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Wanted: Great Travel Agent

I feel bad for the Germans whom we met today, Thomas and Kristin, who got to listen to us complain about the confusion caused by…
I have no idea what it’s been caused by actually. Perhaps different expectations and/or understandings about the travels we booked through plus Travel in Antigua, Guatemala.
Thomas and Kristin met and saw us at the height of our frustration.
Three times in our travels in the last few years, Carrie and I have used travel agents. Three times it has turned out creating frustrating results.
In my mind, in 2009, in an era when anyone can do their own research and make their own reservations online, (or via phone) directly with providers of services, the role of a travel agent is to make things easier and less expensive (since they should be able to pass along discounted prices and connections they have worked to build).
Perhaps the travel agents we have used don’t view their role this way, but at this point, I don’t envision us ever hiring a travel agent again.
In short, here is the gist.

I am leaving out some details because the story would be too long – Plus Travel booked our travel for us from Antigua, Guatemala, to Tikal, Guatemala, and back. According to Plus Travel’s marketing, the trip (when booked through Plus Travel) includes: transport from Antigua to Guatemala City, Guatemala City by night bus to Tikal, Tikal park entry, Tikal guide, and lunch in Tikal park.
Three couples booked this travel.
Three couples paid $130 per person.
I had a receipt from Plus Travel (which only accepted payment in cash), which the shuttle driver took from us when he picked us up in Antigua. (He is a third party operator – I assume the ticket is how he gets paid.)
When I said I needed the ticket back for Tikal, he said I would get another one later. (OK, but I’d better get something later, I’m thinking.)
So we got to Guatemala City. In Guatemala City, there are at least two bus companies which run night busses with the “ejecutivo” class (which we paid for) to Flores, the city nearest Tikal.
We got dropped off at Fuente del Norte, while the other couples (we later learned) got dropped off at Autobuses del Norte.
ADN is the company we would have used had we booked the trip ourselves. For whatever reason, ADN looked better to us.
The driver of the shuttle gave us our tickets, handed us our bags, said to be careful because this bus station was in a very dangerous area, and he left.
Looking closer at the ticket we had just received, I realized two things: 1. We over compensated Plus Travel (since the total cost for both of us (combined) to ride the bus round trip was about $90), and #2. We now had nothing to show that we had, in fact, paid for entry, guide, and lunch at Tikal. It is my fault for assuming that a travel company would actually be there taking care of us.
To their credit, someone did show up in Flores.
Carrie and I arrived on the bus at 5:15 in Flores, where there is nothing open and not really much anyway. At least there are some indoor concrete benches. Jorge, our transportation, showed up to pick us up at 6:30. (We had no idea we would be waiting that long and were on the verge of making other arrangements when Jorge showed up. I’m sure that was never communicated to us. At this point, our Spanish is good enough to know whether or not we were told (by Plus Travel) that we should expect to be waiting over an hour in a bus station full of strange characters and taxi drivers constantly asking where you need a taxi to.) At 6:30, Jorge showed up with Carrie’s name on a sign. Jorge is the shining star in this story.
We got in Jorge’s van where we reunited with Kristin and Thomas whom we’d left in Guatemala City 10 hours earlier. They had ridden ADN *remember that we all paid the same* while we rode FDN. From their talking about their bus, it was pretty clear that although it was cold on their bus from AC, ADN is the superior choice.
Jorge took us to the airport in Flores/Santa Elena and told us that we should get out and wait at the coffee shop because (he nicely explained) we were still waiting for two more people. Their plane would arrive at 7:30 and we would leave right at 8:00. Of course 8:00AM came and went.
Long story… longer…
After a bunch of odds and ends, waiting at a gas station for gas that didn’t exist, blah, blah, blah, it was 9:00 before we got on the road to Tikal from Flores.
It is a 1 hour drive to Tikal from Flores airport.
We met our Guatemalan/Mayan tour guide for the day (Nixon, whom we really did enjoy) in the van, and arrived in Tikal park.
At the ticket counter/entrance the cost of entry is 25 for locals, while it is 150 for foreigners. (This double standard pricing exists almost everywhere and is okay, except that it is rather audacious and ridiculous to charge foreigners 6-10 times what locals pay. I don’t mind paying more than a local, but the double pricing perpetuates a societal inferiority complex and actively discourages tourism. Anyway, another topic for another time…)
Nixon is standing there at the ticket counter expecting people to pay. We all explain that we have already paid through our booking company.
Thirty minutes later, Nixon returns and says that the others are covered completely for park entry, lunch, and guide, but that Carrie and I are only covered for lunch and guide and still need to pay the park entry.
We have nothing to prove otherwise because the shuttle driver took the receipt from us back in Antigua.
Fortunately, (we think) Carrie has the business card of the person we booked through.
There is a phone we can use (at the nearby Hotel (Hotel Jungle Inn) where we will spend the night), but the cost is 3 Quetzales (40 cents) per minute.
45 Quetzales ($5.50) and three phone calls later, we have our answer:
Somehow, we didn’t pay the park entry fee.
The other couples, just like us, paid $130 per person. They got a better bus, food on the overnight bus, lunch, guide, and park entry.
We don’t have 300 Quetzales in cash (why would we – we already paid for everything but our hotel in advance?) and the nearest ATM is in Flores, which is nearly 1 hour by car away.
The only electricity anywhere in Tikal is generated from solar, wind, or generator power. This is very cool, but means that the park entry doesn’t accept credit cards. (Oddly enough, the hotel does accept credit cards – I would guess that has something to do with private enterprise vs. government enterprise?)
At this point, we’re asking the hotel if we can overpay them using a card and they can give us the cash to go pay the park entry. No.
Is there ANY other way to pay the park entry?
We ask the hotel. No.
We ask our guide for the day, Nixon. No.
(We’re told this, but discover the next day, after asking 7 additional people, that there is a way.)
Jorge, our driver for the day (and for the next day’s return trip to Flores) takes it upon himself to call Plus Travel back (at his expense) and attempt to explain that the other couples have paid already, and if we’ve paid the same, why isn’t our entry included (the same thing I’ve just spent 15 minutes explaining).
I’m not sure how that conversation went between Jorge and Plus Travel, except that they told him our entry wasn’t included.
At this point, Carrie and I are ready to just call it a wash and not see Tikal, if there’s no way for us to give them money (at 6x the prices they charge locals).
Jorge sees our frustration and communicates that he will pay our entry for the day, and that we can stop at an ATM and pay him back the next day when he takes us back to Flores.
Jorge becomes the only way we can see Tikal for the day.
I told you he was the shining star of this story.
I still don’t get it, or how Plus Travel could charge people the same amount, for the same advertised package, and provide different levels of service. They literally changed what was paid for in the middle of our travel.
Neither of the other couples had a receipt either, but on the phone, 3 different people from Plus Travel insisted our package didn’t include park entry while theirs did.
Admittedly, my Spanish is weak at best, and I was frustrated and not really wanting to hear why we got less and paid the same amount.
But what I do know is that either they lied when they sold the package to us, or they lied about what we purchased once we were already at Tikal.
And when we needed their help, even to re-pay the park entry fee once we were there, they were unwilling (unable?) to do anything to help.
Lesson learned (for the third and final time).
We won’t use travel/booking agents going forward.
For other people, travel agents and tour companies work well. For us, it’s gone poorly, and when we give the agents a chance to rectify the situation or help us in the situation we’re currently facing, they either don’t help or really drag their feet in doing anything to help.
Generally, we also receive frustration from them that we’re even calling, like they’re annoyed that a tourist can’t figure things out.
(About 5 years ago, we booked a Las Vegas hotel through a travel agent, paid for the whole thing (4 nights) in advance, and we showed up in Vegas to not have a hotel room, and no record of us having made a reservation. We ended up paying for and staying at a different hotel. After many attempts to get the situation fixed with the travel agent, who insisted they were doing everything they could, we decided (a month after continuing to give the agent a chance to fix things) to do a chargeback. The travel agent actually used the phrase, “But if you charge it back, the charge comes back on us and then we’re responsible for it.”)
Here’s what we’ve paid to learn this lesson this time (though up to this point, we’ve spent somewhere close to $1,000 to learn this lesson).
Booking ourselves:
Antigua – Guatemala City – Antigua: $20 (or less)
Guat. City – Flores – Guat. City (FDN): $85
Lunch at Hotel at Tikal (better lunch): $20
Flores – Tikal – Flores: $30 (or less)
Park Guide: $20/day + $5 tip
Park Entry: $18*2=$36
Total If Booking Ourselves: $215
Through Plus Travel
$135*2 = $270
$36 Park Entry
$5 Phone Calls
Total If Booking Through Plus Travel: $311
It was almost $100 more to wait around for people to show up at the bus station and the airport (+4 hours), and have the frustration of thinking that the travel company would have our back, rather than saying there was nothing they could do, when we needed their help most.
Using a travel agent should make travel easier.
Using a travel agent should give you someone you can go to when encountering travel difficulties.
For us, using travel agents and booking companies has always resulted in more difficulty. It also twice resulted in someone who actively worked against our attempts to resolve the situation in a favorable way.
Lesson learned.
Unless someone can prove otherwise, we will not be using travel agents in the future unless it’s absolutely necessary for political or language reasons.

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