So, a couple years ago Wife and I started saving for a good vacation. We knew we were going to want and NEED one after my first semester of med school, most of which we would spend apart. This past summer, I took those savings and booked a vacation through a travel agent at an "all-inclusive" resort called the Bavaro Princess Resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
It looked beautiful, it was a five-star destination, and our travel agent highly recommended it. It seemed like exactly what we were looking for - simple, stress-free relaxation with just the two of us. Right?
So many things went wrong on this vacation, I had to start a list by the second of seven days just to keep track of it. Yesterday, I went to the travel agent's office, and it took an hour just to describe everything that went wrong. I will try to give the abridged version here, along with a few photos.
We got to the airport in Grand Rapids at 4am, and arrived at the resort by 9pm resort time (8pm Grand Rapids time). While the travel went well and our flights were all on time, we were pretty tired and looking forward to collapsing in our room.
The First Leaky Room
Our room was a lower-level "Bungalow Suite," which had been a better-class room than we had expected when we initially booked the trip. However, the first thing I noticed when we stepped into the room was not the impressive quality of the room, but rather the overwhelming stench of mold and mildew. At first I thought it was perhaps because the room hadn't been aired out in a little while, so we unpacked our things in the bedroom and turned on the air conditioning. Unfortunately, when I made it to the bathroom I found the water leaking through the ceiling from the floor above.
That's right - water was dripping from the ceiling and making a puddle onto the bathroom floor. Judging by the stench that had permeated the whole suite, it had been leaking for a while. I got on the phone and spoke with the front desk. They didn't speak English (which for us wasn't a problem, but it was for many of the other guests that we spoke to), so all of the discourse I will be relating here was in Spanish:
Me: "Hello, I'm in room 248. We just got to our room, and I wanted to let you know that there is water leaking through the ceiling of our suite into our bathroom."
Front Desk: Sigh. "OK. We will send someone up."
No apology or anything, just a belabored sigh and "We'll send someone up."
A security guard and repairman arrived about twenty minutes later and got to work while we were there, tearing the ceiling out of the shower to look for the source of the leak:
They assured me they would have it fixed - that it was probably just the air conditioning from the room above. No, it was a leaking pipe. No, it was just condensation. No, it was the air conditioning. No, it actually was a pipe.
They spent twenty minutes upstairs. Then they came back downstairs and tore more stuff apart. After two hours, they assured me that it was fixed, called some maids to clean up the dirt and rocks, and left. Never one word to apologize for our wasted time or the frustration of any of it.
After they left, I went to check the bathroom. Not five minutes after they assured me it was fixed, I found a new puddle forming from the ceiling on the bathroom floor. I called the front desk:
Me: "Hi, this is Justin again. You just sent some guys up to fix the leak in our ceiling. Well, they just left and assured me that it was fixed, but it is still leaking onto the floor."
Front Desk: SIGH. "OK. I will send someone again."
Me: "Wait, no. Isn't there some way you can make this up to us? This is really frustrating, and even if you send another person, I am no longer convinced that they will be able to fix it. Plus, this room smells terrible from the water damage, and my wife and I don't really want to have to wait again while they try to fix it."
Front Desk: "So? What do you want me to do?"
Now, normally you'd expect at least some modicum of courtesy and respect from a place as nice as this. I was kind of shocked that they really didn't seem to care at all.
Me: "Umm... Well, you could give us an upgrade or something?"
Front Desk: "No, the only upgrade is the Platinum package, and you would have to pay for that."
Me: "Okay then, could you at least move us to another room of equal value?"
Front Desk: "... You want us to move you. To another room."
Me: "Well, since this room has water leaking from the ceiling and smells horrible... Yes, I do."
Front Desk: "OK. I will send someone to bring you to your new room."
The new room was on the upper floor, so there was no longer any danger of leaks - or so we thought. More on THAT later.
While all of this was going on, I tried calling the customer service number given to us by our travel agent. It is supposed to be 24-hour service. The phone call cost me $6 to make from the room. I got a voicemail, and decided to leave a message to explain that we would be changing rooms and to describe the treatment that we were getting from the resort staff. I left all of my information and asked that they please call us the following day. They never called back all week.
The following day, I had a meeting with a travel rep from VIP Travel Services that I THOUGHT was to fix a time for when / where we would meet the shuttle service to go back to the airport at the end of the week. I got to the meeting place at noon (the scheduled time) and waited 45 minutes for the agent to arrive. He didn't show, so I called him on his cell phone:
Me: "Hi, this is Justin, the client you have an appointment with at noon?"
Agent: "Ah yes, I am currently at a different hotel. They double booked me."
My thoughts: Okay, it sounds like you knew they double booked you. Couldn't you have left a message at the desk for me so I wouldn't waste my time waiting here?
I played it cool and reserved:
Me: "Okay, I understand."
Agent: "I will be there in five minutes."
Fifteen minutes later, he arrived and sat down:
Agent: "Okay, so what excursions would you like to do?"
Me: "Actually, we spent most of our money just to come down to the resort, so we are just hoping to enjoy the beach and the food - not to go on any excursions."
Somehow this bothered him a little bit, as he started to take a bit of an attitude with me. Please note - I did not request this meeting. It was something the resort scheduled me for.
Agent: "So why did you request this meeting??"
Me: "I didn't. I was told this meeting was partly to learn about the resort, but mostly to schedule and coordinate the transportation from the resort to the airport."
Agent: "Oh, we can't do that now. You have to call me the day before you leave and I will tell you the transportation schedule. We don't arrange it until the day before."
And that was that - an hour of waiting for absolutely no reason.
That afternoon, we decided to check out one of the outdoor pools. It wasn't bad, except for one VERY creepy employee. He was kind of huddling behind one of the towel sheds by the pool area, about fifteen or twenty feet behind us. Our interaction:
Creep: "Pssst - hey man!"
Me, getting up from my beach chair: "Yeah?" I walk over toward him a bit.
Creep: "Hey! You see that white food box over there?" He gestures to a white styrofoam take-out box (the small flimsy kind you'd get from a restaurant for your leftovers) sitting on a cement post about thirty feet behind me as I faced him.
Me: "Yeah... What about it?"
Creep: "Can you bring me that box? I don't want security to see me." He gestures around the corner at an overweight security guard standing around the corner from him. Keep in mind - he's wearing one of the same uniforms as everyone else working on the resort.
This made me very uneasy. My thoughts were something like, This is weird. I don't know what's in that box; it could be drugs, money, someone's fingers, a gun... It could be food, but why would he be worried about being seen by security if it was just food? I don't need my fingerprints on that box. That went through my head in a flash, and I responded:
Me: "No, sorry man. I'll let you deal with that." I went back to sit down. As I turned away, I heard him loudly curse at me, "Mother f***er!"
He continued to lurk a few more minutes until he snagged a couple of groundskeepers from the resort to do his bidding. He took off after they gave him the box, disappearing behind the towel sheds. Weird.
We decided to try out the beach. For the record, it was beautiful. The water was awesome, the sand was clean with no trash anywhere, and the water was a perfect temperature for swimming. There were even these cool little palm umbrella huts built into the sand all over the beach. There were more than enough lounge chairs and huts to go around, which was awesome. The beach was probably the best part of the trip.
Unfortunately, it was tainted by the hoards of solicitors, "photo shoot teams," animal handlers, and elementary school age drum/accordion/dancer bands roaming around asking for money. The beach was NOT a closed beach, which meant that the resort opened it up to solicitors to sell things like necklaces, bracelets, photos with a parrot/monkey/python/scantily clad buxom woman or muscular man. They were all very pushy, interrupting you if you were reading or sunbathing or even SLEEPING to shove their wares in your face and ask if you wanted any of it. If you weren't rude, you got the spiel. It took me about a day and a half to become rude, which was a bummer. I don't like being rude.
There were also a bunch of resort employees (I think they were, anyway) offering excursions and constantly trying to get choreographed dance/exercise routines going on the beach. They all had loud referee-style whistles that they would walk around blowing while shouting out things like, "SOCCER!! WHO WANT PLAY SOCCER!!" or "BANANA BOAT PARASAILING SCUBA DIVING SWIM WITH DOLPHINS!" All of this is while multiple bands of 2-6 little kids walked around the beach (all playing the same exact tune/rhythm) all day. They would play and belly dance (which made me feel very uncomfortable, having a six-year-old boy dance in the sand to a drum rhythm fifteen feet from me while randomly pulling his t-shirt above his head and shake his hips) for several minutes before walking around with straw hats held out while calling, "Money for the music?" I felt horrible for them, and at the same time just felt frustrated that it was allowed to happen. I felt bad for their situation, and felt even worse for lounging on the beach while they had to make a spectacle of themselves for pennies.
While the beach was the best experience of the vacation, it was not the most relaxing / guilt-free of beach experiences.
The Seafood Restaurant
That night, we were really looking forward to dining at one of the restaurants. The resort had six different restaurants, which we thought were all open each day. Wrong. The first couple restaurants we found were closed, but we finally found one open that served seafood. We were unfamiliar with the dining process, which works under a sort of punchcard system. They gave us a card with all of our check-in materials. We had to present this card to be punched at the restaurant in order to eat there.
We didn't have the card with us, so I left Wife at the restaurant and ran back to the room. At least, I tried to. Everything was so poorly lit (and the place was so HUGE) with no names on the paths/streets, so I got lost. It took me about a half hour (seriously, this place is like a little village) to find the room, locate the card, and get back to the restaurant.
When I got back, Wife hadn't ordered anything. When I asked why, she said that since she didn't have the card yet they wouldn't let her order (even though they knew I was going back for it). She also showed me a menu - which was full of items with prices! I couldn't believe it, and the menu had no explanation. Just lots of food and drinks with prices. We had thought that everything in the restaurants was free, and I didn't have any money with me to pay for food. All of our money was back in the room's safe.
Once I asked the waiter, it became clear that the priced menu was for extra special items that weren't on the "free menu," which he then handed us. We eventually ordered and got our food (after a long wait). Unfortunately, Wife's fish was completely undercooked!! Disgusted and a little nauseated, we just skipped to dessert. Blah.
Worst of all, this type of experience wasn't unique to the seafood place. To be frank, the entire dining experience blew. Two of the restaurants were never even open, so on two of our six nights we couldn't eat at a restaurant. There was a buffet open for those not eating at a restaurant, but the food there wasn't the best. All of the buffet food tasted like it had been frozen multiple times, watered down, or completely devoid of seasoning. So, we really wanted the restaurant experiences to be nice.
Not a good expectation to have at the Bavaro Princess Resport.
We quickly learned that if you wanted to get in to a restaurant, you had to show up right when it opened. We were told that we could make reservations to eat at restaurants when we checked in. When I tried to do so, I was told that because we hadn't paid the extra money to become Platinum members, we could not make reservations. When we then went to the restaurant, we were told to wait, as all the Platinum members (who had reservations) went in and ate ahead of us. It was not uncommon to stand outside of the restaurant waiting for 1-2 hours before being let in to eat.
The Bella Pasta
At one particular restaurant - The Bella Pasta, which was self-dubbed "The Best Restaurant of the Resort" - we waited over an hour to be seated. After getting our seats, we waited 25 more minutes before anyone spoke to us about drinks or ordering our food. After finishing our main course (during which our water nor our drinks were ever refilled) we waited an additional 35 minutes for them to deliver the desserts that we had ordered at the beginning of our meal. When the waiter came back to the table, he gave us a survey to fill out. A survey.
I was brutal, giving them the lowest marks for pretty much every aspect of their service. When he promptly came back to pick up the surveys, I was trying to treat the situation lightly and politely. This interaction took place:
Me: "I just wanted to let you know that when you came to give us this survey, we had been waiting here for 35 minutes waiting for our dessert, which we still haven't gotten."
Now, the waiter didn't respond verbally. He did something much more offensive. He just sort of spread his arms quickly to the side and opened his eyes wide while wobbling his head side-to-side as if to say, "So WHAT?" And then he stood there, just looking at me. Wife was completely flabbergasted at his attitude. He was definitely being rude, and not joking.
Me, after a long, awkward pause: "Okay... So could we have our desserts now, please?"
Waiter: "I will send someone out with them now."
Five minutes later, a different waiter came out with our desserts (we had ordered cheesecake), which looked like the sort of frozen cupcake dessert that you'd pull out of a Walmart freezer at $0.35 per cake. They were still frozen in the middle and completely freezer burnt on the outside. We left.
The Hibachi Restaurant
At the hibachi restaurant another night, the air conditioning was either broken or just not turned on. All of the diners were sweating through their clothing. It had to be 95 degrees in that room. We found that there's a reason that restaurants are normally cold: extreme heat = diminished appetite.
We were seated with a family of Russian people who spoke English and Russian, an Austrian couple that spoke only Austrian and Farsi, and an American couple that spoke only English. We were the only ones at our table that spoke Spanish, and none of the wait staff that night spoke Spanish. The menu was odd, only allowing you to order soup, but making it seem like you needed to order a specific sushi (Californial roll, Salmon roll, Tuna roll, Vegetarian roll) and main dish (chicken, shrimp, or steak). What nobody understood until I spoke with the waiter in Spanish (before which point the waiter had been trying desperately to convey by saying "Variety!" over and over while circling the whole menu with his finger) was that the only sushi option was a plate of "variety sushi," and the only main dish option included was one that included all the options of chicken, shrimp, and steak. Despite listing these things separately on the menu (and supplying no instructions on how to order), the wait staff would not accept orders for individual sushi or entrees. The only thing we could really decide while ordering was whether we wanted soup or not.
Once the food was cooked and scooped onto our plates, we found that it had all been incredibly overcooked - dry and tough. No one finished their meal, and everyone just got up and left without waiting for dessert. Bummer.
The Room Service
Multiple times during the week, the room staff failed to change out our wet towels for clean ones. There was a sign in the room saying that we were to leave our used towels in the tub if we wished them to be exchanged for clean ones. When we did so, they just left the old towels in the tub and didn't leave clean ones. SO, I just kept hanging them up in the hopes that they would dry by the following morning.
There was also a little card that we were supposed to leave on our door if we wanted to sleep in. It said, "Do not disturb on one side" and "Please come in and clean" on the other side. After using it the first morning to sleep in a bit, we flipped it around to say "Please come in and clean" when we headed out to breakfast. When we got back to the room later, the card was gone. And they hadn't left it inside. That evening, with no card to leave outside, I locked the door and drew all the curtains, hoping this would tell them that we did not want to be disturbed.
At 7:15am, I woke up after hearing a BANG and a door opening. I sat up bleary-eyed to find a maid standing in our room, looking at me and my wife in bed. I just kind of got flustered and blurted out, "NO! NO, GRACIAS!" She sort of shrugged her shoulders and said, "Okay" as she turned and walked out. Awesome.
One night, frustrated by the dining options and (since the two restaurants remaining to us were closed) not looking forward to the buffet that night, we took a look at the room service menu. The cheapest things on the menu were a bowl of chicken soup ($15 per bowl) and a small, personal pizza ($20). There was also a notice stating that it would take a minimum of 40 minutes from the time we ordered to when we would receive our food.
Then I remembered that when we had checked in at the beginning of the week, the desk attendant had told us that the mini bar and snacks were free! He had specifically said, "All inclusive - and that includes the bar service in your room. It is all 100% free." When I checked out the bar in the room, it clearly stated that there were individual prices for all of the mini bar items - $2.00 per packet of coffee grounds for the coffee pot, $2.00 per soda, $4.00 per beer, and $2.00 per bottle of water. RIDICULOUS. We ended up at the buffet.
The Solicitation / Gouging
On the way to the buffet during lunch each day and some nights for dinner, we quickly learned that, as was the case on the beach, the only way to avoid being solicited even inside the resort was to be rude. The resort allowed a photography company to set up a booth in the hallway right outside the doorway to the buffet. They would position a photographer about ten feet in front of the doors, and two bikini-clad women would stand IN the doorways. As you walked up to enter the buffet area, they would hold out their arms to
I couldn't believe how much the resort tried to gouge us for internet access. If I brought my laptop to the lobby, they wanted to charge me $15 per day to use the wifi password. If I wanted to use their computer it was $5 for 8 minutes, or $10 for 15 minutes. This didn't even make any sense, as it was actually more expensive to pay for the larger unit of time instead of less. To rent a MiFi mobile hotspot, it was a minimum charge of 2 days at $15 per day on top of a $140 deposit in cash to cover any damage to the device.
I ended up just purchasing the smallest international data plan possible on my phone so that we could have internet access in case of an emergency. We basically unplugged for the week, which wasn't all bad in itself. Just kind of annoying to be at such a nice "all-inclusive" place, and have them continuously trying to squeeze more money out of us.
The Second Leaky Room
On the second-to-last day, it rained the whole day. No big deal - we expected at least a little rain. It's a tropical paradise, so there's gotta be rain. We spent the day in the room, watching TV and reading. Very relaxing!
The following morning, I awoke to Wife's exclamations:
Wife: "Husband! My clothes are all wet?"
Me, groggily: "Huh? What do you mean?"
Wife: "Exactly what I said - my suitcase and all my clothes are wet!"
I walked over, and sure enough - all of her clothes were wet as I bent over to inspect her suitcase. Just then, a big fat drop of water landed on the back of my head. I looked up, and there was a huge wet spot where a leak had penetrated the ceiling. It had been dripping into Wife suitcase all night.
As I walked into the bathroom to find a towel to use to try to soak up some of the water, my right foot almost shot right out from under me. There was a huge puddle in the middle of the hallway from, you guessed it, a second leak in the roof. I dried it up after moving Wife's suitcase, then moved the trash can to catch the dripping water before calling the front desk:
Me: "Hi, we're in room 763. Yes, we're the ones that moved from room 248 earlier this week. Well, you're not going to believe this, but our room is leaking water in two different places - one of which was right above my wife's suitcase and soaked all of her clothing over night."
Front Desk - SIGH. "So, do you want to move again?"
I was a bit flabbergasted. We were conversing in Spanish - the desk attendant's first language - so there was no language barrier that could be causing any misunderstanding of courtesy. They just didn't care. Since it was our last full day there, I didn't want to go through the hassle of packing up, moving everything, and unpacking again just for one day. I had the air conditioning running, so the room wouldn't get mildewy or stagnant in one day.
Me: "No, that's not necessary. I just thought you would like to know that you have water leaking from the ceiling of one of your rooms."
Front Desk: "OK. I'll send someone up so you can show them where the leaks are."
Not one apology. Not even a "thank you" for letting them know. We waited around for about a half hour for someone to come up before we went to dinner. The ceiling continued to leak until all the water from the previous day's rainstorm had dried up outside. They never attempted to fix anything while we were there, which was nice.
Later that day (our second to last) I called the agent from earlier in the week to arrange our transportation to the airport the following day. At first he didn't remember who I was, so I explained, and he told me to expect the transportation van at 11:50am. He recommended checking out by 11:30am to be on time.
The next day, we were in the lobby by 11:00am to check out, just to be sure we were on time. We waited. And waited. 11:50am came and went, with no shuttle arriving. I asked around, and the agent was nowhere to be found. Neither was anyone else from his company, "VIP Travel Services." After 25 more minutes of waiting, I called the agent on his cell phone using the lobby desk's phone:
Me, after explaining who I was: "I called you yesterday about leaving the Bavaro Princess resort to get to the airport today. We've been waiting-"
Agent: "You didn't call me yesterday."
Me: "Yes, I did, and you told me to check out today by 11:30am and to expect the transportation service at 11:50am."
Agent: "You definitely did not speak with me yesterday, but if you had I would have told you to expect the transportation van at noon, not 11:50am."
Me: "Okay, well my question is still pertinent. It is 12:20pm right now, and the van still isn't here, so I just wanted to make sure that it was actually coming."
Agent: "The van should be there soon, but if it doesn't come in the next fifteen minutes, you should take a taxi."
Me: "How much does a taxi cost from this resort to the airport?"
Agent: "About $35."
Awesome. At that point I would have paid anything just to get back to the airport, but at least I had a plan. The van ended up arriving ten minutes later - a total of 45 minutes late. We were SO relieved, which just hopped in and took off. We made the plane with plenty of time, and couldn't be happier to make it back home.
In the end, the vacation was 100% NOT worth the (in my opinion) crazy amount of savings that we spent on it. The time spent with Wife (and not spent studying!) was worth the money, but we both would have been much happier if we had just stayed at home or gone to a hotel in Florida for much less money. We learned a valuable lesson though - we like cruises :)
We have a ton of great pictures from the vacation, but I just don't have the energy to put them up after that crazy post... The past two weeks have been awesome. Tons of time spent with family and friends over Christmas and New Years, followed by the most recent days spent hanging out on the home turf with Wife.
Just a few more days before the next semester of classes starts on Monday. Still trying not to think about that too much... Hopefully I'll be getting back to a more regular posting schedule in the next few days. Stay tuned.