How we learned to stop worrying and love the package holiday

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Violet and her family recently returned from an Inside Vietnam Tours holiday in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Here, she explains how these independent souls became package holiday converts…

Whether they’re trundling through Mexico in an RV, backpacking across South America, hostelling in Korea, or just camping in France – my family are a resolutely do-it-yourself bunch. Nobody could be more resistant to the idea of hand-holding or pampering when it comes to travel. Private driver? No thanks. Guided tours? Psshaw. Travel agent? You must be joking!

One package holiday (to Menorca, when I was 10) was enough to put my parents off organised travel for life, and they made sure to pass on their antipathy to the younger generation. We don’t need anyone to tell us what to do: this the Cloutman creed.

As a result, our past family holidays – whilst always fun – have been littered with disasters. We’ve arrived without visas; we’ve had credit cards declined; we’ve turned up too early and been kicked out too late; we’ve missed flights, got on wrong trains, and racked up parking tickets; we’ve been searched by the Mexican army and apprehended by Australian police; we’ve stayed in horrible hotels and eaten horrible food; we’ve had lost luggage, stolen goods, broken limbs and dengue fever; we’ve lost toddlers on crowded beaches and left children train platforms; we’ve even stayed in an old Cuban woman’s spare room when we couldn’t get a hotel reservation. Yep – if there’s a mistake in the book, we’ve made it.

The thing is that when you organise all your travel arrangements yourself, something is always bound to go wrong. Sometimes spectacularly wrong. And no matter how good a story it is later, you’d probably rather it didn’t.

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So after two years working at InsideAsia Tours, the idea that going on a professionally organised trip (dare I say it – package holiday) might be a good one had gradually filtered back to my family and begun to germinate in the arid soil of their reluctance. Slowly and surreptitiously, it all started to make sense – and before we knew it we were putting a deposit down on a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

I am happy to say that after returning from our holiday (organised by the lovely Charlotte) the Cloutman family are converts – and here are a few reasons why:

You save TONS of time

I love to travel, and I’ve spent countless happy hours planning trips. But as much as I enjoy it, planning a trip is a huge time sink – more time than most people have lying around at any rate. You need to research hotels and destinations, send emails, make reservations, find out where and how to get your money, book flights, book train tickets, buy maps, order visas, co-ordinate transfers… the list goes on and on.

With a tour operator to do all this for you, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. There’s so little to worry about, in fact, that my parents actually rang up the office because they were worried about the lack of worrying. That’s how unworrisome it is.

Guides are your link to the locals

Being an effective tour guide is an incredible skill. You can’t just drag your group around the same old tourist spots, reciting the relevant history dates and stock facts. You must speak excellent English, you must be able to answer a whole host of off-the-wall questions (or make a reasonable stab, at least), you must be able to adapt your plans to suit the whims of your charges, and to top it all you must be engaging, interesting and attentive. For hours. Sometimes days. I categorically could not do it.

Not all guides are of this calibre, but even those who don’t manage to dazzle you with their wit and charm are fascinating repositories of information about the country you’re visiting. You can ask them anything about life in their country, and get all kinds of invaluable recommendations for your trip. They will probably be the only Vietnamese (or Cambodian, or Lao) people that you will have a chance to talk to in depth on your holiday, so even if you’re not one to enjoy guided tours in general, I would urge you to give tour guides a chance.

With the ever-loquacious Tha, one of our caving tour guides
With the ever-loquacious Tha (left), one of our caving guides in Vietnam

Restaurant recommendations are the business

Most of us, when we imagine ourselves on holiday, imagine wandering about at random, alighting upon a charming café or a hidden gem of a restaurant and enjoying the experience of making our own discovery. It’s a lovely thought, but it’s time to relinquish the dream. Maybe if you’re travelling for months you might come across a couple of truly excellent finds – a handful if you’re lucky – but it you’ve just got two weeks or less, forget it.

I’m not being pessimistic, just realistic. There are a lot of good restaurants out there, but there are a lot of crap ones too – and as somebody who measures life in mealtimes, there is nothing that makes me madder than a disappointing dinner. Guidebooks have some good recommendations but the ‘Lonely Planet effect’ means that these hotspots are soon overrun with other tourists in search of a yummy meal.

Tour operators like Inside Vietnam provide the happy medium: personal recommendations that aren’t available to everyone under the sun. We realised the wisdom of this on our last day in Cambodia, when we foolishly eschewed our Info-Pack and struck out on our own. We chose a nice-looking café down the road from our hotel that served bin-juice flavoured salads. Controversial.

Hanoi - View from the Sofitel Plaza_4906
Enjoying cocktails with a view at the Sofitel Plaza in Hanoi – as recommended in our Inside Vietnam Info-Pack

If something goes wrong, it’s someone else’s problem

Thankfully we didn’t have any emergencies on our trip this time, but it was comforting to know that if we did we’d just be a phone call away from our partners’ offices in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I’m not one of the world’s worriers, but even I can appreciate how liberating it is to be able to think ‘if it all goes tits up, someone else will sort it out’. Holidays, after all, are not for worrying.

The hotels are great

Today we have all kinds of fantastic tools at our disposal to tell us about places we’ve never been to before. TripAdvisor, Airbnb, travellers’ forums, social media and travel blogs have all given us unparalleled insight into the world of holiday accommodation – but they can still only give us part of the picture. Reviews are often highly opinionated and biased, prices can be misleading, online information can be wildly out of date, and photos can tell a thousand lies. Even the most diligent researcher can never really be sure whether they’ve chosen the right place.

All of the hotels on our trip, however, were selected according to our particular requirements by a team who has visited them – not just once – but regularly, to make sure that they were all up to scratch. As a consequence, there was not a single dud in the bunch, and we headed to each hotel not with trepidation (as we might usually) but with anticipation.

The idyllic (if rather oddly named) My Dream Resort in Luang Prabang
The idyllic (if rather oddly named) My Dream Resort in Luang Prabang

Guided transfers are the best thing since sliced bread

Anybody who travels regularly will be familiar with the feeling you get as you emerge, bleary-eyed, at a new destination at some ungodly hour of the morning, fresh (or not so fresh) from an overnight train/bus/flight (which has inevitably deposited you either far too early or far too late), without the faintest idea of where your next hotel is or how to get there. You’re barely awake, it’s either far too hot or far too cold, you’re lugging 10 tonnes of luggage, and there are either a thousand touts clamouring to flog you a taxi ride or nothing but a deadly silence and passing tumbleweed. Then, when you finally arrive at your hotel, you find it’s closed down, or just closed, or full, or horrible, or it’s been hit by an asteroid, or swallowed into a sinkhole. That feeling. That is one of my least favourite things about travelling.

Guided transfers mean that nothing can ever go wrong again. Someone is there, waiting for you, no matter what time in the morning or day of the week – ready to take you to wherever you need to be and sort out any hitch or hiccup that might present itself along the way. They are the fairy godmothers of travelling.

Thus, when we arrived in Hanoi at 4.30 in the morning on our sleeper train from Dong Hoi, our guide was waiting on the platform to take us to our car, drive us to our hotel (where early check-in had already been magically arranged), wake up the concierge to let us in, show us to our rooms and give us a few handy recommendations for our stay in the city. He all but tucked us in and read us a bedtime story. It was wonderful. Guided transfers, for me, are the ultimate holiday luxury.

Phong Nha - Tu Lan Cave Trek_4589

When all’s said and done, we’ll always be a family that does our own thing. But whilst we’ll never give up organising our own adventures for good – what we learned on this trip was that when you choose the right tour operator, even the most die-hard DIYers can learn to stop worrying and love the package holiday.

The Cloutmen travelled to Indochina in March and April 2016. If you’ve been converted to the way of the package – get on the phone and start planning yours now!

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