Céad míle fáilte, Irish for “a hundred thousand welcomes” are what tourists receive when they book a European vacation through Celtic Tours World Vacations, based in Albany, New York and founded in 1972 by Noel Murphy.
We spoke with Kathleen Writer, company President, who tells us how Murphy, a bricklayer by trade, had emigrated from Dublin in the late 1960s and founded the company, which grew organically, by arranging trips to Ireland for Albany residents, many of whom had Irish roots.
“Because he retained his connections of friends and family in Ireland, he was able to book cars, hotels, and coaches, and gradually started putting his company together. Eventually, it became the real deal, but in the beginning, in the early ’70s, it was a one-man show, which grew and grew in response to what travelers asked for,” Writer says.
Hailing from Albany but herself of Irish descent, Writer, after college and traveling the United States, returned to Albany and accepted a position with Celtic Tours World Vacations in 1994.
“I returned to Albany waiting for a position with New York State to open; Celtic Tours began as a temporary position until the state job became available. The state job never did open up and 30 years later, it has turned out to be an amazing career. I have regularly worked with so many wonderful people, travel agents, and suppliers, and I travel, personally checking out hotels and making contacts at international trade shows. I’m very fortunate to have had this opportunity, which I love.”
Travel as a service
Today, Celtic Tours World Vacations works with tourist agencies and travel professionals across the U.S. and multiple hospitality suppliers across Europe. It has an office of 11 and growing, and three sales managers on the road, one in the Midwest, another in Florida/Georgia, and the third in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey area. The firm offers dozens of standard and customized tour packages of varying lengths to 10 distinct European destinations.
Some of the services it offers travel agents include access to travel tools, destination information, and maps as well as access to training programs such as Tourism Ireland’s Specialist Training Program, the SCOTSAgent programs, the Celtic Tours Preferred Client Program, and the Travel Agent Perks program.
Before COVID-19 travel restrictions caused serious issues for the entire travel industry, the company was serving approximately 10,000 travelers annually.
“We survived COVID, but those were two rough years, the roughest I’d ever experienced, because no one traveled to Europe for 18 months. Celtic Tours also offered full refunds versus travel credits to customers that were unable to travel due to COVID restrictions. We’re not quite back yet to where we were, but we are doing quite well, and likely to reach 80 percent of pre-COVID numbers in 2024,” shares Writer.
The biggest problem now, she says, is hotel availability, as everyone wants to travel to Europe again but some hotels are housing refugees, while every hotel for miles around Dublin is booked for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in late June. The same applies to every city across Europe where Swift will perform this spring/summer and where tours are offered, including London and Edinburgh.
But the good news is that the company used the lockdown time to investigate new routes, which are ready to receive travelers in 2024.
In touch and personal
The difference starts in Albany where employees work in the office, not remotely, and phones are answered in person and not by a robotic voice asking the caller to push a number. There are no long hold times, because as Writer says, “if a customer is holding more than two minutes, someone else will jump in and take the call.”
Not only do they answer the phone during working hours, but a staff member takes a company phone home and will answer it, even at 3 a.m. “So if someone is stranded, they have a number to call,” says Writer. “Another thing we do that a lot of tour operators have gotten away from is that we provide a travel documents package for everyone on the tour.”
Included in the package are a travel bag and tags, an itinerary, emergency contact numbers, coach driver information, other information a traveler might want to give to family before departure, plus a detailed brochure about everything from currency to electric voltage, what to pack, and how to dress, so that people can be completely prepared.
“We can do group airfare, although some people prefer to book their own; we do arrival and departure transfer; coaching throughout; sightseeing; accommodations; restaurants; theatre; and other entertainment, so there’s nothing left for travelers to have to think about,” says Writer. “We have a great staff and hands-on team here. I couldn’t ask for better people and I think that transfers to our service and to what we provide our customers. As a result, we get positive feedback and a lot of repeat customers. We handle everything and take all the guesswork out of travel, and if a problem does arise, we own it and take care of it.”
When travelers arrive at their European destination, they find other pleasant surprises, including a truly relaxing vacation that allows them to take their time to fully absorb the culture and ambience of the country they’re visiting without being forced into a grueling travel schedule. “Our itineraries may not seem as inclusive as some of our competitors, who go from 7 am to 7 pm, trying to hit every spot. We like to have relaxed itineraries because, after all, it’s a vacation. Our hope is that if people enjoy what they see and experience, they’ll want to come back again.”
Go your own way
Another unique option from the company is the opportunity for travelers to design their vacation, tell the staff at Celtic Tours World Vacation exactly what they want, and then relax and let the team do the heavy lifting.
First, travelers select vacation components—one or more destinations; accommodations plus car; accommodations only, ranging from three- to five-star hotels or B&Bs; car only; transfers; sightseeing; and rail—and from there can plan exactly what they want to see and do, with help from the staff. This means that small groups, ranging in size from two to six, have the option of a totally customized and intimate travel experience.
As Writer explains, “We can build totally from scratch, where the agent will say, ‘Here are the group numbers and dates and their must-haves,’ and turn to us for our expertise, and ask, ‘What do you think about this or that? How would this work?’ Then we do it all, from arrival to departure.”
Alternatively, special interest groups of 15 to 25 may book a standard tour through their travel agent who will work with Celtic Tours to accommodate their interests. “An agent could say, ‘My group likes this route and these accommodations, but they are photographers and want the best photographic opportunities,’ or, ‘They’re history buffs who want to delve into history and stop longer at historic sites,’ so there are plenty of ways we can modify an existing trip for that group.”
Soft spot for Ireland
Since the company’s roots are in Ireland, it’s no surprise that there’s an abundance of special tours in the Emerald Isle, ranging from a six-night escorted coach tour for St. Patrick’s Week, which includes the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin and a six-night “epic spooktacular Hallowe’en tour, with three nights in Derry, at Europe’s largest Hallowe’en festival” to the 11-night Celtic Dream that includes the Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, the Giant’s Causeway, and of course, Dublin.
Those are just three of the options among nine escorted coach tours. In addition, there are “Ireland Your Way” self-drive trips which include car rentals and pre-booked B&B vouchers, customized chauffeur-driven tours for small specialty groups, and customized golf tours.
The traveler’s UK
The company’s UK tours in England, Wales, and Scotland offer even more options, 22 to be exact. These include the four-day Outlander Trail, which traces the sites made famous by Diana Gabaldon’s novels, coupled with a two-night stay in Edinburgh; the Isle of Skye with independent nights in Glasgow; and in England, a chance to visit Stonehenge, Windsor, Bath, and Oxford, with two independent nights in London.
A new view on Europe
Celtic Tours World Vacations’ continental European tours began in Italy 20 years ago. Writer says, “We’ve worked with a small office there and they treat our customers the way we treat them in Ireland and the UK—very personal and hands-on.”
On offer are seven-night escorted tours to Venice, Florence, and Rome, and around the island of Sicily.
There’s also the unique independent Tuscan Culinary Delights package where guests spend five nights in a Tuscan villa, a 30-minute train ride from Florence with its magnificent architecture and art galleries, with tours of Chianti, Sienna, and San Gimignano. There are also optional cooking classes arranged at the 63-room villa, which Writer says had been filled in pre-pandemic days.
Over the years, as the company grew in response to interest, more tours were added, opening Europe to American travelers who aren’t quite sure where to start and want to avoid a frantic “six countries in six days” gallop. Like the tours offered in Ireland, the UK, and Italy, which focus on one area, tour options are now offered in Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe, which include independent train travel as well as private tours of varying lengths.
One option not yet included on the website—but available—is small Croatian cruises on ships that can accommodate 36 passengers and are small enough to get in and out of island harbors. Writer will be going in May to check out the Croatian cruise firsthand, and Iceland in recent years has also attracted attention. “We’ll see more of that in 2024,” she says, hinting at possibilities with Scandinavian countries for 2025.
When those tour packages are announced, travelers can expect the same high level of service they’ve experienced and enjoyed on previous Celtic Tours World Vacations. Bon voyage!