By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - The Priest, 4/1/2011
The economy is coming back — so they say. So quite possibly, either this year or hopefully next year for sure, Catholics will more readily travel to shrines, and pastors will be urged to sponsor pilgrimages.
The first point to remember is that in organizing a trip, or in lending his name to a travel agency for the promotion of a trip, or in agreeing to accompany a group as leader, any priest takes upon himself a serious pastoral and, indeed, legal responsibility.
On the bright side, pilgrimages can be superb teaching moments. Sponsoring such trips also can be a financial boon to a parish or institution as well as a personal advantage for the priest himself. (Most plans offer a free trip to the priest and even additional trips if enough tickets are sold.)
Keep the spiritual purpose of the pilgrimage paramount. Research is crucial. Every bookseller has volumes on popular foreign destinations. The average cost is $20 or less. Dozens of possibilities are on the Internet. Ask other priests or pilgrims about their experiences.
Make this study before, not after, engaging a travel agent. Develop clear and specific goals for the trip.
This point is vital: Check with the chancery about diocesan policy. Call the diocesan lawyer or insurance agent. What liabilities do existing diocesan insurance policies cover?
Is any other parish or diocesan organization planning a similar trip at about the same time?
Enlist a genuinely competent travel agent or tour organizer, preferably an agent attuned to Catholic interests.
Is the agent or organizer professionally and legally reliable? At the minimum, work only with travel agents who are approved by IATA (International Air Transport Association) or ARC (Airlines Reporting Corporation) and are bonded.
These agents will have assigned numbers from these organizations. Ask for the numbers. Are they current?
Another indispensable trade reference is USTOA (the United States Tour Organizers Association). This group mandates that members keep deposits and payments in escrow until the time arrives to pay for services.
If in doubt, call the local Better Business Bureau. Get references.
Avoid tour organizers or agencies not in business at least for a while. Beware of those operating on a shoestring, displaying anything that suggests a small-time, fly-by-night, seat-of-the-britches outfit. Benignly smile at pledges of devotion to the Church, and at promises to keep charges to a minimum for the sake of the Kingdom. Agree to nothing not concretely assured in the best business sense.
Foresee the unforeseen. Bluntly and directly ask questions about liability. What if participants cancel within the allowed period of time? Will their deposit be returned in kind, quickly and without undue red tape? Will allowances be made, and refunds given, if the accommodations actually provided are not of the standard promised? What if a participant takes ill and leaves the pilgrimage midway to return home? Is any refund possible? Who pays for the likely increase in airfare if any unexpected, urgent return home is required?
If a flight cancels, who pays for hotels and meals? What about penalties for re-booking?
Get assurances in writing. Get detailed itineraries in writing. Get names and addresses of proposed hotels. Take nothing for granted.
Then there are the little details, such as bank holidays in Ireland or May 5 in Mexico. It is no fun to get somewhere and find the doors closed.
Be sure that everyone knows all the details and anticipates contingencies. Airfares and reservations for hotels and tours well may contain deadlines or terms of no refund. So well worth the modest cost of a premium is insurance protecting against costs incurred if the trip is cancelled after the deadline or must be interrupted en route because of medical reasons or even death. These policies usually insure baggage as well.
Every travel agent and many insurance writers can refer clients to insurance policies with health coverage overseas and that pay in the case of interruption or cancellation. Some providers require that policies be purchased at least 24 hours before commencement of travel.
In making arrangements for accommodations, a clean, secure, comfortable room with a full private bathroom attached is basic. Will the tour provide such accommodations?
Location also must be considered. Being situated in an out-of-the-way hotel means that hours can be consumed as the tour bus inches through traffic or simply covers long distances. How proximate are restaurants? What is the condition of the neighborhood?
Is the hotel in a noisy place? Are surroundings too dangerous or otherwise undesirable for a stroll after dinner? Is public transportation available nearby?
Is the hotel air-conditioned? If multistoried, does it have an elevator? Which American credit cards will it accept in payment of incidentals? Will its desk exchange money? Finally, what is the rating? If anything below three stars is the choice, the tour should be prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.
Many hotels abroad offer each morning a continental breakfast to all guests. This old, old policy is an endangered species, however. Try to get it. But if the room rate is a real bargain, then breakfast may not be included.
Air travel is another point to carefully consider. If at all possible, make one flight to a gateway in the United States and then continue nonstop to the foreign city. Be aware of the fact that if a flight cancels to, or from, London, dozens more will be available on the same day. This convenience does not apply for Lisbon, nor for Rome or Tel Aviv.
Shop around. Anyone can go on line or call an airline or travel agent to see what is possible. Remember, however, fares in themselves are not everything.
Be sure that no one is surprised with the arrangements. Lunch in most European centers involves much more food than Americans habitually consume at midday. Longer lunches can take much time.
More often than not, in Europe the custom is to take the evening meal much later than is the case in the United States. Restaurants will not open until 7:30 or so at the earliest. People should be prepared to change their routine somewhat.
European and Israeli restaurants are officially monitored for cleanliness. Drinking from the tap, however, may not be customary. Bottled water, regardless, is cheap and available everywhere.
As for sightseeing, again keep the spiritual objective in mind. Never allow a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for instance, to be squeezed into an hour. Still, remember that people spend years in Rome or Israel and fail to see everything. Set priorities. Do not overload schedules and, in the process, miss the impact of a truly rewarding stop.
The priest’s great pastoral opportunity is to make pilgrimages spiritually productive. Pray as a group in important places. Arrange for Masses. Make these plans in advance. Confirm on arrival.
(What about celebrets? This author has never been asked to produce credentials, but exceptions may occur in one place or another.)
En route on the bus, the priest can take a few minutes at the microphone himself, giving his own insight into some aspect of the shrine ahead. He also may lead the group in prayer as travel is underway.
Often, it is useful to meet with the group even months before departure. Distribute an itinerary. Explain. Note the highlights. Invite questions.
Health issues often surface. Ask about special physical needs. People truly dependent on special diets should realize that they will have to adjust. What about walking?
Anticipate potential difficulties such as cold weather — or cold rooms, or hot weather and hot rooms. Try to pack accordingly.
If health becomes a problem en route, be at least generally prepared. When emergencies arise, American diplomatic personnel are interested, considerate and of great assistance. Hotels or tour guides may refer to physicians.
Here again, insurance purchased in the United States can be a godsend. Some policies allow for evacuation back to the United States in the event of serious illness or injury. Warn people that their personal health coverage well may not cover care abroad. Medicare does not cover medical services performed outside this country.
Can prescribed drugs be replaced if lost in Europe? Generally they can be, but time, and maybe red tape, will be required. Take a copy of prescriptions along, giving the name of the drug, its dosage and directions for use, the date the prescription was written and the name of the prescribing physician.
Insure belongings. If lost on an airline, at least a period of wait will occur while the airline searches. Then, rarely but occasionally, the search will produce nothing.
Airlines are limited in their liability. Terms are not open for debate. Most are set not only by company policy but also by treaties between the United States and foreign governments.If theft occurs, report it to the local police at once. Get an official report in writing from the police. Many insurance policies will require such reports for claims.
Carry as little luggage as possible. Any good travel agent can advise as to what clothes are needed in any given time and place. Check the web for average weather. Expect to clean or launder nothing along the way.
Carefully, and legibly, write the owner’s name and address on a label attached to each bag. Put a similar label inside. Watch the agent attach the routing check to the bag. Watch the bag go on the conveyer belt for delivery to the baggage room. Keep the claim checks.
Take aboard a small bag with important papers such as tickets, indispensable prescribed drugs, toiletries and a day’s change of clothing. Follow TSA rules as to quantity and substance.
Photocopy the passport. Keep the copy in a place apart from the passport itself.
Leave detailed contact information at home with a relative, a neighbor, the office or someone who easily could be in touch and would be sought if the traveler were needed.
Finally, crime is on the upswing in Europe, even if it does not yet match what we Americans know at home. Petty theft has become a problem in many European cities. Luggage is a favorite target, especially in hotel lobbies and in airport terminals. City buses are notoriously bad.
Warn people not to leave luggage unattended at any time. Advise them even to watch porters as they handle baggage — not that they themselves are untrustworthy, but with 50 bags on a sidewalk one might be quietly removed by a stranger.
Travelers can be careless with their money. Many stores sell inexpensive wallets that can be worn underneath clothing. Hotels almost always have safe deposit boxes. Use them.
Credit cards are accepted everywhere, and if stolen or lost, they can easily be replaced.
The U.S. State Department’s website has good advice for every place on the globe, a variety of circumstances being noted.
Is Israel safe? Anything can happen anywhere. On balance, however, travel in Israel is quite safe, even if Israel is not paradise.
No Christian can see Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, or Capernaum and leave without feeling something. The shrines are powerful. However, it would be sad to visit Jerusalem without going to Yad Vashem, the imposing monument to the millions of Jews who died at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s government. Knowing about the Holocaust can do very much by way of putting modern Israel in perspective, as well as Christian–Jewish relations, so important to recent Popes.
Israeli guides are trained, licensed and usually very competent. Pilgrims might request a Christian guide. However, this author’s experience, after 20 trips to Israel, is that far and away the best guide he ever had was a Jewish Israeli. On occasion, however, a Jew or a Muslim guide may not be fully aware of Christian interests.
Given the present state of affairs, other Middle Eastern destinations should be carefully considered.
When pilgrims return, they will remember good or bad flights, good or bad accommodations, hot or cold weather. But all these will fall appropriately into secondary place if the focus has been truly spiritual.
Key to creating this focus will be the priest who led the trip and his understanding of the spiritual treasures reposing in the shrines and, quite simply, of as many details as possible. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is Editor of The Priest magazine and Associate Publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
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