By Theresa Keegan
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .
During a dinner party, friends mentioned they were going to China. It was a 10-day, dirt-cheap, fully-guided, all-inclusive trip — and there were still spaces available. I’d never had the country on my bucket list, but when my husband said “I’ve always wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors,” I thought, why not? They pulled up the itinerary, we poured another round of wine and toasted to our upcoming trip to China.
Now this is hardly the best way to plan travel, but having been on other trips where I arranged all the bookings, tours, transfers and flights, researched the must-sees and the where-to-avoids, I reckoned at least this trip would be easy.
Our checks cleared, the Chinese visas were approved and in 45 days we were at the airport. We had compression socks, cash stashed in enough pockets and purses to avoid fatal catastrophe if we were robbed, and passports strapped to our waists. We were ready for anything.
Except for the challenges of traveling as a tour group.
A different kind of travel
Before this, most of my travel has been solo or with people I know. We hit our rhythms, ebbs and flows depending on the length and distance of the journey, but we knew what worked and what didn’t.
Traveling with a tour group is an entirely different beast. And while I learned so much about China, its history and customs, the lesson I really took away are the do’s and don’ts of this type of travel. There’s an amazing span of ages and abilities on these trips, and finding a cohesive blend makes the difference between an exciting journey and a disaster.
Here are 11 tips that you might find helpful:
1. Check out the tour organizer before you go. If a trip seems too good to be true, find out if there’s a catch. In our case, the tour, which was organized by a local Chamber of Commerce, was actually an economic junket underwritten by the Chinese government, which we didn’t know until we arrived. As a result, the stops at silk, pearl and jade factories were mandatory. There was very little direct interaction with people where we stayed and very controlled time at cultural institutions.
Before I gave the deposit, I should have directly asked the organizer if any specialty group had an influence on the tour. Speaking of the deposit, get a written contract of your itinerary before you make it. Make sure your actual hotel, airline or car rental company is identified. This allows you to review these companies’ online presence, as well as reviews, to make sure they are legitimate.
2. Pay by credit card. If your trip should not happen because of a scam or business collapse, the company will likely waive the charge, since no service was received. Be leery of transactions handled only by courier services. Wise scammers know to avoid mail fraud charges.
3. Consider purchasing travel insurance. Even if they are legitimate, tour companies can have unforeseen issues. Comprehensive travel insurance protects not just your investment, but also yourself. It can easily be purchased by a company or travel agent independent of the tour group. Be sure it includes coverage for airline failure, which usually absorbs the additional costs of making last-minute, alternative flight arrangements. Ask any of the 600,000+ people traveling under the auspices of Thomas Cook when it collapsed in September why travel insurance is important. While British citizens were covered by a national insurance program and brought home, many others were not so lucky.
4. Know your limitations and be accepting of them. Many tours for older adults now have ratings by activity level; be honest about your stamina and mobility capacity. Once you are on the trip, don’t be that one (or two or three) who pretend they can walk 5 miles a day and halfway through a tour are slowing down, delaying the entire group. If you need a wheelchair, own up to it, and then enjoy the sites from your new view. Everyone will be happier. Similarly, if it’s late in the day and you’re tired and don’t want to walk anymore, it’s OK to stay on the bus.