Tour Fail: In Which My Sister and I Are Accosted by a Turkish Guy in the Dark Corner of a Gift Shop Trying to Sell Us Shit we Obviously Don’t Want

Protop #7: Do Not Book With Premier Tours London

WTF are the Cotswolds?

The Cotswolds, chalpings, are those iconic pictures you see of little European towns. Old cottages with thatched roofs and little flower pots in the windows. Stone bridges over pretty little streams. Brick streets too narrow for cars and residents so dependent on tourism they still churn their own butter.

You know what I’m talking about. This is the charm and heart of the British Isles, and it can only be reached through tour buses leaving London at 7 am.

My mom booked online with Premier Tours 4 months prior to the trip. They accepted the money and asked her to send information on herself, myself, and my sister. She complied. They asked for a photo copy of her passport. She complied. They told her the tickets would only be good once printed off, which I had done the night before so we complied. They told us to call them to confirm our attendance the night before the tour despite my mother specifically telling them months prior that we would not have access to a phone. But another few trips to the concierge and… we complied.

“The bus leaves at 7:30 exactly,” My sister relays what the Premier Tours attendant told her over the phone last night, “she said the bus will pick us up at Victoria Station, 5 minutes’ walk from our hotel and we should get there at least 10 minutes early.”

The bus does not pick up at Victoria station, dear chaplings, it picks up at the Victoria COACH station, which is NOT a 5 minute walk from our hotel. I bet you can guess where this is going.

6:00 am: We wake up. We get ready: brush the teeth, wash the face, do the do.

6:40 am: We leave our hotel room and ride the elevator to the first floor. Our hotel has a back exit that opens up into Victoria station, wherein we believe we are supposed to be picked up. We recognize we are early and stop to get breakfast at the European Starbucks, that is, Upper Crust.

6:50 am: We spot “Coach Station” signs pointing to a station exit. There are no people gathering anywhere around us, no buses and no place for a bus to be. 2 + 2 = we have been lied to.

6:55 am: We traipse through the streets of London, following small license-plate signs that are few and far between. Sometimes they point forward. Sometimes they point to cross the street. “Victoria Coach Station” they say, with an arrow.

7:10 am: We reach Victoria Coach Station. The place is packed. There are more signs but you have to be Steve Irwin to find them. “Gates 0, 1” in the corner of one wall. “Gates 2-7” stuck to the front of a desk. “Gates 10, 13, 52” dangling from a broken tile in the ceiling. Our gate is 16, in the next building over.

7:14 am: We arrive at our gate and take seats. There’s a door leading to the bus lot outside, and above it a sign flashes

GATE 16: Cotswolds, departs 7:30

Yes! We made it. They lied to us and the signs mislead us and we’ve been pushing through crowds of smokers and coughers and screaming children. But London has failed to defeat us. We are not the weak.

We wait. We wait.

7:24 am: We watch our bus drive away from the station

Hold on—what—what is this—we’ve been waiting for 10 minutes. No one said a word about boarding. There he goes. There goes our tour.

We waste a minute sitting in dumbfounded silence and then my mom hands me the tickets, “Go ask that lady—”

I cut her off by snatching the tickets because I’m a little upset.

I march over to the one employee who’s working instead of conversing with other employees. She’s currently on the phone and there’s a man ahead of me waiting to speak to her. I wait. I wait.

Eventually my turn comes and I hand her the tickets. “Our tour just left,” I say. “Six minutes early,” is what I don’t say.

“Alright, love—” She answers someone on her walkie-talkie and presses the hold button on her phone. “We can’t do any refunds but you can reschedule it. There’s another Cotswolds tour on Tuesday.”

Oh yeah, you know, we were gonna leave London tomorrow at 6 am but lemme just call up mah secretary Richie and have him cancel the three thousand dollars’ worth of travel we’ve booked for the next week. We gotta see the damn Cotswolds.

“No that won’t work,” I say, “Is there another one leaving later today?”

“No, let me think—” by “think” she means “take that guy on hold”. I find myself glancing around in search of another working employee. There are at least 15 people wearing the same yellow vest and fanny pack that my assistant here is wearing. All chatting, meandering, pretending there’s an urgent call every time someone tries to approach with a question. So many workers… so little work. “Okay,” she says eventually, slipping her phone back into the fanny pack as she hands back my tickets. “I can get you on a Stonehenge tour leaving today at 11:00 but I can’t refund you the ticket difference. That or you’ll have to reschedule for another time.”

Why yes I’d love to reschedule. Let’s reschedule for today at 7:30 because it’s not 7:30 yet and that’s when our tour is supposed to leave.

I take the tickets and relay her offer to my family. Needless to say they are not impressed, but I’m willing to give Stonehenge a chance if for no reason other than to get out of this disgusting city for a few hours. “What’s the price difference for Stonehenge tickets?” I ask my mom.

“About 60 dollars. Apiece.”

For the mathematically challenged, that’s a straight-up loss of 180 dollars.

“Well they’re not gonna refund us,” I shrug. “Might as well see Stonehenge.”

A few shrugs and a head nod later, I go back to the single functioning employee in the entire Premier Tours campaign. “Okay, we’d like to switch to the Stonehenge tour.”

“Alright, love. I can’t do that from here, you have to go online and email the company.”

Uh-huh.

Statement then: “I can get you on a Stonehenge tour”

Statement now: “I can’t do that from here, you have to go online and email the company”

Protip #8: The perfect email—I don’t know if you’ve ever emailed someone from the British Isles, chapling, but there are rules that must be followed.

  1. First, there’s a 50% chance that the person you email will be “on holiday” and you will receive an automated response informing you thusly.
  2. If your email is short, very very sweet, and does not include a request, you may get a reply within 1 day.
  3. If your email is too long or too complicated, you will get a reply in around 2 weeks.
  4. If your email includes a request that will involve the receiver to have to, you know, do something, you will get a reply in 4 weeks when they get around to completing your task.
  5. If—at any point in your email—you accidentally use a term that pegs you as an American, you may get a reply within 6 weeks.
  6. If your email shows any statement that could possibly be interpreted as sass, sarcasm, or attitude, do not expect a reply.

With our heads hung low and our legs aching from our early morning run, the three of us return to our hotel. My sister curls up under a blanket. My mom looks up Premier Tours for contact info. I read off a list of 101 free things to do in London.

The list includes some great suggestions like “Hear crazies profess their opinions at the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park” and “See pickled creatures in jars at the Hunterian Museum”. I don’t know. Sounds good to me.

My mom gets a phone number and my sister goes down to the concierge to call about getting a refund. Apparently the conversation goes a little something like this:

Sister: Hello, yes, our tour just left early so we didn’t get on it—

Premier Tours: We don’t do refunds

Sister: … Okay well it wasn’t our fault. We were told over the phone last night that the station was 5 minutes away from our hotel plus the bus left early—

Premier Tours: Well the woman you talked to is a Londoner. It’s 5 minutes for a Londoner.

Let me tell you the tale of the Not-So-Bright Londoner: Woman is born and raised in London. Learns the ins and outs of the streets. Understands the license plate signs and knows what’s in half the buildings she sees. Gets a job at a tour company. Works with foreigners 9-5. Girl with obvious American accent calls asking “where does the bus pick us up, we’re at the Grosvenor Hotel and clearly don’t know jack about England because why else would be on a god damn tour bus” Woman thinks “Oh yeah, the station. That one hotel. Shit, bruh, if I pushed it I could get there in 5.” She informs the girls thusly and sits back to sip her breakfast tea, for she has done good.

The conversation goes on and the Premier Tours representative denies any refund from the company on the terms that we would need to request a refund from their online booking agency.

Sorry man but it’s not the agency’s fault your company’s disorganized.

My sister returns to her spot in the bed. She lays like this for about an hour while my mom repeats “well what are we gonna do then?” and I continue listing off 101 free things to do in London.

Eventually my sister agrees we should try out the London city bus system and go where the wind takes us. We are both very familiar with city bus systems because our parents have an impenetrable vendetta against teaching their children how to drive.

So, back down the elevator through the back door and into Victoria we go. My sister finds the information stand and we approach a man with makeup skills that would send Kim Kardashian running for a mirror. We tell him we have no idea how this city bus thing works and he pulls up—in his fabulous fingernails—a little green card.

Protip #9: Buckle up chaplings cuz I’m about to sing some unexpected praise. The city bus system of London is the best public transportation system I have ever experienced. 5 pounds gets you a magical little pass called an Oyster Card which enables you to ride any city bus on any route all day long. Colored route maps can be picked up at any station and every stop lists the route numbers and times in the same, well-read format.

So Ken Kardashian gives us a map and two cards and for 10 pounds my sister and I are free to roam. We’ve decided we’re going to see the British Museum because it’s rated the best free thing in London. Just outside Victoria Station, we get on the bus flashing our route number: 12.

All the city buses are double decker buses so of course we must go on the top. Inside we have the familiar smell of vomit and seat patterns that look like a copy-paste of some 2 year old’s first scribbles. We sit near the front window so we can look down upon the peasantry.

A quick montage of the citizens of London:

  • We pass a boy with his head stuck between two poles of a black iron fence. His father tries to hide chuckles while he directs his crying child to freedom. The mother stands nearby, hands on hips, looking around like she’s lost the life she once yearned for.
  • An old man with a long curly beard urinates on the sidewalk with no care for who may be watching. Passersby do not notice, for to each his own problem and nothing more.
  • A plump middle-aged woman in a bright pink dress walks her pug across the street. She is on the phone and does not realize that no one else is crossing. Our driver honks his horn and she looks up in horror at the double-decker bus now approaching the space she occupies. She tries to run but, alas, the dress is too constricting. The pug yelps.

My sister and I notice we’re about to make a stop at King’s Cross Station. If you don’t know the significance of that, you can leave this blog right now.

Of course we get out.

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Inside the station we see the iconic rounded ceilings and brick walls from our Harry Potter childhoods. We can’t get to platforms 9 or 10 without first buying a pass but there is a conveniently located Harry Potter gift shop.

Protip #10: Yes the gift shop is cool. Yes the gift shop is over-priced. Yes you can purchase any flavor arrangement of any flavor jelly beans you could possibly want. But fair warning—bring a cloth to cover your mouth or you may not survive the toxic levels of body odor.

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Outside the gift shop there’s a cart glued to the wall in the style of half-way-to-Platform 9 ¾. To get a picture with this cart there’s a 50 person long line. After the gift shop my sister and I are feeling a little faint from BO vapors and decide we’d better skip the line or we might need a medic.

We’re both starting to get hungry but we *ahem, my sister* decide to get on the bus instead of eating at one of these overpriced *ahem perfectly fine* cafes.

Our next stop is at this park called Russell Square. The British Museum is near here but it takes some navigation skills to get going in the right direction. Fortunately, when the Brits made this challenge they didn’t prepare for two Americans with a lifelong background of Dora the Explorer. Psh, navigation is no sweat for us.

Yeah so we get lost. Several times. Anyways. Eventually we find the museum.

The museum is split into regions and then eras. For example there’s a section on Egypt which includes 5 rooms with different time periods for Egypt. My sister likes mummies and other gross decayed shit so we spend a good 2 hours in there. Literally these sickos mummified everything.

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In North America there’s a bunch of stuff on Native Americans that for the most part does not resemble what we learn about Native Americans here in the states. For example, there is no mention of Ojibwe or Lakota people. I specifically remember half my elementary History education revolving around Ojibwe and Lakota people but okay I guess the Midwest goes under the radar once again.

In Greece I find this pot with a dude on it that I think should really be an uninterested teenager meme.

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After the museum we find an Italian restaurant and I accidentally order the wrong food.

Protip #11: Risotto is not a pasta. It is rice. Most of you… probably already know that. I did not. Judge at will.

We are splitting the meal so my sister is upset I ordered rice instead of the pasta we agreed upon. The waiter notices us muttering about it as he hands us the plate and asks abruptly “Is there a problem?”

“No,” I wave a hand through the air. “No, I ordered the wrong thing.”

He stares at us for a moment, shrugs, and goes back to flirting with the waitresses.

We eat, pay, and ditch.

Our next stop is in Piccadilly Circus cuz why the hell not. It’s just the usual—in and out of shops, everything looks cool but nothing cool enough to actually spend valuable dinner money on.

In one shop we find a backroom that’s dark and playing music. There are glowing pictures hung on the walls and this room feels so out of place my sister and I are drawn in.

That’s the trap. Ah, to be young and naïve.

The glowing pictures are actually noise-activated patches stuck to black T-Shirts. My sister and I immediately eye up the patch with the dancing headphones.

Protip #12: You may have never bartered in your life. Before this experience, I certainly never had. But if you act like you’re interested they will cheat you to the end of time. Act like you’re not interested and the price just keeps dropping. Magic, I tell you.      

A man approaches us and says, “Where you ladies from?”

“The US.”

“America!” A huge smile widens his face. “I love Americans.” Translation: Americans give me lots of money.

“Where are you from?” I ask him.

“Turkey.”

My sister motions to one of the glowing patches. “How much for the shirts?” The shirts, you see, are conveniently not priced so that price offers can differ based on home residency.

“45 pounds.”

My sister and I exchange the look. Hell no, sir. She says “no thanks” and we start to leave.

He waves us back with one hand, “Okay, okay, tell you what I’ll do. Which one you like?” He asks my sister. She picks a shirt and he asks me and I pick the headphones. He grabs the shirts off the wall and takes them to the register in the back corner of the room. There, he motions us close and leans in like he’s about to share the Coca Cola secret recipe. “Okay, 45 each that’s 90 total.” He punches the numbers into the register and nods to us until we agree. “Look at this… Look. Look at this.” He backspaces the 90 and retypes 60, holding up two fingers until we understand.

“Two shirts for 60 pounds?”

The guy nods like he’s just made the deal.

My sister acts like she’s considering it but let’s be real.

I stare at my sister and I think he takes this as a sign I’m on his side.

“Who’s older?” The guy asks, looking between us.

I point at my sister and he gapes in surprise. His plan has been ruined. “You’re older? You don’t look older.”

My sister pretends to be offended but really now we’re just giving each other the look and laughing at him. Eventually he offers the 60 again and my sister says, “No, not for that price.”

“No?” He says. “Hold on, hold on. Okay, I’ll give you 2 shirts. 2 shirts, yes? 50 pound.”

We laugh, wondering how we got into this scenario. “Maybe 50 American dollars,” I joke.

The guy thinks about it and nods. “Okay.”

My sister and I are amazed. “You’ll take American money?”

“Yeah, sure.”

50 USD = 40.20 pounds

We laugh some more and I have to ask, because I wasn’t expecting to barter in London England, “Why are you giving us these deals?”

He grins like he thinks he’s a real charmer. “Because you’re beautiful.”

Dude please. This is the 21st century you’re gonna have to try a little harder than that.

“No,” My sister says. “Still too much.”

At this point the other worker—an uncharismatic guy with the expression of an engineering student mid finals week—walks up and says, “Give to them for 35.”

“35 dollars?”

Our salesman claps his hands together and gives us a serious look. “Okay, final offer. Two shirts for 35 dollars.” He looks at my sister, who is considering. He looks at me and I shrug.

“I don’t even wear cotton, I only wear wool.”

“You don’t have to wear the shirt,” He says, “The patch comes off. Put them on a backpack, at a party—”

“No thanks,” My sister says finally.

He shakes his head in defeat and ignores us as we walk away. Our “beauty” is no longer a means for conversation.

Next we head toward Tower Bridge because on our tour we saw a cool-looking neighborhood called “The Borough”. The Borough looks like a picture from a Ragu commercial: archways over the streets and buildings snuggled up next to each other with no alleys in between.

It is this picture we seek as we dodge down the side streets. All is cobblestone and we can go almost a full five seconds before seeing another tourist. But none of the streets are picturesque enough. Too much garbage. Too many brown walls. Not enough children holding jars of spaghetti sauce.

And then we find it: the perfect street.

A row of colorful buildings on each side. The street unstained and minimally littered. Teenagers stand in a cluster outside a restaurant, discussing their future plans. There’s a worker on break seated on the steps of his business. Smoking, but he’s a majestic local.

It is so beautiful, in fact, we forget to actually take a picture

We get gawked at the whole twenty steps down the walk. They can smell our ‘muricanism. It’s on our clothes, or the way we walk, or something. But they know. We are out of place here.

In The Borough we also find the oldest church in London or something. It’s mostly reconstructed but there are a few stones of a wall left for viewing.

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Then we decide to go home.

On the way we stop at a pub for an obligatory evening beer and see something horrible.

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Yes, chaplings. America’s greatest embarrassment has followed us to Europe. Not only that, but it’s framed as something good. Something imported. Something special.

Really jolts my perspective on imported goods here in the US of A.

After a Guinness and a British attempt at a Lager, we go back to our hotel feeling a little better than we had in the morning.

Tomorrow we leave this city, and there will be much rejoicing.

(Que Monty Python’s “hurrah”)

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