Many travellers still want to travel as part of a group and it has lots of advantages – can save you money, all travel arrangements are taken care of, and you travel with a group of like-minded travellers. But taking a few simple precautions and checking a few things before you book, will ensure that you do enjoy a happy holiday.
1. Costing and Tour Group Size. Travelling as part of a group can offer substantial savings, but be aware that tour operators with multiple itineraries and departures always cost each tour on a minimum number of passengers. At that point, the tour breaks even for them. If a 50 seater coach is being used, then that number would normally be around 25. Under that number and the tour has a fair chance of being cancelled.
Small group tours who may advertise groups with maximum 15 or 20 passengers, may be costed on as few as 5 to 10 passengers, and are therefore generally more expensive. But then they may have a lesser chance of being cancelled.
2. Time of Travel. Tours early or late in the tourist season are always cheaper because hotel prices are less, and even the guides charge less. Similarly, tours during the wet/monsoon/typhoon season may be cheaper. If looking for a less expensive tour, always consider one just before or just after the high season. Prices will be lower and the weather should still be good. Tours in the middle of the winter/low season may be very cheap, but be aware that days may be short and many attractions may be closed.
3. Timing of the Itinerary. Take a very good look at the itinerary and see what is being covered each day. Most of us want more leisurely itineraries, but I still see many “shockers” out there – early starts, long days, rushed through top attractions with no time to enjoy, and evening arrivals at hotels. And don’t be fooled by a big name – I still see this from many so called “top” companies who should know better. Ignore the name of the operator – read the itinerary very carefully.
On a coach or rail tour, one night stays, sometimes unavoidable, should be the exception rather than the rule, and never back to back. And be aware that a two-night stay still only means one FULL day at that location. If you are not happy with the timing of an itinerary, keep looking.
4. Cancelled Tour Departures: At about 6 months before a departure the operator will look at the bookings so far, and may cancel the tour if it is struggling with numbers. Depending on the operator it may be sooner or later than this. They then often offer alternative dates either side of the cancelled tour where they have better numbers. This is when you discover that you needed a flexible airfare! Historically, tours at the beginning or end of the season are first to be cancelled. Some tour operators will guarantee a limited number of tours, so always ask about the cancellation policy before booking.
5. How tour operators cut tour costs: The obvious ways are using cheaper out of town hotels, fewer inclusions like meals and entrances, and sometimes using only local guides with no accompanying tour manager. Tourist class hotels at airports on a Sunday night are often dirt cheap, as are hotels in isolated spots way out in the country.
Currently, I see very cheap China packages where they are using OK 4-star hotels but at least 1 hour from the centre of Beijing – the operator is buying them very very cheaply. And even with 4-star hotels which are well located, the tour company may have contracted the worst, smallest rooms. Also, the meals that have been contracted may be very basic and meagre. And if there are lots of free days, then the accompanying tour guide/escort will be seriously pushing extra tours at additional cost. You really do get what you pay for with tours, so read the brochure very very carefully – and again!
6. Language of the tour brochure: The language is very specific, and “see” or “view” means just that – you see it as you pass by from the outside. “Visit” means you actually go inside – but for how long? Look carefully at the list of “Inclusions” to ensure that you are visiting all the places that you want to visit. Never assume that because a tour goes through a particular place that you will get to even “see” the major attraction. I know of one very well known company which takes you right past the famous Roman aqueduct in southern France, but doesn’t even stop for 10 mins for some photos! Never, never assume – read to see what is included in the itinerary.
7.“Padding” is one of my major pet hates at present, and the full page advertisements in the travel supplements in the Sunday papers are full of it . There you’ll see cheap tours with minimal visits to attractions with entrance fees, but lots and lots of padding to make it look like you are getting large numbers of valuable inclusions. In most cases, the featured “highlights” are something that you “see” as a part of a regular city tour, or something that you again “see” as you pass by in your coach. So we get things like in the USA, “see the Majestic Rocky Mountains”, in Germany “drive the Romantic Road”, or in Venice “see the Grand Canal”. They are all worthwhile seeing, but they come at nil cost to the operator, so keep that in mind when looking at the tour cost. I will say more at a later date.
8. Accommodation. This should not be difficult to assess if the exact property is named, but you could investigate what type of room you are getting. It may be the lead in and not necessarily the picture that is shown! Upgrade to perhaps a beachfront room may be available at extra cost. Ask about what type of rooms you can expect on the tour.
If the accommodation is not specifically named but something like “first class accommodation”, I would not be booking that package. The tour operator is probably keeping their options open to “screw” the best price out of a desperate hotel at the last minute. And if they know what accommodation is booked for the group (and they should) then why not put it into print?
A new term that has crept into advertisements is “highly regarded accommodation”. So what does that mean? Frequently I know the hotels being used, and believe me, they are only highly regarded by the tour operator! They may OK 3-star hotels – but highly regarded? NO.
I say much more about this whole accommodation topic in my book The Happy Holiday Travel Planner.
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