Still Not Quite A Great Swiss Rail Journey

Wintry Bernina Express Pic: courtesy Daily Mail

Since this blog was written Great Rail Journeys have not used the Ambassador Hotel in Brig. The Swiss private equity company ‘s new brochure shows they plan to use it again for Christmas. I would not recommend staying there -particularly over Xmas to avoid disappointment.

I am also reblogging this following revelations that up to £13 trillion is diverted by wealthy individuals to tax havens. The ultimate owners of Great Rail Journeys are in the Jersey tax haven and are directly connected to a Swiss Luxembourg bank which has links to taxhavens across the world from the Caymans to the Ukraine.

I can’t quite resist  going off piste and writing an evaluation of taking a break this Christmas – going with my wife Margaret on an organised rail trip to Switzerland in search of snow. Run by Great Railway Journeys (more later), a well-known up market travel company, parts of the trip equalled expectations. Going over the Bernina pass by rail and the train journey to Zermatt,  and staying in a quaint  wood panelled hotel in Chur, the Romantik Hotel Stern, in the 16th century old town, were magical.

The tour guide, a Lancashire lass, Sue Fairweather (employed independently by GRJ) was a brilliant people manager, well organised, yet allowing its mainly elderly travellors a lot of freedom, and participating in a particularly raucous Christmas Day gala dinner, where some of the alcohol consumed could have rivalled revellers in Magaluf.

But the trip had two jarring features. Despite two firm assurances before we left from the company that the hotels could easily cope with a lactose free diet for my wife – it became obvious that they couldn’t and a hotel in Brig  that left so much to be desired that I think it should  lose its contract.

This led me to do a little journalistic investigation into Great Rail Journeys – particularly after some of the more seasoned travellers pointed out  that each year the company has cut down on what it offered but not what it charged. Examples are dropping the odd inclusive dinner and cutting down a free Swiss rail pass – to a free Swiss half rail pass.

Great Rail Journeys markets itself as a 30-year-old British specialist travel company based in York. It was until 2005. Now it is owned by a private equity group called Primary Capital through the Amber Travel Partnership. Investors in London-based Primary Capital have no  particular interest in rail holidays, the company is merely part of a portfolio which also includes the cafe chain, Coffee Republic, and the seed merchant, Thompson and Morgan.

But the private equity company don’t even own GRJ. The parent company in Primary Capital is EFG Reads Trust Company Ltd, an offshore family trust based in Jersey. It has 400,000 shares to 96,000 held by others. According to its annual accounts Primary Capital paid no corporation tax in Britain in 2009 and 2010 setting previous losses against money due to the UK Treasury and its accounts show that £1m of its income is not subject to British tax. Yet it managed a £1.3m dividend pay out in 2010.

But the trail does not end in Jersey. It turns out the family trust company are advisers to EFG, a Luxembourg and Zurich based bank with a telephone list of subsidiaries from the Cayman Islands to the Ukraine. Unfortunately for investors it is still in Greece, though it has tried to pull back over the Eurozone crisis.

So far from your holiday money going to a British company it eventually lands up going into the pockets of what the late Harold Wilson famously called (probably politically incorrect now) the ” gnomes of Zurich.”

Ambassador Hotel Brig: Not as good as it looks, don’t stay. Pic courtesy venere.com

As for the unhappy experience in the hotel, the Ambassador in Brig,(see http://bit.ly/vJRWTW ) its owner did not live up to the niceties of its name. He undiplomatically warned the 34 people on the tour  during his welcoming speech against putting critical comments on tripadviser in case it damaged the reputation of his hotel. (don’t say this in front  of a journalist!)

Not content with that they were – unless reminded by our tour organiser – hopeless at organising a non dairy diet – to the point of denying there was cheese in a course when it was on the menu in English and German!

The so-called “recently refurbished rooms” would have done credit to a mediocre tatty English b&b, just ticking the boxes on the facilities, but leaving you with not enough room to swing a Swiss cat in the shower. If there were any refurbished rooms, it must have one done up for the brochure!

The food if you weren’t on a non dairy diet was good. If you have a lot of spare cash in Brig  the a la carte menu was mouth-watering but very expensive, easy to spend £100 a head. Whether it deserved its food gold star from GRJ is a different matter.

My advice is that if you want to book a future GRJ holiday that includes this hotel at Brig, don’t go!

But it was the exception. We came across a remarkable atmospheric restaurant in a 1522 inn in Chur, the Hofkellerei, with a  brilliant three course meal including local  meat specialities for £30 a head.

And an amazing world-class art, archaeology, sculpture park and classic car museum created by a Swiss philanthropist, the Foundation Pierre Gianadda, where Henry Moores, Rodins, Cezanne and Picassos rubbed shoulders with unique Roman bronzes and historic Bugattis, all in the tiny town of Martigny in the Valais. see their website at http://www.gianadda.ch .

38 thoughts on “Still Not Quite A Great Swiss Rail Journey

  1. Reblogged this on David Hencke and commented:

    Great Rail Journeys has ignored complaints over a Swiss hotel (not just from me) they used last Christmas. The British company is not all it seems either – it is really based in tax havens.

  2. I think they are rip off artists and we slag them off whenever we can .their only saving grace are their tour directors.We travelled all the way from Nz for their over priced trip with sub standard hotels and down graded train travel

  3. Just come back from a tour called the William Tell Express. So disappointed with the tour and tour manager. It was the little things that I had expected, which were missing. The coffee after the included meal being an extra 2 euros. The rooms in Italy which had a car park view rather than lake view. No air conditioning in one hotel. Not all 1st Class rail when brochure said it was. I couldn’t recommend to others.

    • yes unfortunately this is often what happens when companies are owned by private equity – they sweat the service to the customer by cutting corners to increase their profits.

      • Just had a response from GRJ to my 22 complaints with a £10 refund for not having the promised meal class on the William Tell Express – and a denial we went 2nd Class on one leg of the journey. I will be sending them video evidence. No other tour, and I have been on dozens, have made me so angry with their attitude. They have offered a £100 voucher of my next journey!!

  4. Agreed…they are the pits. Sad for the tour managers who do everything in their power to please their guests. We had a dreadful experience in Tuscany where we were promised a refurbished room but received one with mould everywhere in the bathroom. Food was genearlly dreadful. See comments Grand Hotel Vittoria. GRJ makes so much of the followup forms we fill in noting all aspects of our holiday but I honestly believe that none of these are actioned when they arrive at their head offices.
    GRJ really were not interested for two months of my complaining. Finally they came up with some form of compensation. It was a classic case of ‘a breach of contract’
    We have taken five holidays with them but never again.

    • They finally gave £220 refund and a £200 voucher – so that added to the fact we gave no tip to the tour director covered the full cost of upgraded rooms etc. What still annoys me is their website still promises things which they can’t possibly deliver – such as 1st class train from Domodossola, and upper deck meal on the William Tell boat. We are tempted to use the vouchers with Treyn picking the cheapest tour.

      • hi mike,
        at least you got somewhere in the end. It seems their standards are dropping as they squeeze more profit out of the service so you might as well use the cheaper company. Interestingly I am getting more hits on this blog from disgruntled customers – the no of views is now over 1000!
        david

  5. David, I am naturally disheartened by your very fair and balanced comment… Yet am encouraged that room exists for improvement. Wish me luck…

    • David, as part of the GRJ reservations team I am naturally disheartened by your very fair and balanced comment… As a company we are very receptive to customer feedback as we seek to fine-tune our tours from year to year. I am a young man with high hopes and am gutted whenever customer experience does not match brochure promise. Through Gemmell family heritage I am a natural born rail traveler and from a hotelier background with a passion for customer service. I am soon moving to a role supporting our
      contracting team where I may at least have some influence over hotel selection. Your comment would be more than welcome. Much respect! Tim🙂

      • Tim

        You may want to reopen my complaint letter – the 24 complaints / niggles may give you something to start with. We will be using our voucher for another holiday in the future – I always give travel companies a second chance. Whilst on our tour the whole group were complaining but everyone said they wouldn’t make a formal complaint and would put it down to experience – hence you probably don’t get a true reflection. An example would be the Seeburg hotel being presentednwith an award of their food quality – slightly amusing as the previous evening the highlight was a slice of salty meat loaf!!
        Mike

  6. The sister company Rail Discoveries (formerly Treyn) now use the Ambassador at Brig on their Glacier Express.
    I am experiencing lots of problems with Great Rail. I am going on two trips shortly and will provide further info on my return. Recent problems include:
    “Late” receipt of London hotel voucher (only one postal delivery to spare); a truly dreadful substitute day from the planned itinerary; no details at all for a trip departing in 3 weeks (and still counting down); and OVER CHARGING on my next trip which has been explained as not enough qualified staff – I am still chasing for a refund of the over-charge after three weeks; and generally, a much inferior product comparing the same trip year on year such as cutting out some meals, substituting standard class for first, cheaper routeings etc etc.
    I feel sorry for the staff that are left including freelance Tour Managers who have all been excellent. I would advise anyone who relies on GRJ as a source of income to keep an eye on the job market. Sorry for you GRJ staff I know you are trying your best. I blame the management and am writing to the chief exec over the weekend.
    I’m sure this was a great Rail Company in the past. For now my advice would be AVOID!!!!!!!!

    • Stephen

      Really sad to hear this – thought they would have learned their lesson at that hotel. Sounds as though things are going from bad to worse in that company.

      • Not quite as bad as I painted – the refund (for over-charging, contrary to the price guarantee) has been credited, not to the account I used, but to an account I had used with a different bank, for an earlier, different trip! Unfortunately I only get monthly statements on that account but the bank managed to locate the credit when I visited today. Still does not explain why I was over-charged though.
        On re-reading the above comments I see that my final trip (unless near-faultless) is the famous William Tell, so I’m not expecting first class on the boat trip with lunch! If all goes brilliantly I will provide a positive update to be fair. (or they might even ban me?)

      • Stephen I am sure you won’t be banned -they have had to put up with this blog post which has now attracted almost 2700 hits since I first published it!

  7. Who would be a Tour Manager? Have just returned from the Isle of Man. Great holiday, nice hotel. Unfortunately the TM was refused overnight accom in the Lancaster area and attempted to travel from East Anglia to Heysham on the (Satur)day – well you can guess what happened! A retired GRJ lady had to meet us at the other end. Then the next day start time was changed from 1015 to 9 am (by a 8 a.m. phone call) – many people were having a lie in, including myself. Once we got going it was most enjoyable…just don’t know whether it is worth all the hassle though.

    We have had a late change of hotel in Lucerne on the William Tell trip next week. Also we usually get all the rail timings in the pack but at least half are missing, which might mean they haven’t been booked yet. Fifteen people on my Austria trip last year had to go in standard for one jouney of a few hours. At least the pack was in good time. I’m really not sure what to expect on this trip – I should be looking forward much more than I am, perhaps a “hit-man” will push me off a boat on one of the cruises! (can’t swim either)

  8. I wish I had found this blog before booking a Christmas & New Year tour with them. For the premium festive price, we had expected premium travel, hotels and food.
    Sadly, the writing was on the wall with the mistakes in the itinerary and tickets. Day one, our stop in Strasbourg to enjoy the Christmas Markets, Cathederal and dinner in a local restaurant amounted to 30 minutes to check in and then being marched to a local cafe for chicken leg and chips. There began a catalogue of let downs. One of the travel legs involved standing in a 2nd class carriage. Our Christmas day excursion was a €10 ticket on a local public tram. It is obvious that corners had been cut on this tour from start to finish to maximise profit. We have been offered vouchers for future travel, but no way would we book again. Therefore, we are now in the process of drawing up a small claims court procedure for a partial refund.

    • Quite right Andy, you deserve a refund. People who had gone on previous trips tell me every year they appear to find new ways of cutting costs- that led me to look at who owned this company.

    • Hi
      I have now had 3 tours with this company and each one has been a disaster and each have caused us to write letters and achieve sizable compensation. The last one was a UK tour which I thought, “Give them one last chance”. On arrival at the first hotel we were told the brochure was a misprint and the tour was being adapted. Not having much choice we went along with it – until one evening we had 40 travelers shouting at the tour guide – much to the amusement of others in the hotel. In the end we had to go to ABTA arbitration and got a 50% refund instead of the initial £75 voucher. All I can say is I will NEVER travel with them again.

      • I actually had a very good trip last year on the William Tell Express. Everything was as promised – including first class everywhere plus meal on the boat. There were only 17 of us though! So everyone got to know each other and all got on well. The tour manager Grahame was brilliant, I have been with him before. I would actually recommend this trip on that basis. This year though the price has ballooned.
        Having just got a brochure without any index, I am now considering a tour I have done before, to the Harz region. Since the itinerary etc has few changes I am hopeful of a successful repeat. However please keep the comments coming and I will judge nearer the time if they are worth persevering with. Anyone else been on this one since 2013?.
        If anyone is interested in the steam trains in the Harz the GRJ trip seems better than rail discoveries as the latter although changing the hotel to a place I can actually find on my detailed German atlas (The previous “hahnenklee” I could never locate) you won’t be staying anywhere near the 3-line system, only visiting for day trips whereas with GRJ the station and depot at Wenigerode is a few minutes from the hotel and if you ask the staff you can walk round and take photos to your harz content (sorry) and even go up in the cabs. Strangely it’s the “remote” location that is advertised in the railway magazines – if anyone is considering this, I suggest pay the difference and go with GRJ and stay on the Rhine as well. (Mostly first class as well).
        Finally it is several months since I wrote my letter of complaint and the only reply I had was from a lady who wanted me to phone her – however on the day the letter arrived she was going on leave and when back I would be on a tour (surely easy enough for them to check) – so I assume this was just a cop-out. One year after I first wrote I will send a birthday card to the chief exec, who I wrote to earlier…

      • Hi Mike, we have just returned from GRT the Golden Triangle Tour (March 2016) My Husband and I were extremely disappointed. The rail journeys were uncomfortable at best. We weren’t told of the early morning starts and long days travelling until a week before we left and even then the Tour Manager said that she did that off her own back. I asked her why we weren’t told before we booked so we could decide if that’s what we wanted to do. Her reply was ” because no-one would have booked it” We had 38 people on our tour with an average age of 70 years. We were amongst the youngest and found it extremely gruelling. It was not a holiday at all it was an experience, one never to be repeated. GRT seem to move the goalposts as far as the itinerary is concerned. We were told the night before the Elephant Ride that it was off. Strangely enough the Tour Manager said she was called at 10pm the evening before and informed of this. However, according to her, they didnt give an explanation! why would they not tell the Tour Guide why? Her explanation was to say “there must have been an incident mustn’t there? ” Funnily enough we were still able to ride the Elephants at a cost of £15 each. I could go into much more but suffice to say, we, amongst others will not be using GRT again.

  9. We have been on several GRJ holidays,and I can only agree the quality is going down and the prices going up.We returned from a holiday on the Konkan railway on March 8th this year, it too was a gruelling experience with uncomfortable rail journeys some over 8 hours.It bore little resemblance to the holiday advertised in their brochure.At least three couples are seeking compensation,so far we’ve been offered £350 which we’ve rejected and await another offer before taking it further. The holiday for my husband and myself was over £5,000

    • We started off with a £75 voucher and in the end used ABTA to get £500 a 50% refund,We explained it was misrepresentation in their brochure. Never travel with them again.

      • Hi
        Because of the two previous holidays being so bad, this time we decided to book a 5 night Scotland tour – we thought being in the UK there would be less chance of the tour going badly. We also wanted to meet up with a friend in Edinburgh. The tour was approx £500 per person. When we arrived we were told the brochure was wrong and they were going to swap 50% of the tour around. At the time this seemed OK and as we had traveled so far it was difficult to ask for a refund and go home. It was only the next day it became apparent what a major change they intended, There were 44 people in the hotel bar shouting at the tour rep to sort it out – and he said he was only there to provide the tour as it was, and refused to speak to head office, We spoke to ABTA and they suggested seeking compensation for misrepresentation as the tour in the brochure was impossible for them to offer, due to the Jacobite train not running on they day in the brochure – and GRJ would have known this when they printed their brochure. So we decided as they had messed up 50% of the tour then that was the minimum we wanted refunded. Even at the last minute they were saying £400 was the top amount they would offer, but we stuck to our guns and got £500.

      • Thank you for your explanation,I thought you were referring to the Konkan railway holiday!

    • Hi Meg. Could you let me know how the trip differed to the information in the brochure? We are considering this holiday having thoroughly enjoyed a Golden Triangle tour with GRJ.Thank you.

    • Hello Meg. We have been considering the Konkan railway tour and would be grateful if you could let us know how the tour differed to the description in the GRJ brochure.

      • We and others are in dispute with GRJ over the misrepresentation of this holiday.The train journeys were in very poor crowded carriages,the scenery described is impossible to see due to travelling sometimes in the dark the filthy windows,and also the train line is a distance from the sea, so views of sea and waterfalls non existent . The journeys were very long which meant we often didn’t arrive at hotels until late,and one day travelled from 4 in the morning till 6-30.The coach journeys were also long and uncomfortable and a reluctance to make necessary stops.The holiday was more endurance than enjoyment and we were the guinea pigs for it.It was the most disappointing GRJ holiday we’ve been on. It isn’t one I’d recommend and we have been to India with GRJ before. Too many daily disasters to describe.
        Hope this helps you. Meg

  10. What I don’t understand here, is that people say how bad GRJ are- then book another tour!
    We used them once & never again.
    A substantial number complained about our tour, but I see despite all the negative comments, the same tour is back on sale exactly the same as last year.
    If you have s claim with them, don’t be fobbed off.

    • Yes I wonder why I gave them 3 chances. The first time was a disaster, the 2nd time we were only using them to book train ticket and hotel with no escorted tour – but they got the tickets wrong and Eurostar had to sort out their mess at the station. The last time we wanted to see friends in Scotland and Rail Discoveries could get 1st class tickets at a really good discount and we also had a £100 pp voucher.We thought a simple tour of the Isle of Skye would be impossible for them to mess up. So having given them every chance to shine we will cross them off the list – I have told them since, to stop wasting their postage by sending us brochures – but they cant even do that – one turned up last week and went straight in the dustbin.

  11. We have just returned from a ‘Gastronomic Tour of Italy’ with GRJ. Not one meal came anywhere near fine dining and several were appalling, including one at a restaurant where the blackboard outside the restaurant had a children’s menu offering chicken nuggets. This meal consisted of fried chicken that you might be unlucky enough to get in a ‘chippy’ back home, served with tepid fried potatoes. There was no warning of the menus in each restaurant, except for one in Strasbourg on the way home, and no choice.This was an expensive holiday and so very disappointing. Avoid Great Rail Journeys like the plague.

    • How disappointing to hear that Rosemary. The tour was leaving from the “exclusive office” (tiny and shared with Rail Discoveries) at the same time when I did the William Tell trip last year and they were taking dinner orders at St P. which I thought quite impressive! Someone asked recently why people still go if they have been dissatisfied, all I can say is that I normally book when the brochures come out a year in advance – which I did before my worst experience on a trip! Will bide my time if I go at all – there is a small risk of being caught up in problems at Brussels or Paris but a much greater risk of travel disruption at present – and then it’s approaching the season for migrants, strikes by DB, SNCB, SNCF etc. The William Tell trip was in fact excellent due in no small part to the tour manager and the numbers (only 17 of us). Had I had the bad experience mentioned earlier though before I booked I would not have bothered. As it was they tried to apply an extra single surcharge due to a change of hotel and I had to claim it back. I’ve just binned last year’s brochures and a quick look through and they are riddled with errors. One trip even had first class on Eurostar to Brussels. This year’s brochures seem to skimp on details too compared to the past. I suspect that staff numbers in York have been slashed and they just can’t be as thorough – and it really is time that they discovered that 1) The Landwasser Viaduct is NOT between St Moritz and Poschiavo or Tirano and 2) The railway ceased to operate to Fort Augustus on Loch Ness before the war (for passengers) yet it is still shown in the brochures – the nearest railway is about 30 miles at Spean Bridge so presumably a twisty old coach journey down the A82!
      Did my own trip in February to Switzerland, buying first class rail passes and B&B at an excellent 3* in Luzern and this was far better value for money, since I didn’t need a four course meal every evening!

  12. I can believe your every word. We did the William Tell Express tour and one meal was salty meatloaf, and that was one of the better ones. On the William Tell boat we were sat in the staff restaurant instead of the top level fine dining, with a meal of boiled ham cucumber and cold pasta. When we complained they said the boat no longer did the fine dining meal – but we saw other tour groups enjoying it. They are a total waste of money and I would stay clear. We had to laugh in one hotel when our rep passed an envelope round for a tip for the chef – I think one person put in a small euro coin. I would make a complaint and after the 3rd letter you usually get a cash refund.

  13. No surprise there ! Our Christmas & New Year tour started in Strasbourg. You would expect that on night one, they would want to impress their guests. The “local restaurant” was a glorified cafe that served us chicken leg and chips…. you can guess how the rest of the tour went.

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