If you’re thinking of visiting a faraway place, a tour may be an ideal choice. But don’t go anywhere without this ultimate guide for booking and taking a tour.
What you need to know about a tour
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have received a lot of complaints about tours. That’s because tours have some of the strictest cancellation terms in the travel industry. After the coronavirus outbreak, some tour operators balked at giving their customers full refunds. And a few even retroactively changed their policies so that they could offer a credit instead of a refund to customers who wanted to cancel their vacations.
When it comes to refunds, tours can be tricky. Each component — airline tickets, hotels, activities — can have different cancellation terms. And the tour operator may impose its own terms on top of that.
Confused yet? Don’t worry, we’ll help you sort through it.
• What is a tour?
• Should I book an independent package tour?
• Should I consider an escorted package tour?
• What’s so great about a package tour?
• How can I be sure I’m getting the best deal?
• How should I book my tour?
• What’s a dynamic package?
• What are the risks of buying a package?
• Should I include airfare?
• Isn’t there a Good Housekeeping seal for tour operators?
• What’s a tour participation agreement, and why should I care about it?
• Can I “unbundle” my package tour?
• What are the most common tour problems?
• Should I expect a full refund if my tour is canceled?
• How do I resolve a tour dispute?
A tour assembles various components of a trip into a single package that you can buy. It comes in two basic varieties:
An independent tour which normally consists of transportation, lodging, and sometimes meals and activities. You can assemble it on your own to meet your needs.
An organized package tour which has some or all of the components of an independent tour, but follows an itinerary set by a tour company and is led by an experienced guide.
A package tour may be right for you if you can answer “yes” to any of the following. Do you…
- Value flexibility and don’t want to be limited to a seven- or ten-day “experience.”?
- Like to explore new places and would prefer to determine where you eat and what you do on vacation.
- Like to keep tabs on how much each component of your vacation costs and who is directly responsible for it.
Yes, if …
- You would like to have everything planned for you, from where you stay and what you see to how you get there. Some meals are included in an escorted tour. (A few of the new tours also have more “flex” time built into them, so they aren’t as rigid as a traditional escorted package.)
- You don’t really like exploring a place on your own and enjoy being around other people.
- You’re concerned about dealing with unfamiliar languages and customs.
The appeal of a package tour is obvious once you understand how it works. But since tours can be a little complicated, even to someone who has written about them for most of his career, the benefits aren’t necessarily self-evident. Why should you consider entrusting your entire vacation to a tour operator?
- It’s affordable.
Tour operators buy their rooms, flights and activities in bulk and pass the savings along to you.
- It’s organized by a pro.
Knowing that a vacation was planned by an industry professional is reassuring, especially when you’re traveling overseas.
- You pay up front.
You’ll know exactly how much your vacation will cost, minus tips and incidentals. (Note: There’s a downside to this, too. I’ll have more on tour operator bankruptcies in a minute.)
- Better access.
It’s true, tour groups almost never have to wait in any lines for the museums and the choice attractions. Also, they get into places others can’t and are frequently given VIP treatment on the ground.
A tour is almost always less expensive than buying all of the components individually, as I just mentioned. The economics of a package can make a lot of sense. Let’s take a look at this typical Las Vegas vacation package:
A la carte
Airfare – $299
Car rental – $149
Show tickets – $100
Total – $548
Cost to tour operator:
Airfare – $229
Car rental – $99
Show tickets – $89
The company pays – $417
You pay – $509
Tour operator profit – $92
Your savings – $39
Looks like a win-win, right? How does the tour operator get to pay such low rates for its products? It buys thousands of rooms, show tickets, and airline tickets at a time. In fact, when travelers happen to see the “bulk” rates travel companies pay, they often demand the same rate. Answer: No problem. Just buy a thousand hotel rooms, and you’ll get the same price!
You probably will never know exactly how much the tour company paid for the various components of your trip — only that you’re saving 20 percent or more off the cost of your vacation.
But the savings can be even more dramatic. I’ve found tour packages online where, even if you removed one component, you would still save more money than pricing the vacation a la carte. Under those scenarios, you could book a package, simply throw away certain components, and still save money. That’s quite a deal.
You can buy a package tour through a travel agent or online travel agency, or through a tour operator directly. The tours you’ll find all basically work the same — they’re a vacation in a tidy package that eliminates some of the hassle of planning and can save you money. But there are important differences.
Online travel agencies may have deeper discounts, but their terms tend to be more restrictive than those found through a travel agent. When you book a tour directly, you may also get a price break, but you don’t have an agent who can advocate for you if something goes wrong with your vacation.
Online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking.com offer “dynamic” packages that assemble a tailor-made package vacation in seconds. These can sometimes also be purchased as an afterthought. Check the bottom of your screen when you’re buying an airline ticket for “add a hotel.” That’s a dynamic offer, and you could easily save 20 to 30 percent off the cost of your overall trip.
One of the biggest potential pitfalls of doing business with a tour operator is that you’re handing all of your money to one company. If that company were to go out of business, you lose everything, even when you buy insurance. Some tour operators self-insure, which means your coverage is essentially worthless if they go out of business. I recommend you buy a reliable travel insurance policy from a third party — not the tour operator.
- Refunds of individual components.
When all goes smoothly with your trip, a package or guided tour can be a real pleasure, but when one part doesn’t live up to your expectations, then you can have a problem on your hands. Why? Well, remember that you don’t know how much that one component cost. So how does your tour operator or travel agency calculate a refund? Based on its price? A percentage of your price? Do you just get a voucher? I’ve had many complaints from unhappy customers who believe they deserved more of a refund. Your right to a refund is discussed in your tour operator’s terms and conditions. Make sure you know what’s in it before asking for, or accepting, any refund.
- Loyalty points.
If you’re a point-collector, you may be unhappy with the terms of your tour. Since airfare and hotels are bought in bulk by your operator, there’s a chance you won’t earn as many frequent flier miles as you thought. You may not earn any at all. If loyalty is important, I strongly recommend you book a package without air, so that you can maximize your miles. This is especially important when you’re flying long distances, and the miles flown are enough to bump you to the next elite level.
Airfare might be included in the cost of your package tour. Or not. Airline tickets can usually be added to both types of tours or you can make your own airline reservations. Bear in mind that the prices for most escorted tours are not guaranteed until just before the final payment. If you’re mulling airfare arrangements for an escorted tour, you might consider booking the escorted tour’s air, which could cost a little more than if you booked it yourself — but if the tour is canceled and refunded, you’d also get your airfare back.
Kind of. The United States Tour Operators Association is a professional, voluntary trade association for tour operators. Interestingly, USTOA was founded in 1972 by a group of California tour operators concerned about tour operator bankruptcies. USTOA has high standards, which include:
- Requiring each member company to set aside $1 million of its own funds specifically to protect consumers’ deposits and payments.
- Being committed to truth, accuracy, and clarity in advertising.
- Adherence to a code of ethics, which includes a pledge to encourage and maintain the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and service.
USTOA membership can mean you’re protected, but because it requires the business to be in operation for at least three years, it can mean a smaller or newer tour operator — one perfectly deserving of your business — is left out. So, while the USTOA symbol is a good sign, you shouldn’t necessarily assume that the absence of the sign is bad news.
A tour participation agreement, sometimes simply referred to as the terms and conditions, is the contract between you and your tour operator. It’s usually used for organized, escorted, tours, but is sometimes also found on specialized tours, such as river cruises. As with anything else in travel, it can be littered with “gotchas.”
- Don’t hold us to our brochure prices.
The terms may say that a price you see in a catalog can change. No price is final until your purchase. If you see a tour that interests you, contact an agent or the tour company and get the most up to date specifics, which includes the price.
- Mind the fees, please.
Tour operators disclose their fees, some routine — some not. For example, some will charge a fee of up to $300 if you make any change to your itinerary within a month of your departure. That doesn’t include the airline or hotel fees.
- Did we mention the “single” supplements?
Prices are usually based on double occupancy. If you’re traveling solo, you may pay anywhere from 10 to 100 percent more for your accommodations. To cater to the single travel market, some tour operator members offer reduced or waived supplements while others offer “share” programs that pair like-minded travelers.
- Passport problems?
Not our problem. If your passport gets lost or is expired, and you’re unable to travel, your tour operator isn’t liable for it, and won’t issue a refund. So, make sure your paperwork is in order if you’re traveling internationally. I’ve mediated numerous problems with tours that had to be canceled because of a paperwork problem.
- We can cancel, but you can’t.
One of the most vexing portions of the tour agreement involves cancellations. If enough people don’t sign up for a tour or a portion of the tour, then the operator reserves the right to cancel it. If you decide not to go on the tour, you are still governed by its strict cancellation rules.
- This isn’t the only contract.
Since it’s a package, other contracts may apply to your purchase. Also, you only have a limited amount of time — usually a year — to sue the tour operator, if it comes to that, and it can only be done in certain jurisdictions, as outlined in the contract.
- Other goodies.
It’s worth reading the entire contract from beginning to end. You’ll find some gems you wouldn’t expect. For example, one contract says that your participation implies the company has the right to photograph you, and to use the image in an ad — without asking permission. You’re welcome!
Since most components of your vacation are bundled together in package tours, it would follow that one of the most common questions I get is: Can I unbundle them? What if you want to skip a city or extend your vacation? Some tours offer optional extensions. But if you find yourself saying, “This tour looks perfect, but …” enough times, then an escorted tour might not be for you, and you should consider an independent tour. If you still feel too restricted, you’re better off skipping the tour altogether.
Oh, the trouble my readers get themselves into! Here are a few common tour-related queries I’ve handled:
- I don’t like my tour guide or fellow travelers.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is your professional tour guide and the other members of your tour. If you have a personality conflict with one, then it can make your vacation miserable. The only way to avoid this is to plan your tour very carefully, preferably with the help of a competent travel agent. An agent will know what types of travelers are likely to take a particular escorted tour, and will probably know if you’re a good match. If you’re part of a larger group offering concurrent tours — for example, if there are two buses, each with its own guide — it may be possible to switch buses. But don’t count on that as an option.
- I have a special need.
For many senior travelers, an escorted tour is the perfect way to see a place because everything is taken care of. When you’re traveling abroad, not every attraction and restaurant is ADA-compliant. Some tour operators have a great reputation for handling guests with special needs. Contact the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality for a recommendation.
- The food, accommodations, or tours are not what I expected.
Sometimes, tour operators cut corners, paying a restaurant just a few dollars for a meal they buy at a volume discount, but advertising it as a “five-star” experience. These tour operators don’t deserve your business; in fact, they don’t deserve to be in business at all. If one part of your tour isn’t up to standards, say something right then — don’t wait until you get home. Again, a knowledgeable agent or a recommendation from a trusted friend can help you avoid such tours.
The advantage of a package is that you get a price break. The disadvantage? Refunds.
When an airline cancels a flight, you can get your money back. When a hotel turns you away, you’re entitled to a refund. Same thing when your cruise is canceled, or your car rental company doesn’t have the vehicle for which you prepaid.
Put it all together into a package, however, and curiously, the rules change. Your tour may not be refundable at all. Don’t believe me? Check your participation agreement and see for yourself.
I heard from one reader whose Egypt tour and Nile cruise was canceled during a recent civil unrest. She’d paid $6,032 for the tour, but when the tour operator canceled, it offered her only two choices: Either rebook the same tour later in the year, or transfer all of her credit to a new tour within a year.
Unfortunately, her travel insurance didn’t cover civil unrest. So, that left her with her tour operator, which stipulated that “a full refund will be made to all participants only if the cancellation does not result in a loss of monies to [the company].” Unlikely, since its tour guides were probably busy with a revolution.
Why no refund? When there’s a cancellation, a tour operator has already incurred expenses for advance reservations and arrangements and may be liable for hotel and other services contracted on your behalf. Besides, a tour operator doesn’t want to refund your money (it’s in the company’s DNA), but would rather welcome you on another tour. Even when you deserve to get all of your money back. This fact has never been more evident as we enter the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic (See: Here are the answers to your top coronavirus travel questions).
If you’ve booked an independent tour, there’s a looser connection between you and the supplier (the airline, hotel, or cruise line). If you booked through a travel agent or an online travel agency, that would be the first point of contact to start on addressing the cancellation and any refunds.
As I mentioned before, a leading problem travelers encounter with any tour is having part of their tour canceled, and then asking for a refund. The agency or tour operator will always use their math, which is to say, whichever formula is more advantageous to them. I’ve seen well-deserved refunds shrink and virtually disappear under this funny accounting.
Applying a-la-carte logic to a refund problem won’t work. Remember, your tour operator probably didn’t pay full price for the airfare and accommodations, so it doesn’t make any sense to ask for the sticker price as a refund. The most effective strategy is to ask it to explain its decision in writing. If the reasons don’t make sense, appeal the decision — to both the tour operator and the supplier. You may be entitled to more, and you may get more.
Next to cruises, escorted tours are the most frequent subject of laundry-list complaints. In other words, it’s not one big thing that goes wrong, but a lot of little ones. It’s a late pickup, missing luggage, a bad meal — things you can’t necessarily put a price on. But cumulatively, they have the capacity to ruin a vacation.
The good news is that tour operators that don’t maintain high-quality standards throughout their entire product don’t last long. There’s just too much competition, and in the Information Age, it only takes one disgruntled customer to destroy a business. My best advice for resolving an escorted tour-related complaint is to hammer on this one issue — overall quality — particularly if you’ve got a compelling list of complaints.
Many tour operators will respond to a complaint by sending you a form letter, which is totally insincere, apologizing for “the way you feel.” If you can make a polite and persuasive case that the overall experience was below the quality standards the tour operator advertised, then you have a reasonable chance of getting the boilerplate mea culpa upgraded to a voucher or even a refund.
Package tours can be a great way to travel, if you follow the tips in this guide. Keep it handy in case you need advice on handling problems with your tour. And remember, if you find yourself with a problematic tour operator, the Elliott Advocacy team is always here to help.