They said they’d be posting my review “this fall,” which I guess implies that they screen and censor each review for any personal information. Also, I had to write the review in a tiny textbox in Internet Exploder because it failed to work in any other browser, and when I go to the “write review” menu, it’s as if I had never submitted a review in the first place. What a horrible web infrastructure their website has.
I’ll post my full account of my experience in Japan in a few days, but for now, please enjoy my scathing three-star review of the EF tour. The country is great, but the tour was certainly not.
One cannot review the culture and aspects of a country; it is not something that can be placed stars on. You can choose any country that EF offers tours for and expect a great experience simply being present in a new environment with classmates. This part does not change with any educational tour or travel agency.
Thus, I will focus on primarily the tour itself, which is the part that EF specifically offers in competition with other travel agencies. I will cover praise and criticism by points rather than in chronological order.
- There were no outstanding needs to contact EF. The tour and flights were all booked correctly.
- Good density of places to visit. The tour’s itinerary was loaded with many points of interest, yet there was no feeling of exhaustion. I took around 900 photos by the conclusion of the tour.
- Excellent cost-effectiveness. It’s difficult to beat EF in terms of pricing, especially in how they provide a fairly solid estimate with one big price tag.
- Tour guide knew his history very well, even if he was unable to explain it fluently. You could ask him about the history of a specific point of interest, and he could tell you very precisely its roots, whether they be from the Meiji, Edo, or Tokugawa period.
- Every dinner was authentic Japanese food. No exceptions.
- Tour guide had poor command of English and was extremely difficult to understand. In Japan, “Engrish” is very common, and it’s admittedly very difficult to find someone who can speak English fluently and correctly. However, this really reveals that you get what you pay for: if you want a cheapo tour, you will get a cheapo tour guide who might not be all you wanted. I will reiterate this: he was not a captivating tour guide, and it took great effort to try to absorb the information he was disseminating.
- Little time spent in the actual points of interest, possibly due to an inefficient use of the tour bus. In many cases, it’s cheaper and faster to use the subway to get to places, although I concede that the tour bus is useful in times where one wants to see the area that leads up to an important or unfamiliar destination. Still, on the worst day, we were on the bus for a cumulative three hours, yet we only had around forty to fifty minutes per point of interest. No wonder I took so many pictures, as the tour felt rushed and didn’t give me time to take in the view before we had to get back in the bus to go somewhere else.
- Miscommunication with EF during the tour. We were promised two people to a room on the first hotel, but instead were assigned three to a room. The arrangement wasn’t that bad after all, but it still contradicted the claims made in the travel meetings. What’s more, we were informed something about an EF group from Las Vegas that would be merging with our group, but this also never happened (they toured separately from us, but we encountered them occasionally).
- Reversed tour. There is, in fact, fine print that EF is allowed to do this if reversing the tour would save money, but it’s still unpleasant and detracting from the intended experience. My group leader, who is a native speaker I know very well, told me before the tour that she was irritated from the reversal, since it’s much better to start from Tokyo, the modern part of Japan, and work one’s way southward to the more traditional Kyoto.
- The last day of the tour was poorly planned by EF, so our group leader had to change the itinerary of that day (well before the tour, obviously) to some significantly better plans. Originally, the whole day would have been basically hanging around in Ueno Park, but she changed that to going to Tokyo Skytree, Hongwanji Temple, the Tsukiji fish market (which is moving elsewhere very soon), and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We had to foot the bill for the attractions of this day, including Skytree, the museum, and 100 grams of toro (fatty tuna).
- Poor distinction between what is already paid by EF and what we would have to pay for in addition to our tour. For instance, some of our subway tickets were already bought ahead of time by our tour director, but some we had to pay for with our money, which doesn’t really make sense because all of the transportation was supposed to have been covered by the tour cost.
- Our group leader (and her husband and kids) ended up doing most of the work, especially rounding up everyone and ensuring that they are all present.
- Less time than you would expect to spend your own money. After all, they want the tour to be educational, rather than just general tourism. But the interesting part was that we had to vote to go back to Akihabara, because we were only given two hours (including lunch!) to buy the games and figurines we had always wanted to buy from Japan. Even after the small petition, the final decision was to make Akihabara and Harajuku mutually exclusive, which means that you could only choose to go to one or the other. I decided to just go to Harajuku purely because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t stick to the original plan, but I regret the decision in retrospect because I ended up buying absolutely nothing there. (They just sell Western clothes in Harajuku, so you’re a Westerner buying used Western clothes in a non-Western country.)
There are probably quite a few number of points I am missing here, but this should be sufficient to give you an idea of the specifics of the tour that are not covered in the generic “it was really great and I had a lot of fun!!” reviews.
As a recent high school graduate, I’ll be looking forward to my next trip to Japan, but this time with another travel agency that provides more transparency in terms of itinerary and fees. I’d also be predisposed to spending more money to get a longer and better quality tour that actually gives me time to enjoy viewing the temples and monuments, rather than frantically taking pictures to appreciate later.