- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Q I want to go on a tour and all the company brochures look great. How do I tell which company provides the best value and service?

A: Tour company brochures beckon travelers with glossy photos and enticing itineraries that often seem strikingly similar, but to understand the differences read the fine print and ask lots of questions, experts advise.

First off ask about the company’s cancellation policy. What happens to your money if the tour company goes out of business or there is a disaster at your destination?

Members of the United States Tour Operators Association, a trade group, are required to have a $1 million line of credit to refund customers should the company go out of business, said Bob Whitley, the group’s president. However, there are only 53 corporate members representing 139 brands in the organization, so your provider may not have that cushion.

He suggested paying for a tour with a credit card in case of problems because they offer various consumer protections.

Once you know the company’s policy, consider buying travel insurance that could reimburse for costs the tour operator won’t cover in the event of a cancellation, said Nancy Dunnan, editor and publisher of www.travelsmartnewsletter.com.

Check with a travel agent to learn more about tour operators. The explosion of Internet travel sites forced many travel agents out of business, but the remaining providers are very knowledgeable, Miss Dunnan noted.

“Travel agents hear the disaster stories. They know what doesn’t work,” she said.

But Miss Dunnan said you can also ask the company how long they have been in business as an indicator of their reputation.

Miss Dunnan also thinks a good tour company should guarantee the price of an international trip, no matter what the fluctuations of the dollar.

Mr. Whitley said it is important to know what exactly is included in the price. Are all meals paid for? What about admissions to various attractions?

Less-expensive tours may require travelers to purchase more meals or may charge extra for some excursions, making them pricer than they initially appear.

Ask where the hotels are located. One way some operators hold down costs is to book inexpensive hotels far from the best sites, Mr. Whitley noted.

“Sometimes to get the most saving you don’t have to buy the cheaper tour,” Mr. Whitley said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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