Counting Days - Tour Company Rip-Offs
I think by now I can call myself a seasoned traveller when it comes to using tour groups. For me, I love them! You get to meet an awesome group of friends, have the security of a group, and get down to the nitty-gritty of seeing a place while minimizing some of the headaches. But as much as I love these tours, one thing has always bugged me with regards to how they are marketed - specifically how they present the length of the tours.
Tour companies tend to sell you a tour based on number of days, but in almost every instance that I have seen, the number of days they market is misleading and deceives you into thinking the trip is longer than it is. The other way they can get you is by making you think you're going to see more than you're actually going to see. You ultimately think you're getting more for your money when in fact, you're not.
Take my latest trip to Peru. I booked the Machu Picchu Adventure with G Adventures. The trip is marketed as an 8 day trip for the price of $1,499. If you average it as many tour companies do in their marketing, that works out to about $188 USD / day. Good deal right? But what if I told you that the "tour" really isn't 8 days - would it still be worth it to you?
A few things to consider (and this applies to all of the tour companies that engage in this):
1. The Number of Days are Often Exaggerated
WHAT?! Yup. So in this example, the tour was really actually 6 days. And in this particular case, I would make the argument that it was even only 5. But HOW?! Let me explain. Tour companies will often count the day you arrive and the day you leave as part of the "days", even though in my particular case, the "tour" didn't actually kick off until 6pm on what counted as Day 1, and ended at 8am on what they counted as Day 8. What made my trip even sillier was the fact that on Day 1 all we did was meet as a group with the so-called Chief Experience Officer (aka tour guide but not really a tour guide), and then we were left to our own devices for the rest of the evening. There was no tour on Day 1. Adding insult to injury, the CEO met us at the airport to escort us back to our hotel on Day 7, after which we were all left by ourselves and that was the end of the G Adventures involvement with our trip. To date, no one can explain to me how there is a Day 8 that ends at 8am when there wasn't even a tour guide after Day 7.
Other companies are even worse. Take a look at some of the deals on Travel Zoo, but read the dates and count the days. Many tour companies even count the days that you're flying from your home country to the destination as part of the tour. I say - give me a break.
2. Check To See What Is Actually Included
Many people will see a great tour on Travel Zoo or wherever and assume that since it is a package deal, the tour includes a full itinerary each day with a tour guide and all meals taken care of. This is often not the case. If you look closely you may find that those eloquent descriptions of the daily itinerary either include optional excursions (which are an additional charge), or merely things you could do on your own because it's a free day for yourself.
3. Seasonal Price Changes
The time of year that you go on your tour can have a tremendous impact on the price of your trip. You will often notice a fantastic deal on one of the travel sites thinking it's too good to be true. What you will notice in some cases is that the reason the prices are extra cheap is because the price reflects the price if you travel during the low season, such as Shanghai in the winter, or Costa Rica during rainy season. A good deal can still make the trip worth it, but do keep in mind, some countries have fairly extreme weather.
When you do go to book your trip, you will often notice the trip price is actually much more for one of the better dates. Still, in my experience, these trips are often very heavily discounted so you can still get some amazing deals even if you do have to pay a few hundred extra to go when the weather is nicer.
4. What Exactly Are You Getting
It's easy for a tour company to point to the itinerary and say buyer beware. Take my latest G Adventure in the Peru example above. Technically, their itinerary does not in fact state that we actually do anything on their Day 1 or their Day 8. However, some companies are more organized and generous. With Contiki for example, their itineraries count a Day 1 as a meet and greet as well, however from my experience they have always gone far beyond that. Take my trip to Vietnam a few years ago. We all met, the tour guide gave us a very in-depth talk about Vietnam and what the trip was going to be like, we all introduced ourselves to one another, the guide took us for a night walk around the town, took us to an outdoor restaurant at a night market, and then finally the market. None of that was listed on the itinerary, but we were provided with this.
Another example that I recently encountered was a tour company on Travel Zoo selling tours to Egypt. The price seemed decent, and their photos of the pyramids was enough to convince me to go. When I called however, I found out that the tour didn't even go to one of the main sites (ie. it would have been like going to Beijing without seeing the Great Wall), and to see that site would have cost another $800. Not much of a deal!
5. Deposit Structure
Many tour companies promote flexible deposit structures, and some even promise money back guarantees if you cancel before a certain time. Everything sounds hunky dory until you actually try to cancel. Read the fine print!!
My latest example (we'll use G Adventures again) - I booked two trips - one to Central Asia, and the other to Jordan. Back to back trips. While I wasn't 100% on the dates yet since I was travelling with a friend who was sorting out his work schedule, the nice friendly web pages and the "lifetime deposit" guarantee made me feel comforted that there would be no issue with changing my trips.
It turned out we had to cancel Jordan but keep Central Asia. I thought no big deal, they could just take the $250 deposit for the Jordan tour and apply it to my Central Asia tour. WRONG. The fine print is that the "lifetime deposit" is only for new bookings, meaning that I can only use it to book a new trip. To me that sounds like BS since now they're just sitting on my $250, collecting interest on it, when they could just apply it to my other trip. I tried, but to no avail. My money is stuck with a company that, depending on how my trip goes in August, I may never travel with them again so my money may be lost.
It is up to you to do this homework before hand. Don't make the same mistakes I did!
6. Book Your Own Flights and Hotels In Some Cases
If you book a tour with companies like Intrepid, Contiki, G Adventures etc. you are responsible for getting your own plane ticket to the destination country as well as your hotel for the days before the tour starts (if you get there early). All companies offer to purchase the flight for you and to let you pay extra to stay at their contracted hotel if you require. In both cases, I would decline ever doing either of these things through the tour company.
Flights: there are so many options for finding cheap flights out there such as Sky Scanner, Kayak, and Expedia, it makes no sense to use a tour company's in-house agent to book your flight. From my experience, their flights are tremendously more expensive, despite their assertions that they get airline discounts. On a recent trip to Europe last year, I ended up paying about $1,000 USD from LAX to London, whereas when I asked Contiki, their agents said the flight would cost about$1,500 USD. In all of my years doing this, unless the tour already includes airfare, always buy it separately.
Hotels: same as above. Tour companies will tell you that if you arrive early, you can purchase extra days at the arranged hotel for a discount. In my experience, I have never once seen this to be a discount. Example, on a recent tour, the tour company told me that the Hotel Monte Real would only cost me $110 USD per night if I arrived early. Great deal, right? Wrong. It took me about 30 seconds on Expedia to see that I could book the identical hotel for only about $60 USD per night - almost HALF of what the tour company's discounted rate was. Do your homework, save some bucks.
Airport Transfer: same as above. For the few companies that don't pick you up at the airport, then you're going to have to find your way to your hotel on your own. Unless of course you opt for the airport transfer offered by your tour company! Once again though, I have found them to come at a significant premium, not to mention they won't even offer it to you unless you're staying at the same hotel from which the tour departs. Your best bet is to Google "airport shuttle" or "airport hotel transfer" and the city where you're arriving. You'll find some good deals, but make sure to check on TripAdvisor. Time and time again I've found that the airports in many countries are laden with scammers trying to lure tired and confused travelers to their pirated taxis. Booking your hotel transfer in advance is a very good investment.
So that's it. Do your due diligence and don't assume anything. While our world of travel is filled with a camaraderie and kindness not usuallly associated with other industries, at the end of the day, it is still a business where profits are trying to be made and there's nothing wrong with that at all. As a consumer though, so that you can figure out what is the best value for your money, look closely at what you're getting and don't assume because one tour company does something for you, that the other tour company will do the same.