Travel agencies in Sri Lanka
Travel agencies in Sri Lanka Reviews
Travel agencies in Sri Lanka - To use, or not to use... Jan 15, 2015
I have chosen to write on this topic with the intention of providing readers with some insight into how how travel agents in Sri Lanka operate, and under what circumstances it is advisable to use them, and not to.
While this review is by no means comprehensive in nature, it is targeted at both, foreign nationals as well as Sri Lankans, as it covers certain aspects that may be useful to either.
Before I begin, I must stress that these opinions are my own, and based on my personal experience with various travel agents I've had the pleasure/pressure of dealing with. I will not name any specific agencies in this article, but anyone interested in knowing more of my experiences is welcome to drop me a line.
First up, I will talk about local holidays, with respect to transport, accomodation and itinerary.
It is not inconvenient to find transport in Sri Lanka, despite a less developed infrastructure. Trains run on a schedule, originating from Colombo, and running between the major towns. However, the rail network IS rather limited, but is easily made up for by the frequent buses available for longer trips as well as regionally. This is often a good option for budget travellers who aren't averse to experiencing the local ways. That being said, public transport isn't always comfortable, and can be crowded and often unpleasant. Finding other modes of transport is often where travel agents might come into the picture, and most offer arrangements with third-party services/tour operators that are targeted towards tourism. While comfortable, these services often come at a high premium, but can prove useful if the drivers are able to share local knowledge about the places being visited. In my opinion, a better alternative for shorter/day trips would be to make use of one of the numerous call-up cab services that can be found in newspapers, or advertised on signage in towns. Many offer fixed-price packages that specify a maximum duration and travel distance for the package, with a flat rate charged for any time and distance in excess of that specified in the package. This can be a considerable saving if you do your research beforehand. For longer trips, it is advisable to rent a vehicle from one of the many companies that can be found in most towns in and around Colombo/Kandy. Driving in Sri Lanka might seem a bit unnerving at first, but its not really that bad, as long as you have a reasonable temperament.
I wish I could say it wasn't the case, but in my opinion, accomodation in Sri Lanka is pretty pricey when compared to those similar in other destinations. Plus, with agent commissions, this amount may be even higher, especially if you are staying in a higher star class hotel. However, in such a case, it might not be a deal-breaker, as reputed hotels here deliver a good service and facilities to guests, and people might only rarely find anything serious to complain about. Unless they're really particular!!! That being said, all year round, except maybe during the highest seasons, hotels offer substantial discounts in collaboration with other institutions such as banks (as much as 40-50%), which is what most Sri Lankans currently do try to make use of for short getaways, etc. Of course, there are limitations with such offers, but its definitely worth considering, especially if you have friends or family already in Sri Lanka whom you intend to travel with. There are also a lot of privately run guest houses which can be much cheaper, but provide less facilities. The hostelling business model is only just coming in to Sri Lankan tourism, and I think this might be the best compromise, particularly for budget travellers. An important thing to keep in mind, don't try and compare costs with Europe as in my experience, for hotels, you might end up paying similar to higher values in Sri Lanka. For private guest houses, you might pay much less than in Europe, but with much less comfort offered (IMO, hostel dorms in Europe can cost about the same as this option, but also be a hundred times better value for money).
For non-local tourists, organizing an entire itinerary might be the best possible use of travel agencies, especially since most such tours include everything from transport and accomodation, to a wealth of readily available local knowledge. Its really ideal for travellers who don't want to spend too much time planning their holiday, and worrying about finding their way from point A to point B in time, etc...
Now, additionally, I will share my experience of using their services for my own travels abroad. My very first experience was booking myself onto a cruise. I expected it to be simple enough, since it was being widely advertised at the time. However, it ended up being a big mess where, would you believe it, they booked me onto a flight that arrived at the destination of boarding the cruise, AFTER the date the cruise departs... Another time, I went to another travel agency, recommended to me by a friend, and I had an agreeable experience there, thanks to the personal contact. The next time, however, that contact had moved elsewhere, and when I approached the same agency, the person assisting me was not even the slightest bit proactive towards meeting my needs. So I left and went elsewhere, only to be met by much of the same incompetence. I have since ceased using their services personally, preferring to do my own research and organizing. Granted, I may have been extremely unlucky with travel agencies thus far, but here are a few reasons I believe that most places have these kinds of shortcomings.
* The quality of staff employed. Majority are inexperienced, and staff turnover is high, making it unlikely that you'll see a rare competent person on a subsequent visit.
* Companies don't seem to impart the value that the client is king (have times changed - is the client not the king any more?), resulting in almost uninterested service.
* Often very limited knowledge of services available internationally, making it unlikely that you'll receive any better alternatives to what you asked for specifically. What I mean is, if you ask for a spade, they will tell you the cost of a spade, and nothing else, even if there is something available that might suit your needs better. Knowledge of train and bus travel options is particularly limited.
* Travel agents recommend a limited selection of hotels, which may not really fall into the budget of the travellers on a shoestring. I understand that this might be due to unwillingness to take a chance on their own reputation, but again, restricts the options available to clients.
All in all, the points I've mentioned can be summarized as travel agents not offering custom FIT services (even with higher commissions). In fact, its pretty much non-existent. Quite frankly, if you are looking to put together a plan for a customized trip, I would recommend that you do your own research and organization. It will definitely save you a lot of anxiety, money and also, most importantly, allow for a much more flexible itinerary. After doing it myself a few times now, I can assure you that foreign embassies are not out to decline your visa application. All they need is to be reasonably certain that you will return to your own country. I mention this specifically, because one of my biggest fears when I was first applying for a visa by myself was that they might not be convinced of my intentions, and therefore decline my application. Its a silly notion I hope to dispel in at least a few fellow travellers, how I can.
Of course, apart from these instances, if your requirement is uncomplicated, it may not be a bad idea to make use of the services of a travel agent, because premiums are minimal when purchasing air travel (along major routes)and booking hotels etc.
Another useful service that many travel agents offer, which I would still use, is visa application. In some cases, speaking about Sri Lankans in particular, it is a complicated, rigid and time consuming process that needs to be followed in order to obtain visas to some countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc). The travel agencies take care of the application process, with minimal involvement of the client. However, be prepared to provide documentation to the letter, as generally requested by the embassy or consulate. It is worth it, I reckon.
Another thing is, travel agents offer tours for groups, which are conducted by reputed foreign tour operators, and these are also good options for people who don't wanna bother with organizing too much on their own, etc. However, these can be quite pricey, as is to be expected.
In closing, I would like to once again emphasize that this is not a comprehensive review, but just for information purposes to anyone who might be interested. Personally, I feel that there is nothing more rewarding than to go away on a wonderful holiday, knowing that you did it all exactly how you wanted, instead of having to abide by somebody else's conditions. That being said, whether you will make use of travel agency services often has a lot to do with your own requirements. If you don't like research, and want it all taken care of, and if time and money are not a problem, then of course its a lot easier to approach the travel agents. On the other hand, I feel that a majority of the members of this site would adopt a more hands on approach to travel planning, and as a result, I hope that some of what I've shared is of some benefit to you.
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