Shopping for tours: do you know what you’re getting?

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It’s December, and while most Northerners are turning their thoughts to Christmas, those of us who love to travel are thinking about something else: where we’re going for our winter holiday. Happily, there’s no shortage of places to go, or travel companies anxious to sell us a trip. But the way they sell these tours and trips can be deceptive.

In January, 2016, I took a long-awaited trip to the Galapagos Islands. After booking the air ticket, I went shopping for tours to take me around the islands: you can do it on your own by booking day trips, but I wanted the full experience.

There were quite a few companies offering multi-day tours, most of them starting in Quito. After looking around, I narrowed my search to the most likely tours. But when I took a closer look at them, I noticed something: it was hard to tell what you were getting, and very often you got less than it seemed.

I was attracted to G Adventures’ “Galapagos Land & Sea tour, Central & East”, advertised as “7 days Quito to Quito” for about $3,200 Canadian. All Flying boobywell and good, until I looked at the itinerary. It turned out that while the description was accurate, this wasn’t quite the whirlwind trip it suggested.

The first day is described like this: “Quito – arrive any time”. In other words, show up in Quito and check into the hotel. You can look around the town if you like. Day Two starts with a morning flight to San Cristóbal, in the Galapagos. These flights get in around noon, so you have a half-day program on the island.

Days Three, Four and Five are spent sailing around the islands and seeing the sights. That’s three-and-a-half days. On Day Six, you visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on your way to the airport for your mid-day flight back to Quito: a half-day at best. Day Seven, you’re back in Quito for your departure. Add it all up and you get a total of four days in the Galapagos, including the two half-days. Somewhat less than the seven days in the headline.

My travel agent suggested a similar-priced alternative from the reliable Goway company, called “Galapagos Land Lubbers” since it was based in a hotel rather than on a ship. But it was even worse: this “four-day tour” included a fly-in day and a fly-out day like the G Adventures tour, for a scant three days on the islands – that’s barely a taste.

I ended up booking Viator’s “6-day Galapagos Highlights” tour, for about $2,000 Cdn. This tour works differently from the others, since its itinerary doesn’t include the flights to and from the islands: these are arranged and paid for separately. Day One starts when I show up on San Cristóbal Island, around noon; Day Six is a trip to see a lava tunnel on the way to the airport. That comes to five days on the islands, including the two half-days. And since I schedule the air flights myself, I could arrive and leave as I please, so I stayed on for a couple of days after the tour to see a little more of the islands.

I was satisfied with the tour I booked, but I’m unimpressed with the way these tours are sold. Anyone booking them without reading the itinerary carefully — and counting the days on their fingers and toes — could be in for a disappointment when they see how quickly the tour is over. It’s always wise to read the fine print, of course, but if you’re the type of person who doesn’t bother, using a travel agent could be a good idea.

This kind of advertising isn’t unusual, either. I’ve been on a few cruises, and the schedule is always the same: you board the ship at mid-afternoon on the first day, and when the last day arrives, you’re headed down the gangway right after breakfast. That means for a seven-day cruise, you’re cruise ship deckgenerally getting six days of travel, plus an evening sail-away and a morning coffee. Since you’re physically on the ship on all the days, the cruise line can legitimately count them as part of the cruise, but you’re not really getting the full seven days.

I know, the cruise lines have to do this to keep the schedule moving. The cabin you vacate at 8 a.m. on the last day is going to be someone else’s by 3 in the afternoon, and the whole itinerary is going to start again. But we made the airlines include the taxes and fees in their pricing – why can’t we suggest that cruise lines and tour companies count their days a little more accurately?

What about packaged sun vacations? These can be a better deal. They routinely include the fly-in and fly-out days in their itineraries, and if you arrive in the evening, your first day consists of a welcome drink and a quick look around before bedtime. However, many tour companies arrange things so you get the full number of days you’re promised: if you arrive late on the first day, you usually get an evening flight when it’s time to leave. (There are other reason to choose these packages, for as I explain in this post.)

To sum it up, they say you get what you pay for, and that’s as true in the travel business as anywhere else. But as with any other big purchase, it really pays to find out exactly what you’re getting. My Galapagos trip didn’t go exactly as planned — read this post for the details. But at least I knew what I was buying, and in the end, that’s what I got.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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