Flight arrangements for tours

This item appears on page 41 of the December 2008 issue.

Helene Schechter of Livingston, New Jersey, described having been unhappy with the flight arrangements that Overseas Adventure Travel had made for her and her husband for a tour; they ended up with a 7-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany (May ’08, pg. 29).

In a follow-up letter to ITN, Mrs. Schechter wrote, “The quality of their tours should not be confused with those of their flight arrangements. OAT is definitely one of our favorite travel companies. We have always been more than satisfied with their guides, itineraries, value and accommodations. What I was attempting to do in my letter was simply inform and alert unknowing travelers that there is a choice with flights and that booking them yourself will always wind up being much more convenient and not at all more costly.”

I wrote back to Mrs. Schechter saying that there are advantages and disadvantages to booking the airfare oneself rather than having the tour or cruise company do it, and then I threw the subject out to ITN readers for their input, asking the following questions.

Those of you who have taken organized tours overseas, were you happier having the tour company make your international flight arrangements or arranging those flights on your own or through a travel agent? Regarding convenience and cost savings, what have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Extending the comparisons, in your experience, how much trouble was it when things went wrong? If your connecting flight was delayed, for instance, what steps did you have to take? I asked readers to name, in any example, the tour or cruise company and to state when (month/year) the tour or cruise took place and from where to where the flights went.

For purposes of “keeping score,” in the selection of responses received, 12 readers said they go with the tour companies’ air arrangements, seven said they prefer to purchase the airfare themselves separately from the tour, and two said they do a little of both.

Note: a high percentage of readers wrote in about their experiences with OAT and its sister company, Grand Circle Travel. Perhaps this was because OAT was mentioned by Mrs. Schechter, plus the fact that OAT and GCT are major tour companies.

If you have comments to share, write to Flight Arrangements for Tours, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail editor@intltravelnews.com (include the address at which you receive ITN). ITN prints no items on destinations in North America or the Caribbean. — Editor

When considering flight arrangements for a cruise, I research what an independent air booking would cost versus what is being offered with the cruise package. Since I live in Hawaii and most gateway cities are on the mainland, there is much to be considered. Also, my husband and I extend our trips prior to and after the cruise, which adds a deviation fee to any flight booking with a cruise line.

For an April-May ’06 transatlantic cruise from Barbados to Civitavecchia, Italy, with Star Clippers (Miami, FL; 800/442-0551, www.starclippers.com), I bought the air package with the cruise, using Chicago as the gateway city, and paid $75 extra for each ticket to extend our stay in Italy.

For a March-May ’07 Star Clippers cruise from Phuket, Thailand, to Athens, Greece, I made our own flight arrangements since we did not wish to fly to a gateway city on the mainland only to backtrack.

For a March-May ’08 Amazon-transatlantic cruise from Jamaica to Harwich, England, aboard MV Discovery, I used Los Angeles for a gateway and bought the cruise air package, paying an extra $150 for each ticket to extend with pre- and post-cruise stays.

We have never had any problems with flight arrangements, probably because we always arrive some days prior to a cruise and, when the flights are long and include more than one connection, we overnight to break up the travel and give us wiggle room for any problems that might be encountered.

All our cruise arrangements are made with TravLtips (Flushing, NY; 800/872-8584, www.travltips.com).

Kathy Jewett

Kailua, Kona, HI

My wife and I have been on numerous tours and cruises and have learned that, generally, we have a better experience arranging our own airfare.

We travel business class, and some tour companies offer upgrades, but some don’t. Those that do may not offer the airline or schedule that is the most reliable or best for us.

We have relied on some companies and it has worked well. I keep a file of the tour and cruise companies with which ITN readers have experienced serious problems as well as those which were above average. I avoid the former and check out the latter with my excellent travel agent.

For the most part, our travel agent has been better able to deal with our problems, even by long-distance phone or e-mail, than have tour companies’ personnel.

We used to be able to use our frequent-flyer miles to upgrade to business class, but that has become far more difficult in recent years, at least for international flights.

Kent Shamblin

Beaver Bay, MN

Grand Circle Travel (Boston, MA; 800/248-3737, www.gct.com) allows its travelers to determine whether to use its flight arrangements or make their own. My wife, Virginia, and I always use GCT’s travel arrangements. In addition, we always purchase travel insurance.

Circumstances on our most recent trip, to Russia in June ’08, confirmed the value of using the GCT arrangements and notifying them if problems occur.

We arrived at Tampa International Airport with more than adequate time for our United Airlines flight, and our check-in was very prompt. However, at the gate a mere 15 to 20 minutes later, we found that our flight to Washington Dulles airport was being delayed by 1½ hours due to weather problems in the Midwest. This would leave us barely enough time to catch our connecting flight to Munich, Germany. When the flight was delayed an additional 45 minutes, we realized there was no way we could make our connecting flight.

When a reservation clerk arrived, Virginia stood on line to see what alternative reservations were available, while I went to a pay phone and called United to see if I could make a change before she made it to the counter. My call was very disappointing; the agent said that nothing was available until the following day and suggested we “go home and come back tomorrow.”

I immediately called GCT and was assured that, even if we were a day late, we would be met at the airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, by a GCT representative.

But we hadn’t given up yet. I joined Virginia on line at the gate counter, where the very helpful agent located a later flight from Dulles to St. Petersburg with a connection through Rome. Although the connection in Washington, D.C., was still going to be tight, at least we’d be partway there and could possibly book a different overseas flight if we missed the plane. I called GCT again to advise them of this change.

Unfortunately, after boarding the plane in Tampa, departure was delayed again, to the point where we knew we would have less than 15 minutes from the time of our scheduled landing in Dulles until the departure of our new connecting flight to Rome, and we didn’t even have boarding passes!

Surprisingly, as we were about to land at Dulles, the cabin attendant announced to a very full flight that, due to the delay in leaving Tampa, about a dozen passengers had very short connecting times. She then asked those of us with less than 20 minutes to raise our hands so the other passengers could see who we were and let us debark first!

As we stepped off the plane, our connecting flight was due to leave in about 10 minutes, and the departure gate was a good distance away. Imagine our relief when we spotted a GCT representative looking for us. She assured us she would alert the gate that we were on our way, then she ran on ahead.

When we arrived at the gate, there she stood with our boarding passes in hand! We were the last passengers to board and the plane left immediately.

We arrived in St. Petersburg just one hour after our originally scheduled time, and the GCT representative was waiting for us.

Amazingly, our luggage arrived with us! We had used the large, Grand Circle “VIP” luggage tags, which made it easy for the handlers to identify and transfer our luggage. Once again, GCT had come through with, pardon the pun, flying colors!

Incidentally, the trip was fabulous, far exceeding our expectations.

Richard Fee

Valrico, FL

Ever since Northwest Airlines initiated the nonstop flight between Minneapolis and Amsterdam years ago, that is the flight I take. From Amsterdam, I can take a connecting flight to wherever in Europe I want to go. Usually, my travel agent handles all of the arrangements, but I also have arranged flights, myself, using the Internet.

When the tour company takes care of the flight arrangements, you have no control as far as airlines or schedules, and it seems they don’t worry if the flight arrangements are inconvenient for you. Making my own arrangements definitely cuts down on the flying time.

When I leave Minneapolis on the nonstop flight, I don’t have to worry about making connections until I get to Europe. If I miss the connecting flight in Amsterdam, there is usually another flight within two hours. (That has never happened to me, and I’ve been taking this flight for 15-plus years.)

Bea Emanuel

Minneapolis, MN

I could not agree more with Helene Schechter, who wrote about the wonderful quality of tours but the poor flight arrangements made by Grand Circle Travel and its sister company, Overseas Adventure Travel, or OAT (Cambridge, MA; 800/493-6824, www.oattravel.com).

In July ’08, OAT changed the date of my departure for an October ’08 tour of Southeast Europe without contacting me to see if I could leave a day early! After I called to tell them I could not, they quickly found a seat for me on another flight. Guess who would have paid for the extra night’s lodging? Not OAT!

For this same trip, when the schedule for my flight number was changed by an airline, OAT changed my departure from 11:35 a.m. to 6:05 a.m. because they thought I would want to stay “on the same flight.”

I didn’t care at all what the flight number was. Instead, I wanted to get a good night’s sleep and depart at 11:35 a.m. That time was available but with a new flight number. Who cares about the flight number?

During our tours with OAT and GCT, travelers have regularly discussed the flight arrangements. It certainly is the company’s Achilles heel.

My advice is that when booking a trip with any tour company, tell them to enter into your record that you want to talk to their specialist before they confirm your flight arrangements.

If you do a little bit of homework on your own, often you can find ways to have shorter layovers, more direct flights, fewer plane changes and better flight times. Then, when the specialist calls, you can explore other options.

Sharon Muir

Rochester Hills, MI

I try to have the tour company make my flight arrangements for a tour. The main reason for this — unless the tour has a guaranteed departure, if you purchased the air tickets separately then you must deal with a cancellation fee or ticket-change fee from the airline if the tour is canceled or the dates altered.

This was made all too apparent to me when I scheduled a tour to Holland for September ’08 with Globus (Littleton, CO; 800/221-0090, www.globusjourneys.com). We had been assured that the tour would go, and the travel arrangements made by the company were okay, but my travel agent showed me alternative travel arrangements for less money and with better connections and I foolishly agreed.

Well, Globus changed their mind in early July and canceled the tour, so I paid a ticket-change fee. Ouch!

Of course, if you are really dissatisfied with the tour company’s flight arrangements, you can always play hardball. When arranging for a Globus tour to Turkey in 2000, the air route they arranged had five legs each way. I just laughed and told them that if this was the best they could do, I would not be taking the tour. Much better flight arrangements arrived the next day.

Overseas Adventure Travel was mentioned by Mrs. Schechter. This is one company with which I will no longer travel, precisely because I found their U.S. office so poorly organized, particularly regarding travel arrangements.

I must say that on both tours I took with OAT (Bolivia and Peru in 1998 and Antarctica in 2001), the local guides with which they contracted were excellent. However, on the Antarctic trip they changed the travel dates by three days less than a month before departure. This was a major problem, as I am a working person and need to arrange time off with my boss. The flight arrangements would have been a disaster if I had made my own travel plans.

On the Bolivia/Peru tour, OAT booked our flights from Boston to Miami and Miami to La Paz. I rechecked my flights a few days before departure and discovered that the outbound international flight had been moved up four hours; the connection could not be made.

When I called OAT’s office about the problem, they told me that they had been trying to call me all week. (This is a really lame excuse in an age when virtually everyone has an answering machine.) In any event, I had to go to the connecting airline on the day of departure and go stand-by on an earlier flight.

A few people didn’t recheck their own flights and didn’t arrive till day two.

Gary Mockli

Chesterfield, MO

ITN sent a copy of Mr. Mockli’s letter to Globus and received this reply: “We certainly understand that coordinating international air can be a challenge, which is why we provide the service and encourage our passengers to include our air when booking their vacation. As Mr. Mockli mentions, there are some inherent challenges if there is a change to the vacation or the airline schedule.

“One of the benefits of booking your flight with Globus in conjunction with your vacation is that we help the travelers and their travel agents manage around those changes. Specifically, that means that if our schedule or the flight schedule changes, we protect the original price and find alternate routing for you — one less thing to worry about.

“As far as routing, we always do our best to find the most direct path. We typically offer several carrier and routing options, sorted according to the best available price. In some cases, a great price can also come with some stops along the way. We encourage everyone to carefully review their flight schedule (as Mr. Mockli certainly did) and make sure that it works for their schedule and budget.” — STEVE BORN, Vice President of Marketing, Globus Family of Brands

In September ’07, my husband, Sy, and I booked a Russian River cruise for August ’08 with Grand Circle Travel. We had previously been on 11 trips with them and five with Overseas Adventure Travel. To get to Russia, for the first time we decided to use our frequent-flyer mileage.

In May ’08 we were notified that our cruise was canceled. Grand Circle proposed an alternative date, and they did offer to reimburse us $150 per person for any fees we might incur with the airline.

Unfortunately, the airline did not have any availability for the new date; therefore, I turned our mileage back in at a cost of $100 per person.

When we could not reach accord with Grand Circle, we canceled the trip. They did give us a credit of $200 to be used on a future trip.

I would NOT recommend making air arrangements on your own. If a trip is canceled or there is an overbooking, or whatever the reason is that you are given by the tour company, it is extremely difficult to change your arrangements.

Marcia Weinick

Boynton Beach, FL

I agree with Mrs. Schechter about the high quality of Overseas Adventure Travel as a tour company. I also would like to say that, with enough notice, it is possible to get them to change one’s travel arrangements.

For an October ’08 trip I booked to Kenya and Tanzania, when I received my preliminary itinerary in January I noticed that it gave me too short a time in Amsterdam to make my connecting flight to Boston on the homeward leg. I called OAT immediately and they changed me to a later flight. Even though there would be a long layover, I thought the new plan was more realistic.

OAT said the scheduling of my original flights had been done by Northwest/KLM, not by them. I’m a big fan of OAT.

When on a tour, I always prefer to have the tour company make my flight arrangements, in that I become the company’s responsibility from the start. They know where I am; I can call them if I have problems en route, and, finally, they frequently have representatives at the airport.

Peggy Morrison

Brookline, MA

While there may be some cost savings in the flight portion of your travel should you book on your own, one should be aware that the cost of your transfers to/from hotels will not be covered.

Should the tour company handle your flights, you will be assisted by tour reps on both arrival and departure, with the cost of local transportation included.

This has been our experience when traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel (Jordan/Israel in August-September ’08, Thailand/Cambodia/Viet Nam in 2006 and a Europe barge cruise in 2004).

Ken Wheeler

Tappan, NY

We take four to six tours per year and have the tour operators arrange our flights for two important reasons.

First, arrangements for transfers from the airport to the hotel or cruise ship usually are available only when you allow the tour operator to book your flights. We tried once or twice to handle that ourselves and found it difficult to rely on taxis’ being available at remote airports; also, prearranged services were not always reliable.

We’ve found that in most other countries, hotels do not offer shuttle service. If a hotel does, it can be more expensive than the tour operator’s transfer.

Secondly, when flight schedules change (and they do now and then), it is the tour operator’s problem to deal with making alternate arrangements, not ours.

For a trip several years ago we booked our own flights, thinking we could find cheaper rates. While we were out of the country, the time for one leg of our return flight was changed and we were left with having to spend a night in Newark, catch an early-morning flight to Dallas and drive from Dallas to our home. With one-way car-rental rates, paying for a hotel room and the intrinsic cost of the hassle of all this, we did not save any money.

When we do independent travel, we have a travel agent also make our flight, transfer and hotel arrangements. We find our own guides through recommendations from ITN; via Internet early, or upon arrival. We then are free to enjoy our trip, with someone else dealing with all the worrisome details.

Gloria Helmuth

Tulsa, OK

My granddaughter (age 14) and I took a Grand Circle Travel river tour, “Burgundy & Provence to the Côte d’Azur,” June 30-July 15, 2008. For this trip, I had Grand Circle book the air from San Francisco to Paris so we could fly Air France nonstop. I paid a hefty $3,000 extra for each of us for business class.

When the flights came through, they had been switched to Lufthansa, with a change of planes at no one’s favorite airport, Frankfurt. Furthermore, there were seats indicated for just one person, not two, although I had booked the trip almost a year prior for both of us at the same time.

Grand Circle said that by mistake they hadn’t booked the two seats but not to worry; there would actually be two seats. When they failed to notify me of the air reservations, I phoned back and was informed that the seats would not be together.

They knew initially that a 14-year-old girl was one of the passengers.

I phoned Lufthansa, who changed the seats to adjoining seats, except on the return flight, also out of Frankfurt — I was told that the return flight had been changed to United and there were not two adjoining seats available in business class. I offered to pay extra to upgrade to first class and was refused.

Next I called United, whose rep told me there was nothing they could do and that in Europe you don’t get a seat assignment until you check in. This was about my 15th trip to Europe and that was news to me!

The airlines could not allow me to pay for first class because of the “discounted fare” Grand Circle enjoyed for economy class. I insisted that I would make up any difference, but they said absolutely not, and Grand Circle said they had no control over any of it.

I came to understand that you can get assigned seats that are together if you book online, yourself, and pay up front, with no money out of the fare going to an agent. When a tour company makes the booking at their group price, neither the tour company nor the airline will guarantee the seat assignments until airport check-in.

The change in Frankfurt required a hike through the airport that took almost 45 minutes, and both of us are actually hikers so I use the term correctly. I could only wonder about some folks with limited physical ability being able to navigate that in time for the flight to Paris.

During the tour, our wonderful Grand Circle tour guide, Ian-Eric, was on the phone three times trying to get my granddaughter and me seats together for the flight home, Nice-Frankfurt-San Francisco, and he and his wife, who worked on it from their home, were able to do that (with no change fee).

The river cruise and Nice extension both were great, and although I seldom take tours anymore, this was a nicely planned introduction to France for my granddaughter.

I would never book airfare through a tour company again. Booking online and well in advance gives you security and seat assignments and saves money. At the very least, 14-year-old girls aren’t subject to being seated with a stranger for 11 hours.

Heading home, when we arrived at our connection in Frankfurt we took our seats on the United flight for the return to San Francisco and I told a cabin attendant about my problem, now solved. He said United no longer books families or traveling companions with adjoining seats on international flights in advance of airport check-in, and he added that he thought that was terrible. So do I.

Marilyn Stenvall

Palm Desert, CA

ITN sent a copy of Ms. Stenvall’s letter to United Airlines and received the following reply: “If there are seats available for assignment at time of booking, a customer would be able to obtain assigned seats next to one another regardless of booking method. Not sure where the miscommunication was, but I wanted you to be aware that this is the case. It’s hard to speculate after the fact, but, generally speaking, it is possible that a flight may not have seats available for assignment at the time of booking.” — Jeff Kovick, United Airlines Public Relations

At the beginning of making arrangements with an Overseas Adventure Travel representative for a trip to Japan several years ago, my partner and I were assured that our overseas seat assignments would be together.

As I recall, before the actual seat assignments were announced, there were several instances when I had cause to call to check on them, and each time I was given assurance that it was OAT’s policy that clients traveling together would be seated together.

When we received our tickets, lo and behold, our seats were many rows apart. I immediately called the OAT representative and was told that the final assignments lay with the airlines and were out of their hands.

Fortunately, after we boarded we were able to make exchanges with understanding fellow passengers, which allowed us to enjoy each other’s company on the very long flight.

Once we were in Japan, the services of OAT were excellent, but I have never again wanted to travel with them because of the way they handled that flight. Since then, I did contact them about trips to Egypt and New Zealand where we would make our own flight arrangements, but they were not receptive to this plan; consequently, we have never traveled with OAT again.

Robert Small

Solana Beach, CA

My wife, Madeleine, and I toured China with Grand Circle Travel in September ’04. GCT made all the travel arrangements.

From Houston, Texas, we took a one-stop flight to Tokyo for our pretrip package, then continued to Beijing and through China to Hong Kong, followed by Bangkok for our post-trip package. Everything was very nice until the return trip back to Houston in October.

We had to be at the Bangkok airport at 3 a.m., so that last night was very short, what with packing and getting up and out to the bus for the trip to the airport, but okay!

Our trip home then took well over 30 hours from the time we left Bangkok!

Our first leg was back to Tokyo (with a big layover there), then we flew to Seattle (another big layover), then to Denver (with a layover of five-plus hours there) and finally on to Houston.

It seemed like our flight schedule had been planned by ‘Cheap Tickets’ or someone without any concern for passenger comfort. My wife and I were both in our 70s at the time and the trip was totally debilitating. It took us several days to recuperate.

Since then, we have never used GCT, although we have taken other tours to places where GCT offers services. We even let our ‘bonus points’ or discounts for future travel expire.

My advice — if you can, always plan your own travel to and from the point where the tour actually starts. You can add a day up front to recuperate from jet lag; otherwise, your start on the tour could be very tiring. Maybe it will cost a few dollars more to go “your way,” but, believe me, it’s well worth it.

Fred Forschler

Kingwood, TX

My husband and I generally make two big trips a year and we travel independently. We have taken only two tours, both with Grand Circle Travel: a riverboat cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna several years ago and a trip to Egypt in December ’06.

We purchased Grand Circle’s well-priced business-class upgrades on both trips. I insist (nicely, of course) that my air arrangements be made known to me within a few days of booking. While I am aware that nothing is permanent, I let the rep know that if my air arrangements aren’t satisfactory, I’ll cancel the whole trip.

Grand Circle has been very accommodating and easy to work with. I would sooner cut off my foot than endure a 24-hour trip with multiple layovers through six airports.

Judy Serie Nagy

San Jose, CA

I much prefer to make my own air arrangements because I find tour operators’ routings often inconvenient.

However, many tour operators make it difficult for you to do so by providing transfers only when using their air arrangements. Also, the credit they give you when making your own air arrangements is not enough to make it cost effective.

Of the five trips that I have booked with Overseas Adventure Travel, three had problems connected with the air arrangements. In May 2000, Roni and I went on the Provence tour with OAT. From Dallas they had routed us to Atlanta, Paris and Marseille — not bad, except for having only 55 minutes to change planes in Atlanta.

When I called to request a flight that would give us more time, I was told it was too late to change since it was already two weeks out and I should have called earlier. I explained that our preliminary air itinerary had me going via Cincinnati with adequate time and I had called as soon as I was aware of the change. I asked the agent to please check and call me back and, although he said he would, that’s the last I heard from OAT.

At that time, Delta had a hub in Dallas, so my travel agent checked and told me that several earlier flights were available. I went to the airport and changed to an earlier flight with no difficulty at all, as the gate agent confirmed that our new connection time interval was illegal.

The tour itself was so good — with a cooking lesson, painting class and rafting — that even the inefficient and chirpy, “call me Coco” tour guide could not make it less than excellent. It’s impossible to ruin Provence.

In, I believe, early 2004, while I lived in Dallas, the preliminary air itinerary for an OAT tour to Kenya had me flying out of Los Angeles, the airport used by my traveling companion. When I called to correct the departure city, they asked why I had changed my mind! Their excuse was that my friend must have made arrangements for us both — again, wrong.

I’m amazed that I continue to travel with this company, except that I enjoy the small groups and their tours, and usually the guides are wonderful.

Joyce H. Deegan

Richardson, TX

My last five vacations were taken with Overseas Adventure Travel. There are two issues that I feel are very important.

First, even though OAT may stick you with a long layover, I am always concerned about a connection when the time between flights is short.

Often I’ve had my flights delayed, anywhere from two to five hours, and this makes me uncomfortable and nervous. I would rather arrive with time to spare and be bored sitting around than miss a connection.

This is especially painful with regard to international flights, some of which are the only flight for that day.

This brings me to the second reason. If I book my own flights and something goes wrong, I am responsible, but when OAT books it, they have to fix it!

I never had anything go “wrong,” but we have had flights changed. On my trip to Egypt (plus Jordan) in June-July ’08, EgyptAir changed a morning flight to the evening. Our OAT trip leader arranged for us to visit places and do things that weren’t on the itinerary.

OAT took care of everything. We had numerous flights on that trip and never had to wait on line to check in or get our boarding passes. We sat and relaxed while they took our luggage and checked it for us and got all our boarding passes.

The only time we had to do it was for our return flight home to the U.S. Even then, they took us to the airport early, so the line was very short.

I travel with OAT because I like how they run a trip. And when they get negative feedback on something (such as a hotel or a particular place we had problems with or didn’t like), they change the trip accordingly.

Rhonda J. Kutler

New York, NY

We have traveled, domestically and on overseas trips, with Tauck World Discovery (10 Norden Place, Norwalk, CT 06855; 203/899-6500) for about 12 tours. Their air travel price quotes usually are no more than ones we or our agent can find, but we do not always like the arrangements or city connection locations, so, for the most part, we make our own air arrangements.

Karen Swaine

Phoenix, AZ

My husband, Terry, and I live 30 miles from Washington Dulles Airport and BWI (Baltimore). On a “Celtic Discovery” tour in June ’07, Overseas Adventure Travel had us flying via Washington National and JFK with long delays.

Originally, they wanted to schlepp us to Atlanta, but we wrote a letter of complaint to Overseas Adventure Travel/Grand Circle Corporation, whereupon they revealed that we could customize our flights with them. We had taken many trips with OAT and GCT and were never told of that option.

The best flight arranger, in my opinion, is Globus, with which we toured Germany in 2005 and London in September ’08. Their staff is smart and accommodating and does not mind if you add private trips to their itinerary. Highly recommended!

We had one occasion where we would have been sunk without a travel agency. We went to southwest France in 2001 with a tour company that had their flights arranged by the Lyon Travel Agency (Brattleboro, VT; 802/254-6033). The routing, with Sabena, was Dulles-Brussels-Toulouse.

When we arrived at the airport, a Sabena employee told us they had declared bankruptcy and there would be no flights. No assistance with rebooking was offered. Air France, their partner, had no seats. United, with which we are frequent flyers, wanted $1,300 for the one-way trip.

We were at our wit’s end and called Lyon. They told us to stay put and call back in an hour. When we called back, they told us to go to the Lufthansa counter and a prepaid Dulles-Frankfurt-Toulouse ticket would be waiting for us. They had to charge us $350, which was later refunded during the unraveling of Sabena.

We arrived in Toulouse 10 minutes before other tour members who had come via New York and Paris. That was excellent work, and we would use Lyon Travel Agency again.

Helga I. Brennan

Silver Spring, MD

During our last day in Prague, Czech Republic, on an October ’06 Eastern Europe tour with smar­Tours (New York, NY; 800/337-7773, www.smartours.net), we found out that the Finnair employees had gone on strike. This was the airline that we were going to take the next day to Helsinki, the last city on our tour.

Our tour guide informed us that their New York office was working on changing our airline tickets to other airlines. She said we would be able to stay an extra night in our same rooms at Hotel Don Giovanni; however, we would have to skip our Helsinki stop.

We enjoyed our extra day in Prague knowing that the tour company was taking care of the problems.

Very early the next morning, Continental breakfasts and sack lunches were provided by the hotel. Two employees of the local tour company arrived with a bus to take us to the airport, and they made sure that we got on our flights to New York City.

We did miss our one-day stop in Helsinki, but it was a good feeling knowing that smarTours had taken care of a major problem in a very professional manner.

Roger Root

Tucson, AZ

I have done it both ways. In September ’06 I did my own air arrangements, Los Angeles-Istanbul-Los Angeles, for a Black Sea cruise with Zegrahm Expeditions (Seattle, WA; 800/628-8747, www.zeco.com). It was easy because we arrived and departed from Istanbul. I used frequent-flyer miles and arrived two days early just to get acclimated.

In April ’08 I went again with Zegrahm, on their “Faces of Melanesia” tour. I had them do the air because the original itinerary 1) began in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and ended in Port Vila, Vanuatu — not a straight round trip — and 2) getting a flight out of Port Vila was extremely difficult. The tour air was on a charter.

So I’d say if it’s an easy round trip into a big international airport, do it yourself, but if it’s a complicated itinerary in areas with “iffy” air service, let the tour company do it. If there are snafus, it’s their problem.

Karen Carlson

Corona del Mar, CA

ITN sent copies of the above letters to Grand Circle Corporation and received the following reply.

The discussion regarding whether a traveler should book his or her air with a tour operator or independently is a good one, and we thank ITN for the opportunity to weigh in and address several travelers’ letters that mentioned us.

For our travelers, value is a priority, followed by routing. By negotiating our contracts with airlines at least a year in advance, we can achieve such low rates as an adventure to China and Tibet that begins at $150 a day and includes international airfare from Los Angeles or a trip to Costa Rica that costs $170 a day with included air from Miami.

While travelers get an excellent value when we arrange their air, there are other advantages too, such as our handling of all details and arrangements, included airport transfers and 24-hour airport assistance. In addition, when a trip is canceled, we are responsible for covering any airline change fees and rebooking all flights, things we do not cover when a traveler arranges his own air.

However, we understand that many travelers would prefer to book their own flights so that they can use their frequent-flyer miles or guarantee a specific airline, route or schedule. It is in response to these travelers that we are expanding our air options beginning next year.

During the past 10 years or so, we have offered travelers on several land vacations the option of booking their own international air. Beginning in 2009, we’re extending this option to include almost every land vacation.

In addition, for travelers who want us to arrange their air but who want to consider options, we’ll present them with up to three airline/flight options at point of sale.

And for our most frequent travelers who have specific airline and flight requests, as long as we have a contract with the airline in question, and for an additional cost, we’ll create the air itinerary that best meets their needs.

We are excited about the expanded air options in the works and believe that ITN’s readers will be as well.

PRISCILLA O’REILLY, Public Relations Director, Grand Circle Corporation, 347 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210