March 17, 2013

Wichita Eagle
Carrie Rengers

Greteman Group president and creative director Sonia Greteman and her husband, Chris Brunner, booked what they thought would be a trip of a lifetime to Egypt in 2011.

“Chris and I were 15 minutes from walking out the door,” Greteman said. “Our suitcases were packed.”

They printed their boarding passes, and then the phone rang. It was someone with their National Geographic tour group explaining that Internet and cell service had gone down in Egypt, where a revolution was under way. And the tour’s contacts there couldn’t be reached to say whether the situation was safe.

The trip was canceled.

Chris Brunner and Sonia Greteman in 2012 in front of the pyramids in Egypt, which they missed seeing in 2011 because of civil unrest in the country.
Chris Brunner and Sonia Greteman in 2012 in front of the pyramids in Egypt, which they missed seeing in 2011 because of civil unrest in the country.

The next year, Greteman and Brunner booked the trip again, not realizing it would be on the anniversary of the revolution. In the days before they left, there was rioting in Egypt.

“We couldn’t believe it on the news the night before,” Greteman said. “We were just thinking, is this going to happen to us again?”

It didn’t, but it’s the kind of unsettled situation many travelers find themselves in for various reasons – civil unrest, stranded ships, medical issues, missed flights – and that’s where travel agents often come in. It could be with advice before travel begins or help after something happens.

“We send people all over the world,” said Jim Friesen of Reflection Travel Agency. He said he’s careful when advising customers whether a place is safe.

“What is safe?” Friesen said. “You can’t guarantee anything. The minute you recommend something, man, it comes back to bite you.”

He said he’s never had to rescue a traveler from a situation.

“Most people, if they think they’re not supposed to go (somewhere), they’re not going to go.”

Traveltime owner Suzanne Krause said tour operators won’t knowingly put customers in dangerous situations.

“They will change your itinerary to another city … that’s not having problems.”

For instance, Krause had some clients who were going on a Mediterranean cruise at a time when riots in Greece were “a real big deal.”

She said the cruise line gave them the option of a refund or an itinerary change.

“There is no way they’re going to put you in harm’s way,” Krause said. “They don’t want the lawsuit.”

Her clients chose to cancel because they wanted to see Greek sites the tour operator recommended they bypass for safety.

“It was three cabins, so it was a good chunk of business,” Krause said.

That’s unusual for her and other agents, though.

“It doesn’t come up that often,” said Devin Hansen, president of Sunflower Travel. He credits savvy travelers and technology.

“That’s one great thing about the Internet anymore,” Hansen said. “They’ve already done the research. … You can kind of see the train wreck coming.”

Sometimes agents have to overcome bad travel news and accompanying fears, though.

“It affects bookings in the short term,” said Jeff Arensdorf, owner of Village Tours & Travel. “People read the news and see the news, and they get a little antsy. I would say that people that have a lot of experience in traveling and in cruising, it doesn’t affect them as much as it does the rookies.”

Arensdorf said if given the opportunity, he tries to change people’s minds.

“Yeah, but we need to have them call us first.”

He does e-mail blasts to customers as “a good way to educate them.”

Even without news of electrical and other problems with cruise ships, Arensdorf said some people have concerns about cruising, such as being in confined spaces or experiencing rough seas.

“Then this just puts them over the edge,” he said.

“We are starting to see some lower rates and some extra incentives. They’re trying to entice people to come aboard.”

Krause said, “I had someone ask me the other day, ‘Would you go on a cruise?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’

“People just have to realize those things don’t happen all the time.”

Arensdorf said cruise reservation counts are off a bit, but that could be for myriad reasons, such as debt talk.

“Weather affects our business, too. There’s so many factors. It’s so hard.”

He said sequestration could lead to potential issues at national parks as the touring season gears up, “which irritates me because there are so many other things they could cut. It’s political.”

South of the border

Mexico is a constant topic of concern for travelers.

“It’s probably the number one thing I sell,” Krause said. “I would go today. … I just have no fear of that area at all.”

Still, there are certain border cities and other places she recommends avoiding, and Krause said she likes to have conversations with clients before they go even if it’s to someplace considered safe.

“You have to be wise,” Krause said. “You can’t go out and get completely blitzed and then stumble around outside and hope nothing bad happens.”

Hansen has been to Mexico three times in the last six months.

“It’s got the best pricing right now,” he said, adding that with a flight from Wichita “you can be on the beach by noon.”

Hansen said customers have to weigh fun against risk.

“Anything can happen to somebody on any given day,” he said.

Friesen pointed out that’s true in the United States, too.

“It’s not safe to go to New York City if you go to certain areas.”

Carina Michel, president at Warren Travel, said the biggest issue she generally deals with is canceled flights.

Except for people who are frequent travelers, she believes a lot of Americans are hesitant to travel internationally, even to areas that aren’t hot spots.

“Americans feel sort of isolated over here and don’t really understand what’s going on in different countries and are leery about everything and everybody.”

A lot of business travelers aren’t, though, agents say.

“I have a doctor who goes to Pakistan a lot,” Friesen said. “He flies into Karachi … which isn’t one of the places I’d want to go.”

Friesen said business people have contacts who tell them whether it’s safe or not.

“They go in with a different attitude than a tourist.”

Krause said she has a friend who is a missionary and is going to Pakistan.

“That one concerns me,” she said. “But she’s pretty determined.”

Krause regularly checks for advisories.

“It tells you what areas are … kind of concerning. I pay attention to that.”

For example, she said Kenya around election time “can get really uncertain.”

Ken Brodbeck of Coventry Travel said he had some customers traveling to Egypt who refused to be swayed by unrest there.

“It was one of their bucket list countries they wanted to go to, so they were going regardless,” he said. “A lot of it depends on whether people have some travel savvy, how they feel about going.”

Greteman and Brunner got their Egypt trip last year on their second try, and there was a payoff to traveling there when few other tourists were.

When they went to see King Tut’s mask, instead of waiting in a museum line for an hour or two and then spending only a second or two with it, Greteman says they walked right up and could spend all the time they wanted.

“We had the room to ourselves,” she said. “It was kind of eerie.”

Greteman said she feels for Egyptians who rely on tourists for income.

“I just don’t think the tourists have come back,” she said. “People think it’s too volatile there.”

She’s grateful for her opportunity to go, though.

“It was really an incredible trip.”

© Wichita Eagle, 2013