Rio de Janeiro hosts one of the world’s wildest Carnival celebrations // © 2012 Val Thoermer/Shutterstock.com
They say that you get what you pay for. And if you’re traveling to a particular destination during its most popular time of year, you can bet that the vacation isn’t going to be cheap or easy to plan. But festival travel is an experience-driven segment of the market and “experience,” according to Oscar Wilde, “is the one thing you can’t get for nothing.”
“Travelers pay top dollar to attend a world festival for the once-in-a-lifetime experience that they can tell their grandchildren about one day,” said Vanessa Sawtell-Jones of Worldview Travel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Festival travel is more expensive partly because the venue cities have a captive audience and can hike up the rates on everything from accommodations to food and drink. Airfare skyrockets due to demand, and there are plenty of expenses to consider at the festivals themselves. Then, there are the on-site logistics of which many clients are not aware.
“These are not easy, slam-dunk bookings. They require planning, tenacity and extreme follow up,” said Maria Saenz of Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif. “I dare say, anybody booking festival travel without the help of a travel professional is crazy.”
Adequate lead time is one of the most important aspects of planning this type of travel, and starting the process about 12 months in advance will give clients the best options and most attractive rates.
“People have come into the office in May wanting to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, for San Fermin in July — never going to happen,” said Saenz. “Keep in mind that many hotels have to release any unused space about 90-120 days prior to the festival. Booking within even six months may not be enough time.”
Kristeen Huey of Montrose Travel has also encountered complications with clients waiting too long to book their festival-themed vacations. The vacations can still be arranged but with significant compromise.
“At that point, it’s impossible to find any accommodation [in the host city] so people get desperate and choose to stay an hour or two outside the city with the intention of taking the train. The problem with this is that the trains could potentially have different scheduling and, more importantly, they will be packed with everyone else trying to get in,” said Huey. “So you take this festival, which is a great opportunity to engage in the local culture and just have [an amazing] time, and it becomes a logistical nightmare.”
Huey’s advice to agents selling festival travel is to have a conversation about how traveling during a festival is different than booking travel at any other time of the year. An agent should outline everything that he/she plans to do for the client and explain that the booking process, much like the trip itself, will be unique. Undoubtedly, agents should engage clients from the beginning to the end because booking this type of travel is going to take more time and effort from everyone involved.
“If you educate your clients about the process and all that you can do for them, and they agree that they want your help in planning their trip, then you’ve created a partnership for not just this trip but for any future travel,” said Huey. “They will understand why your help is invaluable.”
What follows are details about some of the world’s most unique annual festivals, each of which offers a culturally significant experience and draws enormous crowds every year.
San Fermin: Pamplona, Spain
Visitors to Pamplona, Spain, from July 6-14 will trace the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, who was said to seldom miss a bullfight. From 1923-1959, Hemingway frequented the San Fermin fiesta, also known as the Running of the Bulls, and is credited for popularizing it in his novel, “The Sun Also Rises.”
“The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on,” wrote Hemingway about the experience. “Everything became quite unreal, finally, and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.”
Pamplona’s multifaceted celebration of Saint Fermin now attracts more than 1 million visitors each year, most coming to catch a glimpse of the dangerous Encierro (Bull Run).
The origin of the Bull Run dates back to the late 16th century when residents had to herd bulls from outside of Pamplona into the city’s bullfighting arena. As time went on, some locals chose to exhibit their bravado by running in front of the bulls, rather than walking behind. The tradition continues, with quite a few more bells and whistles, every morning of the fiesta at 8 a.m. Two rockets are fired as a warning that the bulls are loose on Calle Santo Domingo, and a group of runners — mostly men, clad in white garments with red sashes — take off in front of the bulls for a half-mile dash to the bull ring, where the evening’s bullfight takes place.
Onlookers can cheer on the runners from behind two fences that line the route (the space between the first and second fence is reserved for runners, medical services, police, etc.). The public viewing areas cannot be reserved in advance. Therefore, many visitors arrive by 6:30 a.m. to claim a spot.
Arguably, the best way to watch the Bull Run is from the safety of an apartment balcony along the route. The Tourist Office of Pamplona provides contact information for locals who offer this service, which sometimes includes breakfast.
Songkran: Chiang Mai, Thailand
During Songkran, travelers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, will want to speak softly and carry a big water gun. Thailand’s New Year celebration in mid-April, also known as the Water Splashing Festival, is a playful yet extraordinary cultural experience. Locals and tourists alike roam the streets with water guns and buckets of ice-cold water in a free-for-all, good-natured water fight.
“Our Songkran guide organized a rental truck for us — people in the back of a truck during Songkran are open targets,” recalled TravelAge West Online Editor Monica Poling. “Even though we had a huge trash bucket full of water, which we could use to hurl water at others or to fill our water guns, we were outgunned by everyone. Although this isn’t an activity for everyone, our group shared a lot of laughter and had a tremendous amount of fun interacting with the locals.”
Songkran, at its core, is a Buddhist celebration, during which locals praise Buddha, visit temples and pay respects to family members and close friends. The water-splashing tradition began as a cleansing ritual in which monks splashed holy water on Buddha statues to clean them and keep them cool.
Most Songkran tour packages include visits to Buddhist temples and a water-splashing experience. For example, Thailand Vacation Tour’s Thai New Year package includes roundtrip airfare from LAX, accommodations for five nights at Shangri-La Chiang Mai, daily breakfast, a Songkran water adventure with a local guide (jumbo water gun included), a guided tour of the Songkran Temple Fair, a visit to Doi Suthep Temple, a one-hour Thai massage and more. The package starts at $2,792 per person, based on double occupancy.
Carnival: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Carnival takes many shapes and forms throughout Brazil and other Catholic countries, but Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has long been regarded as the Carnival Capital of the World. Imagine tens of thousands of spectators in a half-mile-long stadium cheering on thousands of brightly costumed samba singers and dancers from dusk until dawn — this only scratches the surface of Rio’s outrageous Carnival celebrations. Carnival, taking place in Rio Feb. 17-22 of this year and Feb. 9-12 in 2013, incorporates four days of wild parties, live music, themed balls and decorative floats. It’s a last-ditch opportunity for Catholics to give into pleasure and excess before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
While starting the booking process a year prior is wisest, those willing to pay top dollar can still find a way to attend this year’s festival.
“There is still availability for travelers to book a 2012 Carnival package in Brazil, but inventory shrinks daily,” said Adam Carter, chairman of the Brazil Tour Operators Association (BTOA). “You can find space at the last minute. However, hotel rates in Rio become available in July, and airfare pricing is available up to 11 months in advance — for the best variety of rates, packages should be booked by the October prior to Carnival.”
For the 2012 festival, Brazil Nuts, a member of the BTOA, is offering the five-day Carnival Like a Native Tour, during which visitors don a festive costume and spend an unforgettable 90 minutes performing in Rio’s samba parade. Land only, it starts at $5,220 per person, based on double occupancy, and includes accommodations in a five-star hotel, guided tours of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain, daily breakfast and more.
Calgary Stampede: Calgary, Canada
Those looking for an excuse to dust off their cowboy hats will want to book the Calgary Stampede this year for its centennial celebration on July 6-15. More than 1 million people per year gather in Calgary, Canada, for its annual rodeo and exhibition featuring First Nations’ performances, rodeo events, chuckwagon racing, agricultural competitions, parades, concerts, carnival rides and fanfare. Six major rodeo events (bareback, bull riding, barrel racing, saddle bronc, steer wrestling and tie-down roping) are the main attractions, and elite athletes vie for the top prize of $100,000 per event on Showdown Sunday.
Calgary, affectionately known as Stampede City and Cowtown, gets a festive makeover during Stampede season — residents sport their finest Western wear (bolo ties and white cowboy hats included), hundreds of barbecues and pancake breakfasts are held and storefronts are decorated in rodeo and cowboy themes.
According to Corey Marshall, president and CEO of Calgary-based Anderson Vacations, the Calgary centennial is proving to be an easy sell.
“Due to the centennial, we are already up 30 percent on forward sales for the 2012 edition,” Marshall said.
While much of the festivities for 2012 are still under wraps, several new highlights utilizing the theme “We’re Greatest Together” have been announced, including free daily Equine Spectacular shows in The Corral, a massive fireworks display each night of the festival, a temporary zipline over Stampede Park and the 2012 World Marching Band Competition, featuring more than 35 marching bands from around the world.
Oktoberfest: Munich, Germany
There are few places in the world where a person gets chided for not being drunk enough. For about two weeks a year, Munich, Germany, is one of those places. In late September and early October, Oktoberfest transforms the area of Theresienwiese into a giant amusement park filled with Bavarian beer tents, carnival rides, games, food outlets and music.
The official prelude to Oktoberfest begins on the morning of Sept. 22 with the Grand Entry of Oktoberfest Landlords and Breweries. Approximately 1,000 participants — dressed in dirndl and lederhosen, and accompanied by festive horse-drawn carriages — parade through town until arriving at the Oktoberfest grounds. At noon, the mayor of Munich taps the first barrel of beer and, afterward, visitors are allowed to quench their thirsts.
An open-air concert of all Oktoberfest bands, with some 400 musicians, is planned for Sept. 30, and the Costume and Riflemen’s Procession will bring floats, marching bands, riflemen, thoroughbred horses and more to Munich’s city center on the first Sunday of the festival.
Of course, the main attraction of Oktoberfest is the local beer, traditionally served in one-liter glass steins. The typical festhalle (beer tent) offers communal bench seating, and it’s not uncommon to link arms with a new-found friend and sing along with the beer hall band. Bavarian cuisine, ranging from weisswurst and sauerkraut to gigantic, salty pretzels, is another highlight.
Oktoberfest is a free event, although food and drinks are pricey. Reservations are not required to enter the beer tents. However, the tents fill up fast and close early, meaning that the only way to get a seat on the weekends is to arrive in the morning. Beer for breakfast, anyone?