Want to book a tour? Read this first

The appeal of a packaged tour is obvious once you understand how it works. But since tours can be a little complicated the benefits aren’t necessarily self-evident. Why should you consider entrusting your entire vacation to a tour operator?

Well according to consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, also my better half, in his new book “How to be the World’s Smartest Traveler” here are some common reasons.

• It’s affordable. Tour operators buy their rooms, flights and activities in bulk and pass the savings along to you.

• It’s organized by a pro. Knowing that a vacation was planned by an industry professionals is reassuring, especially when you’re traveling overseas.

• You pay up front. You’ll know exactly how much your vacation will cost, minus tips and incidentals.

• Better access. It’s true, tour groups almost never have to wait in any lines for the museums and the choice attractions. Also, they get into places others can’t and are frequently given VIP treatment on the grounds.

But how do you know the packaged tour right for you?

That’s a tough question, especially since there are many different ways you can plan a tour. It will really come down to how much you’re willing to spend, your ability to organize and your need for independence.

Many people choose a tour exclusively because it is less expensive than buying all of the components individually and often the economics of a package can be the final decision maker. Just remember, you shouldn’t choose a tour based solely on price, because if you’re not doing things you enjoy in a place you want to visit you might as well save your money and stay home.

In general a packaged tour comes in three varieties: independent packages, escorted packages and dynamic packages.

Independent. An independent tour normally consists of transportation, lodging, and sometimes meals and activities which you can assemble on your own to fit your itinerary.

An independent package tour might be for you if:

• You value flexibility and don’t want to be limited to a seven- or ten-day “experience.”

• You like to explore new places and would prefer to determine where you eat and what you do on vacation.

• You like to keep tabs on how much each component of your vacation costs and who is directly responsible for it.

Escorted. An escorted package tour has some or all of the components of an independent tour, but follows an itinerary set by a tour company and is led by an experienced guide.

Consider an escorted package tour if:

You would like to have everything planned for you, from where your stay, what you see, how you get there. Some meals are included in an escorted tour. (A few of the new tours also have more “flex” time built into them, so they aren’t as rigid as a traditional escorted package.)

• You’re don’t really like exploring a place on your own, and enjoy being around other people.

• You’re concerned about dealing with another language and customs.

Dynamic. Online travel agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity offer so-called “dynamic” packages that assemble a tailor-made package vacation in seconds. These can sometimes also be purchased as an afterthought. Check the bottom of your screen when you’re buying an airline ticket for “add a hotel.” That’s a dynamic offer, and you could easily save 20 to 30 percent off the cost of your overall trip.

Consider a dynamic package if:

• You’re already familiar with the area and would like to explore places on your own.

• You’re going to need accommodations and car rental when you get there.

• The activities you prefer can be enjoyed independently or you are meeting up with your own group of friends.

One last bit of advice, if you’re thinking that a package is right for you cast a wide net when researching and shopping for your tour. You can buy a packaged tour through your travel agency or online travel agency, or through a tour operator directly. The tours you’ll find all basically work the same — they’re a vacation in a tidy package that eliminates some of the hassle of planning and can save you money. But there are important differences. Online travel agencies may have deeper discounts, but their terms tend to be more restrictive than those found through a travel agent. When you book a tour directly, you may also get a price break, but you don’t have an agent who can advocate for you if something goes wrong with your vacation.

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