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How Do I Find a Reliable Travel Agency or Tour Operator?

No matter where you look, travel suppliers tout the great wonders of their destinations and “savings” of their prices. Although big airlines and hotel chains are familiar household names, many tour operators and retail travel agencies carry names you’ve never heard before. And you can be understandably concerned about paying a lot of money to one of these unknowns. I frequently get questions about choosing an agency or operator. Here’s an example:

“I found a tour to China that seemed very attractive, but I’m not sure the tour operator is reputable. How can I protect myself against possible loss or disappointment?”

The short answer is, “If it’s an obscure supplier, you’ll have a tough time finding out much about it.” But the question raises several fundamental issues about buying from unfamiliar sources.

Just what is “reputable”?

Some readers pose their question as “reputable,” some as “reliable,” and some use other similar and similarly vague terms. Regardless of the words, people seem to be looking for several factors:

  • Financial stability, basic honesty, and efficient handling of payments
  • Accuracy of representations and recommendations on price and features
  • Delivering the service(s) as promised—before, during, and after the trip—especially if something goes wrong

Common measures

Whether you’re searching for a supplier or checking out one you don’t know, consider two basic sources of information:

Word of mouth

If possible, find someone you know who can recommend a supplier or who has used one you’re considering and can provide a firsthand evaluation. That’s the single-best way to get a feel for any provider. There’s only one caveat: In my experience, consumers who have had a poor experience with a supplier are sometimes reluctant to share that experience—apparently, they’re afraid an admission of dissatisfaction is somehow a personal reflection on their competence.

References

Many suppliers offer to provide references. By all means, consider contacting those folks, but keep in mind that suppliers will likely cherry-pick their client list for references they believe will give the best reports and studiously avoid any they know are unhappy.

Better Business Bureau

The BBB is of no help in locating a possible supplier, but once you have a name or names, you can easily check on any unfavorable reports. Just log onto the BBB’s website and follow the directions. Also, many qualifying travel sellers with good BBB records post a “BBB Accredited” seal on their websites.

Tour operators

A few decades back, sudden tour operator failure was a real problem. Perhaps you’ve been around long enough to remember stories of travelers stranded in Europe with no return flights or hotel accommodations because their operator failed and hadn’t paid for the hotels or return charter flights. Fortunately, tightened government rules have pretty well solved that problem. Now, the primary questions with a tour operator are (1) whether it represents the tour components—accommodations, sightseeing, activities—accurately and (2) whether it delivers what it promises.

  • Start with the BBB and the experiences of your friends, relatives, and coworkers.
  • Several online gripe sites post reports of other travelers’ experiences with all sorts of travel suppliers, including tour operators.
  • No trade association mediates consumer disagreements with tour operators.
  • If you’re concerned about an operator’s financial stability, all members of the USTOA (United States Tour Operators Association) are required to show some form of financial bonding or other guarantee of resources to protect customers’ payments.

If you find a good deal from an operator you don’t know and can’t check, buy travel insurance that includes protection against operator failure.

Travel agents

Presumably, you use a travel agent rather than booking yourself because you value the counsel and assistance a good agent can provide. Customer service therefore becomes the dominant basis for choice.

  • Recommendations from friends and relatives are clearly the best option.
  • Most travel agents post a laundry list of accreditations and trade memberships. Some, such as CLIA, are strictly marketing and lobbying operations; others, such as IATA and IATAN are part of a network selling air tickets and other travel services.
  • ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) is the only trade association that has an active consumer office. If you have a problem with an ASTA member agency that you can’t resolve locally, ASTA will help mediate the dispute. That’s a good reason for selecting an ASTA agency.

As in other markets, dealing with the local office of a nationwide chain provides a measure of consistency and reliability you might not find with an independent agency. The largest chains, including AAA, Carlson-Wagonlit, and American Express, have branches or affiliates throughout the country.

One important caveat: You don’t want an agency that sells only the travel products carried by one of the GDS (Global Distribution System, one of the industry’s computer-based selling systems) networks it uses. These days, too many good deals are available only directly or through the Internet; a GDS-only agency can’t get at them.

My take

Neither SmarterTravel.com nor I can go out on a limb and recommend any individual agencies or operators as “reliable” or “reputable.” I’ve been following this business for more than 40 years, and some of the biggest failures I’ve seen have been of companies that were widely regarded as “reliable” right up to the day they folded. And we obviously don’t want to be on the hook because a site we recommended failed to deliver a promised ticket.

So “caveat emptor” remains your key strategy. Do whatever checking you can, but be careful. Pay with a credit card; insist on a timetable for delivery of tickets and documents; ask for a physical location if you can’t find one on a website. Buy travel insurance to cover big up-front payments. Try to avoid buying from agencies outside the U.S., from which getting relief through small claims court is virtually impossible. Be willing to pay a bit more for the assurance of dealing with a supplier you trust.

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