My wife and I are just back from an amazing 3-week, tailor-made Rajasthan road-trip. We planned our itinerary in some detail, but soon realised that life would be a lot easier if we used a travel agent/tour operator to book our hotels and our car/driver, to offer expert up-to-date advice and to provide back-up in case of problems along the way. So we then had to decide whether to use one of the well-known overseas (in our case UK-based) companies which specialise in India for independent travellers, or to take a leap into the unknown and rely on a local company. That’s a pretty crucial decision so, if anyone else is facing the same choice, perhaps our experience (apologies for the length!) could be of some help.
USING A UK-BASED COMPANY
a) We approached two very well-known names. We were attracted to the idea of dealing with established outfits with good reputations. We looked forward to the ease of communication. And we liked the financial security which would come from paying a UK company with a UK credit card.
b) Company A clearly knew the area well but turned out to have a rather restricting interpretation of tailor-made. We sensed that they liked to fit independent travellers into a fairly standard formula. They would only book hotels on their own list (we had done a lot of research and we were especially interested in character accommodation, even if it might mean the odd compromise on quality). As a result, for example, they wouldn’t even include Bundi in our itinerary because they reckoned that there was no hotel there of an acceptable standard.
c) Company B offered a fully bespoke service. We could go anywhere and book any hotel, so long as the company would be able to get its commission (and so long as we took responsibility, if we insisted on a hotel which the company wouldn’t normally recommend). Our consultant had impressive experience and gave good advice. So we were confident that Company B could deliver the kind of trip that we wanted. But we were a bit uneasy that they kept pressing for our budget, so that they could ‘design a trip around that sum’.
d) When it came to the cost – for 23 hotel-nights and 22 days car/driver – both companies produced pretty similar figures. Which is when we realised that we had a problem. The prices were way out of line with what we had expected. Since we had originally intended to make our own arrangements, we knew what most of the hotel rack-rates were. And from TripAdvisor we had a fair idea of what the car/driver cost might be. So it looked as if the UK companies which we had approached were adding at least 50%, and maybe as much as 75%, to the public price (in addition to the commission they would get from each hotel). I absolutely expect, of course, to pay for service, expertise, convenience and security. But that level of mark-up did strike me as excessive (as well, in our case, as unaffordable).
e) I asked both UK companies if they could provide some break-down of their all-in quotes, so that I could see where savings might be made. Both declined to do so. One specifically explained that they were not allowed to reveal their special (!) contract rates.
USING AN INDIAN COMPANY (TGS TOURS OF JAIPUR)
a) We were therefore eager to see what an Indian company would offer. Encouraged by TripAdvisor feedback, we e-mailed our proposed itinerary to Nikhil Pandit of TGS Tours. We also explained our concerns about entrusting our travels – and our cash – to a company which we knew next-to-nothing about.
b) Nikhil responded rapidly, provided first-hand independent-sounding advice, offered some reassurance on the financial front and put us in direct touch with several past US, UK and Australian clients.
c) As a result, we invited TGS to quote for almost-exactly the trip which we had discussed with UK Company B. Same itinerary, same time-scale, same vehicle, same hotels (subject to a couple of minor adjustments). Amazingly, the final cost ended up at …. less than 60% of the UK price. TGS also volunteeered a detailed day-by-day cost breakdown, so that we could see what we were paying for each hotel, for the car/driver and for the TGS service.
d) Not surprisingly – if not without a little lingering uncertainty of the unknown – we decided to go ahead with TGS. And not just because of the cost: the transparency of the TGS pricing was a very persuasive and customer-friendly factor.
e) Over the coming months, our many contacts with Nikhil made us confident that we had taken the right decision. We did, however, have one bit of unease some 8 weeks before departure, when we had to make our first payment: credit card companies really don’t like customer-not-present transactions out of India so, after the frustration of several failed payment attempts, we found ourselves forced to make a bank transfer to cover our hotel costs. As a result, we were – albeit briefly – more exposed than we would have liked to the risk (however remote) of things going totally wrong. The upside, though, was that the bank transfer did save us the significant credit-card surcharge. And the fact that TGS never expected to be paid for our car/driver until we reached Jaipur (at the end of our trip) also gave us a good deal of extra reassurance.
In the event, our TGS road-trip was brilliant. Nothing whatsoever went wrong. The quoted price was exactly what we paid. Our car and driver were excellent. Our hotel reservations worked perfectly – and we were often upgraded to a suite (maybe we were lucky, or maybe it helped to be travelling with a well-regarded local company). Nikhil phoned us regularly to check that everything was ok, happily made some en-route adjustments at our request and kindly invited us to his home for drinks while we were in Jaipur.
In short, I can’t think of any way in which using an overseas operator would have improved our trip. Obviously, I’m sure that we would also have had a great time had we gone with a good UK-based company – but, had we accepted either of the quotes we received, I’d have been pretty unhappy if I’d ever discovered how much extra we had paid for that pleasure. I’m sure, of course, that there are many other good Indian travel companies in addition to TGS (just as there must be lesser ones, too). And I imagine that others on TA may know of some overseas India specialists which do provide transparent and fair pricing. All I can do is speak from our own experience last month – and that experience means that we would certainly choose TGS if we were going to Rajasthan again.Edited: 9 years ago