How to book a tour

The ultimate guide to booking a tour

Booking a tour is supposed to make your trip easier. It would have definitely helped Howard Leight avoid the panicked moment when he thought he would miss his flight from London to Philadelphia.

Leight had purchased a post-cruise transfer between Southampton and Heathrow Airport through Viator. But when his ship pulled into port, no one was there to meet him.

“The driver never showed up,” he remembers. After frantic efforts to contact Viator and track down his ride, Leight finally hired a more expensive cab to get him to the airport on time.

Viator charged him $182, anyway.

Had Leight booked a professional tour, he wouldn’t have had to worry about his airport transfers. Or his shore excursions. Or his hotel stay. A tour operator would have also wrapped everything into a tidy tour package — and he might have even saved money.

What is a tour?

A tour operator assembles various trip components into a single package. It comes in two varieties:

  • An independent tour, which usually consists of transportation, lodging, and sometimes meals and activities, and which you can assemble on your own to fit your itinerary;
  • An organized tour follows an itinerary set by a tour company and is led by an experienced guide. It typically includes transportation, lodging, activities and some meals. Both of these options have advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s review your options.

When to choose an independent tour

  • You value flexibility and don’t want to be limited to a seven- or ten-day “experience.”
  • You like to explore new places and would prefer to determine where you eat and what you do on vacation.
  • You like to keep tabs on how much each component of your vacation costs and who is directly responsible for it.

When to choose an organized tour

  • You would like to have everything planned for you, from where you stay to what you see and how you get there. An escorted tour includes at least some meals. (A few new tours also have more “flex” time built into them, so they aren’t as rigid as a traditional escorted package.)
  • You don’t like exploring a place alone and enjoy meeting like-minded travelers.
  • You’re concerned about dealing with another country’s language and customs.

What’s so great about a tour?

The appeal of a 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 (see “the economics of a tour explained” for details).

It’s organized by a pro. Knowing that an industry professional planned your vacation is reassuring, especially when you’re traveling overseas.

You pay upfront

You’ll know exactly how much your vacation will cost, aside from tips and incidentals. Note: There’s a downside to this, too. More on this later.

You get better access

It’s true, tour groups almost never have to wait in any lines for the museums and the choice attractions. Also, they sometimes offer access to unique activities and are often given VIP treatment on the ground.

Where can I book a tour?

You can buy a package tour through a brick-and-mortar or online travel agency, or directly from a tour operator.

The tours you’ll find all work the same — they’re a vacation in a neat package that eliminates some of the hassles of planning, and they can save you money. But there are significant differences among the various tour providers.

Online travel agencies may offer deeper discounts, but their terms tend to be more restrictive than those of a legacy 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.

The economics of a tour explained

A tour is almost always less expensive than buying all the components individually, as I 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

Package

Cost to tour operator:

Airfare – $229
Car rental – $99
Show tickets – $89

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 we’ll give you 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 buying 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.

What’s a dynamic package?

Online travel agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity offer dynamic packages that can quickly add components like a hotel room or rental car to your flight booking.

When you’re buying an airline ticket, check the bottom of your screen for “add a hotel” or “add a rental car.” That’s a dynamic offer, and you could easily save 20 to 30 percent off your overall trip cost.

What are the risks of buying a package?

Booking a package may save you money, but it isn’t without risks.

Bankruptcy

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 goes out of business, you lose everything; even if you bought their insurance. Some tour operators self-insure, which means your coverage is essentially worthless if they go belly-up. 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, a package or guided tour can be an absolute pleasure, but when one part doesn’t live up to your expectations, it can be a real headache. Why? Remember that you don’t know how much that one component costs. 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 deserve more of a refund. Your operator’s terms and conditions address your right to a refund. 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 points are important, I recommend you book a package without air, and buy your flights yourself. This is especially important when you’re flying long distances, and the miles flown are enough to bump you to the next elite level, or if you want to use points to pay for your airfare.

An airfare warning for tour packages

Your tour operator might include airfare in the cost of your package — or not. 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, 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. Remember, also, that if you book airfare yourself, you’re on your own if there’s a delayed flight. So there’s a tradeoff.

Do I need insurance for my tour?

The answer is almost always “yes.” A tour is so complex that a lot of things can go wrong, from trip interruptions to unexpected illnesses to accidents. See my guide to travel insurance for more on buying the right policy.

Note: Many tour operators will try to sell you tour “protection.” Technically, this is not insurance, but an agreement to offer more lenient cancellation terms or a tour credit if you have to cancel. Since it isn’t insured by an outside underwriter, you are not protected if the tour operator files for bankruptcy. I would avoid this and buy a real insurance policy.

Is there a “Good Housekeeping” seal for tour operators?

Kind of. The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) 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’s standards 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 have been in operation for at least three years, it can mean a smaller or newer 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 symbol is bad news.

What’s a tour participation agreement?

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, including the price.

Mind the fees

Tour operators disclose their fees, some of them routine — and 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.

Beware of “single” supplements?

Tour operators usually base their prices 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 companies offer reduced or waived supplements, while others offer “share” programs that team up like-minded travelers.

Passport problems? Not our problem

If you lose your passport or it expires, and you’re unable to travel, your tour operator isn’t liable and won’t issue a refund. So, make sure your paperwork is in order if you’re traveling internationally. I’ve had numerous problems with travelers missing their tour because of a paperwork problem.

We can cancel, but you can’t

One of the most irritating 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. But if you decide not to go on the tour, you are still governed by the operator’s 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 gotchas

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!

When should you not book a package?

Since most components of your vacation are bundled in package tours, 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.

Here are the most common tour problems

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, many attractions and restaurants aren’t even close to ADA-compliant. Some 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, 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 companies 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 immediately — don’t wait until you get home. Here’s my guide on resolving a consumer complaint. Again, a knowledgeable agent or a recommendation from a trusted friend can help you avoid such tours.

Canceled tour? Don’t expect a full refund

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 if 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 period of civil unrest. She’d paid $6,032 for the tour, but when the company 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, an operator has already incurred expenses for advance reservations and arrangements and may be liable for paying hotel and other services contracted on your behalf. Besides, a company doesn’t want to refund your money (it’s in the operator’s DNA) but would rather welcome you on another tour. Even when you deserve to get all of your money back.

How to resolve a tour dispute

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 address the cancellation and any refunds.

Beware of tour operator math

As I already mentioned, a leading problem travelers encounter with any tour is having part of their tour canceled and then asking for a refund. The agency or 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 operator and the supplier. You may be entitled to more, and you may get more.

Avoid “laundry list” complaints

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 pick-up, 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 operators that don’t maintain high standards 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 advice for resolving a complaint about an escorted tour is to hammer on this one issue — overall quality — particularly if you’ve got a compelling list of complaints.

Take it to the top

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.

Your best course of action is to take your complaint to the executive level. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of the major tour operators on this site. A brief, polite email to an executive may lead to a quick resolution.

Bottom line: Whether you’re buying an Independent package or taking an escorted tour, the package can be a terrific way to save money. But it can also go sideways if you don’t do your research. Review your contract carefully and buy a tour from a trusted source.

Will Viator see the light?

So what of Leight’s missing refund? His case was simple — he’d paid Viator for a transfer but never got one. It couldn’t keep his money. But his case was also instructive. If Leight had booked a professional tour, he could have called his operator, which would have helped him get to the airport on time.

I contacted Viator on Leight’s behalf, but it was still stubbornly holding on to his money after a month. I asked again, and this time it got back to me right away. Leight also reached out to a Viator contact from this site. The next day, he received an email from Viator: “A full refund of $182 has been processed to the original form of payment.”

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