OP-ED: Travelling with Wild Frontiers (UK) – a terrible experience!
The feedback on this page pertains to Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel Ltd, www.wildfrontiers.co.uk and wildfrontierstravel.com only (and not to www.wildfrontiers.com which is a separate travel company specialising in safaris).
Please note that this is not an “I hate Wild Frontiers” rant. Rather, the purpose of this blog is to help people make an informed decision about whether or not they should travel with WF UK (** see notice below). This blog provides a summary of my experience with WF UK and I hope that it provides an alternative opinion to help counterbalance the gushy testimonials on WF UK’s site and marketing materials.
First, the basics: my husband and I travelled to Central Asia in August 2010 with Wild Frontiers UK as part of their “Silk Road Odyssey” tour covering Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar (China), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Although there were many other travel companies offering similar itineraries and were significantly cheaper, we elected to travel with WF based on: WF’s expert knowledge of the region; deep local contacts; ability to deliver “a truly authentic, off-the-beaten-track experience”; their “no hidden costs” promise; and the positive client testimonials. Given that this trip involves multiple border crossings (and hence, the logistics would be exceptionally daunting), the remoteness of some of destinations, and the rich history of the places we would be visiting, we thought that their expertise justified the premium. We were wrong.
Based on my 2010 Silk Road Odyssey experience and in my opinion, most travellers would do just as well armed with a copy of the Lonely Planet. Not only would this save travellers serious money but I daresay that they would have a more authentic and more satisfying experience. Whilst my husband and I actually did enjoy our trip to Central Asia, we both felt that this was because the region itself was amazing. In other words, the overwhelming beauty and history of these countries enabled us to compartmentalised the faults, failures and the overall amateur execution of the trip and to not allow these issues to derail our trip.
In the marketing dossiers, there is a page titled “Why Wild Frontiers?”. Allow me to share with you my experience and opinion on “Why NOT Wild Frontiers?”.
1. Not at all authentic
In their marketing materials, it stated “our unique, original itineraries allow our clients to take journeys that venture beneath the surface of the region …. we don’t subcontract our trips … we are able to give a truly authentic, off-the-beaten-track experience.” Furthermore, at the orientation meeting with our tour leader, she’d talked about WF’s ethos as a “travel company for travellers”. She then proclaimed that on this trip, we would be “travellers and not tourists”. But, to be honest, I never felt more like a tourist than I did on this trip! Travellers we were not!
Excluding the time we’d spent at Song Kul Lake and Tash Rabat, the itinerary was neither unique nor original. Based on what I’d observed, the WF tour leader didn’t set the day-to-day plans — the local subcontracted guides did. As such, we basically followed the subcontractor’s itinerary which in essence is the bog-standard itinerary for all tourists. Thus, we kept running into the same tourists from other groups over and over again — at the restaurants, at the sites, and just about everywhere else! The subcontracted guides did more than just set the plans — at times, they were ‘in the lead’ and not our WF tour leader. A particular galling example was in Uzbekistan when our WF leader decided that she wanted a break (to catch up on her travel blogs) and thus abdicated all her responsibilities for the day to the local guide! ( Question: what is the point of hiring WF to provide expert tour leads if they themselves can’t be bothered to lead? )
Upon return from this trip, in my feedback to WF, I’d questioned the use of and the prominent role played by the subcontractors because WF’s marketing materials clearly stated that ‘WF does not subcontract’ out their trips —
WF’s response to my feedback is below. (My feedback is in black font whereas WF’s response is in blue.) I’ll let you decide if the two statements are compatible.
Moving away from the issue of subcontracting, the overall experience was not what I would describe as authentic or off-the-beaten-track. For example, for our first night together with WF in Kyrgyzstan, dinner was at a pasta/pizza restaurant. This was not a fluke because later as we transit thru Bishkek again, dinner that night was at a different pizza restaurant. To be completely frank, I didn’t travel thousand of miles to Central Asia to eat Italian!
2. “NO Hidden Extras” does NOT mean “no hidden extras”
There were definitely hidden extras on our trip. First, we had ‘the option’ of having a traditional dance troupe perform for the group at dinner — but this was during a dinner that was part of the tour and thus it would not be possible for people to ‘opt-out’. As a result, everyone had to contribute to the cost …. and it was expensive!
Second, although the “What’s Not Included” in the marketing dossier does include tipping for local guides, it does not mention anything about tipping for ‘the extras’. This extra cost is later mentioned in the pre-departure pack, but, you would only get this information AFTER you have made a deposit to secure your position.
If the ‘no hidden extras’ policy is an influential factor in the decision to select WF (as in my case), then getting the exclusion list afterwords is moot. Once I saw the details in the pre-departure pack, I felt deceived but by then it was too late to back out as the flights were already booked.
Furthermore, during our trip, we were asked to ‘top up’ the tip kitty several times and to make matters worse, there was absolutely no transparency in how the tip kitty was allocated. When I’d asked, I was told by the tour leader that the extra money would be distributed to the drivers, bell boys, restaurants, etc. etc. If WF is truly serious about their ‘no hidden extras’ promise, then these expected costs should be “fully baked into” the overall tour cost, or, there should be full disclosure at the outset (i.e. in the marketing dossier and not in the pre-departure pack).
Without this disclosure, tips to these extras are, in reality, a hidden (and rather significant) expense.
3. Inappropriate Accommodations / Lack of Preparedness
I am a big fan of homestays as this is a great way to really to get to know the people and their culture. Whilst I applaud WF for championing homestays in Central Asia, the overall homestay experience (specifically relating to that in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) was disappointing. In particular, some of the accommodations selected by WF (or, rather, by the ground handlers appointed by WF) were wholly inappropriate for a group of our size.
At one place, there was only one available loo and the family did not want us to use their garden as an alternative. Fortunately, at that time, no one had traveller’s diarrhea, but, if someone was ill then one loo would have been a complete disaster. (This was 1 toilet for 13 tourists, 1 WF guide, 1 local guide, 5 drivers, and the local ground support!)
At another place, our ground handlers had no-clue about how many rooms and how many beds would be available to us at the next homestay that evening. In other words, no one (neither the local agents nor WF) did their homework beforehand! And thus, at one point in the day, we were warned that we may have to all snuggle together three-in-a-bed (!!!) for the night. Fortunately, when we got there, there was enough bedding material at the house for us to make additional beds and thus avoided the three-in-a-bed scenario. (I’m fine with shared accommodations — this was the norm throughout the Silk Road Odyssey trip — but, not with sharing a bed with anyone other than my husband. I was also prepared for hardship on this trip as this is Central Asia after all. But, I was not prepared for disorganisation and unprofessionalism of the tour operator.)
In response to my complaint, WF’s response was:
“Washing facilities and toilets arrangements are comparatively limited more often than not at the end of the garden still (That IS Central Asia) and as long as people have a clean bed that should be fine. To my mind this is exactly what experiencing the real country is all about…That said in an ideal world I would not choose to have a group of your groups size in a homestay with only one loo given the choice.”
For full text, please click here.
4. Lack of Leadership and Lack of Local Expert Knowledge
Perhaps the biggest disappointment from the 2010 Silk Road Odyssey trip was that we had so many problems that could have been avoided altogether had there been some real leadership. There are many examples that I can cite, but, the one that illustrates this point well pertained to the issue of border crossings. This trip involved multiple border crossings and anyone who is a regional expert should know that border crossings are potentially problematic (and problematic in a BIG way). Whilst each person on this trip is wholly responsible for obtaining the right visas, if one person has a problem with his/her visa, then this would impact the ENTIRE group. As such, an experienced operator in this region (such as WF) should have checked each person’s visa either beforehand (i.e. email scanned copies to WF London office), or, at the orientation meeting at the start of our trip. This would have given WF maximum time to address any identified problems with visas. This did not happen. As such, when 2 people encountered problems at the China-Kyrgyzstan border, the entire group was stuck there at the border for more than 5 hours until the issue was finally resolved. Only after this fiasco did our WF leader checked everyone’s visa — and at this point, she discovered that another person had single entry (instead of multiple entries) on her Uzbek visa. Whilst our WF tour leader did try to ameliorate this error by getting the London office involved, she did tell the affected traveller that if they can’t fix this error in time, then the affected traveller would have to stay behind and that the group would collect her on our way back (!!!). Fortunately, the affected traveller did get her visa fixed before we made the next border crossing. But, the willingness to leave a woman behind by herself in Central Asia was very disturbing.
Another example whereby a dose of leadership (and common sense) was lacking relates to our flight from Khiva to Tashkent. Our tour leader did not check to confirm the status of our flight. Thus, when we’d arrived at the airport, we were advised that the flight was late (by approx 5 hours). Other tour groups did check the flight status and thus they had five extra hours to explore Khiva whereas the Wild Frontiers group was stuck at the airport with very little to do but to wait … wait … wait … and wait!
In Summary . . .
Succinctly, would I travel with www.wildfrontiers.co.uk again? No. Absolutely not.
Would I recommend www.wildfrontiers.co.uk to any of my friends and family? No. Absolutely not.
Questions or feedback, please contact me at email@example.com.
(**) Notice: each person will need to make up his/her own informed decision about the merits of this OP-ED blog. As such, if the reader is researching any of the named party(ies) mentioned in this blog, then it is advisable that the reader continues his/her research to form a more robust finding. This blog is purely an OPINION which is based on a personal experience which may or may not be applicable to others.