Under the Microscope: tour departure dates

By Randy Keck

Periodically, in future I plan to do “Under the Microscope” columns which will examine in detail various terms and aspects of tours and touring.

This first column will take a close look at advertised tour departure dates listed by tour and other travel operators. When the departure dates are attached to group tour products as compared to individual tours, examination is recommended for the careful, prudent traveler.

When a travel company advertises a departure date, what exactly does it mean? Perhaps a better question is “What does it warranty, if anything?” A series of investigative questions are generally advised. These need to be answered by a representative of the travel operator who is fully qualified and empowered to provide clear answers. Often this may not be the person who initially fields your call.

Forward into the question chasm

The first question that needs to be answered is this: Is the departure guaranteed?

A guaranteed departure is when the operator warrants that the program will operate regardless of how many or, perhaps more precisely, how few passengers sign on. The majority of listed tour departures is not guaranteed, for obvious reasons. Most tour operators are not in the business of operating tours at a loss. Some tour operators have sophisticated ways of avoiding answering such a question directly. An example might be, “We rarely have tours that do not operate.”

Nonguaranteed departures

With departures that are not guaranteed, a series of questions should follow. They include the following. How many passengers must you have, minimum, to operate the tour on the advertised dates? How many passengers are currently signed up? (The answer to this question may or may not be accurate. Generally, tour operators have a pretty good idea where departure numbers stand 90 days out.) How far in advance of departures do the majority of your passengers sign up? How far in advance of departure will you be able to advise whether the tour is definitely going to operate or be canceled?

Some tour operators wait until the last minute to cancel departures in the faint hope that a flurry of last-minute reservations will save the day (departure). They do this even though they realize that canceling a departure at the last minute shows little consideration for their paid, confirmed passengers.

When a company is operating a series of like-content departures, it will often cancel earlier in an effort to switch confirmed passengers to another departure date.

I offer the following tip. If you see two like-content departures advertised within one or even two weeks of each other, be aware of the following. Sometimes this is done in the hopes there will be enough passengers for the two listed departures but with the fall-back position of being able to combine the two into one departure if not. If you see this, ask the tour operator about it, including which set of dates would be most likely to operate if one is canceled.

Asking up the chain

If you are not satisfied with the responses you are getting to the above questions, you are talking to the wrong person. When the person providing vague, unclear or other otherwise unsatisfactory answers is the manager or supervisor, beware!

Always, before you call with the above inquiries, look at the operator’s listed terms and conditions for the specific tour either on their brochure or website. Sometimes these will provide clues or partial answers to some of the above.

Most good tour operators will respect and respond in a positive way to intelligent, savvy questions from prospective traveler customers. You are the customer and your questions need and deserve to be addressed. Any who respond defensively, as though you are questioning their credibility, should be examined closely. Some of these may well subscribe to the precept that the best defense is a good offense.

The above-suggested efforts can only help to increase the likelihood of having a successful tour experience.

A final good rule of thumb applies not only to this column but all travel-related inquiries and investigations. Trust after, not before, you verify!

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Faith, hope and lack of clarity —
Not the way to travel successfully.
How do I know?
My common sense tells me so.❞
— Randy’s spoofing reflection on the subject of this article