‘Grand Balkan Tour’ with Atlas Tours

By Dorothy Botnick
This item appears on page 21 of the August 2018 issue.

St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb, Croatia. Photos by Dorothy Botnick
My husband and I took the “Grand Balkan Tour,” operated by Atlas Tours (Lokrumska ul. 1, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croatia; www.atlas-croatia.com), Sept. 12-24, 2017.

We usually travel independently, but several people had suggested that seeing the Balkan countries with a group would be a better and safer option.

I booked the tour through Kutrubes Travel (Boston, MA; 800/878-8566, www.kutrubestravel.com), an ITN advertiser. The cost per person was $2,600, which included most meals and entry fees to museums and parks. We visited seven countries: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia.

Prior to the tour, Atlas sent tour members the wrong itinerary, one which omitted Slovenia. Kathy Kutrubes of Kutrubes Travel managed to get the correct itinerary for us.

When we arrived at the hotel on our first night, we were not greeted by Atlas Tours, nor did they provide name badges or any information whatsoever. If it hadn’t been for a couple of group members who came to our rescue, we might not have connected with the tour.

I had stressed several times that we wanted a small tour group — 16 people at the most and preferably 10 to 12. Each time, Ms. Kutrubes assured me that the group would not exceed 16 people. There were 34 people on this tour.

In addition to people from the US, England, Australia and New Zealand, there were seven or eight Spanish speakers, so everything had to be said in both English and Spanish, doubling the talk time.

The 16th-century Stari Most in Mostar — Bosnia & Herzegovina.

We felt that our first tour guide, in addition to being sloppily dressed and unprofessional, was completely incompetent. Her English was halting, at best. Often we could not understand what she was saying. She rarely smiled and was hesitant about answering questions. So many people complained that Atlas replaced her after a couple of days.

Our second tour leader was superb. She spoke excellent English and Spanish and had a wonderful personality. She was a true professional.

The tour had been advertised as having primarily 4-star hotels, but we stayed mostly at what we felt were subpar hotels. Many were old and drab and had stained carpets. Most had only one small elevator, meaning that it took a long time for 34 people with luggage to get to their rooms.

In Ljubljana, Slovenia, we stayed in a hotel different from what was shown on the itinerary. Tour companies can, and sometimes do, substitute hotels, but we saw the original hotel, and the substitute was nowhere near comparable. The same thing happened in Skopje, Macedonia.

The best my husband and I can say about the food on the tour is that it was edible.

Our bus had no sign stating that it was for Atlas Tours. While it was clean and the driver, excellent, we had less than 12 inches of legroom between seats. That gets plenty uncomfortable, especially after hours of being on the road.

The itinerary logistics were a nightmare. Some of our days lasted 12 to 15 hours. It wasn’t unusual to arrive at a hotel at 8:30 or 9 p.m. and be eating dinner at 10. We did many border crossings, which meant long waits for 34 passports to be checked.

Skenderbej Square in Tirana, Albania.

On the first day, when we were traveling with the first guide, some people didn’t bother to eat lunch while we were in Zagreb, Croatia. Later, they were hungry, so on the way to Bled, Slovenia, the guide diverted from the itinerary and we stopped for almost an hour at a service station/café along the highway.

This delay caused us to miss seeing the town of Bled and visiting the beautiful lake. We were taken only to Bled Castle. At the castle, we were given no instructions on when to return to the bus.

The next day, we spent a lot of time in Ljubljana (a lovely city), not leaving until 2 or 3. Several other tour members pleaded with the director to leave earlier so we could get to beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia as scheduled. She would not listen.

By the time we arrived at Plitvice, it was late afternoon and too late to visit the park on that warm, sunny afternoon. Instead, we went there the next morning, which was cold and rainy.

Getting from one part of the park to another required taking a boat. The guide neglected to tell our group to take “boat 1” and not “boat 2.” Not knowing the boats go to different places, at least half the tour members got on the wrong boat. Luckily, one couple had the guide’s mobile number and phoned her. It took about two hours to get everyone back together again.

At that point, we were at least a half day behind schedule, which meant truncated visits to Split and Trogir, Croatia. After a day or so, the second guide got us back on schedule.

Despite the challenges we faced with the first guide and poor logistical planning, we saw many interesting places and stunning scenery. Would we return to the Balkans? To Slovenia and Montenegro, definitely. They were our favorite countries. But we would not use Atlas Tours again.

I asked for a partial refund when I returned home in October. After three months and numerous reminders, Kathy Kutrubes sent me a check, the amount of which was about 25 percent of what my husband and I paid for our tour.

Looking down at Kotor, Montenegro.

DOROTHY BOTNICK
Dallas, TX

ITN emailed a copy of Mrs. Botnick’s letter to Atlas Tours but received no response. ITN also emailed a copy to Kutrubes Travel and received the following reply.

We at Kutrubes are also displeased that those unfortunate events occurred during Mr. and Mrs. Botnick’s tour in Croatia. We were happy to have negotiated a partial refund for them, although I understand money cannot replace the effect of the tour conditions on their precious memories.

I also wish to thank Mrs. Botnick for taking the time to frankly assess the tour and relay her dissatisfaction to us so we can evaluate our tour partners for future business.

The incident should not have happened, and we are taking prudent steps with our tour partners to ensure it does not happen again.

KATHY KUTRUBES
Kutrubes Travel Agency