In my 56 years of travel, this tour ranks at the top for intercultural experiences.

Our custom tour was arranged through Andrei Nicolau Miclea, owner of Compass Travel Romania (51 Uverturii Ave 060932, Bucharest 6, Romania; toll-free in the US, 855/827-0827, www.tours-of-
. From the planning stage to the end of the tour, I felt that we were in the hands of knowledgeable and professional people.

I learned about Compass Travel through the Internet while searching for “private tours of Romania” about five months before the tour. I was so impressed with the reviews that I acted on my gut instinct and emailed Andrei. He was always prompt in answering inquiries. Final details were agreed upon about two months before departure. (We started planning early in order to use frequent-flyer miles for airfare.)

Andrei crafted a tour that included not only the usual architectural monuments and natural wonders (many were UNESCO sites) but varied cultural experiences, including visits to artisans, Roma communities, markets, a village school, etc. 

Exclusive of airfare, the tour was priced at 1,555 (near $1,635) per person, double occupancy. Included were nine nights in 4-star hotels, two nights’ homestay, a fully insured car with A/C, all transfers, porterage, a driver/guide throughout, all the guide’s expenses (except his gratuity), tours of all cities, a day trip into Bulgaria, admissions to museums and sites, wine- and cheese-tasting, and an egg-painting demonstration as well as 11 breakfasts, one lunch, two home-hosted dinners and one folkloric show dinner.

Vervet monkey in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, northeastern South Africa. Photo by Pat Steffes

We were fortunate to have an exceptional guide, Silviu Gherga, who spoke excellent English. He was very intelligent, was very knowledgeable of the history and politics of Romania and had a great sense of humor. We enjoyed many interesting discussions with him.

He also had a remarkable ability to relate to people, and having a private driver/guide allowed us to make spur-of-the-moment changes. Seeing someone along the road doing something interesting, Silviu would stop the car and engage the person. Then — Wow! — we would experience something wonderful.

Our accommodations tended to be small, charming, boutique-type hotels, frequently in historical buildings that had been renovated and modernized. Breakfast, both hot and cold, was always included. 

The homestay in a village with a delightful host and hostess (who was a great cook) was one of the highlights.

Silviu made excellent suggestions for restaurants for dinner and frequently dined with us. He introduced us to lots of regional traditional food by ordering two or three dishes that we would share.

Romania is relatively undiscovered by Americans. As such, it is inexpensive for private touring. I have driven in many European countries, but Romania, with few really good roads and with parking issues in the cities, would be challenging, so I recommend using a private driver/guide. 

It is a land of beautiful scenery and charming villages. See it now before it loses its regional traditions. [9]

Pasadena, CA



I decided that, following a group tour of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in October 2014, I would visit Kyrgyzstan and TAJIKISTAN on my own.

For Tajikistan, I contacted the manager of Panjakent-intour (735500 Sougd region, Penjikent city, Marvazi 12 str., Tajikistan; phone +992 92 774 07 37, www.panjakent-intour.tj), Faridun Khamroev.

Faridun, a tour operator and guide, advised me to download a visa application from the Tajikistan Embassy in Washington, DC (tajemb.us), fill it out, scan it and send it to him electronically. He finished the rest of the visa process, including the Letter of Invitation. The documents were ready for me when I arrived at the Dushanbe Airport, and the cost was $35.

As I had problems purchasing the Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)-Dushanbe (Tajikistan) ticket online, Faridun bought it for me and I later reimbursed him the cost. Such service!

As we had agreed upon, he made a reservation for me at the lovely Serena Hotel (Rudaki Avenue, Dushanbe; www.serenahotels.com/serenadushanbe). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the day rate he got for me was considerably lower than what I had been quoted on the Internet. 

The Serena Hotel is located in a central part of the city, within a few blocks of the Shah Mansur Bazaar and the National Museum of Antiquities. As a woman traveling alone, I felt safe strolling on Rudaki Avenue, even after dark. I felt welcome in the country.

I liked Tajikistan a lot. With the efficient and cheerful help of Faridun, I toured the markets, mosques and museums in Dushanbe as well as the Hisor Fortress, located about 10 miles west of Dushanbe.

With a sturdy car and a competent driver, we headed to Penjikent (Panjakent), a city in northwestern Tajikistan, and spent a couple of days visiting the ruins of Sogdia (Sogdiana), a cosmopolitan city on the Silk Road during the fifth to eighth centuries.

A nearby one-room archaeological museum contained some objects plus painted copies of the best frescoes. (The original frescoes, sculptures, artifacts and manuscripts had been carried off long ago to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and St. Petersburg, Russia.)

We also visited the ancient town of Sarazm, situated close to the western border of Tajikistan.

I highly recommend Faridun as a tour operator and guide. For his guide services, he charged $40 a day within the city and $50 a day for out-of-town travel. He also would organize tours by Land Rover for $150 per day. [10]

Lafayette, CA



My wife, Barbara, and I have made two trips to VIETNAM with Vietnam Royal Tourism (Level 5, HH3 Tower, Me Tri Street, Tu Liem District, Hanoi City, Vietnam; phone 84 9360 88816, www.vietnam royaltourism.com).

When planning a trip there in 2012, we looked at group tours and private tours. In the end, Vietnam Royal Tourism was able to build an 18-night tour for us that included two in-country flights; a 3-day, 2-night Ha Long Bay cruise on the ship Victory (outstanding, with great food and a fantastic crew!); two overnight train rides; drivers and guides; superior hotels, and 19 breakfasts, 14 lunches and two dinners. The cost was $4,452 for both of us.  

Why so many lunches and only two dinners? Well, I questioned that too but then decided ‘Let’s just stay with it.’ It turned out to be the best decision of the trip. 

The lunches were definitely great, the restaurants all were clean and where lots of local people ate, and the prices were better than if we had taken dinners. (When we made our second trip, in 2015, we stayed with the majority of meals being lunches.)

Transportation was mainly by private car. We had a new guide and driver in each town we visited and all were excellent. All the guides spoke perfect English, as did most of the drivers. We were responsible for tipping each of them and anyone else we cared to tip, and at lunches and dinners we had to pay for our own drinks.

The hotels all were in good locations, and the breakfasts were more than adequate.

Our itinerary included Ho Chi Minh City (and the Cu Chi Tunnels), Da Lat, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. The sightseeing was something we could not imagine.

With a bright-blue back plus orange cheeks, beak and feet, a malachite kingfisher perches in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo by Pat Steffes

A highlight was the train trip to Sa Pa for the Bac Ha Market. Not just any market, this one had anything you could think of to buy; you could buy a water buffalo for a mere $1,000. People from nearby villages came to the market in their traditional clothing. It was fantastic. 

Hoi An was definitely a place we wanted to spend more time.

Before the bay cruise, when our driver and guide picked us up, we were informed that Ms. Thuy had made arrangements with a spa in a hotel to open up early (it was 6 a.m.) so we could shower and clean up before boarding, and then we were taken to breakfast. Neither of these was part of our package and we were not charged.

We knew right after the 2012 trip that we would return to Vietnam with Vietnam Royal Tourism, which we did on a 20-night trip in 2015 (spending more time in Hoi An). We again dealt with Ms. Thuy, the owner, who treated us great. She even visited us at one of the hotels we were staying at to bring us gifts.

We have traveled with a number of tour agencies and, without a doubt, Vietnam Royal Tourism has been the best. We highly recommend VRT. [10]

Vero Beach, FL



My wife, Jane, and I took a private trip to KENYA with Wildlife Kenya Safaris (P.O. Box 5326, Diani Beach, Mombasa, Kenya; phone +254  711 555 315, wildlife-kenya.org) in June-July 2014. We discovered the company on TripAdvisor.com.

Our arrangements were expertly handled by Antony, who emailed me immediately after I contacted him.

To the 15-day “Jungle Trail” tour listed on their website, we added two days and three nights in Nairobi. The resulting 17-day trip cost $4,210 per person and included accommodations, meals, airport-hotel transport, an English-speaking guide/driver, all park fees and drinking water on the safari jeep. Antony even made arrangements for us to visit a high school student we sponsor in Kenya.

When our bags arrived late in Nairobi, after we had left for our next destination, Antony had our bags sent to us 200 miles from Nairobi (although we left the next area a few hours before the bags arrived!). We finally got the bags three days late. 

We loved the tour. 

In Nairobi, we went to the Giraffe Centre, where we could feed the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes. The Karen Blixen Museum was also interesting.

The real highlight there was our 4-hour drive through Nairobi National Park, touted as the world’s only such national park so close to a city; skyscrapers can be seen from the park. Small but loaded with animals, the park is not on the usual safari circuit, but we added it to the schedule. Lions, buffaloes and rhinos were among 13 species we saw in four hours.

Another underrated park is Samburu National Reserve in the desert in northern Kenya. It was dry, with lots of acacia thorn trees, but the landscape was surprisingly varied and hauntingly beautiful. Not many tourists make it up there, either.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort, Sweetwaters Tented Camp and the Serena Mountain Lodge in Mount Kenya Park. From Sweetwaters Camp, we visited the Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Amboseli Park was thrilling, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background; we saw the Big Five as well as zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and more. 

Jay, our guide/driver, was fantastic. I’ve never met a more expert driver. He was kind, patient and helpful with Jane, who doesn’t walk well. He bought her a stool so she could more easily step into and out of the vehicle.

Cape buffalo with red-billed oxpecker on its back — Timbavati Reserve, South Africa.

When we accidentally left our credit card in a lodge, Jay contacted another driver to take the card to a lodge where we would be staying. 

He never complained when driving over terrible roads or when putting up with some monumental traffic jams in Nairobi (two hours without moving at all). He was a joy to be with.

The main disappointment of the entire trip was the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We did see the wildebeest migration, which was thrilling, and many other animals, but the park was very large and had the same scenery throughout. The other parks offered more intimate safari experiences and more varied landscapes. 

Also, the roads in the Maasai Mara National Reserve were fine, but the access roads leading to it were horrible. What we were on the last 30 minutes before entering the park could not be classified as a road.

Our jeep got stuck in the mud and someone helped us out. Jay said it was part of the safari experience. That’s true, but we were shocked that the country’s biggest landmark had absolutely the worst roads leading to it.

 The last negative there was the attitude of some of the people we met. Often, locals blocked the road with bushes or cattle and asked for payment. At times, even when we gave them something, they still wanted more. This did not make visiting a very pleasant experience.

Our experience in the Maasai Mara, however, did not take away from our overall enjoyment of the trip. Almost all of our lodges were wonderful, as was the food.

Wildlife Kenya Safaris enabled us to have an unforgettable visit to Kenya. 

Savannah, GA



Upon arriving at the airport in Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA, in October 2015, my life partner, Virginia, and I were greeted by a representative of BushBaby Safaris (110 Victoria St., Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal 3000, South Africa; phone +27 [0] 34 212 3216, www.bushbaby.co.za). We’d learned about the company in a letter by Susan Houser (March ’14, pg. 26).

Karen and Pierre Duval, husband-and-wife owners of BushBaby, made all of the arrangements for our trip, which included ZAMBIA and  BOTSWANA, plus anything special we might want to see. They chose the best accommodations available (3- or 4-star) — places where large numbers of animals and birds could be seen. Each lodge was very comfortable and provided great food.

At the cost of $21,860 for two, excluding airfare on flights to and from Africa, our 21 days of all-expenses-paid travel included internal flights, land travel, lodges and meals. (For the first two weeks of our journey, we were in a private party of four, the other couple being friends of ours, Pat Steffes and his wife, Joanne.)

Then, for an additional $4,600 for the two of us, we had added a 4-day stay in Cape Town and vicinity, where Pierre Duval accompanied us to Table Mountain, Oudtshoorn (for the meerkats), an ostrich farm and the Cango Caves.

Our goal was to see as much wildlife as possible, and we weren’t disappointed. Starting in Livingstone, Zambia, and continuing to the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park in Botswana and Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa, we saw lions, cheetahs, Cape buffalo, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, monkeys, hippos, warthogs and baboons.

We traveled in cars, small boats and dugouts and in safari vehicles that had raised bench seats and, at times, a guide riding on the left-front bumper. The guides were top-notch, giving us basic information and adding interesting tidbits whenever possible. Sometimes, but not often, one carried a rifle.

We can’t praise Pierre Duval enough, for, when his schedule allowed him to travel with us, he was a font of information about the history, animals and geology of the area.

We enjoyed it all, but, perhaps most importantly, it was the African people who made it one of our best trips in 50 years of extensive travel. Our trip with BushBaby Safaris was a truly unique travel adventure. [10]

Redondo Beach, CA