June 8, 2023

The Sri Lanka holiday

So it’s been over a month now since I returned from Sri Lanka and I have not blogged about it. Have you been wondering? (and if not, why not?). The truth is, the entire holiday was slightly underwhelming and I have been mulling over what was not quite right – actually, I knew what was wrong even while in Sri Lanka but I have been trying to think objectively about it since my return.

A combination of many things really – it was raining heavily the first few days of the trip, I was in poor health (and had to visit a doctor in Colombo finally – the worst thing on a holiday)… but the main culprit – without which, the others would still have been alright – is that my travel planning agents had screwed up big time.

In my travels, I have rarely used a travel agent of any sort – except to book tickets and such basic requirements – and have been wary of them. To me, ‘travel agent’ has always spelt trouble – from minor bloopers, wrong dates, unkept promises all the way to blatant cheating, I had heard all the stories and sworn off them. The only reason I considered ivinca was that I was busy during that period and was glad to have someone plan and book for me (otherwise, I love the travel planning as much, or nearly as much as the actual travel!) – and I had met the owner / promoter who had spun a story of “we are not a booking agent – we are your holiday partners and will plan your entire trip for you based on your interests and requirements” – serves me right for falling for that.

So, finally what happened was – Murphy struck – in the form of the highly inefficient and unimaginative ivinca. And everything that could go wrong, pretty much did.

Sri Lanka itself falls flat, especially on the visual front, if you have traveled a lot within India – the feel of being in rural India, say a cleaner Kerala never left us through our time in the country. And for all that, given the kind of things I had been hearing and reading about it, I felt that it did not match those expectations.

However, what I did love about being in Sri Lanka was the buzz in the country about a peaceful and prosperous future – I was lucky to be there at the right time and the enthusiasm of a country that is enjoying peace after prolonged war is infectious. I also stayed at some wonderful hotels and resorts across the country (places I had chosen from user reviews on the internet – since the choices offered by ivinca had terrible reviews everywhere).

Anyway, I am back and still bitter about that experience – what irks me more than anything else was the initial response to my feedback from the partners at ivinca. It is just.not.acceptable. to not take responsibility for your mistakes – and it is worse to try passing it on to the customer. A customer who has paid big bucks for a premium package, I may add.

Here are some tips for you from a travel-agent-weary traveler, for what it is worth:

1. Choose wisely – Trust your initial impressions and judgment about the travel company / person you choose – I ignored my instincts that screamed that they were clueless but given my situation then, I went ahead. Talk to your agents, if possible, meet them a couple of times to discuss the itinerary together – and make sure that they are intelligent and understand your needs and expectations. This, I cannot stress enough, is critical.

2. Double check on the vehicle – If you are paying for a car and / or driver – check before you leave on what kind of car you are getting – we paid for a large car and ended up with a large car that was twelve years old – my husband and I were the only properly-functioning elements inside the car (and that too, not all the time!) – and this is in a country of swanky Mercedes and Toyotas for tourists.

3. Agree on your guide’s role – Have you paid for a guide? Is the driver going to act as your tour guide – according to the package? Do confirm these – since we paid for a driver-guide and ended up having to look for a separate guide at some places since our man did not feel inclined to step out of the car in the rain on those days.

We also ended up skipping a couple of important places from our itinerary thanks to, again, our guide’s machinations – and at that time, there was not much we could do to actually force him. In such cases, my advice to you is to call your agent and demand a replacement or repair of the situation. It is not a time to be nice or resigned (we were both, unfortunately).

4. Be prepared – Rain reminds me – there is nothing you can do about the weather – but do check likely weather conditions (especially possibility of rain) before you leave – and be prepared. Luckily for us, by the time we left for the hills, the skies had cleared up and we spent three glorious days among the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya.

5. Do your own research – Even if you go through a so-called trip planner, spend some time on the internet or asking friends who have traveled to the place for suggestions – what to do, and equally importantly, what not, special places to see, unmissables and suchlike.

For instance, December, when we went to Sri Lanka, is prime time to spot migratory whales on the Southern beaches. And our blessed holiday-planners had no idea – they did not suggest it (how could they – when they drafted my itinerary, none of them had actually visited Sri Lanka!), and in my lack of time, I had not bothered to ask around. By the time, I read about it and heard about it from several friends – as a total must-do, it was too late – our hotels were booked and there was no way of changing plans without a significant loss of money.

6. Discuss meal plans – About the hotels you finally choose, do check for proximity from tourist spots and places of your interest – what I mean is, we ended up in hotels that were gorgeous (Amaya Lake, Tea Factory) but miles from anywhere – including anywhere that serves food. And we were on an only-breakfast plan – combine this isolation with an uncooperative driver and you get a situation where you are forced to eat all meals at the hotel – and pay top-end, ridiculous hotel rates for food that you would rather avoid. By all means, choose the resorts and hotels that appeal to you, but discuss your meal plans with your travel agent – in case of far-flung locations, I recommend throwing in atleast one meal, say, dinner, along with your breakfast.

7. Avoid ivinca – After all this, I have only one bit of advice left – do not use ivinca. I regretted the day I decided to use their services for a holiday I was so looking forward to. Better holidays in every way? Sorry, but do you mean bitter?

As an aside, I find that my name used to feature on the blogroll of the ivinca blog – and has since disappeared. Shame on you, ivinca!

Also read: I had read this post about the tricks tour companies play – only I had never thought I would one day fall prey to these. Such is life…

16 thoughts on “The Sri Lanka holiday

  1. Wow, thanks for the heads-up and the advice. My husband and I have had recent disagreements on the usefulness of travel agents. Where I see them as an unnecessary middle-man (who cuts out the fun of research and planning), he sees them as expert travelers who know all of the ins-and-outs of how to have a great trip, that he doesn’t know.

  2. What a shame that your vacation turned out this way. But thanks for sharing all this with us, it is tremendously helpful. I’ve been thinking about – and avoiding – a Sri Lanka vacation for many years now. One of the reasons the vacation hasn’t come about is something you’ve mentioned, that it probably would not feel too different from India, particularly Kerala.

  3. shalini, world traveler? I wish! *deep sigh* – but yes, had to make the best of it – luckily we stayed in some nice places and that was a saving grace…

    Kate, I am wary of travel agents of any kind – for one, I believe that contrary to popular belief, they don’t get us better deals but add to our costs – by padding up our bills with their own costs! That said, I would love to sometime have an expert plan my holiday – someone who truly understands what I am looking for and customizes the holiday for me… wonder if that will ever happen…

    Kamini, yes, Sri Lanka might be an exciting “exotic” new location for Westerners but for Indians, it kind of falls flat. However, as I mentioned, I enjoyed being there at a time when the elections were due and people were hopeful for their future…

  4. actually i had a very good time in Srilanka 🙂 maybe because i just planned on my own and chose what i should do 🙂 I agree to the part that this country looks just like any of our coastal states.

  5. Sharanya, lucky you! I liked the Buddhist circuit – but it poured and poured the time we were there (climbed Sigiriya in the rain – not fun!) – and Nuwara Eliya was beautiful – and so peaceful!

  6. I have always wanted to travel to Sri Lanka but when you say that

    the enthusiasm of a country that is enjoying peace after prolonged war is infectious, I wonder whether I should still think about going there..

    Sorry, I dont share this infection. Didnt anyone care about the high price that they have paid for this “peace”?

    However, a cleaner Kerala is surely not bad!

  7. revathi, ah, I was wondering who was going to bring this up – so war happened – so are normal people responsible for it? and now what are they to do? brood over the human cost of the war – or think with hope (finally) about their future? and who is to say noone cares? what do they need to show that they care?

  8. Charukesi,

    Thanks for your response. What happened in SriLanka is not just war- it is also genocide. It is ofcourse normal for people not to want to talk about it. It took the germans a whole generation before people began to talk freely about holocaust.
    Anyway, sorry for having turned your travel blog political.

  9. I share the same views as you on Sri Lanka. A duplicate, cleaner Kerala where they consider Indians as foreigners and hence we also end up paying the foreigner entrance fees at the monuments, museums and buildings. And there are a lot of Buddha statues and temples around there!

    But what I did like about my trip there was the arrangement by the travel agency, the courteous driver and the cheerful tour guide with broken english whom we also taught a lil bit of Hindi. Of course, he wasn’t a ‘proper’ guide, more like a facilitator and quite helpful and like you said, the hotels were fun.

    But I have advised everyone who has spoken of going there to consider doing Kerala instead. Just because it’s ‘foreign’ and they give a visa on arrival for Indians, doesn’t mean we have to go there 🙂

  10. Sid, totally agree – if phoren is the intention, then surely a Thailand is a better option? SL was beautiful – I liked the country for sure – just that the wow factor was missing…

  11. I just got back after backpacking in Sri-Lanka for a week. Travelled around the Hill Country and the Ancient Cities. Couldnt travel to Jaffna (which the locals says is the most beautiful part of Lanka) since i didnt manage to get the permit which is required for foreigners.

    I totally agree with you. Its Kerala without a wow factor.
    And tt was quite expensive than i imagined.

    But the thing which bowled me over were the people.
    They were loving, honest, friendly and welcoming.
    This is what Kerala lacks to some extent.

    It was a relaxing trip for me. Loved the food and the people.

    Sri Lanka is a place which you should do it on your own rather than going with a travel agent.

  12. Hi Charu, Thanks for the warning ! Planning a trip to Sri Lanka this May for 5 days…lets see how it goes !

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