What's it really like to go on one of those package deal holidays?

2017-06-30 10:00 - Marisa Crous
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Scrolling through your Facebook timeline, you see a travel deal that’s almost too good to be true: Johannesburg to Bali for R7 200 – including flights, 4-star hotel and meals… OR Johannesburg to Marrakesh for even less! With camel rides included!

But you don’t buy into it, because you think it can’t possibly be this good.

But I took the plunge. And it was worth it. Ten times over.

Stepping into the humid 30-degree air and harsh sunlight, I’m greeted by hordes of shuttle drivers waiting outside Zanzibar’s main airport to pick up resort guests.

Damn, I forgot to print my shuttle voucher. Everyone else in my group also forgot theirs - it’s mos on my email. But I failed to consider that my Vodacom data plan wouldn’t cover Zanzibar, and wi-fi isn’t exactly a thing in the airport parking lot (or in Zanzibar in general, for that matter).

Speaking with one of the shuttle agents, I am able to side-step the apparent importance of the shuttle voucher, and we see ourselves heading to shuttle no 16. Before getting in, we quickly dash to the only ATM situated outside the airport. None of us bothered to bring dollars or local shillings – being on an all-inclusive package deal, we reasoned we wouldn’t be spending excessive amounts of extra dough*).

*and, luckily, we didn’t.

We plop down on our seats in the air-conditioned shuttle, already pretty hot and bothered. Breathing a sigh of relief, we are each handed a bottle of chilled mineral water. I gulp it down and immediately feel refreshed and happy that I can now sit back and relax while being driven to our 3-star coastal resort.

In the bus are 12 others (predominantly South Africans) who all took the same deal. I assumed as much, as we all shared the same shuttle back to the airport seven days later.

Our deal: flights from Jozi to Zanzibar, 7 nights’ accommodation in a 3-star resort (some say 3-star here is not equivalent to that in South Africa, but in this case, it was proper 3-star), all meals included as well as *selected drinks.

*we assumed local beer and crappy wine from a box (local beer, yes; box wine, yes; but we were delighted by the ‘all-you-can-drink gin and tonics’ found on the selected drinks menu).

Upon arrival at the resort, you are given a wristband, kind of like the ones you’ll get at a music festival.

This is to show the staff which package you are on at all times. For example, our luminous pink variety meant all-inclusive, whereas green might only mean all meals included and no drinks.

Our group consisted of two couples who opted for the per person sharing deal; yet, there was also the option for our two single friends to do their own solo vibe for a slightly higher price. We blended in swimmingly as the resort folk consisted of young couples on honeymoon, mothers and daughters, elderly German couples, a group of boytjies I could envision as the cast of a local version of The Hangover, along with their long-suffering spouses and girlfriends and the odd sunburnt Scandinavian.  

And the food was good. The room was basic and air-conditioned, and the view magnificent.

But what does this deal setup mean for your experience of a place? Be it Zanzibar or Bali? Is it stunted in some way because you are in a sense mothered throughout your package deal stay? Definitely.

But after three or four days of frolicking in your swimsuit all day, reading, splashing in the pool and ocean, bonding with friends and loved-ones, drinking gin and tonics from noon (always noon somewhere, right?) and basking in the glory that is no decision making, one becomes keen to explore and discover.

Most resorts like this offer wonderful (cultural, nature, diving…) excursions catered to tourist needs – even swimming with dolphins! – that can easily be organised for you by someone at the resort. All you have to do is show up (again, in your bathing suit) and pay. 

But honestly, if you have an Into The Wild mentality, this kind of deal might not float your boat, adventure-wise: It’s still a contained experienced, and your hand is held to some extent. 

But for us, this particular trip washed us with the kind of bliss that can only be experienced when there is no pressure, plans or timelines. Again, all we had to do was show up to dinner, show up to the bar, sleep and repeat. The rest was taken care of by someone else. 

This is definitely the ideal getaway for a group of friends as there are so few things to decide on and, consequently, fight or disagree over.

Going in, we had the attitude that we should all just do whatever we want, whenever we want, independently or together, no matter what. But on a friend holiday you naturally gravitate towards being with each other as much as possible. That’s why you opted to travel together.

So the lack of decision-making definitely kept the situation Hakuna Matata.

And even though we didn’t speak or interact much with resort folk, there was a common, almost palpable shared understanding between us all. An unspoken mantra we all subconsciously muttered underneath our breath as we passed one another for that week: It’s all chill, bra. Let’s just keep it all chill.

So not being chill doesn’t buy you any brownie points with resort folk. Even if you’ve never spoken to each other. It’s just not on.

We soon realised that with great freedom (to consume booze, in this case) comes greatly irresponsible resorters. Luckily, we only encountered one or two.

All drinks are served in plastic cups to avoid stumbles, tumbles and possible glass-inflicted injuries, but even resort staff could not have predicted the tantrum that Mr Not Chill (not his real name) threw one night at dinner service. So much so that, with his stupor, he managed to silence the entire dining hall.

His dissatisfaction was brought on by a lack of rice at the buffet. One would assume waiting a minute or two for rice in the span of a two-and-a-half hour dinner service is a minor issue. But this bra wasn’t chill. As he was asking for his money back (What money? Seriously, dude, this costs, like nothing!), resort folk looked on in pure awe as he wagged his finger at the manager, shouted at the service staff and audibly slammed a silver tray. At that moment, the rest of us probably had the exact same thought: “Why can’t you just be chill, bra?”

That’s the thing I’d say about this kind of package deal. You sometimes find yourself in a state of limbo. When satisfied, you feel grateful. Grateful that it all turned out so well, despite some misgivings you might have had about “such a deal”. And if dissatisfied, you feel like you don’t have as much of a right to complain, because it was so affordable. 

But never underestimate the human psyche. Nothing is so delightfully experienced by humans as when it feels free. Here, it all feels free! So you indulge (and overindulge) wholeheartedly in things you might never have at home.

And ultimately, you have to make your own rules. Ours: to always be super chill with everyone and about everything and to take one day and one gin and tonic at a time. That doesn’t necessarily mean we became Facebook friends with other guests or that we can tell you how every corner of the island differs from the next, but after the adventure was over, we were content to have experienced something very rarely experienced in everyday life: limbo.

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