A couple came to me a few weeks ago wanting to explore Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in January 2023. One of them was an experienced cruiser who favored ocean-going vessels; the other especially wanted to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. They were open to any mode of travel, so long as it was extremely comfortable. Both were ardent walkers and foodies; they had 2-3 weeks set aside to travel.
They realized they might have to make some adjustments since Angkor Wat is not close to any sea lanes, and they knew that they didn’t want to take any overnight excursions that would rack up costs and time away from home. After considering the options, I proposed two vacations to consider:
- Silversea Cruises offers a 14-night cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong on the Silversea Silver Spirit. Although the cruise began and ended in places not on their list, I knew these were cities that they would happily consider. The downer was they wouldn’t get to visit Angkor Wat. The cost is $7,800 for a Classic Veranda Suite. Extras included a three-day stay in Saigon, two-day stays in Bangkok and Hong Kong, and one day with a private car and driver in any major port. The nightly cost without airfare and insurance is $557 per night.
- The 15-night Tauck “Classic Land Journey” of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand explores these nations with no use of ships, or trains, and relatively few long bus rides. The tour starts in Hanoi and flies to Hue and Da Nang, then to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The guests fly to Angkor Wat, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok where the tour concludes. The tour is 15 nights, and the cost is $8,690 per person. The nightly cost of $579 per person.
There are superb perks with either choice. My wife and I have traveled halfway around the world on five Silversea cruises and have never found them wanting anything. The classic veranda staterooms are roomy and in good locations. With nearly every ship having at least a few COVID cases on board, I discourage my clients from booking any stateroom without a balcony.
Tauck books its guests into the world’s finest hotels. On this journey, the property managers include Raffles, Four Seasons, Rosewood, Sofitel, and Park Hyatt.
When it comes to the overall cost of a vacation, air travel is the joker. While Economy Class is always the loss leader, many of your clients don’t want to start and end their vacations in cramped seats with no legroom and indifferent service. While everyone—especially the plus-size and the elderly—wants to fly business class, some cruise lines have used Business Class as a “cash cow” priced close to the cost of the entire cruise. If you say that your clients want to buy Premium Economy Tickets, you’ll often receive the response, “Sorry, our airline contracts don’t permit this.”
If you buy airline tickets through the airlines or online sources, this can sometimes void coverage of the flights through the cruise line or tour provider; and cause you real pain, if the airline cancels or changes the flights. I’ve reached the point at which, if a cruise line or tour provider doesn’t offer reasonably priced airfare of the type I need, I ask the guests to purchase the tickets themselves after recommending the best alternatives. In some cases, this leads to the guest selecting another cruise line that’s not as greedy. There’s no reason that a two-week cruise should cost the same as two 18-hour flights!
Medical and travel delay insurance is a necessity today. Ditto for Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) insurance until the other policies include financial insolvency of travel providers and government warnings of COVID outbreaks or insurrections among the reasons guests can cancel. However, the travel providers are catching on. They are now offering CFAR insurance at rock-bottom prices to ensure everyone gets paid (including the guest) if someone cancels. Tauck, for instance, offers CFAR insurance to guests of any age at about 7 percent of the fare for the tour and airfare. Beware of CFAR insurance policies that discount their claim amounts by 25 percent or only pay off in cruise credits!
Cruise lines pride themselves on accommodating guests whose mobility is severely limited. When you walk the corridor at night, every few rooms may have a wheelchair or walker outside the door. On excursions, a popular choice is a “panorama tour” by bus of a city or tourist attraction that doesn’t require a guest to leave the bus until the end of the trip. I was surprised that the Tauck Journey of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam advises prospective guests that they should be able to walk a mile and climb some stairs. This suggests that either they don’t have sufficient staffing to accommodate physically challenged guests or their PR is way out of date.
Staffing & Tipping
Before the pandemic, the staff-to-guest ratio on the Silver Spirit was 1 to 1.5. Since the pandemic, it may be better than that. From a practical sense, there is nearly always a friendly crew member around whenever you leave your cabin. No tipping is expected.
The Tauck tours are very different. On their “classic tours,” the tour director-to-guest ratio is advertised as being up to 40:1. On the “small-group tours,” the tour director-to-guest ratio is not supposed to be higher than 24:1. This is a long way from the nearly 1:1 ratio on the top cruise ships although the staff-to-guest ratios in the world-class hotels used by Tauck help balance the scale.
Tipping is strongly encouraged for the Tour Directors: $10/day on classic tours and $15/day on small group tours. Also, Tauck expects the bus drivers on the small group tours to be tipped. They would be better off adding $100-$200 onto the price of their tours rather than making tipping a favorite conversational topic for the entire trip. They’ve already eliminated tipping on Tauck Cruises; now is the time to do this on all Tauck vacations.
On the luxury cruises, the most expensive extras are better staterooms, airline flights, travel insurance, and excursions. Everyone has the same dining room privileges, and tipping is strictly optional. On the luxury tours, as exemplified by Tauck, there’s no choice of hotels or rooms advertised, everyone eats at the same dining locations, excursions are the same for everyone, and tipping Tauck staff members is strongly encouraged. Flights to and from the tours are sold on much the same basis as on cruises; but once the tours begin, flights and buses are provided at no additional cost to the guest. On a 14-22 day cruise, this can save a couple upwards of $2,000.
How This Booking Assignment Turned Out
My clients have put down a deposit on Tauck. The lure of Angkor Wat was the tiebreaker. The only concern they’ve voiced is whether they will be able to purchase reasonably priced Premium Economy or Business Class airfare.
I should note that my knowledge of luxury tours like Tauck’s is gleaned chiefly from their travel advisor material and speaking with their phone reps, whereas my knowledge of high-end cruises was gained firsthand by traveling on more than forty of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an unwritten hierarchy of room assignments and other privileges based on how loyal guests and their travel advisors have been to the brand.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is email@example.com.