How Go-Ahead terminally alienated me on a third tour

Jun 23, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:good-sounding itineraries

Cons:pseudo-insurance, expensive optional tours that would be included by other companies

The Bottom Line: Go-Ahead goes to many places in many countries, but don't count on its insurance!

Go-Ahead Tours grew out of EF Education, supposedly the world’s largest private educational travel company (larger than Elderhostel?). EF provides knowledgeable guides for bare-essential student travelers, Go-Ahead more upscale accommodations for adults.

We have been on three Go-Ahead tours. The first one started with a few days in an airless Mexico City hotel, continued to Puebla"> and Oaxaca and a three-night extension to the Oaxacan beach resort of Huatulco (made more famous by the last part of "Y tu mama, tambien"). We booked it to go with two friends who had never been to Mexico before, because we liked where it was going, because the price was right, and because Steve did not want to have to make all the arrangements in Spanish for the four of us.

We had been to Mexico City and Oaxaca before, Steve spent a summer in Mexico City and he had visited Puebla briefly years ago. The tour took us to some places in Mexico that we had never been, to the sites around Oaxaca (Monte Alban, Mitla) that we wanted to revisit, and to places near Puebla of interest (Cholula and the deranged Mexican baroque church of Tonantzintlan).

One or more of us was not happy with the accommodations at each place. (We moved from particularly mildewy and noisy rooms in Huatulco to the quieter and not notably mildewy courtyard side.) Our friends thought that the tour conductor was annoyingly disorganized. We also thought she was a bit scatter-brained, but charming.

The second one began in Barcelona and went across northern Spain (Montserrat, Oveido, Santeandar, Bilbao, San Sebastian) culminated in the destination of the pilgrim route, Santiago de Compostela. We had a superbly informative and organized tour leader (a California native), no complaints about the accommodations. Either the food in northern Spain is less heavily salted than in the south or the places at which we ate catered to American less-heavily-salted tastes. Although we did not have a pre-existing entourage on the northern Spain trip, we bonded with some group members. And, as in Mexico City, the tour got us to some places in and within view of Barcelona (Parc Gueli and Montserrat) to which we had not made it on our own in earlier trips to Barcelona.

The friends who went with us on the Mexican tour were amazed that we would go on another Go-Ahead Tour and declined an invitation to join us on the Go-Ahead Walking Provence tour we went on this past spring.

Frustrations began when Go-Ahead would not reveal what flights they proposed to book us on. (We had arranged our own open-jaws flight into Barcelona and out of Madrid. I don't remember why we booked that ourselves.) We wanted to fly United and upgrade with some of my many accumulated frequent-flyer miles and ended up arriving in Nice two days before the tour began, because air fare from Paris to Nice was much lower (so much lower that the difference more than paid for two nights lodging in Nice).

We booked a hotel (Campanille) just across the main drag (le Promenade des anglaises) from the airport so that we could connect with the group and go to Cannes, where the group was staying the first night. Wrong! We were told that for those arriving independently, the tour began at the Cannes hotel.

That annoyed us, but our Nice hotel was also within walking distance of a train station and we got to Cannes easily enough -- and one clump of the group had significantly delayed flights, so others spent hours in the Nice Airport before being bussed to Cannes. We'd already promenaded the whole length of the beach. By arriving on our own, we had not only two more days in Nice than others, but an afternoon in Cannes, and those carried back and forth to the US by Go-Ahead had only a few hours of daytime in Nice and none in Cannes.

Our tour manager was experienced -- this was the 39th Go-Ahead Walking Provence Tour he was leading -- and I'd say jaded. He was leading a 40th group and then changing lines of work. He did not go on the 1-2 hour walks with the group, just pointed the way and went to a cafe to wait (smoking is still allowed in the outside part of restaurants and cafes in France). This disappointed and/or annoyed some group members.

The itinerary was good and got us to many places efficiently. The bus was old and was broken into while we were in Aix-en-Provence. We had been told that it was safe to leave things on the bus, that the driver would be staying with the bus. Neither was true, and a substantial sum of money was stolen from my bag on the bus.

The bus driver (who spoke no English) and I had to go to a police station to make a report. The tour manager conferred with headquarters and told me that the trip insurance would only cover $300US. Following this subject, I filed a complaint, sending a copy of the police report, when I returned home and collected $0. The insurance company (owned by Aetna) denied the claim altogether.

I have my suspicions about the thief being a confederate of the driver, but to the insult of having my money stolen from the locked tour bus was added being told that my loss would be partly covered and after going through the trouble of making a police report in France/French and an insurance claim, receiving nothing. That guaranteed that we will never again go on another Go-Ahead tour!

And the break-in was only the start of the bus troubles. The bus broke down in Cassis and we spent more than two hours and a half sitting in the blazing sun on a hillside about Cassis while it was fixed. As a result, the next stop on the itinerary was canceled. We also got into Arles later than scheduled and the light was fading.

More work was done on the bus back in Aix -- yes, the very place where my money was stolen. Being turned loose a second time in Aix was definitely better than sitting by the side of the road, but the four hours during which the bus was worked on kept us from going to Grasse, which was a place (the heartland of lavender fields and perfume manufacture) some tour members particularly wanted to go.

As an apology, a great lunch in a vegetarian restaurant (the magic pumpkin) on the old Nice Harbor was a not insignificant addition. I have failed to mention that most meals are not included in Go-Ahead tours. The hotels have breakfast buffets and dinner the night of arrival in a town are included.

We had a tour extension to Paris, partly motivated by curiosity about the "high-speed" train (which took 4.5 hours from Nice, picking up speed only from Avignon and then being considerably more gut-rattling than "bullet trains" in Japan and Taiwan), partly motivated by wanting to be in Paris again. As in Huatulco, the extension provided lodging and we were on our own after seeing our tour manager at breakfast, when we could seek advice. The hotel was very centrally located and we were able to make our way to the airport by Metro.

What was annoying about the Paris extension is that we arrived late Sunday afternoon, so that the two non-travel days were Monday and Tuesday. Every museum in Paris is closed on either Monday or Tuesday, and any other two days of the week would have been better for those wanting to go to museums. The Musee d'Orsay is closed on Monday, the Louvre on Tuesday, so one could go to both on different days, but the lines (which turned out to be lines in the rain) are longer on the days the other major museum is closed. We spent an hour and a half (in the rain) waiting to get into the Musee d'Orsay (the other day we revisited the great Asian art museum, the Guimet rather than revisiting the exhausting Louvre).

On the basis of three tours, what I see as the advantages are:
- fairly reasonable prices
- lower overall cost than most other tour operators
- getting tour members to many places (not all of which you may want to go to... but more than you would get to on your own without being away from home considerably longer)
- if you arrange a group of twelve or more paying members, you and a companion (sharing a room) do not have to pay the land costs of the tour
- if you arrange a group of twenty or more paying members, you can make a Customized Tour Proposal

disadvantages include
- being in groups of remarkably stupid people (the Provence group had some people of monumental stupidity and no ability to listen or remember anything at all)
- travel arrangements to and from the country that are not revealed until it would be too late to make plans of your own
- second-rate hotels (see advantage #1!)
- few meals are included (another way advantage #1 is attained)
- having little control about when you go where (inherent in packaged tours generally)
- a lot of optional tours raises the real cost (though allowing for time away from the group and exploring local restaurants)
- unevenness in tour managers' organization (though Tod, the one in Spain was superbly organized and all were personable)
- phony insurance (and, adding insult to injury, going through the exercise in futility of making a police report and an insurance claim that will be denied).

The last of these disadvantages is the killer for me, though readers can learn from my experience and not leave valuables on a supposedly secure bus. The other three members of our group within a group concluded that they don't want to be a part of tour groups, especially Go-Ahead ones.

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