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Jun 29, 2011 10:30 AM 37965 Views
(Updated Jun 29, 2011 10:33 AM)

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Intro. We (couple and 9 year old daughter) had been planning a Europe holiday for 3 years. We finalised Jun-Jul 2011, saved up and did the plans for our own arrangements, to work out the cost. Our choice was for multiple countries, in about 3 weeks. We also deliberated adding in a small Greece/ Turkey trip, maybe by Cruise liners. The expenditure worked out to about 4 lakhs. In Oct 2010, we went to Thomas Cook, who asked us to return in Feb 2011, as it was too early.

Enter SOTC. In end Nov 2010, SOTC published an advt, giving a 3N/4D cruise (Greece/Turkey), a night halt at Athens and Kid Free (except some minor fees etc) for the whole trip, if a couple booked the 12N/13D Classic Tour of Europe. We got in touch and promptly they gave us all details, and followed it up with a full colour brochure. In a week, Thomas Cook and Cox n Kings also came out with similar advts. After comparing the offers, and going by the responsiveness of each, we finalised SOTC.

Interactions. At every visit to the Churchgate Office of SOTC (telephone connections involved waits, since they gave time to each caller), the same person attended to us, with all details, info and views. No doubts lingering. An advance payment of 63000 was made in Dec, for a trip in end Jul 2011. Then, in a month, I had to shift the date to 2nd June, due to leave issues. They obliged; no charge. We were to submit our Passports and documents for the UK and Schengen Visas by 15 Apr. After promises of getting the PP by 25 May (from the RPO staff, on my 4th visit), I had confirmed to SOTC to book everything confirmed for 2 Jun! Unfortunately, my PP got stuck in RPO Red tape, and took me 82 days, landing with me on 30 May, for a trip booked for 2 Jun! UK Visa (takes 30 days) was out! Schengen was touch and go. I asked for a change of date to 9 Jun! This involved cancelling all these and rebooking for 9 Jun, which they obliged. As per the T&C, I was to have paid 45000 per head for such last minute changes. They charged me 30000 per head. It had been fait accompli. I wanted refund of UK part of the trip, since I wouldn't have time for the UK Visa. They agreed. I wanted instead to stay (on own arrangements) at the end of the tour at Paris, which they agreed and booked our return tickets accordingly. Emails were the constant connection, with prompt replies every time, even polite reminders from their side. They even arranged for FOREX, with the best rates around (I did my own checks too!). Then finally, everything was set for departure on 9 Jun, when they sprung a pleasant surprise and said they would try to refund me another 9000 per head (of the 30000 I had paid). On return from the trip, promptly they sent me an email on this and yesterday, I got my cheque for 27000! Maybe for their own reasons, but they could have well kept quiet and I'd have never known. That says something for transparency, friends.

THE TRIP. Starting from a special taxi drop from the Athens airport to the hotel, followed by a wonderful 4D cruise through Greek islands, and return to Athens for the actual start of the paid tour (from Rome), everything was spectacular and memorable. This was the opinion of every one of the 41 members of the Group - retired couples, singles, honeymooners, first timers, businessmen, and even the lone kid (mine)! The actual tour was travel by road (Volvo coach) through Europe, with night halts at 3/4 star hotels, all of which varied from Quite Ok to Excellent. At Paris, when our bookings were cancelled at the last minute due to an Air Show, they put us all up for the first night at Le Meridien (190 Euros per night!). When the second night was similar, it was decided to stay en route to London, where the group was headed the next morning anyway. We had to split, as we were to stay back at Paris. The Tour manager contacted Zurich, they tied up for an additional day at the same hotel I'd booked at, paid me the taxi fare till the hotel, dinner costs and the hotel cost for the additional day (155 Euros in all). Then, till the end of the day, multiple people called to check that we were OK and all was well. Tour guides were arranged, shopping tastes were catered to, meal preferences were taken care of (including Jains) and comfort halts were ensured every 2 hours on the road journeys. There was nothing left to imagination or chance, with professional and personal touches visible everywhere, including in prizes for competitions on the bus, quizzes, Antaksharis and the works!. The group (no regionalism here, which we observed in Raj & Kesari groups that we met en route) was magical and even the odd late-comers soon fell in line. The age of members varied from 9 to 80, and each was personally made comfortable and important, every day.

COST & TIME. There are advocates for the 'own thing', which certainly works out cheaper in most cases. In fact, if time is not a constraint, that is the best bet. But certainly for the elders, kids and diet-conscious, this works out best. Even for the others, NOBODY can do the whole trip we did through SOTC in that many days, that is MY challenge. Everything from Hotels to Food to Travel to Sightseeing (including tickets) to Entertainment being taken care of, every single time, worked wonders for our energy levels for sightseeing. And what did I spend? 5 lakhs in total, despite my 63000 fait accompli cancellation charges, heavy eating out (for local cuisine) despite SOTC food, decent shopping and 3 additional days at Paris (stay, food and big time sightseeing). Compare that to my earlier estimate of about 4 lakhs, that too, without the Cruise!

UNEXPECTED CONTINGENCIES. This is where the Kesaris, Rajs & Make my Trips are probably left behind! The SOTC/ Kuoni network all acroos Europe is so good that preferntial treatment results as a standard practice. Now, in our trip, there was a couple who lost their passports at Rome (pick pocketed, despite ample warnings from our Tour Manager). In 15 minutes, a local rep was in place with the couple as the Group went ahead on the planned trip. Police complaints, new passport (Friday afternoon!), Accommodation and tickets were arranged (of course on additional payment by the defaulters) and in 24 hours, they rejoined the group for the remainder of the tour. Folks, this may sound statutory, but nobody spoke for an hour on our bus when this incident came to light, with cheer returning when it was announced that the couple were being issued their passports and they would rejoin us in a day! Such prompt assistance in trouble speaks of genuine quality and care, If you ask me.

Countries: Greece, Turkey (1 port), Italy, Austria, Switzerland & France (we missed out London).

CONCLUSION. I have laid bare my whole story. Now it is your pick. SOTC has not agreed to pay me any more after this review, so I stand to gain nothing. But having blown up my life's savings on my life's biggest ambition for my family, I would love to share the experiences with you all. If you ask me, SOTC is the Best. If you want to try another, it is a free democracy, but never say you did not have the information before hand! For us, if there is another multi-country trip, we shall be back to SOTC! Until then, I need to SAVE, and travel only within India!

And for the best holiday experience for my family, a heartfelt THANK YOU, SOTC! May you continue to reign!!

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