On travel brochures, the small print makes a big difference

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By Christopher Elliott

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 according to the travel brochures.

But a closer look at its catalogue suggests that one or two items are left out of the price. Taxes are an additional $440 per person. “They 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 is technically unreservable. It’s always the small print that catch people off guard. Like this case about Prince of Whales.

Additional costs not hidden in the fine print

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 the pricing is not unusual. Yet complaints about “gotcha” rates for similar packages are few.

My advocacy team and 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.

The brochure does not even list a price

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 doesn’t list prices 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 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.

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates tours, has done nothing. 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.

You can file a complaint with the FTC

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

Separating taxes and fees price runs contrary to the industry’s best practices. The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) 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.”

But truth can be relative. There’s no government requirement that advertised tour prices contain all mandatory fees.

“They can break the price down into individual components,” says Rodney Gould, an expert on tour-operator law at the Lincoln, Mass., law firm Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo. “A lot of alumni organizations and nonprofits advertise tours that don’t include airfare.”

Listing a price without the mandatory fees can make the tour look cheaper than it is. But 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 can. And also, because their competitors do, although he conceded that not listing a price at all was “unusual.”

Tour operators have no universally accepted standards. Buyers have to beware, experts say.

“Prices are subject to change”

Andy Ridgway says even reputable operators lure their customers with artificially low prices. “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,” says Ridgway, a marketing manager for Palo Alto, Calif-based tour operator Criterion Travel. The more deceptive ones add fine print with fees, taxes and clauses that prices are “subject to change.” (Related: Viking cruise voucher problem: Don’t forget to read the fine print!)

Ridgway recommends waiting until you have a full price for the tour before agreeing to a purchase. It’s better than 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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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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