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Posted by on Jun 5, 2011 | 28 comments

9 Things Tour Companies Don’t Tell You

There is one question that can be found all over the blogging community and travel forums, should I travel independently or take a guided tour?  The answer is not an easy one.  It depends on a wide range of factors.  The truth is that all travelers (and I really mean all travelers) are involved in some sort of tour at some point.  You may be traveling on your own but you rely on outfitters for some of your daily activities.  Sometimes there is not really an option; you have to take a tour (like when you want to see gorillas in the wild).

For this reason, I have decided to reveal some of the facts tours companies does not disclose (or disclose in the fine print).  This is what I have discovered during my 10 years of traveling the world.  Pay attention because those tour companies have been on business for a long time and they know how to make money.

Let’s start:

1.       The season you selected for your trip is not the best one to appreciate the sights

Some tour companies sell excursions all year round.  However, this does not mean you are going to appreciate the sites in full splendor at every season.  Sometimes, you are not going to see anything at all.

Example: I visited Costa Rica during the month of December.  I booked and excursion to see the craters of the Poas and Irazu volcanoes and a “lava tour” to see the Arenal volcano erupting at night.  What was the outcome?  I didn’t see anything.  The clouds were too low during the day and during the night I went on the excursions.  So, no craters or lava for me.  The thing is that various locals told me it was not the best time to observe the volcanoes (July, August is the best time).  The possibility of seeing something on December is low.  Does the tour company know this?  Of course but they sell you the excursion anyway because they are in the business of selling excursions.  There is no business if they have to sell excursions under the best weather conditions.  This can be applicable to trips such as African safaris, deserts during summer, Europe in August, etc.

And talking about weather, you should also consider that.  Tour companies usually do not suspend an excursion because of what we consider bad weather (rain).  If you visit a country during the rainy season, the possibilities of encountering showers during the day, well, are high (usually the afternoons if it is a tropical place).  So think about that if you don’t want to ride that horse or ride the zip line while is a mini hurricane is falling over you (guess what, it happened to me in Costa Rica).

This does not mean you should not plan trips during low season.  Just keep in mind what sights may be affected by the weather and put your money on something you are going to appreciate or enjoy.

2.       They do not include top attractions

Make sure you have a clear understanding of what is included in the price you are paying.  I know a lot of people who have been shocked when they find out that what they paid do not include one of the top attractions in the area they are visiting.  Take into consideration that it can confusing to keep track of what attractions are included when you book a multi day tour.  One time, I went to Florence and discovered that the Galleria della Academia (where Michelangelo’s’ David is housed) was not included in the price.  This was distressing because most of the group members were traveling on a student budget.  However, the worst part was to wait more than an hour under the hot sun to get to the gallery.  In this case, I am talking about a situation involving less than 10 Euros but imagine if you find out you need to pay big bucks to see something you thought was covered.

Which brings me to my next point: if you are arranging something like a walking tour or a tour including private transportation, always ask if the entrance to the actual sights you are visiting is included in the price.  Sometimes people think they got a deal and then are confronted with the harsh reality; they only paid the tour guide or transportation fee.  The entrance to the actual sight has to be paid separately (and it can be substantial).

3.       They are in town the day the top attraction closes

What is the day nobody wants to spend on a city? Usually, it is Monday. Why? Because museums, government run attractions and other sights are closed (in most places).  You may not care a lot about these types of attractions but being in a place like Florence on Monday can be a nightmare.  The nightmare gets worst when Monday is your only full day in Florence.  It means that all the museums, where all the masterpieces are stored, are closed (Yes, this also happened to me.  I have been in Florence two times and things have not worked right). 

I have two pieces of advice to deal with this.  If it is your only day at a place and you were not able to see one of the top attractions because it was closed, talk to your tour guide and try to arrange an alternative.  While in Florence, the group was able to convince the tour guide and the bus drive to arrange a quick and early visit to the David on Tuesday morning (the day we were leaving Florence).  My other piece of advice: if you are dying to see an attraction, try to see it as soon as you arrive to the place.  Forget about leaving it for latter.  Latter means that you may not have the time to visit or that when you have the time to visit, it is going to be closed.  This actually happens a lot.

Another thing is that you may be taken to an attraction on a low activity day.  For example, the Otavalo market in Ecuador, which is considered one of the best markets in South America, is open every day.  Nevertheless, the market is at its peak on Thursdays and Saturdays.  I have seen companies that take you to the market on other days.  It is a shame to travel from so far to see something at 1/10 of its glory.  If you are serious about your trip, do some research so you can make the most of it and catch things like the ones I have exposed.

4.       They take you to a top attraction at the worst time

Tour companies have their schedules and they are probably going to take you to a site when is most crowded and noisy.  If you are serious about photography, they will probably take you to the place when the light is worst.  Keep this in mind if you are thinking about visiting a place that has a special meaning or holds a big space in your heart.  You may want to visit on your own (early or late during the day) to avoid crowds, noise and bad light.

5.       They pass the night at a famous town but do not provide time to explore.

This happened to me last year.  I went to Thailand with a tour company and they included a night at Ayutthaya.  And when they said a night, they meant a night (not even half day).  I thought that we were going to have time to explore the ruins of the old city. Nonetheless, we arrived at dusk to the ruins one day (we went to one temple) and then parted early the next day.  This was a little disappointing.  Since that day, I learned that I have to actually make sure a tour is visiting a sight I want to see.  Just being on the area or staying the night on the city does not mean you are actually going to have time to explore.

6.       Your guide is not fluent in your language

This is a sad one.  But let me say that I have had almost no trouble with guides who speak English.  Guides are usually well trained on that language.  Now, you may have a problem if you speak something different than English.  I have been to Europe in Spanish speaking tours.  The guides assigned to the groups could barely speak Spanish.  They knew enough to give instructions or to have some sort of conversation but their historical, architectural and cultural explanations were horrible.  After two weeks, we were begging them to speak English (because we understood that language and the guides were from England and Australia).  So if you are booking a tour and you want to learn something, ask how fluent in you language your tour guide really is.

7.       Your guide is using you to gain money

Some tour companies pay their guides such miserable salaries (this is a fact).  But, guess what? Some guides try to get some extra money from travelers.  I am not talking of hard won tips.  I am referring to guides offering “recommendations” on restaurants, night attractions and shops.  If you buy something at the places they recommend, they get a commission (they don’t tell you this and I bet you the company knows they are doing it).  The sad thing is that most of their offerings are overpriced and of poor quality.  You end up being scammed.  This happened to me a couple of times while travelling thru Europe. 

Let me say that not all tour guides do this. Most of them are really passionate and look after their people.  After years of travel, I kind of have an idea of what tour companies pay the miserable salaries.  I think I would never travel with them (that is a personal preference). 

If your tour guide give you a recommendation, take some time to consider it (it doesn’t have to be a long period of time).  Have some knowledge of the food and attraction prices, don’t buy on impulse and ask questions.  If you have a hunch that something is wrong, don’t take the recommendation.

8.       The company takes you shopping.

This is related to the previous point.  Sometimes, your guide will take you to company sponsored shopping trips disguised as cultural demonstrations.  I am referring to demonstrations in silk factories, leather workshops or glass blowing studios.  In reality, the company is taking you to one of its partners and is expecting to make some money from you.  

Some people enjoy this type of experience, others don’t.  I don’t mind if it is a short stop but I have seen companies that dedicate a significant part of the day to those practices.  In those cases, I rather be sightseeing.  Make sure you know exactly how the daily activities are divided.  If you notice that quite a bit of the day is dedicated to shopping and you are not interested, skip the visits and plan your own thing.  You are not obligated to participate in those activities.

9.       Their exclusive offering is not that exclusive

Companies try to gain customers by offering special bonuses or experiences that rivals don’t offer.  Some companies are loyal to their promise of exclusivity but others are just trying to wow customers with accessible and dirt cheap (in terms of local currency) activities. 

When I was researching my trip to Thailand, I saw a company offering an exclusive bike ride around the Sukhothai ruins.  I ended up visiting the country with another company.  When I went to Sukhothai, I discovered that there were businesses renting bikes for 2 dollars an hour.  Common, how a company can offer such an inexpensive activity as an exclusive?

Other companies offer activities (sometimes at an additional cost) which sound and look special but they are accessible to anyone.  Like companies offering dinner and show options.  They charge you a lot but this is something you can easily arrange by yourself.  If you are comparing different options, make sure the exclusive add-ons are really exclusive.

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Tours can save us money, help us to get to remote places, teach us history/culture or expose us to new activities in magnificent places.  As I said before, sooner or later we will have to decide what tour to take.  Hopefully, the advice provided in this post will help you to navigate thru the trappings that companies want to impose on travelers.

28 Comments

  1. When I went to Norway they had Norway in a Nutshell. I looked at where it went and did it on my own because I already had a train pass that included ferries. I met local people because of it and was invited to their summer cottage.

    Tours where there is no parking or night light tours where it might be dangerous are good ones to book to become familiar with an area too

    eileen
    Eileen Ludwig recently posted..Fort Lauderdale Beach Great American Beach PartyMy Profile

    • Eileen,
      You are bringing out a good point. I also like to look at brochures to get ideas on what places to visit on a destination. You can also research and decide if you can put together the trip at a smaller price (a lot of times this is possible).
      Ruth recently posted..Thailand’s BlueTiger- Day 11 Scene 2My Profile

  2. Ruth, we are in a lot of disagreement lately. I have done a few tours and they haven’t done any of these things. As a matter of fact, tours I have taken specifically stay 2 or more nights, purposefully give you time to explore, guides accept absolutely NO tips or kickbacks, and it is against company policy to take you shopping. Maybe you are using the wrong tour companies but in my experiences, the tour company I have used the most have done none of these.
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..How college football inspired me to travelMy Profile

    • Hi Jeremy,
      Good to see you have had good experiences with tours. I recognize that there are companies providing excellent service and value. Unfortunately, not all the companies out there offer the same.

      Points number 2, 3, 4,6, 7 and 8 are related to a tour I took to Europe a while ago. This tour was organized by a college professor. He used a company which promotes learning and culture thru travel. Even though the trip was run by a company with educative purposes, I experienced all the negative aspects I mentioned. Like you said, I used a wrong tour company in this case (but I had zero travel experience at that time). I have learned from this and I will never take a tour with this company or similar ones again (I said this on the post). The point in here is that even companies with certain reputation in some areas (high schools, colleges and universities) engage in these practices. Travelers can minimize the negative effects if they are informed.

      Point 5 is related to a more recent trip to Thailand. The company offered excellent service and that was the only thing that I didn’t like. My overall experience with that company was great.

      Point 1 is related to day trips I took in Costa Rica while traveling independently. I chose the company because it was recommended by a travel guide and then a friend told me it was a good company. I guess in this case, I cannot blame the company. Like I said, they are in business all year around. For what I have seen, a lot of companies offer tours in the off season. So, it is possible to fall in this blunder.

      You said the companies you have used do not allows tips or kickback. Well, a lot of companies encourage tipping and they even give you the tipping guidelines when you book. And they encourage tips to the tour guides, the bus driver and others. Like I said, it is a fact that some companies offer miserable salaries and then guides try to get money out of customers (even Rick Steves talk about this).

      Therefore, these things happen (and I say this with respect towards your point of view). And they happen even though a trustable professional, a friend or a travel guide recommend the company. I just wanted to share my experiences so others can have a better idea on waht to consider before booking or how to act if something similar happens. As always, thanks for commenting.

      • I’ve done a couple of tours with Rick Steves. He is an example of a company that doesn’t do any of these things. I have taken other tours as well. However, I am OK with some of these things as low as the tour company is upfront about it and doesn’t try and hide it. It’s when you are deceived and don’t know and are not able to make a decision with all the information present that it is frustrating.
        Jeremy Branham recently posted..How college football inspired me to travelMy Profile

        • I was almost sure you were referring to Rick Steves’ tours. They have an excellent reputation in the industry. But I am going to tell you something you are not going to like. The guide who scammed me many times in Europe and didn’t know a lot about the culture and history of the visited places, works now for Rick Steves. I am sure she has had to put her act together and confirm to the company policies.
          Ruth recently posted..Santa Monica on Memorial DayMy Profile

  3. we only do tours on very rare occasions, mainly because we prefer the flexibilty of traveling by ourselves. i guess when we have taken a tour, our experience is probably about 50-50 with being happy with it or not. a lot of the reasons you’ve covered here. in reference to number 5, on one particular tour, the guide would explain something for minutes in spanish going over minute details of every tiny little thing. his translation in english was a one sentence statement. on the other hand, with an experienced, enthusiastic guide and a good group of people, we have had a lot of fun.
    jamie – cloud people adventures recently posted..Laguna Lachua – GuatemalaMy Profile

    • I think I have had more good experiences. It is great to take a day tours with a small, interesting group of people and a great guide. I have met so many great friends in that way. I have also learned a lot of the visited places.
      Ruth recently posted..9 Things Tour Companies Don’t Tell YouMy Profile

  4. Hey Ruth, I’ve never been on a travel tour, but one thing that scares me is that they often rush people from place to place, giving just enough time to take a photo, but not enough time to soak anything in and enjoy it. Hadn’t thought about some of these, great ideas in this post!

  5. #8 for me is the most annoying. You know they take you to stores or shops where they make a cut or earn commission from. It’s such a proverbial tourist trap.
    Grace recently posted..Carabao racing is so rad!My Profile

    • Scott,
      Take into consideration this and let us know if you find out others things that we should know about.

      I have also visited places when they are closed. Then, it sucks when the information is in your guide and just just didn’t pay attention.
      Ruth recently posted..Thailand’s Blue Tiger Day 12 Grand FinaleMy Profile

  6. It is very important to make sure you understand what is included and what isn’t. Read slowly making note of sites you are “seeing” or “visiting”. Most tour companies add in excursions once you are in country just like cruise ships. This is especially true for most budget operators. The price is lower for a reason!

    The bottom line is responsibility. As travelers it is up to us to know about weather and other items that affect our travel.

    Good point on the entrance fees! These are not always included especially if you book a private driver/guide.
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted..A Merry Cemetery in Romania!My Profile

    • Debbie,
      You are completely right. We have to take responsability about the things that affect our travels. When I started to travel, I didn’t pay attention to a lot of the things I have mentioned. Now, I know better and try to learn more every day.
      Ruth recently posted..Santa Monica on Memorial DayMy Profile

  7. haha good one Ruth! I think #7 and #8 are the most popular ones, especiall here in Southeast Asia. It’s always “we stop for some shopping. no need buy, just go and see’. That alone gets the tour guide and driver a stopping commission. One of the reasons I HATE taking the local tours.
    David @ MalaysiaAsia recently posted..Visiting Kota Bharu in KelantanMy Profile

    • I got into one of these schemes but I wasn’t even taking a tour. One guy told me the Grand Palace was closed (because I arrived early) and he suggested visiting another attraction and get back at a latter time. I ended getting into this tuk-tuk which took me to a temple but also to three shops. I told him to get me back to the Grand Palace and he was pissed.
      Ruth recently posted..Nothing is as great as you think SeriouslyMy Profile

  8. We do tours very rarely mostly for these reasons. You have to becareful booking a tour or at least have your eyes open knowing what you’re getting into. On the other hand, its your responsibility to research your destinations, get an idea of what types of things are available without a tour, when the best time to go is and set reasonable explanations– remember nothing is ever as bright and shiny as a brochure!
    Jillian recently posted..Photo- Hyena at NightMy Profile

    • Jillian,
      I agree that it is my responsibility to research destinations. However, sometimes you forget about certain details. Experience has helped me to perform broader research.

      I also try to travel as independently as possible to avoid some of the points exposed above.
      Ruth recently posted..A glimpse of Brazil- Sugarloaf- Soccer and FutevoleiMy Profile

  9. I’ve never been on a tour that exceeds a few hours just to see one attrcation you can’t get into any other way. I would hate the shopping bit though, that’s how the guides make commissions and it takes time out of the things you really want to see.
    inka recently posted..Food and fashion in the land of the KurdsMy Profile

  10. Yea I think the guides getting a commission from suggestions is one of the worst because they end up recommending places that don’t truly deserve the recommendation, and then you end up eating or staying somewhere that really sucks…
    Matt Hope recently posted..Top Ten Tuesdays – Things to Do in SloveniaMy Profile

    • Matt,
      You are right. I was scammed so many times by my guide when I went to Europe for the first time. For example, my guide suggested a tapas restaurant. I ended up paying 15 euros and sharing the food with 5 more persons. I left really hungry and had to eat again at another restaurant.
      Ruth recently posted..Flavors of El SalvadorMy Profile

  11. I’m not a massive fan of tours myself, and try to avoid them where I can. I don’t feel it’s the best way to get a feel for a country. Someplaces, sometimes you don’t have a choice and then research is key. But I prefer making my own way – even if that does have its own downsides.
    Charlotte recently posted..Accommodation ChamonixMy Profile

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