Three Surprise Days in Iceland (Updated!)
UPDATE: The company reached out to me to try to make this right. Check out how they successfully booked our trip to Dubrovnik here. I am happy to say that they were excellent to work with this time around!
I've been super elusive about our trip's details until now because I didn't want to post a negative review of something so early on. When I decided to start Julie Off Duty, I hoped that I’d never be faced with anything but positive experiences. I believe in good vibes, and I created this site to share them! That being said, I need to be very honest and open about what my family and I went through. Even though this is not a positive post, I've decided to come clean about our experience to prevent it from happening to others (with ANY company). I promised myself (and you!) I would only speak the truth in beauty and travel, and this is it...
By now you probably know that this fall, I went on a surprise vacation with my family. We hired a tour company (see pic above) to plan the whole thing for us and keep it a secret until we arrived at the airport. After filling out their online questionnaire and compiling a list of 12 destinations to choose from, they took the reigns. Over 2 weeks, we'd open 4 destination letters complete with airplane tickets (or so we thought...) and head to a new surprise European destination - like a reality show! I love surprises, and we were beyond thrilled at the new way we’d be un-planning our annual holiday. I was so psyched, you may have seen my gazillion IG posts about it, like this one!
This trip excited me SO much that it became the sole inspiration to start Julie Off Duty! I thought the secret trip would be a really exciting journey to share, so I spent an entire month (and a lot of cash!) getting this site up to bring you all on the surprise adventure with me! If only it turned out how I had hoped...
The Truth Unraveled...
About a week before we left, I got our packing list from our travel specialist. As a frequent traveler, I guessed one of the destinations immediately. A bathing suit, waterproof hiking pants, and wool socks could only mean one place in Europe: Iceland!
However, the temperature for the entire trip was listed at "around 45' but changes frequently". Uh, Brr! I know Iceland can get cold, but 45' weather for the entire time was a bit unexpected: we had put several Mediterranean islands (like Capri and Santorini) on our list of favorite destinations, so I knew those were all out. I was a little bummed as I am a total beach baby, but I hadn't lost hope yet: I figured it was a typo. There were plenty of other fun destinations we could be going to.
A few days before we left, we received another clue that said we would be driving from place to place, instead of flying which I had assumed all along. This sparked endless questions. We could be driving from Prague to Budapest (another two faves from our list), but wouldn't we have to fly to mainland Europe first? And what was the 4th destination? I kept asking myself until I realized the truth.
Then it sank in: we would only be moving around one country, and that country was Iceland.
But doesn't “four different destinations” mean, you know - different places? Like moving around the whole continent of Europe? It's easy to get around and certainly doable. I've read plenty of Contiki's itineraries! After our travel agent confirmed that we were indeed going to four different destinations, I was worried we both had different ideas of the word "destination"...
Thousands of Dollars for Just One Destination
When we originally got our total budget from the company and paid for the trip back in March, we didn't bat an eyelash at the high price, assuming it included at least 2 extra flights per person for flying throughout Europe. Plus, I hired them because I trust them to make the right decisions - or at least ask us if something seems incorrect or unclear.
As this was all unfolding, I sadly knew I couldn’t launch Julie Off Duty during our trip because I simply didn’t know how to publicly handle what was going on. Plus, I wanted to give the company the chance to make it right before writing about it, so I decided to wait and keep what was happening (and our destinations) a total secret. At a few days before we left, there was just nothing else we could do, so I left for the airport with my manicured fingers crossed.
Over-Budget and Under-Prepared
I arrived at Newark airport to meet my family and we opened our destination envelope. Indeed, it was Iceland!
I tried to act surprised when deep down I was thinking - what in the world are we going to do in Iceland for two weeks? Yes, we had put Iceland on our list, but with the thought of it being for a few days only - I can only handle 3 days worth of hiking and cold weather stuff.
We landed in Reykjavik at around 6 am and were picked up by our driver. He took us to the Kvosin Downtown Hotel. We specifically requested "mid-range" hotels, but the Kvosin is categorized by the company (per their own newsletter) as Luxe. We were never told about this. Don't get me wrong - you know I looove me a luxe hotel! But on a family trip, it's a wasted investment.
Our room isn’t ready yet so they “graciously" put us in another room for the 3 hours until our family hotel room is ready. I thought - how nice of them!! We later found out that we were charged over $300 for that extra room, which was booked through our travel agency as a “courtesy” because we landed so early. What?? They could have booked a morning flight that landed closer in time for check-in but instead had us take an overnight flight, and pay more for both flight and hotel. We weren’t asked any preferences and instead spent lots of extra time and money unnecessarily.
Aaaand to top it off, Hotel Kvosin told us clearly that breakfast was included when in fact it was not, so we were slammed with another charge of almost $300 (for a continental breakfast - not even anything hot 😔). More money down the drain and zero communication about the upcharge.
We met with our tour guide and learned that the travel company only gave us one option for transfers and tour operators. Of course, it was a very expensive, private one - and it was too late to book group tours instead. :(
Case in point: A private, one-day trip to drive to the Vatnajokull Glacier and vicinity for the three of us was nearly $2,000. (I know). By comparison, a small group tour there is $276 each.
Leaving Iceland was becoming clear: at this rate, we’d go home bored and broke.
We already saw the Northern Lights the first night! (ps check out my post about how a total amateur can photograph the Northern Lights!).
Dad still didn’t know that we were going to be in Iceland the full two weeks and he was convinced we'd be going somewhere different in a day or two. My brother and I struggled with how to break the news to him but we knew we had zero time to waste. After a difficult discussion, (and an under-the-breakfast table text-versation) we realized we could either stick it out in Iceland or book another flight and hotel and head to mainland Europe for the next 12 days.
Deciding to enjoy Iceland for another day while finalizing our decision, we headed straight to the Blue Lagoon. I've wanted to go there for ages and couldn’t wait to write about it for you! But of course, it turns out that our travel agent had never pre-booked it for us - which is a major requirement at the incredibly-popular destination. As the top beauty destination and one of the most recognizable locations in Iceland, we think it should have been on our itinerary! We managed to snag an evening appointment, and luckily Alli's expert photography helped us capture the Blue Lagoon in the darkness. (check out those photos and my review here).
After that nonsense, the choice was easy. The company’s secret trip experience was not what we signed up for, so we decided to go rogue!
We spent the next 8 hours booking two additional destinations, and we decided on (wait - can I have a drumroll, please?! I've only been keeping this a secret from 97% of the world for two months!)
Athens and Santorini, Greece! We tried to hit Dublin along with Santorini, but booking last-minute flights to Greece AND Ireland from Iceland was no easy feat. The Greece add-on ended up amazing, thanks to us planning it on our own! That post and REALLY stunning photos to come soon!
The bottom line is this - we never were offered an itemized receipt for what we paid for. And the total was not cheap (about 4.5 months Manhattan rent or about 2+ months salary) and again, because we assumed that multiple intra-Europe flights were included, we didn't bat an eyelash. After all, that’s the reason we pay a travel agent, to be sure we are all on the same page!
- nearly 2x for our flights: roundtrip flights from NYC to Reykjavik are regularly around $400/450, and we paid $850 each.
- an extra $300+ for a hotel room because we landed so early that our room wasn’t ready yet
- $64/day on continental breakfast
- a “luxe” hotel when we specifically requested a mid-range one
- for an overpriced, private tour company and no other options
- Lastly, over 25% of the total budget above was just to pay the DRIVER. Yikes! When I said I wanted a private transfer on our questionnaire, I meant to and from the airport - not around an entire country and all private tours for two weeks!
After our ridiculous and expensive Icelandic adventure, I emailed the company, writing out a detailed description of all of our issues. I spoke to them privately and gave them every chance to make it right. They replied, admitting their mistakes with their communication and questionnaire openly.
You must be wondering how they reacted. Did they give us a refund? Did they give us a partial refund? Apologize profusely? Offer to take us on our next trip gratis? Nope. Nada.
We received nothing in return for their mistakes, upcharges, and admittedly dreadful communication. What did they offer?
They offered me “$200 off my next trip”. :(
(Update again: The company reached out to me to make this right - see the follow up post here)!
Special thanks to Halle Butler for her editing skills - be sure to check out her AWESOME nail blog here! HalleBnails