Assessing SE Europe tours

By: Joellyn Ross
This item appears on page 25 of the April 2018 issue.

My significant other, Abram Engelman, and I traveled to Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, May 22-June 15, 2017, on a trip arranged by Original World. The itinerary was good, our guides were excellent, and most of the accommodations were very good as well.

When we arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, however, there was nobody at the airport to meet us. We waited about 45 minutes, then I called the tour’s local representative, Andrei Nicolau, whose first response was, “I thought you were coming yesterday.” (If he had expected us the day prior and we were not there, why did he not contact the US tour company and find out when we were coming?) Subsequently, Andrei contacted the guide, who arrived about an hour later. 

The next day, our only full day in Sofia, we were to visit several museums, all of which were closed due to its being a national holiday. That being the case, why did our tour start on that day? We easily could have left the US a day earlier. We missed some wonderful sites we really wanted to see.

In the pre-trip literature, the cover page for the Bulgaria tour mentioned “classical concerts” and “folkloric music and dance” among the country’s “highlights,” but none were scheduled in our itinerary.

In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, we were to have eaten at two special restaurants, but both were booked and last-minute arrangements had to be made. Who didn’t check in advance?

On all of our other tours, when we were dropped off at the airport, the guide escorted us inside. On this tour, this happened in Chis¸ina˘u, Moldova, but not in Bucharest, Romania.

In addition, when we were dropped off at the Bucharest airport to fly to Chișinău, we found out we had no tickets. I contacted Andrei, who said he only handles land arrangements. We ended up purchasing same-day tickets (which, fortunately, were available). 

Once we got home, I contacted Original World, who said we were to have bought the tickets. I carefully read all our tour documents and — while we had received a letter from the company that stated, “We have your flight details as…” (along with the number and times of our flight to Moldova, so we assumed it had been booked) — I did find, at the end of the itinerary, the information saying we were to buy our flight tickets. 

We would have appreciated this information being placed more prominently and for the tour company to double-check with us that we had our tickets.

Our experience in Moldova was very different, as there was a different local representative, Julia Marin. She was welcoming and responsive and we had a very good experience there. (Our guide in Moldova was Laurencia Zaharia. Our guide in Bulgaria was Valeri Gregorev, and our guide in Romania was Marcel Ene. All the guides were truly excellent.)

To Original World’s credit, we were refunded the difference between what we paid for our same-day Bucharest-Chisinau flight and what the flight would have cost had we booked it earlier. We appreciated that as well as the company’s written responsiveness to our concerns.

However, we feel we also should have received some compensation for our not having been met at the airport in Sofia and for the “lost” day in Sofia, when we were unable to visit sites because they were closed. 

JOELLYN ROSS

Philadelphia, PA

ITN sent to Original World (inquire@originalworld.com) a copy of Ms. Ross’ complaint and received the following in a response.

Joellyn Ross and Abram Engelman joined our Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova tours, which run back to back. For the Bulgaria tour, there were no other travelers booked, so we offered to run it for them as a private tour (for only $265 per person additional, which was not a fee we were adding but just exactly the extra expenses when all costs were divided by 2 instead of by 6). There were six people, counting them, on the following Romania tour, and four, including them, went on to Moldova.

To address the complaints…

1) It is true that when Joellyn and Abram arrived in Sofia, the driver was not there to meet them. They then did as we had instructed if you do not see the driver; they called the phone number on the business card we provided for the “just in case” need. A driver was sent immediately, though it did take him 45 minutes to reach the airport.

Once they arrived at the hotel, Ms. Ross emailed us to let us know what happened. I investigated and discovered that, on a form, our fairly new admin person (who is no longer working for us) had put in their departure date from the US rather than their arrival date. 

Andrei did send us an email when the couple did not show up at the airport on May 22, but we did not receive it until our morning of May 23, which was already past the time they were arriving. Andrei should have called me, instead. 

It was inconvenient and frustrating for them to wait, but at least we had a built-in solution, and Andrei did answer his phone and got the transfer ordered for them. (The first guide, the day before, had waited three hours for them.)

As another precaution or double-check system, we write each traveler’s flight details on the cover letter that is mailed out with their trip packet 30 days prior to their departure and ask them to contact us immediately if it is not correct. The letter did have a May 22 arrival when they were actually arriving May 23. They did not notice this error.

I am not saying, by pointing this out, that it is their fault. I am only trying to demonstrate that we have instilled operational tasks to try to avoid error and to have an easy remedy if one occurs. It was unfortunate, and Original World is to blame, however recovery was quick.

2) As for the national holiday on which museums were closed, yes, the in-country operator should have noticed the date. I looked up the date on the holiday calendar, and it’s an obscure holiday called Culture and Literacy Day. In over 15 years of operating this tour, we have never landed in Sofia on this holiday. I was not aware of it (but now I am!).

There were two museums in Sofia on the itinerary that day: the National Historical Museum and the Jewish Museum. Since Joellyn and Abram were on a private tour, they could have requested to visit these the next morning before departing to Rila Monastery. The guide asked them if they wanted to do this, but they said, “No, let’s go.”

On the holiday, they still had a full day of touring with the guide, and several other museums and art galleries were added to the program on other days at no additional cost. 

3) There were no classical concerts, music or dance offered in the program.

4) In Plovdiv, they did have a dinner reservation, in good order, for 7:30 at the restaurant in Hotel Hebros, but the restaurant called back and said it was best if they go there after 8 p.m., as they had two large groups until then. Andrei later wrote to me, “Good move on the side of the restaurant to let us know what was going on. The guide asked the couple what they felt like doing and they said, ‘No, let us go to a different one’.”

5) When they wrote, “On all of our other tours, when we were dropped off at the airport, the guide escorted us inside,” they were comparing their transfers to transfers they had had on tours in other countries. 

In every country, the regulations are different regarding whether guides are able to enter an airport and how far inside they are able to go, and not every guide or escort would have the security permits.

So in Chișinău, Moldova, the guide was able to go inside the airport. (In Moldova, drivers do not speak English, and they hold permits only for driving, while the guides are university educated and hold licenses for guiding but not for driving tourists.)

For the departure transfer in Bucharest, Romania, we use a car service company (not the private guide, as some transfers take place at 4 or 5 a.m.); this is arranged by our DMC [destination management company — Editor]. The driver takes them up to the airport entrance. There is no need for anyone to take them inside the airport; the airport is small, and it’s very easy to find your way to the check-in counter. Joellyn and Abram were traveling with another couple on this tour, and all four were flying to Chisinau.

Neither itinerary [for Romania or Moldova] specified that they would be escorted into the airport.

6) I am sorry they had confusion about buying their Bucharest-Chișinău air tickets in advance. It did say on the Moldova itinerary, below the price of the tour, “Plus Flight: Bucharest-Chisinau $130-$160 one way (you can book online).”

I have now changed it to be more clear and have put it in red ink: “(estimate/book on your own via any air booking website, or on TAROM Air website).” And below the Inclusions list, it now states, “Does Not Include: International flight from Bucharest, trip cancellation/travel insurance, tips to drivers and guides, camera fees if any.”

The reason we do not book this ticket for clients is because we are not travel agents, and though we do work with a consolidator for international tickets originating from the US, this ticket is best to book on the TAROM airline website. We provide the flight number and schedule that the travelers need to book so everyone is on the same flight. (If a client doesn’t use Internet and requests our assistance, we would do it for them using their credit card). 

Andrei (our DMC) is also not a travel agent and could not do anything at the last minute to help Joellyn and Abram, as they were on the way to the airport when they realized they did not have tickets. At that stage, the only way to purchase tickets was at the airport.

As soon as I heard Ms. Ross’ complaint and that she felt she had paid more by purchasing at the airport rather than online, I looked up the fare and sent her a refund check for the difference, $93.

7) As for additional compensation, I offered to refund them the cost of their arrival pickup in Sofia, $30. However, Ms. Ross’ reply was that, instead, they wanted a refund of the amount they paid extra for the private tour in Bulgaria.

It is, indeed, unfortunate that these incidences occurred and were experienced by this couple. Given the big picture of traveling 25 days through three countries, these issues did not impact the quality of the touring experience. 

Of course, we do not take any mishap lightly. I check out every single complaint or feedback a returning client shares with us, as we strive to provide superior customer service. 

BARBARA SANSONE, Original World, 930 Irwin St., Ste. 222, San Rafael, CA 94901