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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Long Road To My Upcoming Vacation

I posted yesterday about a long-planned vacation that I am going on at the end of this week. I have not spoken much about this vacation or the planning that went into this. But this must have been one of the longest-planned vacations I have ever taken.

The plan for this vacation originated around March or April of last year (yes, 2009). The idea was to visit Peru. We wanted to see Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Puno and Lake Titicaca. And finish it all in a week or so. Initially, like most vacations I plan, I wanted to just do it myself. Book the air tickets myself, book hotels myself, hire local guides where necessary, just do it ourselves without guides where we could. I have been on many such vacations, both within the US as well as outside the US, including in Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt, Jordan, etc.

I also took a look at some organized tours, but most tours were quite expensive. The only tour that seemed reasonably priced was offered by an outfit called SunnyLand tours. However, the tour they had on their website was 7 days long (which was the right length), but spent 4 of those 7 days in Cusco. The tour did not include Puno at all.

So, I sent them email about customizing the tour to include Puno. I wondered whether it would be possible to take 2 or 3 of those 4 days in Cusco and use it to go to Puno by train (the Cusco-Puno train journey is supposed to be one of the most scenic in the world, so we certainly wanted to do it only by train, not by air), spend a day there and fly back directly to Lima. You would think an experienced tour company would have no trouble doing some customizations like this for their clients.

But SunnyLand was obviously not very used to people not taking what they have to offer as is. First of all, they took a long time to respond to my emails. At first they did not understand what I wanted either (it looks like the people handling my request were not native English speakers). Eventually, after each email exchange took over 2 days go round-trip, I lost my patience and called them up directly. And all I got was voicemail with no response for a couple of days.

The summer slipped by while all this was happening, and other things happened that precluded going on the vacation last year. But at least, I had eliminated one tour operator from consideration when I started planning this year's vacation. Getting rid of choices is sometimes a good thing too!

Then, this year, I started looking at this trip all over again with fresh eyes. First of all, I gave up on the idea of doing it by myself. I got reports from various friends of friends that said Peru was not as safe as the other places I had visited in the past. They suggested that I either go in a tour group or not go at all. I am not prone to taking these kinds of things too seriously (because, at the end of the day, these are just based on anecdotes, and sometimes these anecdotes are not even true, they are embellished or outright false), but my travel companions who will be going on the vacation with me got worried enough that doing it by the seat of our pants was out as an option!

Next, I searched for and found a bunch of travel agencies and tour operators. I looked at their websites to identify ones that might work based on the costs they had for their regular tours, whether they were willing to be flexible about their options, etc. Based on this, I sent feelers out to 3 or four different tour operators. They were Avent Peru, Peru Gateway Travel, Best Peru Tours, and Eureka Travel. Of these Avent Peru was the cheapest. The others were, in varying degrees, more expensive. I eliminated Peru Gateway Travel and Best Peru Tours from consideration based on their prices.

Then started a weird adventure with Avent Peru that can only be described as surreal. This tour operator is based in Lima, not in the US. Emails back and forth were quite prompt and the planning was going along quite well. We actually had a tour we were reasonably happy with at a price we were OK with. Then started the surreal part: the tour operator does not accept credit cards unless the card holder presents the card to them in person!

So, how were we supposed to pay for this wonderful tour that we had spent weeks sculpting carefully? They wanted the money by wire transfer or money order. The alarm bells that went off in my head practically made me deaf! I explained to them that this was not possible. I offered to them that we would pay by credit card now, and they would have a chance to examine my credit card in detail when I got to Peru on the tour. No go.

I got so exasperated with them that I actually came to the conclusion that they were a bogus and fraudulent tour operator. They had tagged us along and snagged us with their low prices so that they could spring the trap on us and have us send them money by money order, never to see the money or the tour ever again. I wrote up a blog post warning travelers about this tour agent and was about to publish it. In any case, I stopped talking with them and moved on to Eureka Travel.

Just before I published my warning blog post, I got a last email from them saying that as a concession to me, they would let me pay for the tour after I was picked up at Lima airport by their representatives. I would have to make my own air travel reservations to get to and back from Peru, but the land portion would be handled by them, and I could pay for it after I was in Peru rather than right now (even though they normally need payment at least 3o to 45 days before the tour departure date). I thought that was a pretty nice gesture, and not one that a bogus tour operator would make, so I did not publish my scathing blog post about them, but still, I was not comfortable proceeding with them either. Who knows what other surprises they would have in store for me once I got to Peru. So, I apologized for not being able to work with them because of this fracas, and moved on.

My travel companions also wanted the assurance of working with a US-based travel agent, which Eureka Travel is (they are based in California). I got in email touch with a nice agent at Eureka Travel named Analia Rupar-Przebieda. Eureka already had a tour on their website that was very close to what I wanted anyways. It was their Classic Peru tour that included visits to all the places we wanted to see. The only problem was that the trip from Cusco to Puno was by bus, whereas we wanted to go by train.

No problem, said Analia, and offered us the option of taking the train for a small additional fee. Then came the issue of deciding on a good set of dates to take the vacation. Even before I got involved with the census work, I was leaning towards the beginning of July as a good option, it being in the middle of the tourist season in Peru. But air travel prices were much lower towards the beginning of June and higher in July when I checked travel websites like Expedia. Then there was the census work to juggle, because the census was likely not to rehire me after a 7 to 10-day absence in June. Ultimately, Analia was able to find good airfares for the beginning of July also, so I was able to stick to my original plan of going in July.

But the problem was that the good fares were available only if we left on a Sunday and returned on a Monday, extending the trip by a day. The difference in airfare was over $225 per person between returning on a Monday and returning on a Sunday. Analia creatively offered us the solution of simply sitting around Lima for a day, and then leaving a day later. The extra day would only cost us about $70 in hotel costs, so we would still come out ahead.

After thinking about it for a while, I came up with an even better idea. The original tour had the trip from Cusco to Puno taking place in a bus, with stops along the way at some tourist spots for sight-seeing. Since we would be taking the train, we would not be able to stop at those places and see those sights. So, I suggested to Analia that instead of sitting around in Lima for an extra day, we could take the bus back from Puno to Cusco and then fly out the next day. Like good tour operators who are able to accommodate customer requests quickly and efficiently, Analia confirmed that that would not be a problem. The cost would be a little higher than the $70 for sitting around in Lima, but not enough to wipe out the airfare savings. Everything worked out beautifully with just a little creativity thrown in!

We fly into Lima on Day 1. We go straight to the hotel and stay the night. We take a city tour the next day (day 2) and again stay overnight. Day 3 begins with a flight from Lima to Cusco, and an afternoon half-day city tour. Day 4 will be in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Day 5 will be in Machu Picchu. Day 6 will be on the train from Cusco to Puno. Day 7, we take a tour of Puno and a couple of islands in Lake Titicaca. Day 8, we take the bus back from Puno to Cusco and stay overnight. The last day of the tour (day 9 from counting the day we leave as day 1), we fly back from Cusco back to the US. All this for only about $2,000 per person! I guess the trip had to happen only this year so that I could afford it with my extra earnings from the census work!!

So our trip is all set now. We would leave on the 4th of July (day 1), and return in the early morning on the 13th July (this is actually day 10. we would depart Peru on the 12th (day 9), but the flight lands only past midnight back in the US). So, now, I am doing a bunch of preparations for this trip apart from the actual planning and research, so that everything is squared away before I leave (reconfirming flights, reading up on touristy things to do and see, etc.). Given the long time it took for this vacation to plan and make into a reality, it better be a good one! And given the price I am paying for it, it better be better than good!! In fact, it better be an excellent vacation!!!

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