The Trip From Hell

The Trip From Hell

... and how to avoid it

  • By: Cathy Beck
  • and Beau Beasley
  • Photography by: Barry Beck
Istepped off the plane in Anchorage and realized that I had dreamed of this moment--of fishing in Alaska--for years. I had read everything I could get my hands on about fly-fishing in Alaska. I had seen the pictures of massive grizzly bears standing in the current and catching salmon in their mouths as the fish struggled to their spawning grounds. I had listened to lectures and heard stories of spectacular scenery with gigantic, lonely stretches of land inhabited by moose and eagles. This is the trip that I will remember for the rest of my life, I told myself.Little did I know how right I was. My trip to Alaska was memorable, without a doubt--but for all the wrong reasons. I found myself fishing rivers with so much pressure that I lost count of how many other anglers I saw. The innumerable coolers and tents strewn along the riverbanks were a far cry from the majestic scenery I had imagined. I learned that I had come to Alaska at the wrong time of year for the species of fish I wanted to pursue. The man I had trusted to design the trip decided to save money by hiring a number of his friends to serve as my "guides." My primary mistake was leaving all of the planning to someone I didn't know and whose reputation I hadn't checked. I had assumed that my responsibility for the trip was limited to showing up and fishing. As a result, from the moment I stepped off of the airplane, my experience went from bad to worse. Eventually, I took matters into my own hands and managed to salvage the final days of what ranks as the worst travel experience of my life. Still, I left Alaska frustrated, angry and tremendously disappointed. Perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow was the knowledge that I had no one to blame for my misadventure but myself. Had I bothered to do my homework during the planning stages of the trip, my dream trip might not have turned into a nightmare. What could I have done to ensure a successful travel experience? I posed this question and others to several agents specializing in outdoor travel. Tom Ackerman of Classic Connections, a travel agency in Topsham, Maine, spent 20 years working with L.L. Bean before opening his own agency. When I asked him about his company's refund policy for disgruntled customers, he didn't miss a beat: "We've only had a handful of customers who have ever asked for their money back, and we refunded the full amount happily." I was dumbfounded. "It's easy for me to promise 100 percent satisfaction to my clients," Ackerman continued, "because we almost never have complaints. We like to come alongside our clients and act like trusted advisors. If we have an unhappy client, we will make things right for them. Our reputation is worth more than any trip." Harry Robertson of Hanover Fly Fishers hosts anglers to places such as Alaska, Costa Rica, Canada and even Mongolia. He told me one of his primary tasks is to match the abilities of the client to the trip he or she is looking for. His advice: Be as specific as possible about your needs and expectations when planning a trip with an agent. "If you don't cast well, tell the agent. If you have health issues, tell the agent. And for goodness sake, if you're going during the rainy season, take rain gear." Robertson adds that he has "had to tell more than one client that he or she is not a good fit for a particular trip. From a business standpoint, it's tough to turn down the sale of a trip that might be worth $5,000 or more. But I just won't set someone up for failure. I know what my clients are going to get when I take them out, and so do they. This way our relationship is win/win from the very outset, which I've found alleviates many potential conflicts or problems." Mike Fitzgerald of Frontiers Travel knows a thing or two about the potential for problems when traveling. His family-run business has operated for more than 30 years and handles about 9,000 clients a year. Mike stressed the importance of travel insurance and explained how his company handles clients' emergency situations: "We have an answerable phone 24 hours a day. If you are injured or stranded somewhere, the last thing you want to do is talk to an answering machine. We give all of our clients numbers to call even if they are out of the country." Fitzgerald also believes that travel insurance and medical evacuation insurance help travelers hedge their bets. "Travel insurance is an option we offer on all our trips. It runs about five percent of the total cost of the trip and covers you in the event of unforeseen circumstances like a death in the family or if your trip is cancelled for weather before you leave." He also recommends medical evacuation insurance, which runs "about five bucks a day and is well worth it if you need it. Say, for example, that you have a medical emergency while you're at Christmas Island. If you have to charter a private plane to fly you back to the States for medical attention, get ready to shell out about $35,000." Fitzgerald remembers a couple who booked an African safari. Upon landing in Paris, they rented a car to do a little sightseeing. Unfortunately, a passing vehicle struck the wife as she stepped out of the rental car. Authorities rushed her to a nearby hospital. Needless to say, she and her husband did not continue on their trip. Fortunately, the couple had purchased travel insurance, which reimbursed them for the entire amount of their safari. For anglers visiting a destination for the first time, Lance Kaufmann of Kaufmann's Streamborn says it is imperative to book through a qualified outfitter or agency. The reason, he says, is that at most lodges "repeat customers will be given the preference over the first-time or solo anglers. You'll still get a good trip, but you will get the second-tier spots." Kaufmann says any reputable agency will check on the other guests to make sure their client doesn't get short-shrifted. Some hapless anglers also fail to read the gear suggestions provided by their agents or the lodges they intend to visit. Mike Michalak of the Fly Shop says, "I once had a guy fly all the way to Alaska and show up with no flies whatsoever. He then had the temerity to complain that there was nowhere to buy any. I pointed out that the trip information said to bring your own flies. He said that he had read that but believed the only reason he was told that was so he bought flies from me rather than the lodge. Go figure." All of the agents with whom I spoke have essentially the same outlook on customer service. They ask their clients to be as truthful as possible about their expectations for the trip and their experience level. The agents then match the angler with an appropriate location and lodge. Clients' skill level and tolerance for weather extremes are important, say the agents. For instance, while you may be a trout bum who can cast his 4-weight 35 feet with deadly accuracy, such prowess may be of little consequence if you are throwing an 11-weight in high wind for tarpon. The agents I spoke to will do all that they can to ensure a successful trip--but they won't guarantee that you'll catch fish. One agent commented that a client tried to cancel the credit card charge for a trip he had already taken because he did not catch 35 tarpon as he had hoped! Neither the traveling angler nor his travel agent can do much about the weather. Wind, rain, snow and even hail are part of the outdoor experience. If you book a five-day fishing trip and get rained on two of your five days, you'll most likely have to take your lumps like a big boy. After all, most lodges pack a year's worth of trips (and therefore of profits) into a four-month or shorter season. If they offered refunds to everyone who experienced inclement weather while on vacation, they wouldn't be around the following season. If, however, you've booked with a charter boat that doesn't leave the dock, you'll almost certainly get a full refund for that part of the trip. OK now, let's say that despite all your preparations and precautions you are having or did have a bad trip. How do you complain? Whom do you talk to? First Try the lodge owner or manager. Be as specific as possible about what is wrong. "I'm not having a good time" probably won't get you too far. Instead, give the lodge owner something to work with: "I'm having a hard time enjoying myself here because the guide insists on using inappropriate language around my wife." Most lodge owners truly want to please their customers. Certainly none of them wants an unhappy customer telling everyone he knows what a lousy time he had at the lodge. Second While you are still at the lodge or destination call the agent through whom you booked the trip. The unpleasant situation may be the result of a simple misunderstanding that the agent can help to resolve quickly. Even if it's not, a reputable booking agent will want to hear your grievances because he or she may direct numerous clients to the lodge in the course of a year. Be open to the agent's attempts to satisfy you. He or she may offer you a return trip at a different time of year, a trip to an alternate destination, or a few bonus days tacked on to the end of your current trip. Third If you feel that neither the lodge owner nor your booking agent has taken your complaints seriously enough, tough out the trip and call your booking agent again when you return home. Follow up this phone call with a letter to the agent copied to his or her supervisor as well as to the lodge at which you stayed. Written complaints often carry more weight; your poison pen might just encourage the lodge owner or travel agency to work a little harder to make things right. Don't threaten to sue either the lodge owner or the travel agent. This approach only causes angst and puts all parties on the defensive. Finally a few simple steps might give you more control over the success of your dream trip than you think. If you haven't fished for a while, take a casting lesson before you go. Do your homework and shop around for a reputable travel agent who specializes in the kind of trip you want to take. Learn all you can about your destination. Don't be afraid to ask for references from the place you plan to stay. Lock your luggage to discourage petty thieves while traveling. Also, carry photocopies of your passport in the event that you lose yours. Most embassies can replace a misplaced or stolen passport in a day if you have a copy to prove that you had the original. If you don't have a copy, you may have to stay a week longer waiting for your duplicate passport to arrive. And, just in case you're wondering, no--your travel insurance won't cover the cost of staying additional days for such a simple mistake.