Posted by Richard on August 24, 2000 at 06:00:19:
August 24, 2000
Our Experience With RJ Tours
To Whom It May Concern:
My wife and I just completed RJ Toursí two-week August tour of Ukraine. This tour had some notable positive features. Our tour group of about 40 people (including one guide, three tour officials and two bus drivers) enjoyed several different private concerts as well as excellent seats at a sold-out opera in the Lviv Opera house. Our accommodations in Lviv and Ivana Frankivsk were also quite good. However, for us, much of the balance of the tour was not enjoyable.
The bus transportation was very inadequate. The bus was old, the bathroom smelled and was dirty, the air conditioning did not work (except possibly for the first three days of the trip), the suspension system was worn out, and the bus was underpowered for travel in the Carpathian Mountains. Additionally the drivers were uncooperative, got lost at least six times (one time they missed our turn-off and went approximately 30 miles out of our way), and one of our guideís said the drivers even threatened to leave the group if they were not paid more money. Further, they drove so slowly that our driving time was consistently 50% beyond our guideís estimates.
On our journey from Kiev to Lviv, the group did not arrive at our lunch destination until 4:30 p.m. The trip that day was hot, bouncy, and took twelve hours to cover 537 kilometers (about 330 miles). The trip from Uzhorod to Ivano-Frankivsk (268 km) was another hot and bouncy 10 hours. However, it was broken up by a flat tire (understandable except that the drivers did not carry a spare tire like every other heavy vehicle we saw on the road, only a spare tube), and then ran out of diesel (apparently because the gas gauge did not work and the driverís were only estimating the amount of fuel in the tank).
The trip from Chernevtsi to Uman (a little over 400 km) took nine hours with only three brief roadside stops. When I say roadside, I do not mean stops at roadside gas stations or cafes. I mean stops on the sides of busy two lane highways in wooded areas. Group participants were told to use the woods to relieve themselves if they did not want to use the tiny, dirty, and smelly bus bathroom.
The groupís dissatisfaction with the bus was brought to the RJ Toursí representativeís attention (Patricia Tomkins) numerous times by numerous people including myself. She offered many excuses but until I personally got a hotel manager to agree to have the hotelís maintenance engineer look at the air conditioning system, I do not believe any serious action was taken to fix the problem. Unfortunately, this engineer said the busís AC system was in such bad shape, the whole thing needed to be replaced. Of course, no effort to replace the system was made.
As noted, the excuses Mrs. Tomkins offered were many. Even though she had previously told me that she and her husband had decided to organize this tour in January or February of 2000, she later changed this story. In a speech to the entire group where she apologized (sort-of) for the bus situation but offered no solutions, she indicated that since RJ Tours had not decided to have an August Ukraine tour until April, bus selection by that time was limited.
First of all, I do not believe that this fact, even if true, excuses RJ Tours from providing the excellent tour it promised including an air-conditioned bus. However, assuming it does, I learned two days latter from one of our guides that RJ Tours had not hired its local partner to plan the tour and arrange for a bus until one week before the tour. Finding this information difficult to believe and quite contradictory to the excuse presented by Mrs. Tomkins in her apology, I presented this information to Mrs. Tomkins. She first said that the contact to the local partner had been about a month before the August trip (not in April or even May or June). However, she then changed her story to admit that the contact had actually been only ďa little more thanĒ a week prior to the tour. She also explained that one of the reasons she had not done anything to replace the bus once its inadequacy became apparent was because RJ Tours had fully prepaid for it.
I then discussed Mrs. Tomkinsí remarks with several other members of the group. Not only did they feel that RJ Tours had been irresponsible in failing to do anything about the inadequate bus transportation when this fact became evident, they were stunned that the person actually making all the travel arrangements in Ukraine had not been hired until just before the trip. They felt this action was irresponsible and felt that Mrs. Tomkins had deceived them concerning the date bus transportation had been arranged.
There were other disappointments about this trip as well. The itinerary indicated the following features: a lunch in a monastery in Mucachevo; lunch at the ART Restaurant in Uman; supper at the Taras hotel in Mucachevo. Unfortunately, none were provided. Also, the hotels provided to the group in Uzhorod and Uman were quite poor. Indeed, my wife and I heard prior to our arrival in Uman that the hotel there would be at least as bad as the one in Uzhorod. Therefore, we tried to leave the group in Chernivtsi. However, no train tickets for trains to Kiev were available. Also, trains going to Kiev travel through a sliver of Moldova and we wanted to avoid the risk of dealing with Moldovan border guards.
Since we could not leave the group in Chernivtsi, as soon as the bus arrived in Uman, I arranged on my own for a room in a decent hotel next to Sophia Park, the sole attraction in Uman. I then told Mrs. Tomkins that my wife and I were leaving the tour and that we had wished we had not come. After an approximately 15 minute discussion where Mrs. Tomkins did most of the talking, she finally offered to pay for our hotel room in the hotel I had switched to (the same hotel our group was having its supper in). Remarkably, though, we then had to mention this promise to her three times (the last time as she was walking to the bus to leave us and board it for the groupís hotel) before she actually did anything to arrange payment for the room.
I hope this information is useful to anyone considering an RJ Tourís trip. I will be glad to provide you the names and telephone numbers of tour participants who will also be glad to give you their opinion of the trip if you want them to. Additionally, I hear that the RJ Tourís July tour of Ukraine had many similar unpleasant moments. Perhaps someone reading this message who went on that tour will post their opinions or perhaps RJ Tours itself will give you references from participants who went on that tour.
Another one of Mrs. Tomkinsí often repeated excuses for RJ Toursí failure to secure a decent bus and accommodations was that ďUkraine is a third world country.Ē Even after my experience on an RJ Tours Ukrainian tour, I believe Ukraine is a rich and wonderful country that can be seen and enjoyed in comfort at or near western standards. I encourage everyone to go to this great place but I also encourage you to select your tour company carefully.
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