Before you sign up for any kind of tour, adventure tip, or packaged vacation, you need to ask some questions.

Payment

  • What is included in the price?
  • What doesn’t the quoted price cover? This is perhaps the single most important pricing question, since it helps you be sure be sure you’ve covered all your bases (even the ones you didn’t know needed covering). Ask how many expenses you’ll need to pay on the ground (aside, obviously, from souvenir shopping). Do you have to pay for some or all meals? What about drinks? Entrance fees to sights, parks, and attractions? Tips?
  • Do you have to put a deposit down? How much and by when?
  • By when do you pay the full amount?

Cancellations and refunds

  • What is the cancellation policy?
  • Can the company cancel the trip if they don’t sign up enough people? And how far does their reimbursement policy go? Do they refund the money, or credit it to a future trip? If airfare wasn’t included in the package price and you’ve already booked your own, will they pay the change fee on that?
  • Do you get a refund if you cancel? Often this is a sliding scale: perhaps you get a full refund if you cancel more than two months before departure, but within two months you forfeit the deposit, within one month you get 50% of the trip cost back, and so on.
  • How late can you cancel if you find yourself unable to go? We’re talking about canceling on a whim, or because of a personal conflict, not in case of emergency. That comes next:
  • Are there emergency circumstances under which you can cancel late—and how late? Sometimes extreme illness or a death in the family count—but awlays double check. (When I was working for the travel section of MSNBC.com, I once fielded a complaint from a traveler who tried to invoke her tour company’s cancellation policy covering a death “in the immediate family,” but the company refused since it was her brother who died and they, in their infinity inhumanity, did not consider that to be “immediate family.” For then record, we shamed them into refunding her money.)
  • What if the company cancels the trip? This should be a 100% refund, or a re-booking on a later, substitute trip of equal or greater value. If not, do not book with the company.

Schedule

  • How jam-packed is the schedule? This is less of a question to ask them and more one to ask yourself after obtaining a detailed daily itinerary from them. Scrutinize it and see if it looks overly ambitious. Do they try to fit 25 hours’ worth of activities into one day, or is there ample time for relaxing by the pool, exploring on your own, shopping, or whatever it is you like to do?
  • What is the daily breakdown like? If you don’t enjoy getting up at 7am every day and not returning to your hotel until 6 or 7pm at night, certain whirlwind escorted tours may not be for you.
  • What is Plan B? What are their rainy-day options for tours, activities, or events that may have to be changed on the fly due to weather, logistics, or anything else? What’s the backup? They obviously expect, and honestly need, some leeway in winging it should issues arise. No trip ever goes precisely as planned, and much of what happens is outside anyone’s control. However, do find out if they have a solid backup plan in place and assure yourself that they can handle whatever the road throws at them.

Group dynamics

  • How big is the group? The smaller the group, the more flexible the schedule, and the less time you’ll spend waiting for people to get on and off the bus. Also, the larger the group, the more some quaint little village will treat you like an invading barbarian horde to be fended off by throwing large amounts of overpriced souvenirs in your general direction. Tour operators may be evasive about group size until they know how many people have signed on, but they should be able to give you a rough estimate. Some tours have a minimum group size and may cancel the tour if they come up short. The best tours have a maximum group size—and a low one at that.

Inclusions and exclusions

  • What is included in the tour? Don’t assume anything. You may have to pay to get yourself to and from the airport (in tour lingo, this is called the “airport transfer”). Daily sightseeing might be included, or might be an “optional tour” (see below). A box lunch may be included in an excursion, but drinks might cost extra. Beer might be included but not wine.
  • How much free time will you get? This will probably end up being far more important to you than you might think. An hour or two in each destination just to get away form the group, decompress, do some shopping, or sit in a cafe relaxing can make all the difference.
  • Can you opt out of certain activities, or are you committed for a full day, every day?
  • Are all your meals planned in advance? Will you eat as a group or get free time to find your own bistro (in which case it will, obviously, not be included in the price).
  • Can you choose your entree at dinner, or does everybody get the same chicken cutlet?

Optionals

  • How much is “optional?” Many tours look cheap but are larded with the phrases “optional excursion” and “optional tour.” That’s brochure-speak for “you have to pay more if you want to do this.” The brochures will make it out like they’re giving you more choices so you can custom-tailor your trip. What they’re actually doing is milking you for more and more money.

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