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Here in the metro Phoenix area, the "Valley of the Sun", literally 100's of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage from colder regions of the U.S. & also Canada to bask in our relatively warmer climate.
Many come here to relax, and enjoy leisure activities, including traveling around the Southwest, and West Coast. In so doing, they partake of tours offered through their community, resort, or park. Sometimes they venture beyond the controlled offerings of these organizations to purchase tours directly from a tour company or travel agent.
While on its face, this appears quite innocuous; and it should be! Yet those engaged in providing tour opportunities may be ripping off the winter visitor. Here are 5 of the most common:
1. Misleading sales information.
There are tour providers in the Metro Phoenix area, that intentional or otherwise, have misleading information on the sales flyers and brochures. You purchase a tour for its destination, amenities, and value. These suppliers seem to play tricks to compel you to think you are getting something, when in fact its less than what you were led to believe.
For example. you purchase a tour and it says "4 food coupons. You think "I get 4 meals on this tour." Reality is, you may get one buffet, a free coffee and donuts (valid from 6:00am til they run out - around 7:30am) and two coupons for discounted meals.
Another example are indications that you will see "Ten National Parks" yet the truth is, you'll visit only 3, see two more out your window as you drive by, and the remainder are state park visits or drive-bys as well. There aren't even 10 national parks on the route of that trip! Oh, and its worth noting that you will do this all in 3 days. Its like a cruise company saying you will see 15 countries - but there are only 4 port stops on the cruise!
There is always the chance that a tour can get cancelled, and savvy travelers know it. Yet, a number of tour providers serving winter visitors to Phoenix, deliver a raw deal by requiring a high number of travelers for the trip to go, or its cancelled.
Most often this is 40 passengers per motorcoach. If only 30 people purchase, the tour is cancelled, and here is the real rip off - they keep the money! No refunds given, just a credit on a new tour, and you have to use it withing 12 months or you lose it!
3. Changed Itineraries
Some companies, in an effort to still send a tour they priced at 40 passengers, will send it with fewer passengers, but then intentionally drop items from the itinerary to save money.
Often this means not sending you on a motorcoach, but a two axle shuttle, or even a van. Of course, they aren't going to extend you the courtesy of letting you know about the changes. They just show up in the cheap vehicle, and then have a new itinerary (if they even bothered to send one prior.)
It also means that your hotel is not going to be the same, moving from a 3 star to a 1-2 star, and other promoted inclusives will be dropped, and the blame placed on a third party for cancelling, overbooking, closing, etc.
4. Guides & Directors
Almost always, a tour is promoted as having a tour guide, or tour director. Some companies have no real idea what it means to guide or direct a tour. You purchase a tour expecting a knowledgeable professional who can provide interpretation, and share information, and you really end up with someone who can barely act as a hostess.
Travelers have shared their horror stories of these companies and their "guides" who have pulled stunts such as not showing up for the tour, abandoning the passengers and flying home on the first day of a tour, sexually patronizing select passengers, screaming at hotel staff, and a myriad of other unprofessional activity.
Other companies claim their tours are guided, but its left to the driver to both guide and drive. While the drivers do the best job possible, its just not the same level of service that a dedicated guide would provide.
5. Handling Money
Tour companies depend on cash flow, more than other industries, often because their product is tied to long term deposits, and distant sales, and income now, means available funds to reserve cruise cabins for next year.
With the recent down-turn in the economy, cash flow for tour companies serving only winter visitors, has dried up for a better part of the year. To compensate, some companies are resorting to guerrilla tactics to keep from refunding money they have already spent.
First, they claim their accountant has to process the refunds, yet its all handled in-house. Second, they claim its in process, and may take up to 60 days - a stall tactic so they can budget the refund to be paid with new income. After the 60 days, if they don't have funds, they will claim its been lost, or a family emergency, or an employee messed it up, and she has been dismissed.
If its on a credit card, and you file a claim, they will refute it, so it goes through a 30 day cycle, then if resubmitted, they will not respond, so it takes another 30 days for your credit card company to be able to refund your money - and effectively buying them time.
If you have done any traveling with tour companies in the Metro Phoenix area, I'm sure you have encountered a company or two, that are doing some of these items, and yes, I think you are getting ripped off!
What else can you do?
1. Pay by credit card! Your credit card company has certain protections that can assist you in these circumstances. If you are not comfortable giving your card information to a sales person in the field, or by phone; reputable companies have online payment, where you can pay through a secure server - and its safer than any transaction done in person!
2. Get Travelers Insurance. Your tour company should be able to provide you with insurance. If they cannot - look elsewhere, as any professional operation has it available. Plans can cover just one tour, or if you tour more than three trips a year, a year-round policy is probably more cost effective.
3. Ask upfront what the company will do if there are not enough passengers, and demand that you must be notified if any significant changes will occur. A reputable company will be forthright, and your request not needed, but for those that have shady operations, its added protection. If they refuse - just move on, they have told you enough about how they conduct business.
4. When their are ambiguous claims made on a flyer or brochure, ask for specifics. For example, If it says "10 national parks" ask them to list them. If they can't get back to you with them listed, move on, and perhaps consider not using that company.
5. If on tour, and significant changes have been made, document each one, and the reason if given. This will empower you later if you need to address them with the company, or take other action.
Travel safe, and travel smart! If you think you are getting ripped off by a company, contact us, and let us help!
In my next article, I will address how to share your story, good or bad, so others can learn from your experience. With 10's of thousands of new winter visitors annually, its very helpful to let everyone know what has happened.
As always, Consider traveling with East-West Global Tours, where you are assured quality tours, and "over the top" customer service.