I love travelling and try to get away as often as I can. Life in the city can add up, we have rent, insurance, parking and countless other bills to take care of, so we really need to budget when we go away.
When I say ‘budget’, I don’t mean we choose a lesser quality trip, I like to think of myself as a smart shopper and subscribe to such newsletters as Travel Zoo, Scott’s Cheap Flights, Next Departure and YYZ deals (thanks, guys, you’re all life savers!) to score a great trip at the right price.
Earlier this year, my husband called me from work after receiving the Travel Zoo weekly newsletter, he saw a deal too good to pass up. Thailand. It’s been on his bucket list forever. It was an 8 day trip, with flights to Bangkok, from there flights to Chiang Mai and Phuket were also included. 4 star hotels in each destination and transportation from each airport, all for $1400. It seemed too good to be true. I put my travel detective hat on and googled some reviews of the tour company, UTO travel based out of Richmond Hill. They were mixed, some raving and some ranting.
We took a closer look at the ‘tour’. I put tour in quotations because it was sort of a hands off tour, where you had the same flights and accommodations as other travellers but didn’t do outings together (if you didn’t want to) and were mainly left to your own devices. My husband and I prefer trips like this since we love exploring on our own. UTO did give you options to book optional tours each day, some included city tours, island tours or checking out temples with a guide. We were interested with a trip to Pattaya Beach ($149 per person) which they promised would be like the Thai Hawaii and a trip to Phi Phi Island, which my heart was so set on. When you think of Phuket, you think of the turquoise waters of Phi Phi Island. I pictured myself there with feet in the sand and drink in hand. I was so excited to add this trip onto the bill ($129 per person).
We took the leap, what could go wrong? Now, I love knowing info way ahead of time, I’m totally a planner. If you’re like that too, it might irk you to know that you won’t be given your flight and hotel info until about a month before the trip (GASP), they send it with a little guide to Thailand with tips and tricks and a brief itinerary, but rest assured, everything was legit and our flight with China Eastern Airlines was comfortable, there was a stop over in Shanghai each way, 3 hours the first time and 6 hours (yikes) on the way back. The price was right though, with the tours included we paid about $1,600 and that’s usually just the flight to Bangkok alone, so we’ll take it.
The hotels were 4 stars and booked with:
BANGKOK – Novotel Bangkok, Fenix Suriya
CHIANG MAI- Mercure Chiang Mai
PHUKET – The Royal Paradise Hotel & Spa
We landed in Bangkok pretty early, around 2am. A man with UTO named June was there to pick us up. He was helpful and friendly and lead everyone to the bus awaiting us just a short walk from arrivals. This was the first time we were meeting people on our ‘tour’ and they were a little tired from the trip but happy to be on board. Here’s when the first of many tour cancellations started. June announced over the speaker in the bus that since we had landed so late, some of the other member’s who had previously signed on for the city tour in Bangkok due for that morning, that they didn’t have enough numbers to go ahead with the tour. It sounded like they needed at least 10 people for a tour to be confirmed and there were 33 of us on the ‘tour’.
A few couples were audibly disappointed. Leo and I didn’t book this tour as we were fine to check out the city on our own, but some people were very obviously new travellers and most likely wanted the guidance. It was a bummer to hear first thing after a full day’s travel.
We got to the hotel and checked in with no issue. (Well, slight issue, we’re a married couple and very clearly chose queen or king size bed’s when UTO offered us the options, unsure why, but every hotel we checked into gave us two separate double beds in each room. Not so romantic, but we can deal). Novotel Bangkok was great! The location was fine, a short ‘Grab’ taxi (Thai’s version of Uber, I would definitely recommend downloading it as we rode around all day and paid only about $17 Canadian) ride away to the Grand Palace, Khao San Road, the river side, malls, markets, etc… There was a roof top pool, an amazing included breakfast every morning (Thai and western options available) and the AC worked great (It was around 34 degrees when we were there! I’m not great with heat)
A short walk away from the hotel were great food markets, malls and a temple or two. Be sure to check out the spectacular Hindu temple about a 5 minute walk from the hotel. If you want some good late night eat’s try Mama Mia’s, the name sounds a little off, I know, but its authentic Thai cuisine for a great price.
We booked a side trip in Bangkok to go to Pattaya Beach and the floating market. Thankfully, this trip had enough numbers to get confirmed. The trip there was fairly quick and took about 2 hours by air conditioned bus. We started of with the floating market, which was much more touristy than I thought. I probably could have done more research on my part and assumed we were being brought to one of the more local ones, but as kitchy and catered to foreigners as it was, I had some fun with it. We shopped for souvenirs (I got a great straw purse after some haggling) I fed milk in bottles to baby goats (best 25 baht I’ve ever spent) and enjoyed fun food and desserts (Hello Kitty ice cream for the win). You get a little boat ride through the market to get more acquainted with it before being left with 2 hours of free time. They have live singers, a little strange Thai Boxing competition over the water way and lady boy acts to peek at.
After this, we made our way to Pattaya Beach, I was expecting more of blue water and colourful flowers type deal since the area’s nickname was ‘Thai Hawaii’, but it was more of a party town with brown water and touristy shops. If you brought your bathing suit, you could hop in for a little dip, which some members of our group did, but we opted to grab some Chang’s (beer) from the 7/11 across the street and take a load off. We watched beach goers wind surf and browsed some shops. We were taken to a very pretty lookout at the top of a mountain. There was a small chapel there as well where many locals came to light incense or present offerings. I enjoyed the lookout very much.
Before heading back to Bangkok, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, June had called ahead and all the food was waiting for us (included in the price of the tour). It was mainly seafood and served up family style. My husband enjoyed all the seafood choices while I stuck with the chicken and pork dishes. A member of our group was a vegetarian and was offered veggie options no problem. Lunch worked out well for everyone.
The traffic back into the city was terrible, took a little over 3 hours to get back to the hotel. This isn’t’ anyone’s problem as it’s just a part of Bangkok city life, but just to give you a heads up, if you book this tour, it’ll be a long day. It was dark and past dinner time when we got back, but Leo and I mustered up the energy to order a dish (or three!) a Mamma Mia’s a short walk away.
Off to Chiang Mai, June came back to the hotel to pick us up and helped everyone to the check in desk. The flight to Chiang Mai was with Thai Lion Airlines and comfortable and quick, flying time just over one hour.
Now, where June was friendly and helpful, the gentlemen who picked us up all in Chiang Mai (and who’s names I do not recall seeing as they were pretty hands off for the time we were in CM) seemed very overwhelmed and confused. We were met at the arrivals gate being asked immediately if we wanted to join market and temple tours in a few hours, or to visit Tiger Kingdom (this place drugs tigers for endless pictures with tourist’s everyday and something I am very much against). It seemed rushed and almost like they were pushing these tours onto us.
I had originally wanted to book a tour to Chiang Rai while we were here, but it was cancelled almost immediately when we arrived to check in at the Mercure. This is where crap started to hit the fan, a family that had booked this tour had enough with the unreliable tours and when they wanted to re-book another tour with these gentlemen that wasn’t currently cancelled, they were told they would need to pay again up front and then ask UTO back home for the re-fund for the cancelled Chiang Rai tour, (over $100, yikes). Tensions were high, people were raising their voices and Leo and I got out of there.
We spoke to the lovely travel agent in the lobby of the Mercure who helped us book an animal and eco friendly tour to visit the Elephants at the Elephant Rescue National Park ($60 a person for a half day, includes pick up and lunch) best part of our trip hands down, www.elephantrescuenationalpark.com and to see Thai Boxing ($25 a person) later that night at an arena that was conveniently located right behind the hotel (www.chiangmaiboxingstadium.com) We didn’t feel comfortable booking tours for good money with the UTO representatives and you should never book if it doesn’t feel right. When in doubt, we’ve found booking with the hotel on site or using the website Viator.com (my personal favourite) to be much more reliable and we had a great time at these events and outings.
This hotel was a little more dated, could have probably used a coat of paint. It had a really nice pool though (great view of the mountains) and was located in a plaza with a supermarket in it. The night market for delicious food was nearby and we ended up booking a night market tour for $35 a person, all you can eat with Chiang Mai Street Food tours (www.chiangmaistreetfoodtours.com) and had a great time. Chiang Mai was probably our favourite stop of the whole tour, it was a bit more relaxed than Bangkok but still had the great quality markets and endless options of things to do. We got Thai massages, dined at great restaurants and coffee shops, and explored the local markets and shopping centers. The hotel is located near a bunch of hostels that did our laundry at a very reasonable price, the hotel was offering about three times as much as the hostel (Hug Hostel) so be sure to venture just a few short blocks away to leave your laundry with them in the morning and pick up later that evening folded and ready to go for around $6 Canadian.
Time to leave for Phuket! I was thrilled as this is one part of Thailand I had never seen before. The itinerary said that by the afternoon, we would be lounging on the beach, which was definitely misleading. A move from UTO to probably save a couple bucks was that we had to fly back to Bangkok with Thai Lion and then connect to Phuket after a 2 hour layover. We left late morning with a few members of our group missing due to the fact that they really hated that we would waste an entire day in transit and went out their way to book their own direct flight with Thai Lion for only $140. Now, this doesn’t look good on UTO. I used to be a travel agent and didn’t understand (other than saving a few dollars) why you would make a large group of people waste one full day travelling to another region of the country on a connecting flight if you’re just going to get complaints about it. No one was happy this day, we didn’t understand the jumble of it all. My husband and I wished we knew about the others booking a direct flight and would have gone out of our way to do it ourselves, but still, UTO should want to deliver the most convenient option and while you might have saved a little money, you’ll be getting tons of terrible feedback (we saw our tour mates typing furiously away on their phones, writing reviews and sending e-mails to less than sympathetic UTO agents) Those smart couples who had changed their flights landed in Phuket around noon while we got to our hotel around 7pm and the sun was down.
A woman from UTO picked us up at the airport and as we settled into the large bus that would take us on our 1 hour ride to the hotel, she announced that the tour set to leave the next morning for Phi Phi Islands had been cancelled. My heart sank, my eyes watered. Not to be dramatic, but this, THIS is what I had come to Thailand to see. I frantically tried to make other plans in my brain, should I book super last minute with Viator? Should I speak to someone at the hotel? (Who later offered our other tour mates an outrageously over priced tour leaving a day later since they couldn’t book so last minute at night with the departure time the next morning only a few hours away) The day after the original tour to Phi Phi would be our last day in Phuket and therefore we couldn’t have the full day away from the hotel as we would all need to be ready to leave for the airport at 8pm. UTO had really screwed us out of this one. I was heartbroken to say the least. (It’s been more than two weeks since this happened and we are currently still waiting for our refund from UTO, $129 each)
Once I realized that it just couldn’t work out anymore, we hopped online and searched for other options. We decided to check out Freedom Beach, a 15 minute Grab ride and 20 minute hike away, and Old Town Phuket, a 30 minute Grab ride away. We brought another couple with us from the tour who had been burned from the Phi Phi excursion cancellation as well. While it wasn’t the picturesque Phi Phi Islands I had dreamed about for months, it would have to do. The water was crystal clear, the sun was hot and since it wasn’t the easiest beach to get to, it was pretty quiet (just what we wanted!)
Old Town Phuket was a half hour or so from our hotel, and had a colonial feel to it, wonderful coffee shops, restaurants and a calm atmosphere made for a great afternoon trip out of the party city. We visited B cat café, One Chun Café (best food of the whole trip) and The Rommanee coffee shop, which had such friendly staff to give us suggestions on what to do in the area and a mean iced coffee.
We stayed in party town in Phuket, located near Patong Beach. There were nightclubs everywhere, ladies dancing on poles attached to bar tops, trying to lure you in with cheap shots, cover bands and ping shows (google it) . My husband and I’s party days are behind us so getting out of town and away from Patong was perfect. The hotel was resort like and had a really nice pool, beautiful lobby, free shuttle to the beach and updated rooms.
Something UTO either forgot about or cheaped out on (probably the latter) was that our flights due back to Canada were set to leave at midnight. Here’s my old travel agent self kicking in again, but if I were them, and I had customers I cared about and respected having to leave so late at night, there would be NO WAY I wouldn’t have booked the hotel room for them for one more night.
Think about it, to get back to Canada, including the stop over time in Shanghai, it would take us about 24 full hours. The hotel wanted us to check out at 11am. So the customer wouldn’t have access to a bed, shower, or private room from 11am on one day, all the way until they landed in Canada, which means almost two days. To me, it’s unacceptable that UTO did not accommodate their customers in this way. My husband was able to sort of twist the front desk’s arm for a 3pm check out time for an additional $40 Canadian. ( I was happy to pay it for the extra rest time, packing time etc, but it should have really been thought out by UTO).
Not everyone in our group was given the option of a late check out and some even went as far as booking another room across the street. How UTO can be OK with this is beyond me. Some of these couples travelling with us were in their 70’s and some were brand new to travelling and without guides to bring them to the islands or properly show around town, they were quite nervous about straying too far away from the resort. I feel that because of this, they really missed out. My husband and I are seasoned travellers and were able to take care of ourselves and make the best of this trip. We had a good time and will look back on everything we did fondly, but I know for a fact, some of the travelers who wanted what this tour had promised them were really let down.
UPDATE AS OF JULY 2019-
There has been a rather pleasant update to this story. After reading my blog post, UTO has reached out to my husband and I to offer us a make-up trip to showcase the changes implemented by the company recently.
In a very promising e-mail, we were told about every itinerary being scrutinized to axe any long layovers or unreasonable departure times, providing better communication with booking and travel information, vetting of hotels (even though we really enjoyed our accommodations in Thailand) and one of the most important for me personally, that optional tours will not be offered unless they are confident they will go ahead.
Not only was it refreshing to hear from a company personally, but the concern and willingness to ‘make things right’ from the newly appointed VP of sales and marketing, seemed extremely genuine.
No one likes to write about a ‘bad’ experience or a few bumps in the road during their travels, but I would have never expected this outcome. Being in regular communication with UTO as of late has shown me how serious they are at providing impeccable customer service.
My husband and I have decided to be guests on the new Vietnam/Cambodia trip in early spring that UTO will be launching soon. (Keep an eye out for it!) We’re excited to be able to experience the new and improved UTO Vacation first hand and are looking forward to working with UTO to create a blog post and review.
Stay tuned for more information, I’ll be sharing a post on what I’m most excited to see and do in Vietnam and Cambodia with UTO followed by a full day to day review of the newly offered trip!
Until next trip!
Hey! I'm Sarah! A 30 something living in downtown Toronto with a great guy and an OK dog. I love seeing what my city has to offer and try to hit up as many fun events or attractions as I can! I haven't slept since 2004.