Tour Director Mirne L. Schowengerdt
Having visited England before, we still wanted to see London in a little more depth and then visit several cities we had not seen before. We saw the GoAhead Tours had a ten-day trip to England and Wales that would be perfect. We have traveled with GoAhead Tours (GAT) three other times and we were generally pleased with their trips and pace. We soon found out that this trip might be even better in that it was a smaller group; only ten people signed up to join us.
On May 14 we boarded a direct flight from Denver, Colorado to Heathrow Airport in London, England on British Airways. We had been encouraged by GAT to book as a World Traveler Plus and there were some benefits - little more leg room and seats that reclined a bit more. With a weather delay, the flight was just over 10 hours. Our return flight on May 24 was not delayed and it was 9:30 in length. As with most national airlines, amenities are not available and charges mount.
A driver contracted by GAT met us at Heathrow and he took us to the Novotel hotel by Tower Bridge.
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The drive took us 1:30 hours with the London traffic on Saturday. Once we arrived we were met by our Tour Director Mirne L. Schowengerdt. She helped us check in, gave us local information, and let us know we would have an introductory meeting and then dinner later in the afternoon.
From the beginning, Mirne was superb. She smiled all the time, was always available, gave us her cell number if there were problems, took the time to review the present and next day's schedule, and posted the next day's schedule every day in the hotel lobby. She established parameters as to promptness and expectations. In the van she would go over what we would see and do, giving detailed information on what to see and experience. Even thought this was her first tour with GAT, attention to detail was a real strength.
All of our Local Guides (Stewart in London, Nancy in Cambridge, and Ellen in Caernarfon) were excellent, took their time with us, and were very personable and knowledgeable of the area they represented. Martin in York was good but the presentation in the rain was quite short and he left us under some trees with instructions to see the old city but to go with Mirne and visit the Minster.
Our vehicle was a Mercedes Benz Sprinter tourist van with 16 seats but capable of seating 12 passengers. Each seat was very narrow and three faced the rear. Luggage space was quite limited for the one suitcase each passenger was allowed. With backpacks and carry-ons space was at a premium. This definitely was not a deluxe Moto-Coach as advertised by GAT.
Our initial driver was very nice but he did not know how to control the heating and cooling. People in the back row were always very cold when people in the front were comfortable. Our second driver did not know the operation of the vehicle and was a smoker and after a stop, cigarette smoke wafted in the van. He also could or did not load and unload the luggage. Throughout the trip the windows were never cleaned, inside and out, the trash was not picked up and disposed to the point that on the last day, the bus smelled very bad and Mirne had to go and clean the trash.
Mirne took on the responsibility to load and unload the luggage from the motor coach. Several tour members assisted in this process. The issue was compounded when the hotels in London, York and Llanveris did not have porters - tour members were responsible for their luggage into and around the hotel and at the end of the stay in taking those to the coach to be loaded. In 76 tours we have never had this situation, especially since this was part of our fees with GAT.
As one discusses the itinerary, readers need to keep in mind that GAT has a policy that “optional activities” must have a minimum of 10 people to run. We were a group of 12 so this policy basically precluded any being available on this trip. Mirne was able to convince GAT to allow 6 to participate in the Cheddar Optional Tour. There should be a procedure in place where GAT and the Tour Director assist those wishing to go on optionals to do them on their own. We had this available to us individually in the Amsterdam, etc Tour and Paris Post Trip with Thomas Kreiseler.
Our biggest concern with the itinerary was the discrepancy between what we were told we would do and what was given to Mirne in her printed material. As we had a copy of the itinerary in its paragraph format detailing our very day on the trip, we could show Mirne what we had received and expected and she could show us her printed GAT itinerary. They were significantly different.
The first major issue was on Day 5 in York. Our guided tour ended outside the Minster. The listed activities were not done by the tour guide Martin. He left us in the rain. We did not go to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate, Merchant Adventurer's Hall and Clifford's Tower, the magnificent keep of York Castle, or the walk along the city's famed medieval walls.
On Day 6 we traveled from York to Wales with a stop in Chester. We were scheduled for an informal orientation of the city, including the largest Roman amphitheater in England. No one in the group saw the amphitheater as it was not on our tour director’s papers.
Our train ride on Day 7 was to be either the Llanberis Lake or the Mount Snowdon Railway depending on the weather. As the weather was perfect several tour members went to the Mount Snowdon Railway only to find out that GAT had made reservations several days earlier on the Llanberis Lake line and there was no contingency for a change.
Our drive on Day 8 was to get the group to Bath so we could see the historical sights of the city. As the hotel was within a 15-minute walk from these sights it should not have been a problem. Unfortunately, we did not arrive at the hotel until 4 PM and had until 6:30 when we had a group dinner. This gave members less than 1:30 hours to see Bath's most famous architectural sites, including the Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent, and the Circus. Unfortunately, these closed before 6 PM.
On Day 10 we drove from Bath to London. Our first stop was Stonehenge and it was spectacular. The layout was so good that as one walked around there were so many places one sees only Stonehenge and not all the thousands of people walking the circle. The second portion of the day was a conflict, ours stated "Then, continue on to the medieval city of Salisbury, where your Tour Director will lead you on a guided tour. You'll see one of Britain's finest views, the tall spire of Salisbury Cathedral soaring into the sky. You'll also have free time to discover the city's historic architecture, charming shopping streets and thriving artistic community."
Mirne did not have this schedule. Her's was for us to return directly to London. We showed her the GAT paragraph with Salisbury included. We then mentioned that an original copy of the Magna Carta was inside the Salisbury Cathedral. She quickly told the new driver to go to the Cathedral and gave us directions to also have lunch.
Our last observation is to mention that GAT did not have a Farewell Dinner where we as a group could discuss the trip and enjoy each other's company one more time. This 10-day trip had three included dinners and no lunches. With all the restaurants around the Novotel Tower Bridge, it would have been very easy and affordable.
In conclusion, the lack of information and support for Mirne by GoAhead Tours is a major concern for us. As this was her first tour with GAT she should have been given all the information the tour members had been sent. She has an excellent reputation working for EF, the parent company, but having never done this or any GAT tour was not fair to her. What she did was excellent and way above what most tour directors do. We would have no hesitancy in doing another trip with her, as she now knows that she needs to be given all the material tour members get.
Just before we were to go on our first journey of 2020, the COVID-19 virus hit and the world shut down for travel and adventure.
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