Travelers need to know tour operators' jargon

Vacation may rest on reading between lines of brochures

Strategies

August 25, 2002|By Jane Engle | By Jane Engle,Special to the Sun

As a member of an escorted tour, you don't even have to know the Matterhorn isn't a tuba," the late Temple Fielding, father of the Fielding guides, once wrote.

That still may be true, but today's traveler can ill afford to be ignorant. I'm referring, of course, to deciphering a tour brochure. Knowing what's offered -- and what's not -- can mean the difference between taking a grand European tour or a disappointing one.

A good travel agent should be adept at decoding the lingo. But if you are booking on the Web or directly with a tour operator, you may need help. The Internet is a good starting point, especially sites of the United States Tour Operators Association, www. ustoa.com (click on "About Tours & Packages"), and companies such as industry giant Trafalgar Tours, www.trafalgartours.com. (Click on "Helpful Hints.")

The final word, however, should come from the tour operator. Don't be shy about asking exactly what you'll get before you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in a trip. You may be surprised.

Do you think "view" and "see" mean about the same thing? So did I, and so does my dictionary. But Trafalgar's Web site says that "see" means "the tour bus will drive by the site so that you can see it," and "view" means "a photo opportunity or brief stop."

For a more thorough encounter with an attraction, you need to "visit" it, according to the company's glossary: "This means the tour bus will stop and the groups will visit a specific site."

Trafalgar doesn't seem to use these definitions consistently. In its description of its 10-day "Real Britain" tour on the Web, I zeroed in on this sentence: "Today we travel south to Coventry, home of Lady Godiva, where we see its two cathedrals, side by side." I assumed the group would pass by the cathedrals. But no, we would actually go inside, a Trafalgar representative said.

Hence this caveat: Call the tour operator. With that in mind, here are some general definitions, gleaned from industry experts:

* "Tour" vs. "package": Both combine two or more trip components, such as lodging and transportation. But a tour is a trip taken by a group that travels together and follows an itinerary, usually accompanied by a tour manager or escort, the USTOA says.

If you want to be sure of having a tour manager, look for the term "escorted tour." A "package" is designed for people who travel independently and set their own schedules.

* "Land-only" vs. "all-inclusive" prices: Land-only prices include only land arrangements, such as hotels and sightseeing, not transportation to the tour's starting point.

"All-inclusive" usually means the price covers land arrangements plus round-trip airfare or other transportation. For tours to foreign destinations, there may be "add-on" fares between various domestic cities and the tour's U.S. departure point.

Regardless of the terminology, be sure to ask what's included in the price: All meals? Tips? Taxes? (Some resorts use "all- inclusive" to mean their prices cover more than lodging -- usually food and entertainment too. What's actually covered varies widely.)

* "Double occupancy" vs. "single supplement": Most tours are priced per person, double occupancy, which assumes there are two people traveling together and staying in the same room. If you're traveling alone, you may be charged a single-room supplement that can add hundreds of dollars. You may be able to avoid the charge by agreeing to room with another group member.

* Tour escort, director or manager: A professional who oversees details of the tour operation and accompanies the group. Tour participants are usually expected to tip the escort, but sometimes tips are included in the tour price.

* Guides: Separate from the tour escort, you may have a local guide, who points out places of interest and tours specific sites, or a driver-guide, who does the same thing but also drives the vehicle. Tour members are usually expected to tip guides.

* "Sightseeing" vs. "orientation tour": A sightseeing tour is accompanied by a local city guide; you may make stops. An orientation tour points out places of interest so passengers can later explore them on their own. From a Trafalgar description: "Embark on a half-day orientation tour of London. See famous monuments, including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament."

* "Time to explore and / or discover": This is free time to do as you please. The brochure may also say you'll be "at leisure."

* Transfers: Generally, transportation between the airport and your hotel when you arrive and depart.

* Continental breakfast: "Usually consists of bread, rolls, butter, jam and tea or coffee," the USTOA says.

As veteran travelers know, such a meal may actually range from stale mini-pastries and instant coffee to a spread of fresh-baked breads, cereal, milk, fresh fruit and juice. "Buffet breakfast" usually indicates a wider choice. It's worthwhile to ask.

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