You can find a smattering of tour-operator reviews on sites such as tourmatters.com or travel forums, but otherwise, most reviews exist on the operators’ own websites.
Go beyond the price tag.
Budget tours may lure you in with a low sticker price, then charge for everything from day excursions to meals to airfare within your destination country. Check the itinerary for what is included. Visas, gratuities and other fees are commonly excluded from the sticker price. Ask if prices are fixed or could increase after you sign up–say, because of currency fluctuations. Before purchasing flights, check whether departure dates are guaranteed or contingent on a minimum number of guests. If a hotel name isn’t specified in the itinerary, it could mean it hasn’t been booked yet.
Don’t take the itinerary at face value.
Ask if you can eat at a restaurant not on the itinerary or visit a distillery while everyone else explores a museum, if that’s more to your taste. Jay Smith, president of Sports Travel and Tours, says that, when possible, his company will even let travelers leave the tour at a certain point and deduct the unused costs. Many tour companies offer bespoke or customized itineraries, or will convert a group tour to a private one. Mickey Huang, marketing manager of Alexander+Roberts, estimates that private tours cost about 30% more than the equivalent group version for his company. Tauck tries to accommodate families who want a departure that is exclusively for them or to leave on an unpublished date, essentially creating a private experience.
Hunt down a deal.
Some operators will slice a few hundred dollars off the tour price if you pay in full when booking. Others offer an early-bird discount. Still others will fill empty spaces with last-minute sales (though your savings may be diminished by paying for more-expensive airfare). Find tour operators you like, and join their mailing lists for first dibs on a sale. You can snag alluring deals on sites such as Groupon Getaways, LivingSocial Escapes and Travelzoo, but recognize that unless you’ve researched the company, “it may not be the tour for you, even if the price is for you,” says Christine Sarkis, senior editor of SmarterTravel.com. Beware, too, of slashed prices during a destination’s low season. Your elation at scoring a cheap trip to Thailand in July will dampen as soon as the first monsoon rains hit.
Consider using a travel agent.
To get an unbiased take on companies and find something that fits your budget and interests, work with a travel agent. The United States Tour Operators Association lists certified agents at ustoa.com/resources/travel-agent-directory. You can also find certified travel agents or consultants at travelsense.org/ agents or findatravelconsultant.com/main/ find-a-consultant, as well as through consortia or organizations such as Travel Leaders Group.
If beginning the research on your own, use the search tools on ustoa.com and ntaonline.com to find reputable tour operators (members of those two associations offer consumer protections). For a foreign-based operator, check out the tourism portal for your destination.