Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Complaints Case # 2.

In last weeks post I published  a complaint and asked for comments.  The 12 comments that you posted show that you have strong and clear opinions on this subject.

The case that I have chosen for your feedback this week is more complex.  Here is the entire email we received.

Case # 2:

Dear Luis Pablo:

Within three or four days, Emer and I were well again.  We’re both fine now, and fully recovered from our trip to Costa Rica.

The doctor who treated us said that we were made sick by something which Costa Rica Expeditions fed us at Tortuguero or at Corcovado.  There is an irony in this.  If you refer back to the answers we gave to the wish list questions that we were asked when we first contacted you, we said that we wanted “elegant” and “gourmet” meals, and that we did not want “interactions” with “local people”.  The food that we were given was not very good, and in Tortuguero we were surprised when we had to eat lunch in someone’s home.

Somewhere there was a breakdown in hygiene, and we were fed food that made us sick.  From that point on, we did not enjoy our trip.

To finish with the negatives:  After all of our discussions about twin-engine planes and my agreement to pay more for a twin-engine  plane, we were assigned a single-engine plane to fly to Puerto Jiménez.  For us, it was a question of safety.  You should have told us what you were doing in this regard so that we would know what to expect, and not agree to pay for something that we would not get.

Now for the positives:  Working with you was great.  You were responsive.  You got back to me when you said you would.  You answered my questions.  You put together an itinerary which was just what we wanted.  I enjoyed working with you, and appreciated your attention and professionalism.

Luis Torres was great.  We appreciated his energy, enthusiasm, and eagerness to teach.  We enjoyed our time with him.  The boat driver in Tortuguero was also very good.

We enjoyed our trip up until we became sick on Thursday evening, April 8.  We did not enjoy our day at Rincon de la Vieja because we did not feel well.  (We asked Luis Torres to take us back to our hotel early.)

You should ask Yesenia to take another look at what Costa Rica Expeditions charged us for food, for twin-engine aircraft, and for our half day at Rincon de la Vieja.

Best regards,

Services Purchased: Three full day private guided tours, two of which included the use of private charter aircraft. Total spend: $13,970. $6,090 Land transportation, guide, meals, and tours. Plus $7,880 Private Charter Air Transportation.

The facts is in our view:

The air plane:

The itinerary specifies a “twin engine airplane.”  The quote was budgeted for a seven passenger King Air E90, the most expensive twin that we use.  On one of the days the King Air was out of service so the charter company upgraded to a single-engine 12 passenger Cessna Grand Caravan 208B, which is at least as safe as the King Air because it glides and lands with no engine at least as well as the King Air does with one engine and a lot better than a King Air with no engines. Grand Caravans are slower than King Airs.  Instead of an approximately three hour round trip with the King Air, the trip was approximately an three hours and 20 minutes with the Grand Caravan.  Our normal cost for a Grand Caravan is $702 more than our cost for the King Air.

Our guest was informed of the change before the flight and accepted the change but the fact that it was an upgrade was not adequately were explained.

The Food:

On each of the days in question we supplied lunch and the guests had breakfast and dinner at the beach resort where they  were staying.

It is true as stated that the guests specified gourmet meals and that they were not interested in contact with local people.  Our trip planner neglected to take this into account and scheduled lunch in a private home in Tortuguero. The itinerary that the guests received before they bought the trip stated, “A private homemade Caribbean lunch will be waiting for you and your guide in Tortuguero.”

Assuming that the facts are accurate what should have been our response?

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Comments and Replies

  • At July 27, 2010
    8:06:52 pm
    Jennifer Fletcher said:

    Dear Michael,
    I seem to have missed this post.
    I think you did the best you could.
    Some people are scared of flying in a small plane.If it were just that,I’d feel well-disposed towards them.It’s the demanding gourmet food & no contact with local people that I find really strange.I came to the conclusion that these must be people who believe their money can buy anything.
    I would suggest that next time they come to Costa Rica,they remain at The Four Seasons resort where rich & famous people stay.(The manager there is a nice guy & not a local – I used to teach him in Montreal.)
    Even there,however,it’s possible to get sick I imagine – that’s life.
    Just as it’s a fact of life that some people will never,ever be pleased.A bit sad, really…..

    • At July 23, 2010
      3:01:40 pm
      Len Prins said:

      It would seem the people involved in this complaint were inconvenienced and it seems some sort of compensation was appropriate. Having said that, nothing gets my blood boiling more than this idea that because a disgruntled customer will spread bad press to a business everyone who has complaint should be placated. The customer is not always right. There are people out there who are professional complainers, I have met them. What they do is increase the cost for the rest of us reasonable people. They are bullies and should be stood up to. When I look at reviews on a site like tripadvisor and see a business where most of the reviews are 4 and 5 and there are a few 1s I know what is going on. Someone had the guts to stand up to a whiner and a bully.

      Len Prins

      • At July 22, 2010
        9:56:17 am
        Chris Parrott said:

        There are three issues here: 1. Clients’ specific request for gourmet meals and for no interaction with locals. 2. Clients’ request for a 2-engine aircraft and not a 1-engine one. 3. Illness (stomach upset I presume – sick means “vomiting” in UK, but means “unwell” in US) which marred the clients’ enjoyment of remainder of tour.

        The client makes a specific link, prompted by a doctor, between issues 1 and 3.

        CRE accepts that a private homemade meal in a Caribbean home was a mistake – and contradicted the clients’ specific requests both regarding meals and no interaction with locals. CRE aslo accepts that a mechanical fault in the 2-engine craft meant that the clients(I think for one flight) were provided with what they had specically requested not to have – indeed the client believed he had opted to pay more, and says the issue was one of safety.

        [It’s not clear me to how many clients there were – the opening sentence says “both”, but they were put on a 12-passenger plane instead of the 7-passenger one they’d paid for. If they were just two, then cost is clearly not a consideration, but clients state that safety is. Did they say this at booking, or in retrospect?]

        We are not told whether the rationale for substitution of the plane (“an upgrade”) was explained clearly to the clients at the time. eg If a client had requested simple rustic accommodation, a 5-star hotel is not an upgrade.

        Gourmet food? In my experience, food at both Tortuga and Monteverde is excellent, but I wouldn’t describe it as gourmet. I can’t see the time-line here, and don’t know whether the clients ate any food other than that provided by CRE, directly or indirectly. When did the doctor examine them? At Rincon de la Vieja, or in San Jose, or back in the USA? Not enough info to judge. But the client doesn’t say food-poisoning, although many of your commentators do. A breakdown in hygiene isn’t necessarily attributable to what the clients ate. They may each have touched something, or each other, which caused them both to be ill.

        (Slight pause here as I watch Contador and Schleck finish at the top of the Tourmalet – Schleck takes it by a wheel).

        On balance, with the information we’ve got, I’m undecided whether CRE can be blamed for the clients’ illness.

        I’d offer a sincere apology for the change of plane for reasons beyonds CRE’s control, and for the apparent lack of explanation. I’d offer an apology and a payment as a gesture of goodwill for the not-clearly-specified illness, and the specifically unwanted interaction with the locals. I don’t know how long the illness lasted, nor indeed where the clients ate in the 48 hours preceding its onset.

        By the way, it’s not for us to judge why the clients did not want interaction with local people.

        So overall, I don’t think it’s a more complex case, but it’s much more difficult to judge what CRE should do, or what the clients are expecting. I wait with bated breath to hear what the outcome was

        Chris Parrott, Journey Latin America

        • At July 19, 2010
          11:03:33 pm
          Melanie Lindsay said:

          I am not sure I follow all of the issues but I do know that I found the food to be of a good standard at Tortuga Lodge and that everyone I came into contact with related to CRE had an explemary understanding of all the elements of customer care. There is presumably the risk of getting sick in any country – I travel to the US frequently (I am fromt the UK) and was sick on my last visit to New York. Should I therefore question the standards of US citizens and US hygiene as a result? For me and my family everything went more than smoothly, we found the staff and services offered by CRE (and more generally in Costa Rica) to our satisfation and will gladly return to this beautiful and friendly country.

          • At July 14, 2010
            8:08:02 am
            John said:

            I am delighted we did not encounter the folks you describe in your example. Why would you visit a foreign locale and not want to experience the culture and the people?

            But I digress. I am afraid I must side with them on the matter of the aircraft. The Cessna, deemed more safe or not, was perceived by your customers as less safe and that frightened them. More, it appeared you made a unilateral decision and did not respect their wishes and you made them feel as if their fears were not your priority. Even if you know aircraft better, you made them feel unimportant and small. You should refund them the cost of that charter leg. I have flown over the Cordillera both with CRE and several times with the military and can believe how nerve wracking that might be to those who dislike small aircraft.

            Similarly, your company disregarded the customer’s wishes for gourmet and elegant food. I would not have understood that a private homecooked meal meant a meal in a local home. I believe you violated their clearly stated wishes. I think you owe them an apology at least.

            As for their illness – stuff happens. The food may have caused this reaction or it might have been from the flight into Costa Rica or the water in the airport, or it might just have happened. Folks get sick – and when you travel it happens a lot. I would say that is what travel insurance is for – and Pepto!

            Just my opinion.

            BTW: I found the meals at Corcovado to be homecooked, in a fashion, with guests sharing food homestyle out of common serving bowls. (A real great experience by the way – very enjoyable.) The meals at Tortugera were much fancier and served at private tables and could have been found in a four star restaurant. We liked Corcovado better…..


            • At July 14, 2010
              6:49:30 am
              Carlos Hirschberg said:

              I agree this is more complex than the previous case. Whether I am turned off by a customer’s request is not relevant–the “private meal” was a mistake and must be compensated even though I have gotten sick at elegant places!The plane is bad luck–it happens–although people think ( irrationally ) that two engines are safer than one. The customers could have refused to board once it was explained what happened. This part i would deal with a “good will gesture”. The previous part with some compensation. Given that they paid a lot I would give them a 25% discount towards a future trip or refund 2K.

              • At July 14, 2010
                3:58:37 am
                Emily Le Moing said:

                Having taken a private guided tour with the great guide Luis, I am amazed that these guests found anything to complain about. We had a wonderful time in Tortuguero(as on every journey we have taken with CRE), and having lunch in the home of a wonderful local lady was a highlight of our trip (as was our dinner at a private family-owned hot springs in Arenal). Re. flights, I have always been impressed with CRE’s commitment to providing safety for guests and I feel these guests were given a flight that was at least as safe as the one they expected; perhaps someone at CRE could have explained better to these people the safety features offered by the type of plane they flew on, but it seems to me that CRE was very clear to the guests about what the trip would be like. These complaints do not seem at all justified. (I am also very put off by these guests’ specification that they didn’t want to interact with locals!!!)

                • At July 13, 2010
                  5:45:36 pm
                  Kara Bay said:

                  Like Marcy, I was really struck by their requirement that they not have interactions with local people. I found it shocking in fact. Why on earth would you travel if you didn’t want to interact with local people? That is part of the joy of travel and the only way to really learn about another culture. What a bizarre attitude.

                  As for food poisoning, sometimes it just happens, and it isn’t always out of carelessness in terms of food preparation. I got food poisoning in Bhutan last fall. I had a rough couple days, but I didn’t blame it on the tour company, and I certainly didn’t let it ruin my trip. I also dealt with altitude sickness when we hiked the Inca Trail, and again, I didn’t blame it on the tour company or let it ruin my trip. Things don’t always go as planned – it’s what we call life, and I make the best of it rather than the worst of it.

                  Some people are impossible to please, and I think those people should stay home.

                  • At July 13, 2010
                    12:44:28 pm
                    marcy katz said:

                    After reading the complaint about not wanting to interact with the local people, my thoughts kept coming back to the reason for travel in the first place. You travel because you WANT to interact with the local people. Stay home and watch a travelogue video with home cooked food. Save the $ and hope that you don’t get food poisoning from the ingredients. I got food poisoning from a mussel in a restaurant in Portland Oregon that I have gone to for years. I am not going to stop going there.
                    Good for you for publishing this complaint. It just enforces why I travel. Pure adventure!

                    • At July 13, 2010
                      11:15:56 am
                      Kelly said:

                      I find it hard to believe that someone did not like the food at Tortuguero. When we were there, the food at the Tortuguero Lodge was a highlight. We looked forward to each and every meal. All were creative, gourmet, and delicious, including the picnic meal during our boat ride in when we first arrived. The preparations for all meals seemed to be hygenic and sanitary. It seems as thought the plane issue could have been better explained to the guests, especially as to safety; however, if they were nervous about a small plane, I do not think the type would make a difference as long as the plane was relatively new and in good condition. I thnk apologies are enough in this case; there is no proof that food supplied by Costa Rica Expeditions made them sick and they were upgraded without charge to a better plane, albeit not one that they preferred. Perhaps an offer of a discount should they use your services in the future.

                      • At July 13, 2010
                        10:04:54 am
                        Rich said:

                        You identified the communication issues with your guests very well. What should you have done? For the plane, the explanation you just gave should have been given to your guests before hand so they felt comfortable when they saw the plane. I hope what you published here was enough to satisfy them. As for the meal, the statement on the itinerary is not deceptive, but it doesn’t quite explain what the guests were doing for lunch. It should be worded “A home made Caribbean lunch in a private home…”. This way the guests would have understood that they were not eating in in a restaurant and could have questioned that before hand. It will probably never be determined why they got sick, but if there are sanitary regulations for serving commercial meals in private homes, it should be investigated if they were being met in this case. The results should be shared with your guests. As a veteran of a CR Expeditions vacation I can say that they gave us a memorable and flawless trip. The fact that they are posting this complaint and asking for comments shows that they are honest and strive to create the best experience for their clients.

                        • At July 13, 2010
                          9:54:12 am
                          Patrick Taylor said:

                          Once in a while, you have to get an arrogant and self-assertive customer just to remind you how pleasant the majority of your guest are.

                          Single engine planes are safer than twins (twins are twice as likely to have engine failure); Tipico and soda meals can be far superior to “4-star gourmet” (I’ve become ill more often at 4-star restaurants than sodas), and there is no proof that the “family style meal” caused their illness. The doctor couldn’t even be specific as to when it happened.

                          I would apologize to them for the confusion, and state that as a courtesy, you will not charge them the extra $702 for the Grand Caravan.