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Trip Report Ritz Tours 17 Day Europe Highlight Review

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Not everyone will agree with me in regards to traveling with a tour operator, but if you want to get initially acquainted with a place you’ve never visited before, group travel can be cost effective and efficient with your time. Clearly this tour operators need to turn a profit and for them to do this, and keep the upfront cost of the tour low – which, in turn, attracts more would-be travelers – they have to employ various devices to make up the differences in the end. Above all, however, I still believe these tour operators have a fiduciary trust with their clients to make sure the tours run as planned or to have a suitable backup in case things were to go awry.

Much has been written in regards to Ritz Tours and their subsidiary, Peony Tours, which operate low-cost tour groups to various localities in North America, Europe, and Asia. It is a company that appears to cater to the Chinese-speaking community to some extent and, as it were, they offer primarily Mandarin Chinese-speaking tours and English-speaking tours. It appears to be the opinion of the interweb that Ritz Tours’ specialty is China. I have traveled with Ritz Tours to China on a past occasion and am an intermediate Chinese-speaker (can have a very simple conversation with another Mandarin Chinese-speaker or order food in a Chinese restaurant, but nothing complex) and found the tour to be okay, in general, though nothing spectacular. At least I had a good enough time that I thought I’d try their European tour.

So I went on a 17 day Europe Highlight tour and that’s where all the issues I had begin.

When you visit over 20 European cities in 17 days, I suppose you would think some things get glossed over but that the tour would highlight the important areas. But how about when they gloss over practically the whole of Europe? We traveled between cities, for the most part, by motorcoach. We were crammed 45-strong onto a coach for practically the entire duration of the trip and ordered NEVER to use the on-board lavatory, sitting in awe of the European countryside for six to eight hours per day. I may have been physically transported through 20 European cities but I spent most of my time looking through the motorcoach window, feeling envious of the people who went on proper tours and were allowed time off the vehicle to enjoy the sights. It is a particularly special part of hell that relegates one to spending practically an entire day sitting on a motorcoach only to visit a destination city for approximately 25 minutes. This is indeed cruel and plainly rude. Our disorganized, seasoned, and generally disgruntled tour guide, Juliet, attempted to break the monotony by ordering fellow group members to entertain each other through song, dance, and storytelling. Her system randomly chose group members and demanded that those chosen serenade the coach with a song or two. If those chosen had neither interest nor desire to participate, she would publicly shame them and enlist the keenly vocal members to partake in the shaming. It was all very childish, but one had to endure this shaming on a near daily basis and the only end to it was when we parted ways on Day 17.

As if the bus wasn’t bad enough, Juliet’s brand of disorganization lead to the near disenfranchisement of a group member. An organized tour guide will, periodically, take a head count of those present to ensure that no one had been lost in the shuffle from coach to sight and back. This was not the case for Juliet, who felt it more important to arrange for yet another shopping excursion/product demonstration, instead of keeping track of the group members. On one of the rare instances where we could disembark the coach, Juliet encouraged us to walk about the Spanish Steps and take photographs. Without warning she lead the group – which at this point had grown quite accustomed to her particular disregard for keeping the group together – away from the Spanish Steps but had failed to signal this broadly and take a proper head count. This resulted in a person unaccounted for by the time we had returned to the coach about an hour later. Still no head count had been performed. Juliet’s mobile phone rings and it’s the daughter of one of the group members, calling from the West Coast of the US, informing Juliet that her mother had called her mobile phone sobbing uncontrollably, scared to her wits about being stranded in a foreign land and unable to speak Italian or English. The lost group member hadn’t a clue as to where exactly in Rome she was at this point. To make a long story short, she was picked up by Rome police and taken to the American embassy where we had found her several hours later. While this was a happy ending, of course, it need not have ever been an issue were it not for Juliet and her poor organizing skills. As a tour guide she ultimately should bear responsibility for the safety of our entire group, being the purported travel “expert.” To add a personal dimension to this, the entire group had lost several hours of our vacation to a search and rescue of Rome and an entire segment of our itinerary was cancelled. Juliet expressed no regret over her organization skills, pinning the blame on this elderly woman and warning the group that the next person to find himself in a similar situation would be responsible for “figuring it out.”

Since a portion of our itinerary had been cancelled, Juliet somehow magically created time for yet another Ritz Tours shopping excursion. This is an industry gimmick that all tour operators utilize to pay the bills. They all get a cut of the proceeds of any sales that come as a result of these product demonstrations but probably also get a per capita fee just for your walking through the door. For some operators this is a daily occurrence (Ritz) while it is not quite as common with other companies. If you are unfamiliar with these, allow me to explain: you are shuttled to an area that is quite remote from any area that you would normally visit. There are neither tourists nor an abundance of locals in these localities. These appear to be shops that have been set up specifically for tour groups, as locals are never seen in these placed buying the merchandise being peddled. You will have no choice but to sit and endure a nearly 90 minute product demonstration of their most expensive wares, followed by about 30 minutes of a hard sales pitch to get you to spend. Juliet has quite a keen interest in this and shames those who don’t spend by referring to them as “cheap” within earshot of as many group members as possible. These shopping excursions are a favorite of Ritz Tours to fill in big holes in the itinerary. These are never listed in the official schedule for the tour, so you have no idea how many to expect over the course of your trip, but rest assured that this will be a regular part of the day’s activities.

Perhaps one would actually spend at these shopping excursions were it not for a lack of money, considering that the number of optional events wasn’t so abundant. The cost of my tour was about $4,000 per person based upon a double occupancy in the hotel room, exclusive of the cost of the optional events. I ended up spending an additional $1,500 on optional events. It appears that the base price tag excluded the actual sightseeing and only accounted for the 70+ hours one would spend over the course of the trip sitting in a motorcoach. $1,500 was spent on various night shows (alternative would be to go to hotel and sleep, as the hotels were all far from the city center and there was no reasonable way to go into town and back), sightseeing excursions (alternative would be to sit on the bus and wait for those who paid to return), and many meals that were not included.

On days and nights when a lunch or dinner was not included, we were dropped off in an area with two options: McDonald’s or the restaurant where Juliet recommended we all go. This restaurant provides Juliet with a free meal and a kickback depending on the number of tourists she brings in as a result of her cunning. The menu was often overpriced compared to what I had researched prior to going, and the food was just awful. The $1,500 I spent included a couple of meals that I had at this type of an establishment, but the majority of dinners were either skipped or bought at McDonald’s. Ritz Tours will not let you know ahead of time when included meals are or how much the non-included meals may cost, so it’s actually quite difficult to budget in just how much money to bring along to cover all these additional expenses.

What’s one of the most famous sights in Monte Carlo? The Casino of course. Want to see it? Sure. Will Juliet of Ritz Tours let you? No, because it’s quite inconvenient to her schedule.

On the day we were to visit the Casino of Monte Carlo, our motorcoach was turned away because it had not reserved a space in the parking area. Juliet then gave us two options: 1) forget about seeing the signature sight of Monte Carlo or 2) take a public transport to the casino from an area where our coach could stop, which she likened to only the most vile, disgusting act one could ever commit while on vacation. I am a firm believer that you can manipulate anyone into voting your way by how you present the options. Most people, when given an option that is described in such a negative manner, will decline that option altogether. That’s a natural thing to do. Juliet played the group in this manner on a number of occasions but this was her most masterful act yet. Mind you, the visit to the Casino, was one of those rare birds on this tour that was included with the base price of the trip and so we had, in reality, already paid our admission to the facilities. As such Juliet’s skill at manipulating the group into declining the Casino worked and the majority had voted against the purported “hassle” of actual sightseeing on this sightseeing tour of Europe. Instead Juliet lead us through a short walking tour of the street where the coach had stopped, for about 10 miuntes, following which we sped away on the motorcoach for another 6 hour ride.

No view of the Paris skyline can be complete without the Eiffel Tower. As such no tour of Paris – nay, of Europe – would be complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Not so, says Juliet of Ritz Tours.

Our last stop before returning to America was Paris. Upon reaching the City of Lights we were given the choice of the optional Seine River cruise or sitting on the coach watching Paris pass us by. I opted for the cruise and saw the Eiffel Tower. “When,” I asked Juliet, “would we be seeing the Eiffel Tower?” As I would answer my 3 year old daughter when I’m trying to pacify her interest, “Oh, we’ll see it later.” OK! Not quite so, unfortunately. Two full days in Paris have passed us and no Eiffel Tower visit. We board the coach once again to head to a perfume factory for a several hour shopping excursion, and while we drive through an area of the city, Juliet begins discussing the Eiffel Tower and points to it as we pass it. And that, my fellow travellers, was our Eiffel Tower experience. A simple “oh look there it is” moment that we all experience barreling down a freeway at 55 MPH, a reaction and description only befitting a simple, carnival-like roadside attraction in the plain states. This is NOT the way the Eiffel Tower should be presented. How on earth can one see Paris without getting a perspective from the observation area at the top of the Eiffel Tower? How can one even begin to understand the scale of the Eiffel Tower, the marvel of its engineering, and its importance in the world if you can’t even step into its cavernous footprint? I had been robbed of this as I had been robbed with visiting the Tower of Pisa when I was told that we can see it, but we wouldn’t have time to climb to its summit despite having travelled several hours on a cramped coach to see it. Or the 15 minutes we were allowed within the Roman Coliseum to take in the thousands of years of history in ruin before us.

IN CONCLUSION I’m sure Juliet is a lovely person with whom one may want to have a meal one day, however, she has no business being a tour guide for Europe. Her lack of understanding of the importance of these sites and her poor grasp of European history made this a very forgettable trip. Ritz Tours poor insight into what its clients want – and it’s not the endless shopping excursions or the seemingly endless long haul journey on a cramped motorcoach – make them a poor tour operator who will never receive my patronage again. They had robbed me of a chance to see and experience Europe and only offered me a very poor caricature of the continent.

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