Sean and I decided to devote the following weekend, this would be late mid-July, to Operation Warehouse Vacation. Feeling a bit unfocussed, we opted to seek help from the experts and so went online in search of a local travel agent. Over the next few days, we called as many as we could and, in the process, discovered something interesting – travel agents don’t really exist anymore. Due in large part to online booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity (which we always use too), the travel agency industry was swiftly going the way of the mighty dodo. Most agencies that had actually managed to stay in business spent their time working with big corporate clients, not wasting precious resources on little guys like us. The few travel agents who did talk to us tried to sell us pre-packaged vacations that sounded, honestly, lame and cost many, many more yams and goats than we currently possessed. Not to be discouraged, we turned again to the internets.
That’s when we found an immense website written by a guy named Matt Barrett, who, as it turned out, was an American ex-pat and vocal Greekthusiast. His online travel guide covered everything about travelling to Greece and the Greek Islands in exquisite and loving detail and Sean and I devoured every last page.
By the end of our reading, we decided two islands sounded perfect – Milos and Sifnos. By Matt’s account, both islands were virtually undiscovered by the tourist industry, so they didn’t boast the trappings thereof or the sprawling Club Med-type resorts Sean and I can’t stand. We wanted cultural immersion, not Disney Greece.
Sean also mentioned the possibility of adding the admittedly more touristed island of Santorini to our list. He’d spent one year of his undergrad in college in Tubingen, Germany. During his stay, he went on several European excursions and one of the most memorable was to the Greek island of Corfu, off the western coast. He loved it, but remembered that everyone was raving about this other island called Santorini, which boasted some of the most spectacular scenery in the Med.
So. Potential Waretinerary: Chicago to Athens to Milos to Sifnos to Santorini to Athens to Chicago. Done and done.
Back to Barrett. Our sage warned that island hopping could be difficult due to the whimsical Greek ferry “schedules”. He said that most American travel agents don’t bother with booking the ferries for their clients because it is way too much work. This results in stranded travelers, missed hotel reservations and other disasters. He advised that any traveler wanting to go to more than one island should book with a Greek travel agent and he even supplied a few names.
I checked out the agencies he recommended, but Sean and I were nervous. I mean, how did we know if these agencies actually existed? It all seemed legit, and Barrett seemed like a hell of a guy, but both he and these agencies were far, far away. It wasn’t like we could walk in the door and sit down with them face-to-face. As point of fact, the agency that got his highest recommendation was called “Fantasy Travel”. What if that was just some fraud’s idea of a sick joke?!? “Ha! Your travel really was a fantasy! Welcome to Athens! You have nowhere to stay!”
So, we tried some American agencies again, this time armed with our hoped-for itinerary. We heard the following again and again: “Milos? Sifnos? Geez, I’ve never even heard of those. Here. I can get you to Santorini, Mykonos…” From one delightful agent, we even heard, “Oh, Milos and Sifnos are no good! They aren’t for Americans!” Now, just what the hell was that supposed to mean?!? She managed to insure that, Hell or high-water, we were going to Milos and Sifnos.
Finally, we’d wasted a few weeks with American agencies and it was time to grow some balls and get in touch with Fantasy Travel in Athens. I wrote and gave them our hoped-for itinerary and then settled in for the typical 4 or 5-day wait (sometimes our American agents even extended that to sweet six). The next morning, I had email from Marcos of Fantasy Travel waiting. Wow.
It seemed as though Marcos had actually read what I’d written. Double wow. He talked a bit about the ferry maps and said that ferries only travel from Milos to Santorini during high season, so that was going to be a difficult leg, since we were going just after high season, at the end of September. He made several suggestions but told us considering what we wanted from the trip, Sifnos and Milos were going to be ideal destinations. Sean happily crossed Santorini off our list.
Over the next two weeks, we corresponded every day with Marcos and his co-worker Litza. They read every word, obviously, because they tinkered and tweaked our trip until we finally had our perfect vacation. At last, it was time for us to pony-up.
“In order to make sure you get all of the accommodations you’ve selected, we need to send deposits. We’ll need the following: a signed contract (attached), photocopies of your passports, photocopies of your credit card (front and back). As soon as we get this, we’ll pay for all of the hotels, ferries, taxi transfers, etc… Thanks for working with us!”
I sat in front of the computer and – I HATE to admit this, but it is just the truth – imagined a fat guy in Gabbs, Nevada snickering evilly as he pressed send. Sean and I discussed. He was nervous too. They seemed great, but how do we know for sure?
We decided to ask our bank manager, Roy. In a big city like Chicago, most people don’t personally know their bank manager. We feel very lucky that we do. Our bank branch is very small and Roy is just, well, he’s just one of those types of guys who knows all of his customers. He’s also the kind of guy who “knows a guy”. Over the years, we’ve asked Roy about many things, not all related to banking and always, Roy has “known a guy”. In fact, it’s turned into a minor Warehouse entertainment to take obscure questions to Roy. One of these days, we’ll stump him and one of us will “win”, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Roy didn’t just know a guy, Roy had been at a big bankers dinner at the Greek Heritage Museum the night before. Roy amazes me. Anyway, after placing a few calls, Roy gave us some numbers, one of which was the Greek Tourism Board office in New York City. On Monday, I called them and they promised to check out Fantasy Travel. Within an hour, they called back. Fantasy Travel was very legit.
So, we sent our money to Litza and Marcos. We got confirmation the next day. The trip was set. According to Marcos, when we arrived in Athens, we’d be met by a Mrs. Dulce. She’d be holding a Fantasy Travel sign. Mrs. Dulce would escort us personally into Athens and give us all or our vouchers, tickets, etc…
Now THAT is service.