Debate – Package holidays vs Do It Yourself

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This is an extremely long and detailed discussion of the merits of package holidays versus making your own arrangements and is aimed at anyone who has pondered the many advertisements offering travel to exotic parts of the world or perhaps nearer home. I am focusing on the hotel H10 that I can heartily recommend, that is if you can get in.  It seems to be booked solid for most of the year.

If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read 4,400 words, scroll down to the conclusions.

view from our hotel (Ctrl and + button to enlarge this picture and all others)

As my readers know, there has been a pause for the last week. This is because I have taken advantage of a package holiday in Tenerife which as you may know is part of a group of islands, volcanic in origin, off the coast of Africa but part of Spanish territory. As I write, my body has returned but I’m still somewhat in a post holiday bubble which enables me to enjoy a few more days without looking too closely at the realities and what passes for modern life.

It was the sight of over 30 planes parked at the southern airport of Tenerife that made me realise the industrial scale of the tourist industry. In this particular island alone composed of 1 million population, 5.7 million visitors are received each year. I don’t want to make a shopping list of pluses and minuses but rather tell you the conclusions I reached within the travel time line. Four hours flying time is more likely to be uneventful because you fly straight over the sea and avoid for example the famous Atlas Mountains which are almost guaranteed to produce a bumpy ride.

I naïvely thought that a midweek flight at the back-end of November would perhaps be half full. In fact the flight had only two unsold seats and they could have been no shows. The company I was with was Saga travel and this is in no way intended to act as a free advert for them though of course it is difficult to avoid this. We are programmed to look for a rep. with the name of the company on a board. There he was at the top of the escalator. On to a coach area dragging our suite cases where I estimate there were about 50 coaches waiting, we found ours on the third row back. On we get with a miscellaneous group of strangers and within a few minutes find ourselves on the motorway which connects most of the main towns on this island.

this is a volcanic island and lava is everywhere even on the beach

From end to end the length of Tenerife  is about the same distance as London to Brighton, about 50 miles. Imagine that distance with a huge great extinct volcano in the middle round which on the coast are built as many constructions as can possibly be accommodated bearing in mind the slope of the mountains. The main cities are incredibly densely populated but without tourism and the money it brings this island would be a shadow of its lively self.

I now make the first of my points about inclusive holidays. Two words, two critical words, transfers included. You will not get this with your plane ticket. It is difficult for us to realise that the distance between airport and resort could be considerable. In this case it was 90 km as you can’t drive straight through the middle of the island. There is a public bus service but it will take you for ever and the taxi ride will be about €120.

The East Coast motorway journey is one of the least memorable and most ghastly dystopian landscapes I can recall seeing. If I wanted to find a post-apocalyptic film set, all I would need to do is to plant my cameras without any preparation. I remember thinking at the time, what have we let ourselves in for. The good news is that when you go north and anticlockwise around the island signs of greenery appear.

The hotel chosen by the company was the strangely named H10 group. The name must have seemed a good idea at the time but does not really communicate anything. However if you throw enough money at the PR and publicity it doesn’t really matter. I could say the same of Tui, the recently rebranded company. Who cares so long as you can pronounce the name and associate it with the product.

It is part of the arrogance of the Brits, or maybe it’s just laziness, to assume that everyone else can speak English. My observations were that very few of the staff had anything like a command of the language necessary to hold a conversation. Do not be deceived by people saying “good morning sir how are you today”. They probably learned this by rote and if you were to reply they wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what you’re talking about. England is a long way away in the public consciousness compared with Spain and Germany. Mercifully, the receptionists were skilled in the common languages and our checking in was dealt with expeditiously.

It was a somewhat surreal experience to have a welcome glass of bubbly handed to you while you were still standing in the queue but rules is rules and the customer needs a glass of bubbly on arrival then so be it. Who cares about style? So here I stand, baggage and paperwork in one hand and awkwardly balancing the glass in the other but hey who cares. The temperature was short sleeve shirts and T-shirt weather, I think it was about 22° when we arrived.

It became quickly clear that the bargaining power of a long-established holiday group is considerable. We had been given one of the better quality and upgraded rooms where the mattress on the bed was so big that it was wider than it wasn’t long. Everything worked. Interestingly the only English-language TV programmes were Russia Today and BBC world News. The air conditioning was quiet, it did not rattle praise the Lord. The glass of the sliding doors leading onto a small balcony was thick and did actually exclude such noise as there was. We overlooked the Plaza where traffic was not allowed and have a sea view.

Tony AKA and Tommy Cooper, our Saga rep.

The following day we were invited to a welcome reception. I expected a hard sell but in fact our rep, who was the spitting image of Tommy Cooper simply told us what was on and how we could sign up if we wanted to. I mistakenly went to another meeting run by a competitive company and the attitude there was totally different. The rep was actually unpleasant and almost bullying people into signing up. What a difference it makes if you’re being paid largely on commission.

very high quality painting on buildings with good preparation of the surface

We had debated hiring a car and going round to see the sites for ourselves. That would’ve been a major mistake. Most of the villages are very small, compact we could say, with minimal parking. In addition, apart from the very necessary motorways, the vast majority of roads are not built for mass motoring and consist of many twists and turns, steep hills with limited passing facilities and you don’t want this.

The second reason it would be a mistake to hire a car is that you would miss out on guidance. We had guides on the two tours we went on and they were knowledgeable locals who had been in the job for 20 or 30 years and knew Tenerife like the back of their hand. Guides have to be accredited and they all have to know their history particularly from the 14th century which gave us a good perspective on the whole experience otherwise you could just be looking at scenery none the wiser.

The third reason for not hiring a car is the excellent bus service which includes the more remote areas. Because the income from 5.7 million tourists is vast, this island has the muscle to buy in as needed. You buy a pass, a rechargeable card, and pay the fixed fare per journey.

When we started, we didn’t know a single soul, but as the day progressed we became familiar with more and more people. In my youth I used to hitchhike and my kind drivers came out with all sorts of personal and other information which they could freely do, knowing that we were both anonymous and we would never meet again. Sometimes I acted as a confessional. The same applies with such transitory situations. Everyone is out to have a good time. They are very glad to get away from their ordinary life at home. There were lots of people from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle but not many from Bristol which was our nearest airport.

very suspicious Banksy type Madonna

There are definitely differences between Brits on holiday and those from other countries. Brits do have a certain stiffness and stand-offishness which you can spot a mile off. However I do say that as the week progressed, more and more people got to know each other and they were talking to each other 19 to the dozen. There were about the same number of Germans than British people. You can spot the existence of German guests by counting the number of beach towels left tidily on the reclining chairs around the swimming pool at 7 AM. I think the first thing that they do after getting up and before breakfast is to preserve what they consider is their space. I was tempted to go around and take them all up again but then what would that achieve?

the best way of telling if there are any Germans staying – and look for the beach towels

Germans tend to be a bit loud sometimes but I have to say they were a pretty decent and well-behaved lot. Good manners are tested at the gargantuan buffets offered at breakfast and the evening meal which brings me to the topic of food. It’s amazing what can be produced if you have 300 guaranteed customers each evening. Economies of scale it is called. Before I start on the supper, the breakfasts were formidable enough.

The attitude of Spaniards to alcohol is a little bit different to us in the UK. It is not every day that I see vodka being offered with the breakfast not to mention sparkling wine. Okay it was only Cave but when mixed with orange juice it certainly woke you up in the morning. The porridge was to die for and you have a huge selection of cold meats,  cheeses, goodness knows how many types of yoghurt, six different types of fruit juice, about 20 different types of bread, toasting machines that actually work and of course the traditional English breakfast. We found that with this huge breakfast and with the supper, we had no need for lunch so apart from the odd snack here and there we managed to survive the day until 4.30 PM when we had the delight of…..

Free drinks. Another bargaining try out by the company on our behalf. The bar staff don’t actually seem to bother with measures. They stop pouring the wine into the glass when it is full and as for the G and T, they just fill up half a tall glass and ad the tonic. As for other shorts,there must have been about three measures of brandy or whiskey given in the very generous glass. I would say the average person (not me of course) drank their way through about £120 worth of good quality drink. I had a number of different types of wine and I did not suffer the after-effects that I do drinking less expensive wine in the UK. I understand they have very strict regulations about what can be used by way of sprays and fertilisers and my goodness does it show. I reckon they keep the best stuff for themselves and dump the rest in the UK.

impossible to show with a small camera but this is a full moon, the city lights in the distance and the reflection on the water in the Bay

Supper itself. Any time before the official opening time of six thirty there were about 60 keen people waiting to get in, mainly Geordies from Newcastle. Don’t ask me why. The sound of their cheerful and distinctive accents echoed down the corridor. The food itself, what can I say? – I suppose about seven or eight main course offerings; fish to die for, melted in the mouth but watch out for the small bones.

Back to our main theme of how you are treated as a package person. I know people complain about being treated like cattle, just a number, but it is difficult to avoid this when there are large numbers of hungry souls walking around in one place, looking this way and that, holding plates which they are in the process of filling up.  You certainly get the knack of dancing around and apologising and smiling. Seven or eight visits to collect food is about right. One evening, they produced 13 different types of tarts with all the flavours you could think of. I left the restaurant as full as I could possibly be and went for a walk along the front to encourage digestion.

Without the buffet model, the whole system would simply grind to a halt. I notice that people actually love going round and picking this and that. I haven’t dared to stand on the scale since returning home but I’m sure I have put on weight. This is where the independent traveler loses out big-time. You would have to spend your whole holiday money on buying food if you wanted to compete with the quality on offer. Going out to restaurants every night is expensive because it is Euroland although you can get a cheap meal for €10. I can’t be bothered to work out how much I save on a package quality for quality but it is substantial.

And now to the topic of people coming on a holiday on their own. Early on, we met a delightful and affable middle-aged chap called Chris, from Taunton, who spends most of his time going around holiday places on his own. He became my role model for how to do it. He smiled at everyone, didn’t trouble anyone but was glad to engage in conversation. It helped that he was genuinely interested in other people and their stories. From him I got a lot of useful information about the area and about the customs. Chris remembered our names and greeted us when he saw us and at the very end when we said goodbye at the airport he wished us all the best. Chris positively thrived being on his own because it was an opportunity to exercise his considerable social enthusiasms while making people feel safe.

an unexpected sighting of a Labour of Love in this art installation

I contrast that with a lady of a certain age who was administrative assistant at a technical college in Birmingham. This was her first time away by herself, who knows why, and she reminded us of this on two or three occasions. She almost had what I called “learned helplessness” and saw herself as a person who was clueless and needed direction on everything. In spite of that, people took a liking to her and looked after her by way of conversation in the bar and so on.  One thing it never pays to do is to sit on your own and look sorry for yourself because people will avoid you. Chris had his antenna waving in the breeze at all times, made it clear that he was glad to help people with any question or problem they might have.

So, listen up single people, just book and turn up. Everyone is out to enjoy themselves as I said before, so just take the initiative and open a conversation even if you are a lady or especially if you are a lady is easy and straightforward. No one is going to bite your head off. Say something like ” did you have a nice day today”. If you decide to go on a coach trip, which I strongly recommend, nod and smile to everyone as you get on and maybe see if there is someone else who is single and sit next to them. They will probably be glad you did. The problems are in your own head.

Company representatives can make or break the atmosphere of a tour. Nearly all of them love their job and the freedom it gives. Our Tony took us on a walkabout so we could orientate ourselves. People who live locally as he did have far have more information than they can possibly deliver in a speech and it is really worthwhile making a note of questions you have and asking them. There is no such thing as a stupid question. If you don’t know something it is a pretty safe bet that you want to be told the answer. Other people will be grateful that you chirped up.

What variety is this then?

Tony had a lovely sense of humour which did actually make us all laugh and relax, so important when you are in a strange though it must be said friendly city. It is interesting that the return rate for people who have been to Tenerife is very high. I met a lady who had been there 13 times. Tony said that of the 30 people who were due to come next week, 20 had been before. He also has a regular client who comes for four months in the winter It is mainly because of the reliability of the weather. Around this time of year, December, it is about 22°C maybe 20° average. Rain is almost non-existent, to the extent that the local population are concerned. If it rains, it’s not like in England when it goes on all day but it takes the form of showers which quickly disappear. This is after all a tropical island.

Puerto de la Cruz is one of the very successful and larger seaside resorts. The first thing that struck me was how clean it was. People do not litter though alas the same thing cannot be said for throwing down cigarette butts. There were some very good street entertainers and artists. They were attracted there because of the potential money but there was something strange which makes me wonder.

There were some caricature artists offering to work for three euros. Why such a small amount? It’s not that the tourists have little money. Maybe the competition for that money is too great.  Are they so desperate that they will work for virtually nothing? I understand from a guide that the average monthly income is a little over €1000 and overall it is the second poorest economy in the European Union. I suppose Cyprus would be at the bottom. I would assume therefore that most working for minimum wage if indeed they have that concept.

I keep on interrupting myself and changing the subject but I’m just writing in the order that things occur to me. Ha ha.

Part of the deal of this particular hotel was evening entertainment. The hotel is not in a position to pay vast sums for well-known people so it is a bit hit and miss so in general it’s ‘get stuck in and encourage their efforts’ time. We had everything from smooth jazz to muscle men doing feats of physical balancing to people who could hardly sing at all. There were two two-hour sessions between 8 PM and midnight.

I might add a word here about the age range of the people. Because this is outside school holidays, it was mostly older people. What struck me very much was a couple in their 90s who were very keen to do everything, bright as buttons, great sense of humour, happy to talk to anyone and exchange a joke or comment. At 73, I felt positively young compared with what I saw around me but younger people – don’t be put off, older people are very accepting of all ages. The younger ones probably remind them of their grandchildren.

Maybe it was my imagination but there was a disproportionate number of people in wheelchairs or disabled in some way. On the plane on the way back there were no less than nine wheelchair people. I.e. guess that the climate is good for arthritis and also the guaranteed sun in the winter is no doubt a good attractant.

My worst memory, and always relative of course, was the time when a rather distracted and attention seeking Russian lady decided to shut up her 18 month old child by putting a mobile phone in front of him and playing a cartoon at full volume. Why bother to have a child in the first place if you’re not prepared to make it part of the table instead of allowing it to stare at some moving object.

My best memories, apart from the above was on our last day when we witnessed a very skillful local shimmying up the palm trees to cut off the dead material at the top. His activity caused quite a crowd to gather and admire. He had two tools, a jungle knife and just as important a Stanley knife. It is evidently necessary to cut the outer upper bark into sections which you do by making incisions vertically and horizontally and throwing the bark down. The branches made a thud as they hit the ground. The man, a local obviously, was as much at home 50 feet up on the swaying palm tree as most of us would be on the ground. I noted the way that his shoes had a vertical spike which he dig into the tree before heaving himself up on a rope slung around the tree itself.

In so far as it is possible to summarise my week. It was about enough time bearing in mind we have never been there before. If and when I return I would know what I was coming to and have a more proactive plan properly to explore some of the lesser-known beaches and areas. I would stay for 10 days. We missed going up the famous mountain but will do that next time. I believe above 2000 m it is another type of land.

Going with the group from a tour company almost guarantees freebies, support and good value for money.

Other Half Francoise enjoying the sun

There is one other important thing that I have left till the last. The company takes responsibility for you while you are there. They have to get you to the hotel, look after you while you were in the hotel, make sure you get back to the airport and on your plane. We had one case where a road was blocked and it was not possible to gain access to the coach for a day tour. The Rep. paid for taxis for us to go round the back streets to rendezvous with the coach.

All representatives are aware that the reputation of the company is in their hands and they act accordingly. it means that unlike individual traveling, there is someone at your side to assist.  On tours, the drivers and guides know the best places to stop so you are not rushed about from place to place, although I know that is not the experience of everyone. I think if you are a first timer, it is definitely better to go as part of the tour. the reason you should choose an experienced company is just for that reason.

The company has arrived at a formula through trial and error and you are benefiting from the trials and tribulations of when they just started which in the case of Saga was in 1951 rather the same time that Butlins holiday camp was really getting going. Barclays started by the irrepressible Billy Butlin in 1936 in Skegness, following his success in developing amusement parks. A second quickly followed in Clacton and then Filey, all before the Second World War

The operation of saga were originally based at Folkestone in Kent and the founder offered affordable off-peak holidays exclusively for retired people but that was only within the UK.

If you are seeking to book a holiday and it seems expensive or a little expensive in this competitive market you get what you pay for.  If a price seems too good to be true then it is. They cut corners and then charge you for so-called extras when you arrive. Competition is unforgiving and companies rely a lot on word-of-mouth and Trip Adviser reviews so do not underestimate the beneficial effect of people power… Continued below.

*****

no time to read Pepys diaries today.

Sunday 4 December 1664

At noon home to dinner, and then in the afternoon to church. So home, and by and by comes Mr. Hill and Andrews, and sung together long and with great content. Then to supper and broke up. Pretty discourse, very pleasant and ingenious, and so to my office a little, and then home (after prayers) to bed.

I was able to sample some of this ‘pretty discourse’ on this vacation. I think it needs the will and the interest on both sides. With a bit of discipline and prioritising I think we could feed ourselves far more than we do already. I have not missed TV in my seven days away one little bit

*****

There was a small sting in the tail at my rendezvous with my taxi driver at Bristol airport. The authorities are extremely greedy. The pickup section costs a pound but for 10 min. If you go over that by 1 min it is £3. if you are unwise enough to stay for 41 min the charge is £20. Anything over an hour is £50. What our local taxi company do is get the customer to call them while they sit outside the airport. On receipt of the call they crack in quickly, load the bags and out again hopefully avoiding the queues on the way out with the fumbling for change. With no delay we did it in 7 min. people with lots of bags and young children don’t stand a chance.

And now to stock up the empty fridge and deal with the telephone messages

 

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