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Travel Advice - How to evaluate tour operators

ThereArePlaces, urges you to try independent travel when possible; however, we realize that there are a number of countries  where tours are the safest and only practical way to see the sites.  Conversely, there are a number of travelers who prefer touring to independent travel, regardless of the destination.

  • If the thought of planning and arranging your own travel is not appealing, taking an arranged tour may be just the ticket to a great vacation. (See our article on The keys to travel planning.)
  • Many people are so busy at work that they simply do not have the time to arrange independent travel, even if they had the desire to do so.
  • Other travelers want to make sure they see the best places and prefer an experienced tour company to provide them with an itinerary of destinations featuring the best places to visit and the leadership of a knowledgeable tour guide.

 

If you are considering a tour,  you should read the article below before you sign-up with a tour operator.

We recommend that you book a tour through a travel agent or directly through the tour operator. 

  • The features of the tour and the options that might be available are usually complex,  generating questions that will need to be clarified. 
  • We do not recommend the online booking of tours unless you are experienced with the "lingo" and practices of tour companies.

From a practical point of view, tours require an investment of time and money on the part of the traveler. Similar to any important or sizable transaction, there are a number of questions that should be asked and answered before you agree to arrange travel with any tour service provider.

Itinerary.

  • Does the tour include the destinations that you want to visit?
  • Are the stops truly world class or destinations of interest to you?
  • Will you have time at the destinations to explore them as fully as you would like?

Lodging/Food

  • What food and lodging options are available?
  • What class of hotel does the tour feature?
    • Use on-line search (Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo) to investigate the hotels and their quality ratings.
    • Find out what you can about location and amenities.
  • How many meals are provided and how many meals will you have to cover out of pocket?

Cost

  • Does the cost of the tour represent good value?
    •  In large part, determining the answer to this question depends on the itinerary, quality of lodging and meals, and the quality of the activities (including sub-tours and tour guide knowledge) included in the tour package.
    • Be sure to read the fine print when evaluating advertisements for tours; note the use of the word ‘from’ that always seems to precede the stated price.

     

Group size

  • How large is the group touring your destination?
  •  Will you be able to realize vacation goals on a tour with that many travelers?
    • Large groups are usually less rewarding than small groups and small groups may have greater flexibility.

Activities

  • If the tour is of a special type (recreation, adventure, history, etc.) is it compatible with your level of experience?
    • For example, if you are an expert rider, you do not want to be paired with beginning cyclists. If you are an accomplished watercolorist, you may not want to take a painting class in Italy with first time painters.

Add-on tours

  • Does the tour cover all outings or are sub-tours additional expense?
    •  While it is understandable that some activities are more expensive, the traveler needs to know what is covered and what is elective.

Personal time

  • Touring all day and night with a tour group can be tiring. Most of us will want to find some time to do things without the crowd.
  • How much independent time does your group offer?
  • Some tours “let you loose” and this may not be what you are looking for.
  •  Other tours never seem to “set you free” and this, also, may not be your goal.
  • So ask about personal time and decide if what is offered reflects your personality.

Tour leaders

  • Are the leaders of your tour experienced?
  • How long have they been running tours in the destination of interest to you?
  • Are they familiar with the destinations, experienced and trained?
    • Alternatively, are they college students making some money for the summer?
  • Tours with talented guides will be more expensive than those using beginners but it is a price difference usually worth paying.

Guarantees

  • Is the tour guaranteed to go regardless of the number who sign up?
  • If not, what is the number needed to guarantee a commitment?
  • When will you know if the tour is going to depart on schedule?
  • What financial guarantees protect you in case the tour provider goes out of business or bankrupt. (See our article about the United States Tour Operators Association USTOA.)

References

  • Reliable tour guide companies will be glad to provide you with references from their customers.
  •  If your Company cannot or will not do so, find another company.
  • The internet is sometimes a good source of information on how other travelers view a company. Enter the “company name + complaints” in the search box and see what you can find. Use other word combinations (such as “service”, “value”, or “problems”) and see if you can discover something of importance.

Stability

  • How long has the company providing the tour been in business?
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints or actions against the company.
  • Is the company financially viable?
    • Use an internet search engine to attempt to find out business news about the company. Is the tour company a member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association ( www.ustoa.com ) or other prominent travel associations?

Financial issues.

  • You will be sending the tour company an advance or the entire fee for your travel. What guarantees do you have that they will provide the services on which you have agreed?
  • Is your fee refundable?
    • On what terms and under what conditions?

Country of origin.

  • If something goes wrong and you need a refund or require making a claim against the company, you will have an advantage if you are a resident of the country where the tour firm is located or incorporated.
  • The United States, Canada, member countries of the European Union and countries whose laws are based on English common law provide legal systems that can offer you a method of addressing contractual grievances.
  • While other countries may provide similar access, we suggest that, when possible, you utilize the services of companies in the countries listed above.

Boutique or Megacorp?

  • Larger tour companies generally offer better prices for  comparable tours than the prices offered by small or boutique tour operators.
  • Conversely, boutique groups may provide individual service, attention to detail, smaller tour groups, and better logistics, lodging, and food arrangements.
  • Make no mistake, the flexibility that boutique tour operators offer often comes with an “exclusive” price tag.
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