On travel brochures, the small print makes a big difference

The National Trust Tours brochure for its upcoming Odyssey of Ancient Civilizations — a seven-night cruise through Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece — advertises an “all-inclusive” itinerary. And indeed, the $4,195 price for an ocean-view stateroom covers meals, tours and “enhanced” services, such as a flight insurance policy.

But a closer look at its catalogue suggests that one or two items are left out of the prominently displayed price. Taxes are an additional $440 per person “and are subject to change,” the brochure notes next to an asterisk below the rates. Purchasing the package also requires a $20 National Trust for Historic Preservation membership fee. And the $4,195 price, the most prominently displayed rate, is technically unreservable if you want to sign up now, since you missed a summer deadline to qualify for a $1,000 per person early booking discount.

Meg Annacone-Poretz, an associate director for National Trust Tours, says taxes and other fees are separated from the base price because “tours are priced out more than a year in advance, and certain fees are subject to fluctuation.” Further, her group would honor the $4,195 for the cruise even now, since her organization has the authority to extend deadlines for special rates. She says her membership organization doesn’t typically get complaints about its prices, “likely because the additional costs are clearly stated and not hidden in fine print.”

An informal survey of tour brochures and interviews with tour operators indicates that National Trust Tours’ pricing is not out of the ordinary. Yet complaints about “gotcha” rates for similar packages are few.

I found a catalogue advertising a 10-day Amalfi tour for a “special” price of $3,195 through AHI Travel, a Chicago tour operator. But there’s an asterisk, and in the fine print, the company notes that it doesn’t include a value-added tax of $295 per person.

Another seven-day “Cuban Discovery” tour package from Minneapolis-based tour operator Go Next notes that it doesn’t include airfare between home and Miami, passport fees, a Cuban visa fee of approximately $75 and Cuban departure tax. Its brochure, published online, doesn’t even list a price.

AHI Travel did not respond to an interview request. Robyn Hawkinson, a product manager for Go Next, says her company’s prices aren’t listed on its Cuba brochure because “pricing fluctuates based on the time of year, the hotel patterns and the number of days of our programs.” Its visa fee, which is set by another party, can also change, she says.

The federal government clamped down on airfare pricing with a 2012 “full fare” price rule for airline tickets and it’s considering creating similar rules for hotel rates. But what about tours advertised through brochures? Turns out there’s little, if any, regulation.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has the authority to regulate how tours are promoted, has taken no recent actions and issued no guidance to tour operators. In a 1983 policy statement, the agency said it would find an act or practice deceptive “if there is a misrepresentation, omission, or other practice, that misleads the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.” Frank Dorman, an agency spokesman, said that the agency couldn’t comment on whether brochures that display taxes in small print are legal or not.

“But if anyone feels an ad is deceptive or misleading, they’re encouraged to file a complaint with the FTC,” he added.

Separating taxes and fees from the base price or not displaying a price runs contrary to the industry’s best practices, says Gina Dolecki, a spokeswoman for the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). Her organization’s ethics policy requires members to “conduct business according to a set of professional standards which include representing all facts, conditions and requirements relating to tours and vacation packages truthfully and accurately.” USTOA’s ethics rules describe “truth in advertising” as quoting prices “which are totally deliverable” — including accurately identifying facilities, accommodations and services.

But truth can be relative. There’s no government requirement that advertised tour prices contain all mandatory fees, says Rodney Gould, an expert on tour-operator law at the Lincoln, Mass., law firm Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo.

“They can break the price down into individual components,” he says. “A lot of alumni organizations and nonprofits advertise tours that don’t include airfare.”

While listing a price without the mandatory fees can make the tour look cheaper than it is, Gould says the organizations running the tours are not overly concerned about their rates looking high. “Alumni associations have reasonably expensive tastes — they’re older, pretty well established and they pay a lot for their trips,” he says. Rather, Gould says he believes that they do it that way because they’re allowed to, and because their competitors do, although he conceded that not listing a price at all was “unusual.”

Since there are no broadly enforced standards in tour pricing, buyers must beware, experts say.

Andy Ridgway, a marketing manager for Palo Alto, Calif-based tour operator Criterion Travel, says even reputable tour operators try to lure their customers with what is often referred to as “from” pricing. “Many operators designate just a couple of cabins for an eye-catchingly low lead-in price, and those probably get snapped up early, leaving only the higher-priced categories available,” he says. The more deceptive ones add fine print with fees, taxes and clauses that prices are “subject to change.”

Ridgway recommends waiting until you have a full price for the tour before agreeing to a purchase, as opposed to making a decision about a tour or cruise based on a brochure price. That’s not what you want and it’s not what any reputable tour operator would want, either.

“None of us are interested in a bait-and-switch, even if it means better revenue for a single program,” he says. “By far, our best prospects are an organization’s past travelers.”

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