Holyland Trip - Gotchas to avoid

Holyland trip was our first time traveling with an organized tour group. Undoubtedly the biggest edge such arrangements have is the ability to provide the vacationer the opportunity to experience much more compared to when going solo. However traveling with a group has numerous catches too. Below is a list – not all applies to everyone as some are specific to the tour group we traveled with while others are more generic:

1. It will be a while before folks used to western way of traveling get the hang of local tour operators in Kerala. Training for the tour company personnel is usually lax. When seeking information, the cardinal rule is to check with those holding managerial positions. We tripped up several times not knowing this modus operandi:
  • Upon contacting over the phone, it is the norm for the representative to mention they will get back to you. While this is probably uttered in good faith, they never get around to actually placing that call – the client is expected to call back. Prior to booking our trip, we had numerous concerns and almost every time we called, this was the pattern we experienced. The irony was that in order to get us to sign up, they even offered a house call to furnish us with all the details of the tour which was again a no-show.
  • During our initial contact with the tour personnel, it was mentioned that fare price was inclusive of food, although lunch will generally be snacks in order to save time. While we were fine with this, it was a pleasant surprise to have proper buffet lunch everyday.
  • The price was quoted as Rs 59.5K (~$1320) per person when we paid the advance. About two weeks before the trip, we went to the office and paid the rest of the amount. Couple of hours later they called to inform they had omitted to inform the trip cost has increased to Rs 60.5K (~$1345). To say we were irritated with them for not mentioning this fare hike while we were in the office was putting it mildly.
  • We had signed up for the 11-day tour that included two days in Syria. The advance amount was quoted over phone as Rs 10K (~$220) per person. But, at the time of paying this amount, the person at the desk informed the advance for the trip with Syria is Rs 25K (~$555).  When we hesitated, they were fine with Rs 10K – unprofessional.
  • There was a mention of Rs 5K discount for kids between ages 5 and12, and we specifically asked whether the accommodation for the four of us (two adults and two kids) were going to be in a single room with extra beds or pull-aways. The staff vaguely said we should be provided adjacent rooms with a common door - the vagueness should have clued us on the reality.  Had we known this, we would probably have paid the extra to get an extra room – with just one shower, getting ready on days when wake up calls were very early was indeed a challenge.
  • The tour company promised an orientation session a month before the actual trip. Four weeks prior to the departure date, we called to inquire about this. To our chagrin, they flippantly told the tour might be postponed by three weeks. They promised to call back the same day with details but never did. Since we were bent on getting the facts, we stopped by their office - the staff reiterated their words and offered various reasons for this change. Difficulty in confirming the flight tickets – lack of people signing up for the trip – election dates clashing – and others along similar lines featured in this laundry list. At that point, we asked to initiate cancellation procedures. After some internal discussion we were connected with the manager who explained how they had to accommodate a Syria tour request three weeks out. Hence they had to compromise on the Syria leg of our tour group. A Holyland tour (excluding Syria) on our promised dates was still ON and if we wished we could be part of that group. As we had scheduled our vacation around these dates, we decided to go with that and got everything in writing. It took a while to get over the half-baked responses of the admin.
  • In-spite of having photocopies of our passports, they forged ahead with the process for optional medical insurance only to refund that money after they realized the medical insurance company insures Indian passport holders only. This is another instance where lack of training shone through.

All in all, our takeaway was that the tour company staff was incompetent – not only were they tightfisted in providing information but also unreliable on the information given out. Hence it was mind blowing that they pulled-off an almost perfect trip.
2. Travel companions are an unknown when traveling with a group unless you are going in your own group (tour operators generally require more than 40 people in a group to facilitate this - common-interest group of some kind will work well - church members going together is common with Holyland tours). Either way, it is worthwhile to consider the following when booking a Holyland tour:
  • Surprisingly, Christian faith beliefs are all over the map and is highly influenced by the sub-group they belong to. Some have conflicting views on certain aspects of the religion. The way of praying can also be diametrically opposite. It is best to be aware of these differences and if at all possible be with a compatible group. Otherwise, it is conflict in waiting as there will be different views on what is worth seeing and for how long. An ecumenical approach (though not always reciprocated) will certainly help in promoting harmony if you end up with a diverse group.
  • Tour operators with offices in different states in India sometimes combine clients from different states on the same tour. In general, this is not ideal as a lot of communication happens in one of the local languages and folks from other parts of India will have a hard time interpreting what is said.
  • Proprietors of tour companies generally have personal-level contacts with local businesses in the Holyland. For those who are flexible with dates, it is certainly advantageous to book for a tour when the proprietor is traveling – for then the tour operators at the host countries they employ, hotel staff, and restaurant staff aim to impress the proprietor by putting in extra effort.
3. Keralites generally rate their table manners and hygiene levels as good, which is generally not true. At the very minimum the following should be observed to avoid embarrassment for you and fellow travelers:
  • Keeping the mouth closed while eating.
  • Avoid using the soiled plate for seconds in a buffet setting.
  • Use utensils instead of relying on bare hands at the table.
  • Use de-sanitizer before and after using the toilet (restroom).
4. General information to be aware of include:
  • It is a widely-held notion that Holyland tours from Kerala are geared towards older folks. Hence it is usual to find a significant percentage of retirees on such tours of which a small minority is not all that mobile. Tour reps usually have processes in place to accommodate their inability while making sure the rest of the group is not slowed down. This is something to keep in mind for in certain situations prodding the rep may be necessary.
  • Most of the places visited have souvenir shops and the tour reps usually allot time for shopping at certain shops. In general, such shops generally do not have the best bargains. For those with good bargaining skills, street vendors provide the biggest bang. Bethlehem, old Jerusalem, and Cairo are better places to shop in terms of value compared to other parts of Palestine, Israel, and Egypt.
  • Water shortage is real and many restaurants do not serve complimentary water. Tour operators generally supply limited amounts of bottled water. It pays to label the bottles and keep them around for the length of the day.
  • Most parts of Israel religiously observe Sabbath from a few minutes before sunset Friday evening until a few minutes after the appearance of three stars on the Saturday night sky. Religious areas see very little activity during this period. Tourists need to be aware that Jewish hotels run Sabbath elevators which automatically stops at all floors – they are specifically marked and allow religious Jews to circumvent the Jewish law which prevents them from operating switches.
  • Unlike most churches in Kerala, the holy places in Israel permit footwear. Tourists need to heed this as the exit is usually different from the entrance.
  • As it is a long 9-day trip, folks assume they would be seeing most of the sights the area has got on offer. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is important to realize that many tours take upwards of nine days to cover each of the three major countries in this tour (Jordan, Egypt, and Israel) as a single tour. Understandably this tour covers less than 20% of the tourist spots – hopefully, the best parts important to you are included. Our tour did a good job covering the important Christian sites and also tried to accommodate as much other sites of common interest as possible.

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