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Not my first choice
Member Name: funagogo
Advantages: Easy booking
Disadvantages: Being tricked into a crap day out, poor organisation
We used First Choice for our holiday to Kenya this year so here is my review of each stage:
We booked through a high street travel agents, not knowing what hotel we wanted or dates, just that we wanted to go to Mombasa somewhere at the start of June and preferably from Manchester Airport. When they put it into the computer it came back with a direct flight from Manchester to Mombasa with nights in Whitesands hotel with First Choice. We booked a combination of beach and safari holiday and there was a selection of nights available for safari, either in Tsavo East, West or the Masai Mara. There was also an option of places to stay for each safari package - either tents or hotels. I wanted tents but the rest of my party weren't so keen so we opted for the hotel each of the 3 night safari trip.
In hindsight this was a bad idea - the hotels weren't great (or necessarily clean) whereas other people who did the tents said it was an amazing experience - they were old military style tents with showers, good food and even massages! Despite not being out in the open we had more wildlife in our rooms.
Overall the booking was an easy process with a lot of options. The whole 2 weeks trip was found and booked within about 20 minutes. We paid by credit card and our tickets had arrived within 3 days along with simple baggage tags that were usable on the flight in and out. Altogether a good system.
We were told that due to security checks that we had to arrive at Manchester airport 3 hours before we were due to board. As we flew out a few days after the Glasgow attack this was increased to 3 and a half hours - so for an 8pm flight we had to be there for half 4! I was happy to do this as I thought checking in and security measures would easily take an hour and that if it meant us getting through safely I was happy to do this. When we arrived at the airport we were accosted by a woman who said we could use the check-in machine. It scanned in one passport and identified all the people in that party - it asked us the usual "have you packed this yourself" kind of gubbins which we answered using a touch screen. After a 2 minute stop at this booth we had our boarding passes printed out. We were then directed over to the backage check in - which again took about 2 minutes! So with 3 hours and 26 minutes to spare before taking off we went and got some food. I don't know if this large time was down to the airport, police or first choice but I think 3 and a half hours was a rather unnecessary length of time to be kicking around.
We boarded the plane on time and were shown to our seats to a medley of Kylies greatest hits. The seats were a turquoisey leather and looked a bit shabby - the holder with the inflight magazines was hanging off too. Each seat had a private tv screen in with a range of tv shows, films and games on it. After being shown the safety demonstration (by flight attendants who looked positively suicidal) we took off promptly.
After take off we were told that if we wanted the good movies we would have to pay an extra £5 per person, I decided not to bother which was just as well as after 5 resets of the system - meaning I had to watch the start of "Music and Lyrics" 5 times - they decided it was knackered and had to go back and refund everyone. There was also a system in the seat remote that you could swipe your credit card on to buy the film upgrades, but again this was broken too. The standard flight 2 pronged headphones were provided, but had to be held at a certain angle to make sure you could hear through both earphones. The attendants then went on to bring round the duty free cart, then a drinks cart, then at midnight, 4 hours after taking off, they brought us round dinner. I was just about ready to chew my own arm of at this point.
After this was taken round we were offered more drinks thenthe lights were switched off so we could get some sleep. Blankets and pillows were provided, which was just as well because I was frozen. At 3 am, 2 hours after the lights went off and 3 hours after we had eaten dinner breakfast was served. We landed about half an hour after this - having made up about half an hour on the flight time.
After waiting 4 hours for dinner I would have eaten sawdust, so when the food came around I was pleasantly suprised. On the tray was a greek salad, bread roll, cheesecake and crackers and cheese. This was accompanied by either chicken tortellini or beef stroganoff. My brother had one and I had the other, then we swapped half way through. They were both ok - the stroganoff had some soggy veg and rice with it but the beef was good. The chicken dish was good and the cheesecake was really yummy.
Breakfast came in a box and was a croissant and a cereal bar.
To the hotel:
We got through the baggage collection in about haf an hour as there was only one flight in the whole terminal. We went to the first choice booth and were pointed to a bus. As we headed over the driver came over to us and took all our bags from us and loaded them up. It was about a 30 minute trip from the airport to the hotel.
Our rep was called Julius and to my suprise he wasn't a horny teenager, but a local guy who gave us loads of information on the drive. He taught us some general swahili phrases and about the cultural background of Mombasa and Mombasa island.
We had our meeting with him the afternoon that we had arrived and he gave us lots of useful advise and a list of day trips he was running - and of course the prices (in US dollars.) The meeting was about a hour long and probably 40 minutes longer than it needed to be. He was in the hotel for an hour in the morning and in the evening and was generally very helpful.
So we had got to the gorgeous hotel, been on safari and decided we wanted to do a few day trips. Obviously we wanted to see Mombasa itself, but our main priority was to go on a traditional Dhow trip. In addition to the sheet of day trips we had been given an extra sheet with words such as luxury and extravaganza. We thought we would give it a go as it was half the price of the standard trips and was being promoted as a special promotion. It cost us £40 each. When we finally got round to it our first suprise was that, despite us being in a beach hotel, we would be driving 2 and a half hours to get to the boat. The trip then descended into a comedy of errors, with a 5 hour round trip for 40 minutes snorkelling, a 30 minute wild dolphin chase and an afternoon sat by a pool. The boat on the way back then ran out of petrol. This understandably put a dampener on our desire to do other day trips, and took a day from our holiday and £160.
The trip back:
The trip back was generally much better organised, even though the incoming flight was an hour late we were only 15 minutes late boarding. The staff were more helpful and pleasant and we got our food and drink served at reasonable times. We landed on time and were out of the airport within half an hour of getting off the plane.
I wouldn't recommend first choice at all. In what was an amazing holiday, the only major balls ups were on the part of them. The fact the flight crew spent a week in the hotel with us being paid on an all expenses paid trip (including safari) annoyed me slightly as it was my hard earned cash paying for their jolly.
Plus the fact we were actively discouraged from doing free snorkelling at our hotel in favour of the "amazing" day out at the cost of £40 per person.
The fact that the plane was a bit dirty and the fact the staff clearly weren't interested in their jobs, got me frustrated too. If you are going to Mombasa this is the only flight available from Manchester, and the only option in on a Wednesday over night with the return on the Thursday, so flexibility is not really an option.
I can not say enough how gorgeous Kenya and the people are, but if you can go from a London airport via another travel agent I wouls advise this!
Summary: Great holiday but blighted by first choice