SLOVAK language is needed to find deals on the web.
Despite fears that many may be uncertain about overseas travel this year, some Slovak travel agencies are confident that the summer season will be at least as busy as last year. Many agencies have already lowered prices on some packages based on the strength of the Slovak currency and have begun offering further discounts to entice travellers.
"Lower prices on trips are partly the result of the strengthening of the Slovak crown against the euro, and even more against the US dollar," said Mária Gallová, marketing director for the Satur travel agency.
"Slovaks often complain that they don't have enough money, but they are travelling more often. We predict that this year we will reach a similar increase in sales as last year's 15 per cent growth," said Gallová.
The World Tourism Organisation estimates that the number of travellers last year grew by 3.1 per cent worldwide, in spite of worries about the global economy and the conflict in the Middle East. Cross-border travel in Europe was also up last year, by 2.4 per cent, according to the group.
Last November, Slovakia's state carrier Slovak Airlines had already closed contracts to transport 278,000 charter passengers this coming summer season, more than double the number carried in the summer of 2002. Airline representatives also said charter passenger numbers had grown by 5 per cent between 2001 and 2002, while the number of flights had increased by 9 per cent.
While some Slovak agencies say it's business as usual, others report a very different story. Some say they have been noticing reluctance among consumers to book trips, and have introduced discounts to attract would-be travellers who may be jittery about security and the rising costs of living in Slovakia.
"In March, sales of trips fell to a historic low," said Tibor Bajaník, director of the Fifo travel agency, which is offering a number of special discounts to clients who have used their service at least five times in the past.
Some tour companies are offering discounts of up to 15 per cent for trips to Turkey, Egypt, and Crete if travellers book now.
For foreigners living in Slovakia, buying a package trip through a Slovak operator can mean significant savings.
A number of travel agencies, for example, offer 10-day trips to the Spanish island of Mallorca in early June, starting at around Sk15,000 (360 euro) per person. Included in the price is the flight ticket, accommodation, and breakfast or half-board.
In comparison, a similar trip through an Austrian travel agency can cost 100 euro more, while tour operators in the UK charge around 500 euro per person for a weeklong trip to Mallorca at the same time.
Trips to the Croatian coast can be even cheaper, with one agency offering 10-day journeys in early June starting at Sk4,100 (100 euro). The trip between Slovakia and Croatia, however, is by overnight bus.
For non-Slovaks, however, finding a perfect (and cheap) holiday from the country may be a bit of a challenge. Very few Slovak agencies provide information on their web sites in English, and those that do often have different programmes advertised.
The Satur agency, for example, offers a wide range of air ticket possibilities, last-minute package offers, and search capabilities on the Slovak-language version of the site. Visitors to Satur's English-language homepage, however, find only information on bus tours of Slovakia.
Nevertheless, travel agencies contacted by The Slovak Spectator said that most tour operators speak English, and that most agency branches have some English-speaking staff.
While language barriers can be overcome, buyers of package trips need to be on the alert for the potential pitfalls involved in this kind of travel, and that the final price tag for their planned holiday may be quite a bit higher than the price advertised.
"The price of hotels in the lower categories is indeed attractive, but buyers should be aware that guests in this kind of hotel receive a lower level of service," said Alan Kotala, head of the Koala travel agency.
"This can be seen, for example, in the [quality of] food, and you have to figure that 'saved money' may be spent on food," said Kotala.
In addition, said Kotala, travellers need to be aware that flight times and hotel rules may lead to some complications.
"Vacationers also don't realise that flights at night shorten their holidays because on the first day they sleep in and so get nothing from it," he said.
Also, if hotel guests have a morning check-out but a night-time return flight, they may face a long day of looking after baggage before going to the airport.
Kristína Czajiová, 24, from east Slovakia's Košice said she has experienced difficulties with package tours in the past but that didn't stop her from booking a trip to China last year through a Slovak agency with a Czech partner.
"The agency in Prague was excellent and honest about everything. The trip was great, but it wasn't so cheap," she said, adding that while Czechs and Slovaks on the trip communicated with each other in their own languages, the tour operator and most participants spoke English while in China.
The most important thing in booking a trip, said Czajiová, is working with a trustworthy agency, and making sure that promised parts of the package are delivered.
"Tour operators sometimes try to fool you - they promise you something and then they don't give it to you," said Czajiová.
14. Apr 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka