Great deals in tour packages require buyer vigilance
By Alfred Borcover
Though some people wince at the thought of taking a tour vacation, others like the idea of a no-worry trip on which all you have to do is show up because almost everything is provided. What may be a game-changer for the naysayers during these difficult times are tour savings of 10 percent to 35 percent over a year ago.
A 10-day land-cruise package in Greece, priced last year at $1,500 a person, based on double occupancy, now sells for $995, according to the U.S. Tour Operators Association. A seven-day, six-night tour to Budapest and Prague that cost $1,355 a person last year now is priced at $1,199. Through Oct. 22, a package to Rome and Venice that was $1,229 a person last year now is $1,099.
"Buying pre-planned arrangements can save an average of 20 percent over planning it yourself. This on top of 2009's dollar savings," said Bob Whitley, president of the association, a New York-based trade group.
At Apple Vacations, a seven-night package to Mexico's Riviera Playa from O'Hare last year was $999 a person, double occupancy. Now it's $699, a 30 percent savings.
A package to the Dominican Republic's Punta Cana from O'Hare, $1,049 last year, now costs $639, a nearly 40 percent savings.
The point is, if you're aching to get away and have money to spend, package deals can be the way to go. Tours are a good value because operators negotiate prices for bulk air, hotel and other components a year in advance, Whitley explained.
It's simple economics: The more rooms you fill, the better the discounts offered by suppliers. Because of the sluggish economy, tour operators also are offering major discounts to regain business, Whitley said. "I've never seen anything like this before."
Vacation packages can be customized to your specific wants for travel on your own. Vacation packages come any way you want and include at least two travel services: accommodations and air plus a rental car if you wish.
Consumers make two mistakes when they buy a package, Whitley said. One is distance of the hotel from the desired activities. "They really need to look at hotels," he explained. "If people want to shop in London and their hotel is near Heathrow Airport, well, that's a problem."
The second mistake, Whitley said, is comparing prices. "People see one package that's $600 cheaper than another, and on the surface the tours look alike—London, Paris, Rome.
"What people should do is look at what is not included in the package. That's just as important or more important, in my opinion, than what is included."
In many cases, Whitley said, the cheaper tour will cost more in the end because the cheaper one won't include meals or admission tickets to attractions. Those out-of pocket costs add up quickly.
Nevertheless, you have to pepper the travel agent or tour company representative with questions:
Where is the hotel? In town? On the outskirts? What's the neighborhood like?
What out-of-pocket expenses will I have?
What is included in the package—all meals, what kind of meals, museum admissions?
How much leisure time does the tour offer?
Are taxes and other service charges folded into the package price, or are they added at the end of your vacation as an unwelcome surprise?
"Consumers are buying price, no question about it," Whitley said. "They are looking to see where they can get the best value for the money. They book two weeks out when they used to book two months out. That's the trend now." But, he warned, "when people do that, they're taking a gamble on airfare. The closer in you book, chances are you'll pay more for air if it's not included."