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Whether you are interested in touring the Mediterranean on a luxury cruise or buying a rail pass to see American vistas, there is a tour for you. But before you buy, make sure to consider every angle of the tour package you are considering, or you might land yourself highly disappointed and in financial debt. These suggestions should help you in your quest to find the perfect tour vacation for you and your family.

What does the typical vacation package price include?

Packages vary greatly. Sometimes a package will not include airfare, meals or accommodations. Other factors can increase the price, such as optional excursions, service charges and/or taxes, weekend air surcharges and high-season supplements. If you are traveling alone, there is often a supplement fee for single accommodations. Carefully check the price of your package, as well as the fine print, to be sure you know what is included.

Is airfare always part of the cost of a tour?

Sometimes a package does not include airfare. Make sure you check the fine print on your travel brochure so that you do not have to pay for unwanted fees for air travel from the departure location. If you will be responsible for your airfare to a departure destination, make sure you are free to fly the airline of your choice so you can research according to your preferences. If airfare is included, the price should cover fares to and from your home city. If not, you could be charged an additional fee.

What should I look for in terms of lodging in tour documents?

Before booking a tour, you should make sure you pay close attention to the descriptions and ratings of the hotels featured. Keep in mind that hotel ratings in other countries may not always reflect American standards and that every country has its own hotel rating system. In other words, a "deluxe" hotel in one country could differ in size, amenities and degree of luxury from a similarly rated hotel in another country. Also be aware of the location of your hotel. Hotels situated just outside the center of a city should not be inconvenient if you will be sightseeing by tour bus or if you have a rental car. However, if you do not have a lot of free time in a city you visit, you may prefer hotels that are centrally located.

What should I look for regarding meal plans when buying a tour?

Make sure to read your travel brochure carefully to determine how many meals and what kind of menu is included each day. Will you have a choice of the menu or will you be limited to a smaller group of selections? If you have any food allergies, you should let the travel agent be aware of these. Be sure that you understand your meal plan fully before embarking.

TIP: Compare the cost of your tour with the services you would pay for if you planned the trip independently. Unless you are paying for expert guidance, enjoy traveling in a group or will receive unique premium services, you might want to avoid the tour.

Why am I being charged extra if I travel alone on a tour?

Because space on a tour or cruise ship is at a premium, some operators charge a fee to host a person traveling alone. You may be able to avoid this charge by being open to traveling with a roommate. If not, find out the cost of the "single supplement"? If you decide to share a room, also find out what, if anything, you can do if you are assigned a roommate with whom you do not get along.

How can I be sure the tour is legitimate?

Even with an established, reputable tour, circumstances can change and there is no guarantee that you might not be disappointed with some aspect of your tour. There are several inquiries you can make to help you establish confidence in the tour operator:

  • Can you get the names, addresses and phone numbers of all the suppliers-such as the airline, ship operator, hotel or bus operator? Once you have this information, check out the reputation of the providers. If you cannot get their names from the tour operator, be wary of buying the tour.
  • Can you get a copy of the contract with the tour operator before you buy?
  • What is the reputation of the tour operator? How long has it been in business, and are there any complaints on file with the local Better Business Bureau or Tourist Commission?
  • Does the tour operator participate in a consumer protection program that will compensate you if the tour is canceled or the tour operator goes out of business? If so, what are the limitations of the program, and how much compensation can you expect to receive if the tour operator has problems?
  • What is the tour operator's legal relationship to the other suppliers? Are they subsidiaries (owned by the supplier) or independent subcontractors (in business for themselves)? The difference may determine who is liable if you have a problem.
  • Does the tour operator disclaim any responsibility for the negligence of the suppliers, such as hotels and travel guides? If so, how will you be compensated for any loss or damage you suffer on a tour?

What can I expect from my tour itinerary?

Your itinerary is a guide to what you should expect from your tour. You should make sure you understand which cities and sites you will actually be touring rather than viewing, (i.e., will you be stopping and exploring the vicinity, or simply driving through town?). When comparing tour itineraries, you will also need to consider how much time you want to spend traveling by bus, rail or other transportation during the tour, if there a great deal of walking involved, and if there seems to be enough (or too much) free time for shopping or exploring on your own. There are many tours, so you should not have to make a lot of compromises. Do not be talked into paying for a tour you will not enjoy.

What information should I look for in the fine print of a travel brochure?

At the end of most brochures, is information that deserves a lot more attention than it usually receives. Look for:

  • details about reservations, cancellations and refunds;
  • availability of insurance; and
  • modification penalties.

The "conditions" page may also specify the local travel companies, who usually provide sightseeing tours and other services arranged by the tour operator. Other important items usually covered by the conditions page include:

  • meals;
  • accommodations;
  • air transportation;
  • sightseeing;
  • baggage allowance;
  • health information; and
  • items not included in the price.

Take time to fully understand both the bold and fine print before committing to any travel tour package.

What are the procedures for protecting myself from various types of travel calamities such as injury and theft?

If you need to cancel your trip, travel insurance may help reimburse you for the incurred expenses. Many travelers, however, are tricked into purchasing insurance that they do not need, because standard homeowner's or health insurance policies may already cover such losses.

The following is a list of the different types of travel insurance:

  • Trip Cancellation Insurance

This type of insurance covers you for the period of time before your trip. It reimburses you for prepaid, non-refundable expenses. These can include airline tickets or hotel rooms that you will not be using. Trip cancellation insurance applies if the cancellation is due to an unforeseen accident, illness or other event affecting you, a family member or traveling companion.

Carefully read your information. Many terms are open to interpretation such as "unforeseen," or "other specified event." Pregnancy and injuries sustained during high-risk activities such as skydiving are also usually excluded. A terrorist-related incident at your destination may be specifically excluded from coverage.

  • Trip Interruption Insurance

This type of insurance covers you during your trip. If you have an injury or illness that sends you back home, trip interruption coverage will reimburse your related expenses. Most commonly, trip interruption coverage is used to cover expenses for returning home early. Some policies also reimburse you for unused, prepaid expenses.

If you are delayed and want to embark on your trip anyway, this coverage may pay for economy fare expenses. Additional lodging expenses may also be reimbursed if covered. Trip interruption policies may also cover medical evacuation costs to the nearest medical facility by helicopter, if necessary.

There may also be exclusions regarding pre-existing conditions, so be careful not to aggravate a chronic problem while away from home. Finally, some trip interruption policies cover expenses in the event that you die during your trip. If you like to prepare for every possible contingency, you might inquire about this coverage.

  • Other Types of Travel Insurance

Other travel insurance is usually unnecessary because your health, homeowner's or renter's insurance usually covers similar issues. Accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) insurance covers injuries that result in severe maiming or death.

Lost baggage coverage is usually unnecessary if you already have homeowner's or renter's insurance. Because those policies may have exclusions and limitations, talk to your insurance agent about your individual policy.

What can I do to protect myself from fraudulent travel offers and practices?

While some legitimate travel deals are sold over the phone or through the mail, Internet, or by fax, many are scams that defraud consumers out of millions of dollars each month. Skilled salespeople pitch travel packages that may sound legitimate, but often are not. Their tactics usually include:

  • Oral Misrepresentations-Often the deal is not what is described.
  • High Pressure Tactics-You may be asked for your credit card number to purchase their package immediately. Do not be tempted by "buy now" pressure.
  • Conflicting Follow-up Material-When it arrives, written confirmation may have little resemblance to the offer you accepted over the phone. The written materials often disclose additional terms, conditions and costs.
  • "Affordable" Offers-Fraudulent telemarketers sometimes pitch club memberships or vacation offers in a lower price range. The offers sound reasonable and are designed to appeal to the less savvy buyer with a budget.

Some helpful tips for avoiding tour travel fraud include:

  • Check out the tour company. Contact your state's Office of Attorney General, or the state where the company is located, to see if there are complaints against the travel provider.
  • Trust your instincts. It is less risky to turn down a suspect offer.
  • Ask detailed questions. Find out what is, and is not, included. Ask about additional charges. Get the names of the hotel, airports, airlines and restaurants in your package.
  • Ask about cancellation policies.
  • Find out the name of the travel provider. Who is receiving your reservation and issuing tickets?
  • Get all information in writing before you buy.
  • Pay with a credit card or you lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. The law gives you up to 60 days after your statement date to dispute charges, but do it promptly. Make sure written information is the same as you were told.
  • Do not buy a portion of the package. It might not be covered by applicable insurance coverage.
  • Do not supply your credit card number or bank account information over the phone unless you can vouch for the company.
  • Do not be pressured into buying!

If you find you are a victim of travel fraud, contact the FTC at 877.FTC.HELP (877.382.4357); TTY: 866.653.4261 or online. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into the Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad.