A week ago, we finished the 12-day Western Discovery tour with American Tours International. Our driver was Chris Gonzalez and our Guide was Mark Leuthold. You may think this information is useless, but anyone contemplating this tour will need all the information they can get.
We joined the tour at the Crowne Plaza Los Angeles Airport on Saturday 25th May. Until we checked out from this hotel, we’d received precisely zero information from ATI about joining information – in fact, they didn’t even have a record of our information until the day we joined! I was immediately introduced to Chris and her odd sense of humour (if indeed you can call it that!) when she tried to convince me our soft-top holdalls were not allowed, and we needed hard suitcases. This was the first of many irritating ‘jokes’ that would normally be dismissed at home as banter.
The tour began with a warm introduction and a 10-minute spiel on how in America, tips are expected – they recommended $2-3 a day per person for drivers and $4-5 for guides. As it happened, they both received a tip, but I’m not sure it was entirely what they expected (All will be explained)!
After the first of many coffee breaks (we were one of only two pairs under the age of 65!), we were dropped in Middle of Nowhere, Arizona – better known as a service station near Quartzsite – for a nutritious lunch at McDonald’s. We then motored on to Fort McDowell, a Hotel and Casino in the middle of the desert, where we received free casino money and an alcoholic beverage each for free. What a shame then that there was no contingency plan, such as soft drinks available for those of us who are actually underage – a fact they already knew! They also singled me out at check-in by making me put my hand up before we could get our room key.
This was the first of many instances where we were disregarded or even vilified for being under the pension age. By the end of the first week, we had been independently told off for using the toilet on board, due to it being “for emergencies” (although the definition of emergency is ambiguous!), I had the coach door shut in my face as I was approaching on the second day and we suffered the wrath of an obnoxious American, who shall be known forever more as Dennis (for that is his name) who insisted we all wake up at 6am, despite the coach leaving at 8:30am.
The main issue we had with the tour is the insistence upon what is known as “The rotation system” – the mindless sheep mentality of not being able to think for themselves and being told to move two seats. Naturally, as two guys with an average height of 6’3″, this brought us into a little bit of contention with the other passengers, the first of whom to complain was our best friend, Dennis, when he and his silent but judgmental wife sat in front of us.
As time went on, we were getting more annoyed with people just being sheep, and as we explained to Mark, if people ask, we’d explain our struggles with legroom, and when people did, they got off our case.
By the time we got to Death Valley (Day 8), the Australians began trying to confront us, leading to the best line from Mark in response to being told “Just a word, you guys are beginning to piss people off with not rotating”, which was bluntly saying “Just a word, we don’t care.” Chris also attempted to stop us sitting in the same seat, but incurred Mark’s ire in that argument.
By the end of the tour, we were tired of having to argue with too many people, but the places were amazing, with the exception of Vegas, which was a hole. Ultimately, there’s a few things to bear in mind if you consider this tour (and I’d assume ATI generally):
- Be prepared to not have much legroom.
- Be prepared to wake up early, especially if there’s someone obnoxious shouting an obscene wake up time.
- Lots of the hotels are in the middle of nowhere, leaving very little food choices (Fort McDowell especially – you have to walk through a smoky casino to get to them as well!)
- The above also applies for lunch/coffee stops.
- The guides are in charge of random toilet breaks, so family-owned or friend-owned shops or even fruit shops (yes, this happened!) are possible.
- Tips are included, but they expected more on top!
On the subject of tips, as I mentioned above, we did leave them tips in their envelopes. Sadly for them, Chris’ tip was a penny and a note saying “this is all your dreadful customer service deserves – next time try and be pleasant and you would get more.” and Mark’s was a note reading “The website says service charges are included – nice try, you cheeky git!” We did, of course, let rip on the comment card, but surprisingly, I’ve not heard back from them! We let the travel agent know as well, so he’ll hopefully relay our irritation.
We loved the places, but we’d think twice about doing it again, purely for the reasons dealt with above.