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October 2006
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Q&A: Booking a Tour
By Husna Haq 


Travelers often choose tour operators to help navigate unfamiliar lands. But what about navigating the hundreds of tour listings on the Web? The search for the right operator can be daunting. Family-friendly or adventure? All-inclusive or book airfare separately? Luxury accommodations or small inns? We've interviewed the experts to bring you tips on how to pick the right operator for you. After all, the faster you can narrow your choices, the sooner you'll be plying the waters of Palawan or trekking the jungles of Honduras.


What do I look for in a good tour operator?

Client references (check out epinions.com or tripadvisor.com for user feedback), number of years of experience, and membership in a professional association such as the National Tour Association or United States Tour Operators Association reveal a lot about an operator's quality. "Good tour operators share as many trip details as possible beforehand to help travelers prepare," says National Geographic Traveler senior editor Norie Quintos, who recommends asking questions about tipping policies and departure taxes to avoid surprise charges like the ones she encountered on a recent trip to Costa Rica. 


Is there a ratings system or overseeing body for tour operators?
Not yet, which is why it's key to investigate ahead of time. Ask lots of questions and look for membership in professional associations and general liability insurance coverage—both marks of a good tour operator, according to Judith Thomas, chair and CEO of the National Tour Association. 


Any tips for budget-conscious travelers?
"Go for stuff that's slightly less in demand," says Allen Kay, a Travel Industry Association spokesman. The key variables in travel are destination and time of year. If you can be flexible with either, you can save money. "I've had a great time on beaches in the winter," says Kay. "If you're visiting the Caribbean, go during the very beginning or end of hurricane season, when operators need to get rid of unsold product." Or follow Quintos's lead, and look into several similar destinations. Instead of a pricier Galápagos visit, the Quintos clan explored Costa Rica, where they got their share of ecotours and wildlife at a lower cost. 


Will I have time for solo rambles if I go with a group?
"Definitely ask upfront how much solo time is built in," advises Traveler contributing editor Margaret Loftus. "If it's not enough for you, delay your departure to explore on your own." Never be afraid to ask tour operators what they can do for you. "They can build flexibility, options, and free time into any tour," adds Thomas. Just ask. 


Can I bring my kids? Pets? Parents?
For the most comfortable experience, look for tours specifically geared to your lifestyle. Loftus recommends Butterfield & Robinson and Asia Transpacific Journeys for kid-friendly trips, and Elderhostel and Overseas Adventure Travel for seniors. Familyhostel and Grandtravel cater to grandparent-grandchild travelers. Most tours cannot accommodate pets, so it's best to ask beforehand. 


Why go with a group if I can go it alone?
Because many times you can't. In the late 90s Quintos took a whirlwind two-week tour of Iran, a place she couldn't have visited alone. "It was eye-opening and amazing, but it's a place where I was glad to be part of a group," she says. Tour operators offer access, security, and expert guides in foreign and politically unstable lands, like Iran. They offer convenience for busy travelers who want to pack their trip with activities with minimum scheduling and booking hassles. And surprisingly, group tours are often a better value. "Tour operators have special relationships with distributors, buy wholesale, and buy earlier in the season—all of which saves you money," says Kay. 


What's included in most tours?
Although most tours include some meals, accommodations, attractions, and transportation, it's important to check with each individual tour operator. Some include international airfare, some don't. Ask about everything from airfare to drinks. 


How is a tour operator different from a travel agent?
"A tour operator is a business that sells multiple components (air, hotel, car, tour, etc.) as one package," says Ayanna Canty, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents. "A travel agent is a retailer that sells individual products (only air, only hotel), as well as packages directly to consumers." Also, travel agents usually book from a number of chains and carriers, while tour operators sell their own packages. Both are in the business of knowing travel, and their respective destinations well, so make use of their knowledge. 


My friend took a group tour and ended up playing bingo and going on short, "low-impact" strolls instead of the high-octane excursions she likes. How can I avoid that?
Know what kind of traveler you are and find a tour operator with the same mindset. Don't be afraid to ask about the age range, activity level, and tour type (nature, adventure, culture, luxury, etc.). If you're set on trekking through central China, don't sign up for the cultural tour—take advantage of all the specialized tour operators out there.


Will I get a better deal if I book the airfare myself?
All the experts agree that you're generally better off booking through the tour operator. They often get better deals because they purchased them in bulk in advance. Additionally, if schedules change or plans go awry, they're more responsible for ensuring your passage. That said, it's still a good idea to comparison shop—research round-trip airfare to your destination and buy on your own if it's significantly cheaper.


Should I get insurance if I'm canoeing down the Congo or camping in Kazakhstan?
It's not a bad idea. First, evaluate your risk by considering where you're going, what your current health status is, and how personal circumstances may affect your trip. (Do work or family issues often lead to cancelled plans? Do you often misplace travel documents? Do you have a history of twisting your ankle on your annual trip to Aspen?)

Second, consider what insurance policies can cover. There are three main coverage areas: Trip cancellation/interruption/delay reimburses travelers for money lost due to a disruption of scheduled plans; baggage loss or personal effects insurance covers loss of personal property; and travel medical insurance may cover a variety of medical costs, including treatment and evacuation. (There are a number of other types, including ski, terrorism, cruise, and document-loss coverage, but the three outlined above will be the most helpful.)

Next, match your risk with the plan that best insures you, and visit InsureMyTrip.com where you can compare and purchase insurance from more than 100 plans from 16 companies.

Finally, read the fine print and be aware of terms of coverage, dates of coverage, and exclusions (most plans won't cover accidents occurring from bungee jumping, for example). 


My heart's set on Machu Picchu. Is there a chance the itinerary will change?
Rule #1—don't get your heart set on anything. Most itineraries do shift, depending on weather, politics, time, and other circumstances. Review your tour operator's standards and refund policies and stay in contact with them prior to the trip to keep abreast of changes. "It's always a good idea to be an informed traveler," says Kay. "Familiarize yourself with local politics and culture, and know what the risk level is in your destination." Bottom line: awareness and flexibility are key.


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