Circle the Arctic 2015

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JUNE 9-30, 2015

It has been my habit for years to write a summary of a trip after the whole adventure is over and the mind and body have had a chance to reflect. So this is that document but I must admit that I have been thinking about what to say starting weeks ago. That's because something was "off" on this trip. I thought it was just me because I have a habit of speaking out but it became clear that there were several others who felt the same way. A few said that this was the last TCS trip they were going on.

It clearly could not be blamed on the places we stopped because each of the places were interesting and most stops, like Japan, Russia, and the Arctic were spectacular.

It could not have been the people. The Northern Summer group tended to be in their seventies, were obviously financially comfortable, and almost everyone was an experienced traveler. In fact, if there were such a group as the English Explorer's Club in existence today, this group would be among its members. Throughout their travel lives they have gone everywhere and done everything. As I said, experienced.

However, the previous statement about the group might give a clue as to what was somehow "off". The trip was not advertised as "Europe on $5 a day" – in fact, the charge worked out to be about $3,000 a day, not counting hotel upgrades, travel to Seattle and back home from Boston. The less expensive travel that most of us took when we were young meant by definition that we would have to rough it and deal with unpleasant episodes. But in our seventies, most of the group have been fortunate enough to continue to be able to travel plus willing to pay a premium to do so.

What would be expected for this premium? The answer to that is not about going to any particular place or group of places, because private travel is always an option. It is service and the assurance that someone has taken the care to allow the traveler to experience sightseeing with an absolute minimum of inconvenience.

Again, for a significant number of this group, this was not their first private jet tour and indeed, not the first with TCS. So we all had a standard to compare the trip against. We were aware that the travel by private jet meant that you flew to the nearest airport that would accept the jet and then go on by bus. For that reason, and I factored this in, travel by private jet really could be called Around the World by Bus. We were also aware that there would be days where the trip would seem like a forced march with early morning starts and late arrivals. What I am saying is that perfection was not an expectation. And yet, something was off kilter.

The symptoms of a deep problem with the trip TCS sold was the number of unpleasant surprises. The ship we were to explore the islands with, an "all-suite" ship per the booklet we received in May or June of 2014, was later changed to a different and smaller ship. That forced the large majority of us to sleep in what were de facto closets (uniformly complained about). Further, the ship was not able to dock in port so our initial embarkation (and our disembarking) had to be done by Zodiac. (I have a personal issue with the Zodiac and was told that I could take the cruise without having to get on a Zodiac meaning I had to get on Zodiac, like it or not, if I was to continue the trip). Other issues included busses breaking down because, apparently, they were not checked out before they were put in service. (This breakdown required a group of us to journey to our Moscow hotel by subway, with our carry-on baggage.) There were occasions when drivers seemed to get lost, when buses were substantially late, and other transport related episodes.

Meals on the plane and on the cruise were superb. Dining in some of the cities was another issue. When no one knew what to do with us, they fed us – up to four times a day. There is always a problem when a tour is trying to feed a group and give them a sample of local cuisine in private restaurants. The food tends to be less than gourmet. The service in a couple of the restaurants was poor. The Gudenov restaurant in Moscow recommended by the tour was so bad that after an hour wait, half the group left without eating. (A related issue was that the local guide who came to the restaurant with us was nowhere to be found after we were initially seated.)

Finally, travel by private jet should mean that you do not have to deal with the craziness that characterizes travel by commercial airlines. A lot of that craziness was removed during this trip but a significant feature of traveling to places that require packing large suitcases is that those large suitcases are taken care of by the tour. In the main this was so but in three places we had to offload our large suitcases at baggage claim and bring them through customs. It wasn't until the third place when there may have been enough complaints that porters became available.

The staff and crew that accompanied us were polite and solicitous at all times. They took care of the details of travel with efficiency and good cheer. However, the number of screw-ups that were occurring were not lost on them. They reacted, at least in the beginning with not giving us any bad news "heads up", which left us unprepared for what we would be facing next. This got better as the trip progressed and we complained about the surprises more. It seemed that staff were constantly forced to play "pick up ball". More annoying was the habit of continually telling us what a great time we were having.

Enough of the complaining. I write this blog not only to report on our adventure but to give what I hope are some constructive observations to those who might be thinking of traveling in this particular way. In this case, there was almost nothing that experienced travelers could do to mitigate against any inconveniences that occurred. They were either the result of poor planning on the part of TCS or the result of less than top notch performance by TCS's local contractors.

Unfortunately, in sum, they made less than sterling a trip that should have been a luxury experience to interesting places.

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