Tips on choosing a tour company


Many years ago I took my first trip with a travel company (which shall remained unnamed) and learned some hard lessons. It was a frustrating and expensive process, but it did pave the way for many other successful trips with very few unpleasant surprises.

As a single female traveler, I initially ask the tour operator questions on three subjects.

1. Is there a single supplement? If so, do you have a roommate-matching service? If so, is there a discount if I’m willing to share but you don’t find me a roommate? (On my first trip, the single supplement was not mentioned in the catalog and I was billed an extra $500.)

2. Is internal airfare included? If not, exactly how much is it? (Again, on the first trip I was asked to buy two air passes at $250 each, even though we were only flying one leg in each country. I did convince them that two one-way tickets would be much less expensive.)

3. Do you use tier pricing and how much is it? (This is usually spelled out in the catalog. Many small-group and special-trip companies use this policy if they do not fill their trips, but it can certainly wreak havoc with a travel budget — and someone will generally assure you that they do fill the trips. There are small-group companies that do not add this surcharge.)

You can imagine my shock when my $2,500 trip to Patagonia ended up costing close to $4,000 not including International airfare. They had forgotten to mention the internal air, they did not fill the trip and the promised roommate never materialized.

I learned of the nonexistent roommate and the tier charge when it was too late to cancel, and the single supplement was huge (particularly since I was in a tent for half the trip). They also booked the most expensive rooms available in the hotels we did stay in. I never traveled with or recommended that tour group again.

In addition to the above, I get answers to the following.

• What is the number of meals that are included? Is it a country where finding food is easy and inexpensive or one where meals might be difficult to come by? Is this a country where I can speak the language in case I need to order my own food?

• Will we be staying in big hotels?

• Are there a lot of optional tours, and what do they cost? (I like to hike and need to be busy, but I am distressed when the trip price is kept artificially low and, in order to do anything, I have to pay for optional tours.)

• How much time will we spend moving from place to place? Will I spend more time on a bus or van than I will in actually doing things? (Sometimes it’s better to pay slightly more for a trip and fly than it is to spend eight hours on the road in a vehicle.) On the other hand, will we fly around too much, wasting a lot of time sitting in airports?

• How big is the group? (More than 18 companions are too many for me.) How old are the group members?

• What are the guides like? (A good guide can make a mediocre trip outstanding; a bad one can ruin even the best trip. Also, I much prefer local guides to those who travel with the group from the U.S. Not only does the latter add to the cost of the trip, but I find that U.S. guides can be tired and somewhat jaded.)

The biggest red flags for me are the following:

• a lack of response or a slow response from a company I have called or e-mailed;

• poorly trained phone agents who don’t listen or can’t answer simple questions;

• being put on hold for more than five minutes;

• not receiving promised materials, and

• the above-mentioned hidden charges.

I could probably go on for at least another 10 pages, but this is quite enough.

For pitfall-free travel,

ELLEN G. JACOBSON
LITTLETON, CO

In order, these are the steps I take in choosing a tour.

1. First, and most importantly, I choose the destination and the appropriate time frame that fit my desires.

2. I check the actual itinerary and cost.

3. I check the details, e.g., the number of nights per stop, the number of meals included, the number of participants (limit?) and the single-rate policy (i.e., any shares?). I ask if the trip has a tour escort who travels the entire intinerary.

4. I determine if the company has a good reputation. Have I traveled with them before? Who is the actual operator?

Nothing is perfect. If the things that are important to you are a good fit, it probably will be an enjoyable trip. It’s worth taking a chance, and you might learn something new about travel!

Over the years, I’ve used over two dozen different travel companies — usually chosen simply on the basis of destination, time frame and cost. Quite honestly, I’ve never had a bad experience. Certainly there are places that I’ve enjoyed less than others, but that is a personal preference and not the fault of the tour company.

I’ve also traveled extensively overseas on my own. I prefer tours. This is because. . .

• there is access to places and experiences not otherwise available;

• the tour escort takes care of problems and special arrangements;

• transportation is usually provided, and

• someone else carries my suitcase!

MIRIAM BURRIS
AURORA, CO

I have basically relied on two tour companies, Grand Circle Travel (800/221-2610 or www.gct.com) and Overseas Adventure Travel (800/955-1925 or www.oattravel.com). I have found both companies to be reliable.

More importantly, their guides are from the countries the tour is visiting and they are very well trained and knowledgeable. I did not realize how important this was until I traveled with a different company to Mongolia and the guide (who had traveled in many other countries) was from Canada. He copied notes from a guidebook which he then read to us, he could not speak the language, he did not know the customs and he gave us misinformation.

The next time I choose a tour, I will definitely look into who will be guiding the trip, where that person is from, etc.

LORNA TJADEN

Wow! ITN has certainly chosen MY topic to ask about. I have taken many, many escorted tours in the past 10 years.

Of course, I choose the country or countries first.

Second, I make sure the tour is within my budget — usually as far under $3,000 for two weeks as possible. That must include everything: air, meals, insurance, local transportation, taxes, fees, tips and souvenirs. (Except for my next trip, it has always worked!)

I never use a travel agent. The one and only time I was forced to use one, it turned out that I was the only single in a group of 49 people. Every time we had time on our own, 48 people disappeared. It was most annoying. The group was much too big, to begin with. I got none of this information before I landed in Vienna — no time to find out! No more agents.

I always ask if the company will provide a partner for a single. Since very few do, it has become a real hassle to travel these days. I will not pay a single supplement under any condition, especially for something I don’t want to do: travel alone.

Before I choose trip dates, I check the weather for each country for various times of year.

I never travel in the summer because I believe that time is for students and teachers. It is usually quite crowded.

One must read the brochure VERY carefully to determine whether or not air is included. How about the number of meals offered? Will added local tours create a financial burden? How much touring is already included? Does the itinerary state that sites will be “seen” or “visited”?

My first group tour taught me how to read brochures carefully. I was a novice and ended up in Scandinavia in mid-October. After arrival, I found out that everything — museums, palaces, parks, etc. — closed the first week of September. Ours was the only bus in any parking lot.

I travel to the place I want, at the price I want, at the time I want, regardless of which company I use. Of course, ITN, by offering tour critiques, is often a help in my making decisions.

I have used Adventures Abroad (800/665-3998 or www.adventures-abroad.com) and smarTours (800/337-7773 or www.smartours.net) three times each, among many others. Personal recommendations also help with travel decisions.

My favorite tours have been to Israel (definitely number one, as it combines everything), Kenya (on safari to see animals), Egypt (for history) and the national parks of the U.S. (scenery).

I have had many terrific travel partners provided by tour companies as well as some very strange ones. That’s the nature of travel. I love it. I have been to 47 countries and am still counting.

My next tour is 17 days in Chile, Argentina and Brazil in November. It will be my most expensive, to date.

CAROL R. BLUCHER
MAMARONECK, NY

Seems like about 20 years ago I went to New Zealand and Australia for 10 days (but stayed longer on my own) with Brian Judd Tours of Salt Lake City, Utah (phone 801/288-1100). I was very disappointed because we did not DO anything. We sat in a bus for most of the time. I hated it!

Since then I have traveled with Adventure Center (800/228-8747 or www.adventurecenter.com) and twice with ElderTreks (800/741-7956 or www.eldertreks.com); ElderTreks tours are very expensive. With Adventure Center I book mostly with Explore, and I am looking seriously at Exodus.

I traveled with Intrepid Travel (877/448-1616 or www.intrepidtravel.com) three times, but the last time (to Thailand) was horrible because I was the only one over 30 and all that those kids wanted to do was drink. I could not carry on a relevant conversation with any of them, either! From now on, if I want to go with Intrepid, I will check out the ages of their clients on that particular trip before I book!

With Explore, I never have that problem. I like tours like theirs where we do things. They even allow enough time for me to go off and do “my own thing” (horseback riding and tandem hang-gliding). Explore tours are all active tours — we do not sit in a bus all day! In fact, sometimes we take the night train (ex., from Prague to Budapest; in China, and from Istanbul to Ankara).

I’ve done 17 Explore tours. The only problem is they have an upper age limit. (Please tell me how they can get away with that. Sounds like discrimination to me!). I’m trying to fight it but am making no progress.

Prior to a trip, I also go to the library and research everything about the countries to be visited.

SAMANTHA SARTAIN
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO

We have taken several overseas trips making our own arrangements, usually in combination with a Eurail or BritRail pass, and we also have taken tours with a variety of companies. Our choice of a tour company for a trip outside the U.S. depends on the answers to three questions.

1. Will the tour take us exactly to the places we want to visit?

2. Does the time of the tour (both the time of year and the number of days) suit our schedule?

3. Is the cost reasonable for what the tour company is offering?

Some things are nonnegotiable, like private bathrooms. Others are important but not essential, like being met at the airport. Others are unimportant to us, like budget versus first-class hotels.

For a March ’04 trip to Italy, since it was our first trip to that country we decided we did not want to make our own hotel, flight and sightseeing arrangements. Our must-see list included Rome, Florence, Venice and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Other cities and sights were negotiable.

We studied the brochures of about five companies and narrowed them down to the two that had tours that went where we wanted to go at the time we could get away. We then chose Globus (800/221-0090 or www.globusjourneys.com) over Perillo (800/431-1515 or www.perillotours.com) because the Globus tour cost considerably less.

We thoroughly enjoyed our three nights each in Rome and Florence and two in Venice. We did stop at the Leaning Tower for a couple of hours and for a half day in Verona. An additional plus was a night in Milan.

When we decided to take a trans-Canada train trip in May ’00, one of the factors in our choosing a Grand Circle tour was that it included a 3-night pre-tour stay at a Marriott hotel in Toronto. We like Marriotts, and if all other aspects of two tours are equal, we choose the one that houses us at a Marriott.

Our choice of Vantage Deluxe World Travel (800/322-6677) for a Danube River cruise from Passau to the Black Sea in October ’02 was based largely on the itinerary. We wanted new destinations in Eastern Europe, and other companies’ tours included more places we had already visited. We also liked the 3-night pretrip stay in Prague.

Some things about tours are irritating. To people who plan and pay in advance, it seems tremendously unfair when the company drops the price considerably for those who book later. Optional side tours are often not well described in the brochures nor are the prices given. We have found optional excursions and meals to be generally overpriced, but often there is no alternative because of the location of the chosen hotel for the night.

Two unpredictable aspects of tours are the guides and the other members of the tour. We have been very fortunate to have good, knowledgeable guides on the above-mentioned tours and also on Cosmos (303/703-7000 or www.globusandcosmos.com) trips to Ireland and the Benelux countries and on a Trafalgar (800/854-0103 or www.trafalgartours.com) trip to Scandinavia.

It would be nice if the guides would spend less time encouraging tour members to be generous tippers.

As for the other members of the tours, we have learned to enjoy most of them — and to avoid the less pleasant people, just as we do at home.

AUDREY & GORDON HENRY
NEWBERRY, SC

I usually look to see if the tour company has a website, which can answer a lot of the questions such as itinerary, price, hotels used, number of meals included, pace of the tour, etc. If you don’t know the Web address, try using a search engine such as Google.

I also check with my travel agent to see if he or she has had experience with the company and which companies they would recommend. I ask for a brochure.

If it’s a “mom and pop” type of company, I ask friends if they know anything about the operation or I place a question in ITN’s “Person to Person” section.

Also, I research where the hotels on the tour are located (most hotels have websites). If you are out in the suburb of a large city, there probably isn’t much you can do in your free time unless you take a taxi or public transportation. Checking the star rating also gives you some idea of the hotel’s condition and amenities, although that rating varies in different countries.

If a hotel is located in a “scenic area” or “quiet neighborhood” of a large city, it’s probably located away from most of the sights. An article I read entitled “Travel Talk — Loosely Translated” listed terms sometimes used and what they might mean: “airy” — no air-conditioning; “quaint” —_run-down; “old world charm” — no bath. . . You get the idea! It’s funny, but there’s a certain amount of truth in it.

Also, if the brochure lists that you will “view” a certain site, that usually means stopping for a photo break. If it says “visit,” then you will actually see the inside.

You can check Frommer’s (www.frommers.com) and Fodor’s (www.fodors.com), either on their websites or in their guidebooks. Before I sign on with an unfamiliar tour, I read everything I can to find out about the company.

My philosophy in traveling is go someplace to enjoy it, not to try to compare the countries with the United States. I go there to see something different and learn about other people and, hopefully, meet some.

I’ve traveled with Insight Vacations (800/582-8380 or visit www.insight vacations.com) several times, and one thing in particular that I enjoy is that their tour members are from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, England, Canada and more. You learn so much being around people from other countries and hearing about their ways, likes and dislikes, etc.

BEA EMANUEL
MINNEAPOLIS, MN

First off, I don’t use a travel agent. I’ve had bad luck with them. So everything arranged in 20 years of travel has been on my own.

I look for tours that are as untour-like as possible, that give me time to explore by myself and that offer unique experiences, have an interesting itinerary and use local lodgings.

I like small groups. I have traveled independentIy and will continue to do so, but, for me, there are areas where tours seem preferable. (Going into parts of Asia and the Middle East, frankly, I feel safer with a group.)

I also consider price, find out whether or not the tour company belongs to ASTA (703/739-2782 or www.astanet.com) and gather recommendations from all sources (including those in ITN). I collect brochures, read travel books and search the Net. I also have chosen tour companies after running into groups housed at hotels where I was staying, looking at their lobby announcements and talking to some of the group members. As a single person, I look for tours that do not charge me extra for single accommodations but do a room share.

The two American firms I have used are General Tours (603/357-5033 or www.generaltours.com) for their hosted tour program and Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door (425/771-8303 or www.ricksteves.com) for their Bus, Bed & Breakfast Tour, now called Bus Plus. RecentIy, I used a British company, The lmaginative Traveller (1 Betts Ave., Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, IP5 7RH, England; “freephone” 0800-316-2717 or visit www.imaginative-traveller.com), which was excellent. I will use them again along with another British company, Explore Worldwide (1 Frederick St., Aldershot, Hants GU11 1LQ, England; visit www.explore.co.uk. . . or call U.S. rep Adventure Center at 800/228-8747 or visit www.adventurecenter.com).

The General Tours Thailand trip I took included an hour’s conversation with a Buddhist monk; Rick Steves’ tour introduced me to fado, and The Imaginative Traveler had me biking around the countryside near Yangshou, China. Some of that could have occurred had I been traipsing around on my own, maybe, but it could have been less available.

Another approach I’ve taken is contacting a tour contractor in the country to be visited. For India/Nepal I used a local firm recommended by an ITN subscriber. In Egypt and Nepal/Tibet I used local firms suggested by “Let’s Go,” Lonely Planet and “Rough Guide.” For my first trip to China I used a local firm discovered on the Internet.

I had one financial misunderstanding with the Indian firm which resulted in duplicate payment for the Nepalese guide services. Apparently, the right hand didn’t talk with the left. So be it! If I use them again, which I would, I have a credit outstanding.

JO RAWLINS GILBERT
SUNNYVALE, CA