There are a lot of package-trip and escorted-tour companies out there--but not as many as it seems. And understanding that can help a traveler choose the right vacation.
From a first glance, for instance, it seems that Delta Airlines, American Express and the American Automobile Assn. are three competitors among hundreds of organizations vying to sell you a package trip--that is usually a combination of lodgings and air fare, perhaps with a rental car included.
Say you're going to Orlando, Fla. Delta Dream Vacations offers a four-day, three-night trip there (with lodging at a Quality Inn, air fare from Los Angeles, Universal Studios admission and a handful of other perks) for $479 per person and up, double occupancy. American Express Vacations offers a comparable package (with different hotel and entertainment options) for $529. AAA Vacations' four-day offering for Orlando is in the same general range, but again, with different details.
But look carefully at their brochures, and you'll see that the same company, Certified Vacations of Fort Lauderdale, is behind all three products.
There's nothing dishonest about this, but this layer of the travel business remains invisible to most consumers. Though Certified is uniquely invisible for its size--the company counts 850 employees, who take an estimated 8,000 reservations weekly--there are many tour operators and package-assemblers that labor in the shadow of another company's name.
They deal in large volume in order to get discounted rates on air, lodging and other travel services. Then they assemble packages and sign contracts with organizations that have higher profiles. Under those contracts, the high-profile companies get to sell the packages under their own names, without the complications of running the programs themselves.
The process is similar with many escorted tours, especially trips offered through museums and other educational institutions. But in those cases, tour operators often do more tailoring of arrangements to fit the interests of a particular group.
Some companies do their own tour packaging and sell products only under their own name. (United Airlines, for instance, has an in-house organization that assembles its vacation packages.) Other companies, such as Saga International Holidays and Trafalgar Tours, sell their own tours but also serve as shadow operators for other groups (Saga makes arrangements for Smithsonian Odyssey tours; Trafalgar handles some AAA packages to Europe). And there are also companies that do their own behind-the-scenes work in some areas, but rely on partners in others. Brendan Tours, for instance, operates its own trips to Ireland, Greece, the South Pacific and South America, but has Globus handle most of its European itineraries and has Mayflower handle its North American itineraries, arrangements that are explained in the company's brochures.
If you are embarking on a package trip or escorted tour, it's wise to know who the behind-the-scenes organizer is. If you like the way the trip comes together--or if you don't--you'll know to keep an eye out for the company next time. Any traveler considering a package trip or escorted tour should ask several questions:
Is air fare from my city included? If it is, what carrier? If land travel is involved, what sites involve stops, and what sites are merely seen as the vehicle passes by? How much free time is there? What level are the lodgings? How many meals are included, and where will they be eaten? When are the deadlines for payments, and what happens if a traveler has to cancel unexpectedly or the tour is undersubscribed?
About 40 of the largest, most reputable U.S.-based tour operators belong to the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. and include its logo somewhere on their literature. Readers can call or send a postcard to the association (211 E. 51st St., Suite 12B, New York, NY 10022; tel. 212-750-7371) to request a free brochure on "How to Select a Tour or Vacation Package."
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.